After writing a few of my own proposals to attend conferences I was asked to participate in grading proposals for Test Bash Philadelphia.
This is my experience.

Let me start by stating the first core lesson of this exercise:

Everyone should get the chance to read through a whole batch of proposals before writing their own.

When I started out, I had no idea what a good proposal looked like.
There are limited resources available concerning this topic, and Helena’s tips are the first that come to mind.
While I have nothing much to add to her tips, I can give you an insight in how I tackled the grading process, how I believe others do this and what made me decide in colouring things red and not green.

How I set to work

My goal is to provide relevant information to the people who make the decisions. Sounds like testing, right? Right!
What’s relevant information? My feelings, my thoughts and my judgment.

I should always keep in mind that little biases of are steering me, influencing me towards outcomes that might be slightly different from what I intend.

I try to ward myself from these influencing factors as best as possible.
It should be completely anonymous. As an objective grader, I shouldn’t be bothered with the name of the person, the gender, the ethnicity or anything else. The only thing that is important are the description of the talk, the takeaways for the public and the format.

Graders are not organizers. They shouldn’t take into account who you are, only your description counts and what you might bring to the conference.

I’m fully aware that there is A LOT more to organizing a conference than just filtering information. That’s Rosie and Richard’s jobs. With their combined experience, integrity and skill I have every confidence they’ll carry this conference to great heights.
I hope I have served them well.

It has to be stellar.

While I usually forgive a few spelling errors, typo’s, formatting errors,… (as I’m definitely not perfect myself) I do think that when you submit an official proposal to a conference, you want to radiate an aura of quality and reliability.
If the people deciding whether you go up on stage or not (which was not my role) can’t depend on you to be excellent in your proposal, how can they be confident in your ability to give a quality talk?

Additionally, every spelling error, formatting mistake and sentence that breaks off too early risks me believing your work is of lesser quality than it actually is.

It has to be real.

I don’t like sales talks. I don’t like one-size-fits all and I don’t like people telling me how I should do what I do.
Please, tell me about the troubles you faced and what made you investigate your new and bright idea. Give me a story of how you developed a solution and how you implemented it. Don’t shy away from your hardships, troubles and possible failures. It’s those that learn us the most. They make for a compelling story.

I want you to be real and I want your story to be real.
When I’m reading a submission and feel that it serves more to expose you than bring value to the attendees, that’s a red flag for me.

It has to be thorough.

People who investigate their own ideas, have them reviewed, read books about them and do their field work will have their chances boosted, as far as I’m concerned.
I believe that anyone can come up with a variation on a beaten-path topic and get away with it.
Don’t take the easy road. The experience you gain is unique, take it by the horns and refine it. Learn from it and make it teachable.

Invest in your ideas. Gather more information, discuss them, read books and dig deeper.

The final verdict

For each proposal, I supplied positive and negative points and eventually a colour:
Red, Orange or Green.

I must say that I’ve often struggled to decide and rechecked everything before finally judging.
This is not an easy task, but you learn a lot from it. Trust me.

In the end, I’ve selected (for myself) a good lucking bunch of proposals that I would love to attend myself. I envy the people that will be there.


These are the three big pillars I based my grading experience on. Next time, I’ll try to look broader than just my thoughts and feelings but try to empathize with what others might find interesting.
That’s bound to be a much harder experience.