Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

This Is How You Write a Standout Conference Panel Proposal

Sofia Varano

Knowing how to nail a presentation isn’t a skill most bartenders come to the table mastering. But much like curating a media presence, speaking at key industry conferences can help raise a beverage professional’s visibility.

According to Philip Duff of Old Duff genever and Liquid Solutions Consulting, who estimates he has taught almost 500 seminars over the past 25 years, panel presentations have not only given him an opportunity to travel the world and share his expertise, but they’ve also led to new business and speaking opportunities. Although he cautions, “The trip from having a great idea to putting it into words to executing a great seminar is an extremely arduous one.”

He and other experts share their strategies for writing a standout conference panel proposal.

1. Do Your Homework

Including knowing the event’s audience, budget and review process, speaker and entrepreneur Jackie Summers of JackFromBrooklyn Inc. and Sorel liqueur recommends doing your homework. While all the major industry events, from Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans to Bar Convent Berlin, list proposal guidelines on their websites, he says to make sure you know which ideas are best for which audiences, noting that his seminar on inclusion might not work as well with a European audience as an American one.

Similarly, Maureen Hautaniemi of OffSite, which produces Thirst Boston, says her organization seeks proposals that “really speak to our audience, which is rooted in Boston and greater New England. So if you’re pitching a seminar on rum, make sure it’s related to rum and its history in New England and not something really broad that wouldn’t connect with our ticket holders.”

2. Pick Timely and Relevant Topics

Writer and audio producer Shanna Farrell, the author of “Bay Area Cocktails: A History of Culture, Community and Craft” and a regular on the panel circuit, recommends bringing a relevant and fresh perspective to your proposal, even if it’s a topic you speak about frequently. “People attend a lot of conferences,” she says. “You want to make sure that you’re offering something new to audiences. Put yourself in the place of an attendee. Is this something you would want to hear about right now?”

And while there’s value in evergreen content, Erick Castro of San Diego’s Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves says to think about how you can add a different perspective to those kinds of topics. “I just did a seminar on bar fundamentals at Tales, and rather than focus on the cocktail side, like writing a menu, we decided to talk about the administrative perspective of things, like contracts and insurance, which hadn’t really been covered yet,” he says

3. Demonstrate Your Expertise

In addition to preparing your pitch, the experts agree that proposals should demonstrate your authority on the given subject. “Being on a panel signals that your voice is respected and you have something worth saying,” says Dave Rudman, the executive director of WSET Americas. “If you don’t currently have a platform, start your own,” he says, citing blog posts, podcasts and YouTube or Instagram videos as smart ways to build expertise on a particular topic, especially for those newer to public speaking.

Hautaniemi agrees. “Even working at a Tiki bar and showing that you’re well-versed in the drinks in your proposal can demonstrate expertise and make us more likely to accept your pitch,” she says.

And don’t think of a panel presentation as a one-off, but “build your platform and reputation year-round,” says Summers.

4. Be Concise but Thorough

When writing a proposal, Farrell suggests being direct and concise. “Don’t get carried away with too many words or flowery language,” she says.

And while your pitch should be direct and to the point, don’t skip on important details, says Duff. “I’m looking for someone who doesn’t just have a great idea but knows how to execute it, whether that’s sharing a list of potential panelists, noting who might need a work visa or what ingredients we may need on hand to make a drink.”

In addition, Hautaniemi also assesses the feasibility of producing the seminar, especially when it comes to making cocktails for large audiences. “There are a lot of people working behind the scenes to create an event, so I’m not going to accept a seminar that calls for 14 blenders to make a brand’s drink; that doesn’t work,” she says.

5. Ask for Help

Whether it’s bouncing ideas off a colleague or asking a trusted friend to proofread your proposal, Summers, who serves on the education committees of Tales of the Cocktail and Bar Convent Brooklyn, says not to be afraid to seek a second opinion, even from committee members themselves.

“I like to see new and fresh voices have the opportunity to speak, but sometimes that requires some mentorship and a willingness to ask for help honing your idea or pitch,” says Summers. “Helping you won’t unduly influence our decision-making process, but it can make you better prepared for it or the next opportunity that comes along.”