How to Write a Great NASW Workshop Proposal

Every spring, the NASW program committee reads through dozens of workshop proposals in order to select those that will make up the fall meeting. Our goal is to create a varied and compelling slate of professional development sessions for meeting attendees.

Information about how to propose a workshop is contained in the call for proposals and on the entry form itself. With this document, we on the program committee provide extra advice -- identifying those aspects of workshop proposals that are most likely to catch our collective eyes.

Here we share selected excerpts from recent high-scoring workshop proposals and explain why they stood out. The document is organized by the goals that our committee takes into account when evaluating workshop proposals: Topics, Audience, Takeaways, Panelists, and Innovative Formats.

TOPICS

A workshop topic that covers new ground, emerging trends, or simply something that has not been presented at NASW in the past couple of years is most likely to capture the program committee’s attention. Still, some evergreen topics are important enough to science writers to be considered year after year -- a fresh take will make these more competitive.

The following excerpts from successful proposals demonstrate ways to sell your topic with clear language.

Excerpt: Public trust in science writing can be seriously damaged upon the discovery of undisclosed conflicts of interest. But insufficient guidance exists on how to help science writers decide which circumstances rise to the level of COIs, how to avoid them, and how to disclose and address them in a transparent and realistic way.

Comment: An evergreen topic. NASW has had periodic workshops on conflicts of interest and they usually generate quite a bit of discussion both in the conference room and in the hallways afterwards. This particular proposal emphasizes the problem and promises to help attendees figure this stuff out for themselves.

Excerpt: In our proposed 75-minute session, we will draw on active lessons from InterPlay (a body-based creative arts practice developed in the Bay Area) and dance improvisation to help NASW participants of all stripes gain new perspectives and creative techniques to apply to their science writing processes.

Comment: A new and different topic that sounds really fun. The proposal clearly connects their unique approach to science writing.

Excerpt: In the current political climate, science journalists in particular face attacks that may threaten their data security: beyond the threats posed by our own governments, science journalists face the threat of online violence via social media and other platforms. These threats can range from harassment to hacking.

Comment: A topic that hasn’t been covered at NASW before, covering an area of emerging concern for many of us. This proposal boils down the big idea to specific risks to science writers, making a much stronger sell to the program committee.

AUDIENCE

A workshop proposal that is targeted to a broad range of NASW members solves a lot of problems for the program committee. We want to create a program that satisfies all members -- educators, journalists, public information officers, staffers, freelancers, students, writers, editors, broadcasters, podcasters, early career, late career, new members, and veterans. That’s not to say that a topic focused on one constituency isn’t appropriate; however, those limited audience slots will be fewer and therefore more competitive.

The following excerpts from successful proposals make clear who their target audiences are.

Excerpt: We hope to encourage an honest and constructive dialogue about the responsibilities of writers, editors, publications and others in helping to prevent or address COIs.

Excerpt: This session will be aimed primarily at writers, or anyone whose current role is not primarily as an editor. [Also] … whether you're a staff writer, freelancer, PIO, or just getting started in your science writing career.

Comment: Both of these proposals list their target audience types and show program committee members that organizers were thinking about our broad membership.

Excerpt: The workshop may prove most useful to science communicators new to the concept of stigmatizing language, especially reporters and PIOs addressing mental health, disability-related topics, substance use disorders, infectious diseases and marginalized populations. PIOs can benefit by incorporating the principles learned into media trainings for their institutions’ spokespeople and by assessing their institution’s web presence and printed materials for episodes of stigmatizing language.

Comment: This proposal targets writers -- both journalist and PIO members -- and specifies a range of beats for which the workshop might be most helpful.

Excerpt: This session is designed for: Science journalists who want to diversify their sourcing and feature new voices PR professionals who want to elevate diverse voices from their organizations Organizations looking to strengthen their commitment to diversity Anyone with an interest in diversity and inclusion in the news industry

Comment: This organizer takes the list approach a step further, articulating specific goals for attendees.

TAKEAWAYS

Workshop proposals that not only describe content to be presented, but also takeaways for attendees are offering tangible bonuses for the program committee to salivate over. Sometimes the takeaway is clear skills and/or information in its most attractive form, sometimes it’s a resource document shared via social media, and sometimes it’s an additional resource or training that’s available to NASW members. By including takeaways, you’re showing the program committee that your session will have value beyond the 75 minutes of discussion in a conference room.

The following excerpts from successful proposals show how organizers envision added value or continued discussions evolving from their sessions.

Excerpt: Attendees will leave the workshop with the things they need to keep their work safe. They will also get access to a package of digital resources enabling them to put their new knowledge into practice. After the conference, we’d like to host these resources on the NASW writer resources site.

Comment: “A package of digital resources” is pretty darn tangible.

