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A View from the Chair with Michael Bolton (Volume 4)

  • 01/05/2013
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When there are almost 300 people competing for fewer than 60 opportunities to speak at EuroSTAR, it’s inevitable that some of those who submit proposals will be disappointed. Since the EuroSTAR 2013 Programme was announced, a number of people have asked for feedback on their proposals. I’ll be providing that individually to those who have asked. I’d like to begin that process by offering some suggestions, based on my experience as Programme Chair this year, for crafting a successful proposal.

A conference talk, tutorial, or workshop (I’ll say “session”) is a product. A proposal for that product is marketing material, like the technical overview that helps convince the prospective buyer of a piece of software. Good marketing material grabs and holds the attention of the potential customer-in this case, the programme chair or committee. Your proposal will tend to do better when it describes a unique and compelling session, identifies its benefits, and avoids threats to its own value and to the value of the session.

Make Your Proposal Concise

Very few conferences with an open call for papers suffer from a shortage of proposals. You can assume that the reviewers will be busy. For EuroSTAR 2013, the Programme Committee read through 420 proposals of an average of 300 words each. That’s 126,000 words, equivalent to a book of 400 to 500 pages. One proposal was 2,044 words-the length of a five-page magazine article. It was not accepted. Be concise, and edit your proposal to make sure that every single word counts.

Respond to the Call

Think of any call for submissions (papers, participation, and so forth) as a requirements document for your session and your proposal. For EuroSTAR 2013, we explicitly asked for several things: experience reports about successes and failures; ideas that might be controversial; hands-on experiential exercises and debriefing sessions; and supplementary materials such as papers, published articles, videos, tools and so forth. We gave immediate attention to proposals that focused strongly on at least one of these. Towards the end, when we were narrowing in on a decision between one proposal and another, we tended to choose the one that that more directly addressed the Call for Submissions.

Speak to the theme. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the idea is, or how strongly it fits with the conference theme in your own mind. Ideas and connections that are familiar to you might be new to the reviewers and to your prospective audience, so make those connections explicit and clear.

Present Something New and Compelling

Many of the participants at conferences are first-timers, and for them everything will be new. Others are veterans, and will have heard certain ideas discussed before. If your session deals with a topic that’s received a lot of attention over the years, emphasize what’s new about your content or your approach. Here’s a hint: a story about your experience is usually new to the people who are hearing it. A few of this year’s EuroSTAR proposals told a brief but compelling story of personal experience. Since they were about a single person’s story, they were unique, immediately interesting and engaging, and a pleasure to read, which dramatically increased my interest in and energy for the proposal.

Focus on Your Presentation, Not on the Problem

This year’s proposals often began by identifying a problem in testing. I strongly preferred the ones that moved quickly towards presenting alternatives, proposing activities, or relating an experience. By contrast, some proposals consisted of several hundred words of complaint, followed by a sentence or two amounting to “I’ll tell you something (unspecified) at this track session, and then everything will be okay”. It’s not a bad idea to identify one or two problems that you intend to address in your presentation, but don’t let them dominate your proposal. Focus on the session you’ll present and its benefits, and get to that quickly.

I often found myself making a note that said, “This would be a good blog post.”However, people don’t come to conferences to hear someone reading a blog post.
Make sure your presentation is addressed to people who are going to be in the room. For example, I’ve attended far too many testing conference talks that, in essence, scolded the testers in attendance for not having better managers. If bad management is a problem you wish to address, propose ideas on how testers can help to empower and inform managers-or submit your proposal to a management conference.

Describe The Takeaways

Some participants will pay their own way to the conference. Others will be able to attend because their organizations paid. In the latter case especially, the people responsible for funding will want to see how the tester and the organization will benefit from the session. How will the session help its participants to become better, more thoughtful, or more skillful testers? Of course, you never know for sure what participants will learn-you don’t have control over that-but you can talk about the structure of the session and your idea of what the participants might learn and take home.

Describe What You Intend to Happen

In a proposal, it’s a good idea to talk about things that interest you, and that you intend to convey to the participants. It’s also a good idea to talk about the way the participants might expect to receive your message. In the proposals I read, a lot of people forgot to do that. How will you engage your audience or your participants? Will you present a personal story, based on your own experience? Will you tell a story about some research studies or interesting books that you’ve discovered? Will you set up an experiential exercise? Will you lead an open discussion that you’ll introduce or facilitate? Review your proposal to make sure you’ve addressed those questions.

