Creating Conference Session Proposals

contributed by Janice Klein
Small Museum Administrators Board member
& Executive Director, Museum Association of Arizona

Over the last 30 years I’ve organized, chaired and participated in more conference sessions than I can remember. Here are some of the things I’ve learned. These suggestions primarily apply to the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo, but can be used for any conference.


Where do you get session topics?
As they say, “talk about what you know”. One of the best places to start is with your own accomplishments, challenges and on-going projects. Alternatively, organizing a session about topics you want to learn more about is a great way of hearing from your very own panel of experts. Your colleagues’ work is also a good source for session topics. Giving your friends a chance to shine makes you look good, too.

One of my main sources for session topics are conversations on museum listservs. If there are more than three responses in a thread, it’s likely that plenty of people are interested. I keep folder on my Desktop for “Future Session Ideas” made up of these e-mails and contact the authors when it’s time to start proposing sessions.

Presentations at other conferences or workshops can be re-purposed for a larger or smaller audience or even adapted for a different type of museum. A session I organized at one AAM Meeting on how small museums can be green was adapted from a previous conference discussion for much larger (and richer) museums.

The Conference theme and AAM’s various publications about current trends are also good sources for topics, e.g., Dispatches from the Center for the Future of Museums or TrendsWatch.

Note: Although AAM ‘s list of formats includes a short (30 minute) Case Study, in general, a single project/case study does not make as good a session as one that includes several projects/case studies around the same topic with a moderator to draw it all together. Alternatively you can pair a theoretical presentation with an illustrative project/case study.

Where do you find speakers?
While people may not volunteer, they are surprisingly willing to say “yes” when asked directly. Don’t be afraid to ask good speakers you have heard at other conferences or people whose work you have read. This is another reason to meet speakers after sessions and get their cards and connect through social media. Again, contributors to museum listservs are one of my primary sources. You can post your session idea on one (or more) of those and ask for feedback and speakers. And, of course, when using your colleagues’ work as the basis for a session topic, they will probably make the best speakers.

What makes a “good” or “balanced” panel?
Geographic diversity. It is perhaps unfortunate, but anyone NOT from the East Coast, Upper Midwest or California is perceived as coming from an “exotic locale".  If your panel all comes from the same area (or same museum), it will help your proposal if you explain why you have chosen to do this, perhaps referring to one of the criteria below.

Kind of museum. Even if your focus is on "smaller" or "mid-sized" institutions, you can still include different subject matter or governance types.

Museums in the conference city or area. Your colleagues in the host city may have great things to say, but they may not have travel funds. This gives them an opportunity to present without leaving home.

Speakers from different museum professions. You may find it useful to include a collections or security professional in a session about educational programs in the galleries. Conservators, archivists and subject matter curators don’t regularly attend AAM, but can add valuable perspectives.  Having a volunteer on a panel is particularly important when focusing on small museums, to show the importance/ability/value of unpaid staff.

Representatives of all of the stakeholders. For example, if a session is about community involvement in a project, make sure that a community member is on the panel.  Similarly, if you are talking about a students or interns project, ask one of them to speak.  Note: The different stakeholders can come from different projects.

Filling out the form           
Title.  If the conference theme doesn't fit, don't try to make it. Colons in the tile are old-fashioned, but we still use them a lot because....the title should clearly identify the content. Humor is good to a limited degree, but negative titles can be a hard sell -- despite the fact that we are encouraged to discuss failures as well as successes.

Description. Be as specific as possible – identify who will talk about what. Because there are strict limitations on the number of characters in each field, this information can be included in the presenters’ bios. Include a short discussion of why this topic is important and, if applicable, how it relates to the conference theme, current trends, a previously well-received session, or publication.

Learning Goals. Again, be as specific as possible and don't be afraid of simple language.  

Session format. Over the last five years, the trend has been towards fewer “talking heads” and more audience interaction. Besides the Case Study format, the other options are Storytelling, Talk Show and Classroom. In general, the first is for those who want to use audio-visual, including PowerPoint presentations, the second is more purely conversational (with no audio-visual) and the last is for hands-on, interactive presentations.


Commenting on Sessions (and Checking Your Comments)
Even if you are not submitting a session proposal you can be an important part of the process. Anyone can go to the  AAM Session Proposal site and comment.

You will need to Log-in to start. If you are an AAM member, your Username will be your AAM membership number. If you are not an AAM member you can still comment (and propose sessions) by creating a free User Profile.

Then, click on View Proposals and Comment to see a list of session proposals, listed alphabetically by title. (Every new proposal is added in alphabetical order, not by date, so each time you log on you will need to look through the whole list to find new proposals). Click on the session to read what the organizer has written so far. 

Most of the proposals will still be works in progress, but you can usually get a good idea of what the organizer is thinking. At the bottom is a box for Comments. This is the place to make suggestions for speakers, ideas for expanding or modifying the topic, or just saying how useful you think the session would be. If you have a strong concern about a proposal you can contact the organizer directly – their name and e-mail are in the first section on the form.

Note: If you have a proposal In-Progress on the AAM site, you may want to check back regularly to see what Comments may have been made, even if you don’t get a direct notification from AAM.

Questions or Comments? Let us hear from you. If you have questions for Janice, contact her by