10 factors that make for a great session pitch

ONA’s Suggestion Box, open Feb. 28 – March 29, is your opportunity to pitch session ideas and presenters for ONA18. We’ve created a series of posts we hope will be useful references if you’re considering submitting a pitch. If you’re interested in volunteer or other opportunities at ONA18, you can refer to the Opportunities page. For news and updates, follow us on Twitter @ONAConf or subscribe to our newsletter.

Want to share your inspiring ideas or expertise with your favorite colleagues at ONA18 in Austin, Texas? Now is your moment to shine! Everyone is welcome to submit — journalists, executives, educators, students, product managers, Neil deGrasse Tyson (please?), change-makers of any stripe — we’ll take good ideas anywhere we can find them.

Once the Suggestion Box closes on March 29, ONA staff and a volunteer Program Team will review each submission and select the very best to be included at ONA18.

We are often asked, “What makes for a good pitch?” Below, we’ve outlined tips for creating a strong proposal.

1. Your idea is inspiring, instructional or both.

We think most good pitches fall into one of two categories:

  • They are inspirational or aspirational, represent emerging trends in journalism, surface a provocative idea or describe what journalism could be if we reached a milestone; OR
  • They propose sessions to share expertise with clear, specific aims for what attendees might learn.

Inspirational or aspirational sessions make up about one-third of ONA programming. Examples from last year include:

Practical tips and training elements make up the remaining two-thirds of the programming. Examples from last year include:

2. Your idea is specific and solutions-oriented.

There are many intractable problems in any field, journalism included. We look for people proposing solutions to these problems, even if they are imperfect. Simply saying, “push alerts are out of control” isn’t enough. Complaining about an issue for an hour doesn’t make it go away. Instead, we’d be more likely to accept an idea like, “Three ideas to make push alerts meaningful to your audience” or “Let’s nail down the definition of engaged journalism.”

3. Your chief aim is to share knowledge with the community, not brag about a product or project.

Newsrooms create hundreds of cool digital projects every year. We already have a mechanism for rewarding the best ones with the Online Journalism Awards. The conference itself is focused on learning and networking with peers. What did you learn in creating your tool that others might be able to replicate? Better yet, what didn’t work at all? Can you spare others this pain point?

4. You provide resources for reference and sharing.

People attend conference sessions with a specific purpose: to get inspired by a new idea or learn a new skill. You can drive your point home by offering resources to attendees. They might include a list of articles related to your topic; a worksheet for attendees to complete; a breakdown of “Top 10 Tips” from your presentation; a research or white paper and more. These types of resources offer high value for the community and as such make for a strong proposal.

5. You and any co-presenters represent diversity.

Diverse perspectives encourage nuanced, innovative ideas. We ask the program team to consider 30 factors related to diversity. Chief among these are race, gender and professional experience of presenters. But this list also includes geographic diversity, fresh faces v. past presenters, size of newsroom or team, and other considerations. Describe how your proposal will contribute to the overall diversity of the conference.

6. You keep the audience in mind.

Nobody wants to sit through a conference session with someone droning on about their accolades or reciting a list of talking points. You will have a live audience before you. Don’t treat them as passive listeners; engage with them! Host a session that’s Q&A only; ask the room to contribute to a collaborative document to solve a problem; create a worksheet for people to complete in small groups. If you’re presenting at ONA18, you’ll have some of the best and brightest in journalism right in front of you — pool that talent and get some creative ideas into the room.

7. You include peers from other organizations.

ONA is about community and collaboration. Submissions that have multiple speakers from the same organization are often perceived as sales pitches by both ONA and conference attendees, and are usually categorically denied. Submissions including presenters from multiple organizations have a significantly higher likelihood of being accepted. Solo speakers, of course, are exempt from this requirement. Note: If you have presenters from two organizations within the same parent company, such as NPR member stations or Tegna stations, this is fine. Just remember, we do look for diversity in terms of region and medium that you work in.

8. Your session contributes something new.

We hear the same topics proposed year after year. It makes it difficult to distinguish between some submissions. There are certainly ongoing challenges in journalism, but what makes your idea a fresh approach? A new technical tool? New research? A potential new revenue stream? A different framework for thinking about an issue?

9. Your pitch is specific.

We often get vague pitches. For example, “New ways to address managing social media traffic.” It sounds like it might be fresh and solutions-oriented … but how? Can you share examples? Is there research you’ll draw from? Have you been testing something and feel the results are replicable? A vague proposal makes us worry you’ll wing it on the day of the conference, whereas specifics suggest you’ve thought this through and will prepare.

10. Your proposed presenters are experienced speakers or trainers.

We are continually revising our requirements for presenters to ensure session quality. If you have a great idea but are not a strong presenter or have limited training experience, consider inviting a colleague with this strength to join you (keeping the diversity requirements in mind, of course!).

Feeling ready to pitch? Mark your calendar for Feb. 28, when we will open the Suggestion Box. Our previous post in this series was Nervous about pitching to ONA18? I’ve got you, a guest post by WCPO-TV’s Tasha Stewart. The next post covered getting creative with your session format by ONA’s Head of Programs and Events, Trevor Knoblich.

Refer to our Opportunities page if you’re interested in other ways to get involved or volunteer with the conference. For news and updates, follow us on Twitter @ONAConf or subscribe to our newsletter.