Assume the Reviewer Is Busy, and Has Never Met You

Just as with a test report, you can expect that your proposal will be read by people who’ve never met you. For EuroSTAR, the Programme Committee does see the identity of the submitter, but by tradition the proposals are made anonymous for the Review Committee. To the Review Committee especially, your words-and not your reputation-will represent you.
• Give your proposal a clear, descriptive, and impactful title, and a well-organized abstract that addresses the points above.
• Use the active voice (“In this session, I present X” rather than “In this session, X is presented”; “Participants will practice the skills of Z” rather than “Exercises in Z will be given.”)
• When she sees spelling or grammar mistakes, a reviewer will infer that your presentation and your materials might be sloppy too, especially if she doesn’t know who you are.
• Avoid profanity. It’s one thing to get attention, but be careful about the kind of attention you attract. As an American shampoo advertisement put it, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Mind Your Metaphors

During our deliberations, Programme Committee member Alan Richardson gave this advice: if you propose X as the primary metaphor for your talk, for credibility’s sake make sure you’ve actually done X. At very least, tell the reviewers how have performed serious observation and study of X, or have been immersed in the culture of X.

Consider What Comes Next

There’s a question running in background through a good reviewer’s head: how will this presentation look as a session description in the conference programme booklet? Here’s a tip: try writing the blurb first. Find a copy of the previous year’s conference programme-ideally the printed version, but if you can’t find that, something from the Web will do. Look at a few samples of the session titles and descriptions (or “blurbs”). Which ones draw you in, and which ones don’t? Why do they compel or repel you? What stylistic notes capture your own attention? Identify the average length (for EuroSTAR, that’s usually about 150 words) and format of the description. How would you describe your session using that format? Write a solid draft of your own blurb in that format.
Then write your proposal using the blurb as a building block. Amplify on the blurb in your proposal, using the proposal to sell your session to the committee. Give background on your points; offer specifics on the structure of the session; describe your exercises. Don’t tease reviewers with missing details and vague promises. A cliffhanger here won’t help you sell; it will lead to a crash.
Don’t expect that your blurb will be final. If your proposal is accepted, you’ll have a chance to revise your blurb-and you may be asked to do so, so that it better fits the programme.

If You Don’t Know, Ask (Right Away)

Do you find something unclear in the Call for Submissions? Are you unsure about the fit of your proposal with the theme or other structures of the conference? Ask someone on the programme committee. Some programme committees will reject such requests. Don’t assume that they will always do so. This year’s EuroSTAR committee offered help and support in developing presentations.

Test Your Proposal

The Submission Guide (/speakers/eurostar-submission-guide.aspx) that we pointed to in the Call for Submissions contained specific advice on how to prepare a compelling proposal. If the Call for Submissions is a requirements document, and your proposal is your product, think of the Submission Guide as a set of test ideas for your proposal. Like all test documents, it’s incomplete, but there are valuable ideas in it. Supplement those ideas by having others review your proposal critically.

You Can’t Win ‘Em All

Some people asked us for advice on preparing their sessions and proposals. Of those people, several still didn’t make the cut. Even a fantastic proposal for a fabulous session might not fit into the conference programme. Several top-notch proposals might be on the same topic. Some great proposals might be from the same person or the same company. EuroSTAR is a community, but it’s composed of several sub-communities, and each of these has its preferences. Catering to those communities means that there’s sometimes less room than we might like for otherwise worthy proposals. An otherwise excellent proposal might miss the mark by not fitting the theme of the conference.

You Never Know

Addressing all these points may sound like hard work to you. It is, but the work is worth the investment. Think of software: you can develop a great product (your session), but your product is more likely to succeed when the marketing material (the proposal) hits the target. The proposal is like a piece of software, too: you can get all kinds of things right, but a single bug can torpedo the value of the whole effort. On the other hand, some products have serious bugs, but are successful nonetheless. If you look at the EuroSTAR 2013 programme, you may notice that we chose some sessions even though you might see them as having problems based on what I’ve said above. We chose those proposals because, on some level, their strengths overcame their weaknesses. You don’t have control over the fit with the programme, but in your proposal, you can build the strengths and remove many of the weaknesses.

Submit to speak at the next EuroSTAR Conference!

If you have a ideas that you would like to share, then read the Call for Submissions and submit to speak at EuroSTAR 2016

 

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