On Thursday, January 19, several members of the Boston area Emerging Professionals Group, an affinity group of the American Association of Museums, met at the Diesel Cafe in Davis Square, Somerville, to hear a presentation about how to develop, write, and submit session proposals for museum conferences.

Presented by Kate McIntosh of Revitalizing Historic Sites Through Contemporary Art, the two-hour presentation/discussion was a great overview of tips, tricks, and don’ts. We’ll present a quick overview here, and Kate has very kindly offered us the accompanying handout, “Preparing Proposals for Conferences: A List of 21 Considerations” for download. Click here to download as a PDF.

This workshop was especially timely, as the submission deadline for the 2012 NEMA Annual Conference is coming up on February 3, 2012.

Developing Your Topic

Many museum conferences (AAM, AASLH, NEMA, and others) are receiving three or four times as many proposals as they have in the past, so you really need to make yours stand out. Kate advised that your topic should be a trend but not trendy. Is your big idea something that affects the larger museum field? Can you make the argument that anyone, from any museum, can draw lessons from your topic to apply at their own institution? Is it innovative and new, but not just a blip on the radar?

Along those lines – does your topic fit the conference’s theme? NEMA’s coming up is “Pushing the Envelope: Innovation and the Future of Museums.” If you want to talk about collections management, then you should find an interesting angle, a cutting-edge practice, or something truly different and innovative in order to appeal to the selection committee.

Selection committees are also looking for balance. What is your audience? Not every panel at a conference can appeal to educators and interpreters; very, very few panels should truly be interesting and applicable for every single attendee at a conference. Be aware of what topics are typically under-represented, and consider making a pitch for that group. For example, AAM has lately fielded far fewer proposals about historic sites, so a well-thought out panel about an historic site might have a better chance there than yet another discussion of art museums.

One concept that came up over and over again was that you really have to be in love with your idea. While you’re developing a session, you will have to live with its content for at least a year, maybe even longer. The concept has to be something you feel you can work on consistently, without getting bored or burned out. It also has to be something you’re willing to be known for. By presenting at a conference, you become a public face for what you’re presenting. Think hard about whether that topic fits both with your own preferences and your future career goals.

Think, too, about what your competition is. The example given for this was that if you submit something on participatory museum experiences to AAM, and Nina Simon also submits a proposal – you have no chance. But if you either team WITH Nina Simon, or find an angle no one has done yet, your chances are better.

Putting Together a Panel

Not only do you have to live with an idea, you have to live with people. Asking others to be on a conference panel should be strategic. You should be aware of your fellow presenters’ styles, comfort levels, and reputations, and be willing to associate yourself with them. (The same is obviously true for you – conduct your career and your presenting so that anyone would be glad to be allied with you!)

Choosing fellow presenters can also help your proposal’s chances. Are there seasoned professionals who can round out your ideas, add their own, or bring an air of authority and legitimacy to the proceedings? Each conference is also in many ways a focus on the host city. Can you make your topic – or your panel – pertinent to that host city? Can you invite someone from that host city to be on your panel?

Perhaps you can seek sponsorship from a professional affinity group or committee. Many conferences will automatically accept proposals from their officially recognized committees. If you believe your idea lines up with the work of one of those committees – such as historic houses, education, curators, etc. – get in contact with that committee and see what they’re thinking.

One thing we learned was that you don’t necessarily have to be able to speak on your own idea! You can just be a moderator and submitter. That is, you can have a brilliant idea, look for examples of museums carrying out programs on that theme, and approach staff members from those museums to speak in your panel. In that situation, you would introduce panel members and moderate questions at the end, as well as carry out all the behind-the-scenes organizing and detail work. This can still be a prestigious role for you if you feel you don’t have enough expertise to present on your own. You should be aware, though, that following this route will mean that you have given up a chance to shine as an individual.

Finally, you don’t have to follow the typical conference format of panel + PowerPoint. In fact, your proposal may well stand out if you can think of a new or different way to present your ideas – workshop? fun activities? get the audience up and on its feet? One participant suggested the rule of thumb should be one interactive (even something small like a poll) every ten minutes. For a typical 90 minute session, that’s 9 moments to get the audience doing something instead of passively listening.

Submitting Your Proposal

So your final step: submitting the actual proposal. It goes without saying that you should treat it like a resume or cover letter, and make sure there are no typos, that it is clearly worded, and that you stay within any prescribed word limits. Answer all the questions they’re asking, and make sure to review the selection criteria if they’re published. Try to pitch something in your proposal for what they’re looking for, and make it explicit! Answer those questions right there in the proposal. The committees can’t read your mind.

Before you finally pull the trigger, you have to be very honest with yourself and make sure that you’re okay with deadlines and stress. The whole process can get hectic at times, and if you get flustered, are consistently late, or don’t feel you can fill a leadership role, then maybe you should re-consider and take a small role on another panel or cut back your own role. It’s important to be introspective and clear about this step!

Once you have submitted your proposal, you need to commit to it. Emergencies happen, but pulling out at the last minute is poor form. Make absolutely sure you can afford the conference – these often run in the several hundred dollar range, and for big national conferences it can go up to $1k. You may be able to apply for scholarships, volunteer, or get in partially free as a presenter, but you should have a budget and be able to afford it. Similarly, feel confident about the things coming up in your life and the possibilities for major changes that would keep you from attending the conference.

If your proposal is accepted: great! Carry on. But what if it isn’t? Well, you can always get feedback from the conference selection committee, and try again next year. Many organizations are great about providing helpful tips and a broader perspective. If your proposal can be re-tailored to fit another conference, you might want to give that a try, but be careful to copy edit it carefully! Don’t leave in references to NEMA on your AAM application! If you’re not offered feedback, try to seek it out politely. “I’m sorry to hear that my proposal wasn’t accepted; I would appreciate any feedback you can give me about it so that I can present a stronger application next year.”

I’m sure there were things I didn’t cover in this overview, but be sure to download Kate’s handout and make sure to attend upcoming Boston EMP presentations. There’s one coming up in February about great interviewing tips, and it’s at our very own Tufts University Art Gallery – so you have no excuse not to attend!

If you have any questions about the session content, I’ll be happy to answer in comments and you can go ahead and email Kate directly via her website.