Excerpt: We will reconvene at the end to share ideas that could be combined into a public engagement guide for science writers, a resource that ultimately could be shared across the NASW community.

Comment: This proposal promises to generate ideas to share with others, and potentially a web resource for science writers.

Excerpt: This session will include tips current freelancers can bring back to their desks about ways to broaden their portfolio and bring in new clients and will also give writers considering jumping into freelancing a realistic look at what it’s like to build a freelance career.

Comment: The phrasing here shows that the organizers have thought about the usefulness of their content.

Excerpt: We would like this event to help launch an inclusivity-minded community on another platform (email group, Slack, etc.), which could move the conversation forward and foster a greater sense of belonging among minority science writers.

Comment: A vision for future discussions and community building for science writers from underrepresented groups.

PANELISTS

The program committee seeks a variety of moderators and speakers in its workshops. That means a diversity of ethnicities and races, a mix of genders, orientations, and abilities, and representation from the many types of science writers that make up NASW. However, we see too few proposals that explicitly address diversity and inclusion in proposing panelists. We also like to see new faces -- not the same speakers every year, no matter how popular or engaging.

The strongest proposals suggest panelists by name, identifying people that will bring a workshop to life. The following excerpts from successful proposals demonstrate good attempts to explain why the panelists listed were proposed. (Specific names have been removed in some cases -- we intend to emphasize how organizers placed names into job, gender, or racial categories.)

Excerpt: A panel including a journalist who runs media literacy programs across the country; a journalist-turned-PIO bringing archaeology research to rural Wisconsin in a way that is culturally relevant to both migrant and native communities; and a scientist who participated in Science Storytellers and can comment on engagement facilitated by science writers.

Comment: This proposal clearly lays out the varied job roles of the panelists.

Excerpt: The panel will have a mix of university and non-academic PIOs, and freelance and staff journalists, covering a range of disciplines. All but one are women, and three panelists are writers of color.

Comment: This proposal is a good example of communicating organizers thoughtfulness about inclusivity and representation.

Except: The panel is chosen as a cross section between climate communication researchers, a variety of kinds of climate communicators, and public health behavior change researchers. It’s a multidisciplinary discussion that combines research on best practice and storytellers.

Comment: This proposal shows how panelists varied expertise is linked to the topic at hand.

INNOVATIVE FORMATS

The program committee is looking for workshops that go beyond a panel of speakers and a Q&A session. Innovative formats in recent years have included engaging the audience in voting parliamentary style, partaking in breakout sessions, or participating in hands-on activities. There’s nothing wrong with the speaker panel, per se, but a series of these packed into a day of workshops can be tiring. If you do propose a traditional panel, you may want to justify why you think the format is best for your session.

The following excerpts from successful proposals show how organizers describe how their workshops diverge from the traditional format.

Excerpt: We plan to invite participants to move around the room (though we will include accommodated instructions for anyone with limited mobility), so an ideal space would be cleared of tables. It would also have a generous portion of the room free of chairs. Second, to make the space feel safe and unencumbered for active participation, we would request that people not sit and observe or post any video on social media.

Comment: This workshop will be active!

Excerpt: This interactive session … Following [panelists’] remarks, we will break into small groups to discuss topics such as: • best practices for science writers entering public engagement activities • avoiding potential conflicts with journalistic ethics while doing public engagement • other ways in which science writers might effectively engage with the public

Comment: Organizers plan to actively invite audience participation.

Excerpt: Audience engagement: After the panel speakers, rather than a simple Q&A, we propose presenting discussion-sparking questions like, “How do you make investigative reporting a not too risky investment of time as a freelancer?” and “What do you do when your kid’s suddenly sent home sick on the same day as the deadline your editor gave you?” We also envision setting aside time for audience members to ask for advice on their specific career trajectory. We would like to use up to 30 minutes of the 75 minutes of the session for the audience engagement portion.

Comment: The organizers propose to have a moderator pose provocative questions designed to spark more in-depth discussion amongst panelists and audience members

To summarize, a great NASW workshop proposal offers up either a new topic or a fresh take on an evergreen one and it appeals to the various professional categories in our membership. A great proposal is thoughtful about having an impact beyond the meeting and it is clear about who will best present the topic and represent the varied demographics of our membership. A great proposal promises to shake up the presentation format or it explains why the traditional format is its best vehicle.

We know it takes time and effort to propose a workshop. We sincerely thank all organizers for presenting their ideas to us, as they are the necessary clay with which we form a conference slate of professional workshops. We hope this document is helpful to any and all considering proposing a session for ScienceWriters 2020 in Colorado.

-- The NASW Program Committee, January, 2020

Read more and submit your NASW session proposal online by March 1.

Do you have tips to share for making a great session proposal? Leave a comment below.

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