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Crafting compelling conference proposals with the LASTT Model

Whether you’re a seasoned scholar or you are just now embarking on your academic career, presenting at conferences can provide invaluable benefits and experience. For some, conference presentations are an important part of a well-rounded tenure and promotion portfolio. For others, these venues serve as a vital catalyst for connection and collaboration. Yet, despite the numerous benefits of presenting, there’s relatively little guidance on how to craft a compelling conference proposal.

Sure, there are scads of resources that promise to guide presenters through the process of assembling a knockout slide-deck or delivering a masterful speech. But what good are all of these resources if you can’t get out of the slush pile of proposals to begin with? To get on the program, you’ve got to get past the reviewers, and that’s no small feat.
Getting rejected is difficult. As someone who once struggled to get conference proposals accepted as a new academic librarian, I knew there had to be a better, more effective way of writing proposals. So, I decided to tackle the problem by reviewing past programs from conferences at which I desired to present in the future, deconstructing each conference session description. What I discovered along the way was that the most compelling of these descriptions had five basic, high-impact elements in common. Once I had a handle on what these elements entailed and how to showcase them in my conference proposals, I started seeing acceptances almost immediately!

I incorporated these elements into my LASTT Model, a step-by-step process for writing compelling session proposals. LASTT stands for: landscape, absence, side-effect, treatment, and takeaway (LASTT).

Landscape. Landscape asks you to consider where your topic fits into the bigger picture of your discipline, your profession, or even within the history of a particular conference. It isn’t enough to craft a proposal that informs the reader of what you intend to do in your proposed session. You need to identify the relevant landscape, then situate your topic within it. This means clearly addressing what your prospective audience needs to know about what’s going on in your discipline, profession, etc. in order to appreciate why your topic is worthy of a slot at the conference.

Absence. Let’s face it: If we already knew everything we needed to know about the practical, theoretical, and/or methodological applications or implications of a topic, we wouldn’t need a conference session on it. Addressing the absence element of your proposal means pointing out what’s missing from the landscape or what has, heretofore, been a distant blur on the horizon.

Side Effect. Identifying a gap is an essential component of a great proposal, but an absence in and of itself isn’t necessarily worthy of conference session. The real impact comes from addressing why we should care about the gap in the first place. If an absence has no practical or theoretical importance, there isn’t much value in offering a session on it. The side-effect element of the LASTT method asks you to consider and articulate the negative consequences that might arise from glossing over the gap as well as the positive developments that might result from embracing and exploring the gap.

Treatment. Treatment asks you to consider how you’ll approach the gap you’ve discovered. What theoretical lens, practical framework, or line of questioning will you use to interrogate the absence? What format will you use to tackle the topic? A panel? A poster? A roundtable? Is the format you’ve chosen aligned with and conducive to achieving the objectives you’ve envisioned for your audience? Treatment communicates not only how you’ll tackle the gap in your presentation, but also your expectations for your audience, such as participation in hands-on activities or peer interaction. It also serves as a courtesy to conference participants, especially in cases where the program is organized by track rather than format. Conference participants can easily identify sessions featuring formats they prefer and disregard those they do not.

Takeaway. Takeaway asks you to articulate what your audience will gain as a result of attending your presentation. Think of your proposal as a very short syllabus; the takeaway element is analogous to your list of learning objectives. Consider these questions as you craft your takeaways: What will your audience know that they didn’t know before your presentation? What will your audience be able to do that they couldn’t do before your presentation? Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a great resource as you develop audience-appropriate takeaways. But, remember, don’t go overboard. You don’t want to overwhelm your audience by rushing through content and activities, and you don’t want to fail to deliver on the promise your takeaway statement has established. A good rule of thumb is to limit your takeaways to three to five per 60-minute session.

Although I’ve had much success using the LASTT model to structure proposals for writing, library, and education conferences, it’s important to note that using the model doesn’t guarantee acceptances across the board. Great proposals do and will continue to be rejected for a number of reasons—some of which are within one’s control (e.g., forgetting to redact your name and affiliation from a double-blind submission) and some of which are not (e.g., reviewer bias). Nevertheless, the LASTT model can help you to craft compelling conference proposals both quickly and confidently.

Danielle S. Apfelbaum is a Senior Assistant Librarian at Farmingdale State College, where she serves as the Scholarly Communication Librarian. Her primary responsibilities include but are not limited to assisting faculty and staff with navigating copyright, fair use, open licensing, and open access publishing. She received her Creative Commons Certification in October 2018.