What makes a great conference session? - Museums Association

What makes a great conference session?

My top ten tips for making your proposals stand out from the crowd
Ma Conference
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Simon Stephens

As the head of publications and events at the Museums Association (MA), with responsibility for our annual conference, I often get asked what we are looking for in session proposals.

While there are no definitive rules for getting a proposal accepted, there is a lot you can do to increase the likelihood that our conference panel, which is made up of museum professionals and MA staff, will give your cherished idea the thumbs up.

And remember that this year’s conference is a hybrid event – it will be online and in person. So there are lots of exciting opportunities to include speakers who can deliver their talks online without having to be in Liverpool at the conference centre.

Here are my top ten tips for making your proposals stand out from the crowd:

  1. Ambitious: A key piece of advice is to think big. Tackle difficult subjects, share your most radical ideas and go for your dream chair and speakers, not just those who you think will say yes (but do approach potential participants to check they are happy to be involved!).
  2. Provocative: Don’t be afraid to put the cat among the pigeons. In fact, find lots of cats and let them loose. The panel love ideas that are genuinely provocative.
  3. Newness: If the panel have heard it all before, they are unlikely to say yes to your session, however good the speakers are or exciting the format is. So, embrace fresh thinking and reject stale ideas.
  4. Theme: This year it’s Brave New World, and we’ll be looking at how museums can build on what they have learned from the pandemic to emerge stronger and more relevant. We do accept proposals outside of the theme, but they have to be really strong to get through. If in doubt, make sure your proposal speaks to the theme.
  5. My project: We have all worked on projects that we are immensely proud of. We are desperate to share our success with the world. Surely, a conference is the perfect opportunity? But take a step back: is your project genuinely new, innovative and something that others will be as excited by as you? If not, press the delete button and think of something else.
  6. Audience: It is surprising how many proposers seem to forget that there will be actual delegates at the conference, online and in person. And often, these delegates want to be actively involved in sessions, whether it’s asking questions, debating issues, or setting the agenda.
  7. Diversity: Think about diversity in its broadest sense – ideas, speakers, presentation styles, everything.
  8. Outside voices: Every year our conference feedback shows that delegates are desperate to hear from people from outside the sector. Look for these voices if they can add value to your session.
  9. Openness: Honest debate is worth its weight in gold. Success stories are all very well, but case studies that admit failure and give tips on what to avoid are even better.
  10. Clarity: Be really clear on what you want delegates to get out of the session – new ideas, inspiration, information, new contacts, space to think and talk, practical guidance – or a combination of all of the above.

So, what are you waiting for? Armed with these top ten tips, why not try your luck and propose a session for Conference 2021? The deadline for submissions is 8 April.


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