How to Conference: Writing the Paper Proposal 1

The idea of presenting at a conference can feel intimidating and nerve-wracking when you’re first getting started, but with a little demystification conferencing can become something to look forward to as well. In this series of posts, I’ll be talking about how to write your proposal, the differences between paper and panel proposals, how to present your paper effectively, and how to negotiate conferences themselves (especially if you suffer from anxiety). As I work in media studies, that’s the field to which these posts are targeted; that said, a lot of what I include here holds true for many other kinds of humanities conferences.

Writing the Paper Proposal 1: The ‘Elevator Pitch’

Conference presentations in media typically run from fifteen to twenty minutes; so, imagine the pain of hearing, “In this presentation, I will…” at the fourteen-minute point of a paper (true story!). With very few exceptions, a conference presentation is not an essay, and treating it as such – complete with intricate prose and complex sentence/paragraph structure, exhaustive literature review, and so on – does little more than secure your place in the annals of bad conference papers that scholars use as cautionary tales. We all want our presentations to be memorable, of course, but usually more for our brilliant ideas than inept preparation.

A good paper begins with a good proposal that does these things:

  1. presents a clear and compelling argument about your topic of choice
  2. explains why this argument matters
  3. follows all the guidelines set out by conference committees for acceptable proposals

So, let’s begin with this: a strong proposal presents a clear and compelling argument about your topic of choice. When I say “clear,” I’m gesturing in the direction of the difference between an essay and a conference paper: a scholarly essay usually clocks in at somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 words – that is, it’s long enough to make a complex argument with several strands of thought that, together, make a coherent whole.

In contrast, conference papers generally top out at around 2,000 words, give or take. As such, your proposal should reflect this limitation by focusing on one key point you want your audience to walk away with. Put differently, what do you want your audience to take away from your talk? What’s the one thing they should understand by the end? That one thing should be the focus of your proposal.

Coming up with this one thing can be really difficult. Particularly if it’s something from your PhD thesis-in-progress, but even if it’s a reworked essay for a course, you know everything about it – all the interesting minutiae, all the counter-examples, everything – and the urge to communicate it all can be intense. For many a scholar (young and old!), a conference presentation can seem like the ideal place to showcase everything you know and dazzle people with your comprehensive mastery of a subject. Unfortunately, what tends to come across is a lot of information with very little discernible purpose – you may be a master of your subject, but your audience likely will remain unclear as to what, exactly, that subject is.

This is where the idea of an “elevator pitch” comes in.

Imagine you’re at a conference, and you get into an elevator on the 33rd floor of the conference hotel to go down to the lobby. The elevator stops at floor 32, and in walks Dr. Big Name in Your Field. As your heart rate skyrockets and you start to sweat, Dr. Big Name looks over at your conference name tag and says, “Oh, you’re at X University! Do you know Dr. Y?” As it happens, you do know Dr. Y, because they’re your PhD advisor! You say as much, and Dr. Big Name smiles and says, “That’s great! What are you working on?”

The Moment of Truth has come, and it’s going to end in one of three ways:

  1. “Umm…” [Dr. BN stares at you until you arrive at the lobby, then wordlessly slips away as soon as the elevator doors open]
  2. “Well, it’s a materialist exploration of the affective dimensions of…” [Dr. BN’s eyes glaze over, and they leave the elevator, mid-explanation, with, “Well, I have to get going – good luck!”]
  3. “I’m looking at Japanese women’s fandom of Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s.” [Dr. BN nods along with you, then asks a followup question that carries the conversation off the elevator and into the lobby until one of you has to leave]

[Quiz! Which one of these was my actual thesis topic? Extra credit! Which one of them actually happened to me?]

The point is, you’ve got a very limited amount of time in which to convey enough information that the listener will be interested in hearing more. In this sense, the elevator pitch is basically an appetizer; translated to a conference paper proposal, it’s the guiding principle for defining your topic. Pick one tasty, digestible morsel of research from your entire body of work, slap on some blinders so you’re not distracted by everything else you think your audience should rightly know, and write to show that one thing in its most compelling light.

[Answers: 3 and all of them]