A few weeks ago, I spent a very long day in a Philadelphia hotel room with several dozen colleagues, from around the country, reviewing more than 160 proposals for the upcoming American Association for State and Local History conference, co-sponsored by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. It was my first time ever on a national program committee although I've been a successful session proposer and sometimes, an unsuccessful session proposer. Here are my (I take full responsibility for these as my opinions only) suggestions on writing better session proposals that will cause at least a couple program committee members to sit up and take notice.
Have a good session title. Be understandable, perhaps funny and brief. Don't play too much inside baseball, thinking that everyone will understand. Beware of what comes after the colon, and don't just use a keyword from the conference description to attempt to make your session relevant.
If you're considering having all of your presenters from a single institution, presenting as a case study, re-consider. These often sound a bit too celebratory or just seem like a "here's how we did this" and the funder is making us talk about it. If your project is really great and you really think everyone on staff can contribute a needed perspective, consider adding an outside moderator or commentator to ask tough questions that really encourage reflection.
Is the panel the best way to do this? As museum people, we know people learn in all kinds of different ways. Increasingly, conference organizers are encouraging new ways to presenting--embrace the challenge!
Who's telling whose story? If you're talking about the interpretation of enslaved people, your project--and your presentation--should have representatives from African American communities, or African American scholars or curators, on your panel. Same for women, for indigenous people, for different religious groups or whoever it is you're talking about. (this is a very brief comment on an issue that deserves considerably greater depth given its critical importance if we want to change our field towards equity.)
Who's the best person on your staff to present this topic? Is it the director? the curator? or ... Think, don't assume, and directors, use this opportunity to lift up and encourage your staff--that kind of professional support will only build your own reputation in the field.
Tell a compelling story Make the reviewers fascinated by what you're doing. Our small group of reviewers fell in love with one facilities-related proposal, despite the fact that most of us actually knew nothing about the topic. Write well, pose interesting questions, have someone from outside the field read before submitting.
As in exhibit label writing--avoid the passive voice and consider your audience--both on the review panel and at the conference.
Don't think you're such a big deal that you don't have to include your or your speakers' relevant bio information. The program committee came from all over the United States, from institutions big and small from local history museums to culturally-specific museums, to big state institutions. Be aware of course, that we can Google you too.
Be aware of the field. If you're presenting on something that you did at your museum that seems like the greatest thing since sliced bread, be sure that it's different or a creative take on other similar work.
Saving a few minutes for questions is not interactivity. Real interactive sessions are great, amazing places to do deep learning around all sorts of topics. One of my favorite sessions as a presenter is when two colleagues and I challenged our participants to design historic house experiences around big cultural issues--but our historic house was the Simpsons. If you're saying it will be interactive, really be interactive and tell the committee how.
Why does it matter? If you can't articulate why your session matters, then it won't matter to your audience. I think people come to conferences not just to learn facts, but to learn ideas and concepts, to be encouraged to think differently, to gain new perspectives. You can't do any of that unless you can tell me why your session matters and to whom.
Many thanks to all those on the program committee who were patient with my many opinions and who shared theirs--and to all of you who take the time and energy to propose sessions. We considered them all deeply and seriously. I learned a lot! Hope to see many of you in Philadelphia at AASLH--so many amazing sessions coming.
Below: the view from the guard tower at Eastern State Penitentiary at night. Just one more reason to come to AASLH.