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Speaking at an ELT Conference: Demystifying the Application Process

April 18, 2023

Speaking at an English language teaching convention is an excellent way to develop professionally and share your ideas with the world. Maybe you've been inspired by speakers at a recent conference or perhaps you need motivation to attend an in-person event down the road. 

In this blog post, I’ll explore tips for finding the right conference and writing a successful speaker proposal. 

Finding the right conference

When it comes to ELT conferences, there are so many to choose from. Which one you select will depend on a number of factors. 

Firstly, consider how easy and cost-effective it is to travel there. I’ve always coveted a trip to TESOL in the US, but so far it’s been highly impractical and overly expensive to make that happen. 

Online or hybrid events are a good alternative. These are perfect opportunities to network internationally and share your message with the world without having to leave home. They also have the added advantage of saving time. Travel days and time spent at conferences can really eat into working hours, which can be a big consideration if you’re not getting paid to attend. 

Smaller local conferences are a great place to start, especially if you are speaking for the first time. A room with 20–40 delegates, possibly familiar and friendly faces, will ease you in gently and allow you to gain confidence. 

Deciding what to speak about

Every teacher has something important to say. Each educational context is unique and sharing what has worked for you can inspire and support others. 

Emily Bryson ELT at IATEFL 2023

Emily Bryson presenting on teacher well-being at IATEFL 2023 in Harrogate. Learn more about Emily's thoughts on the inner troll here.

Presentation topics at conferences are often limitless. Think about what you’ve been working on recently. It could be: 

  • A class project
  • Action research
  • Your favorite teaching activities
  • A problem you've solved
  • A collaboration with other organizations
  • Content you’ve developed

Some conferences have themes. For example, inclusive learning or removing barriers to learning. It’s important that your topic fits with the overall theme. 

Emily Bryson's sketchnote of the Coffee Talk on Simplicity for ElliiCon 2022

In 2022, the theme of #ElliiCon was Simplicity. Emily sketchnoted the Coffee Talk that the Publishing team hosted to kick things off. During the conference, speakers focused on hacks, simple activities, and tools to make teaching a little less hectic. You can watch the recordings on our NEW Ellii for Teachers YouTube channel: Stay tuned for the 2023 theme and be sure to join Ellii for this free online conference in September!

Whatever you decide to speak about, I recommend choosing something you know well and that you are genuinely passionate about. Your knowledge and enthusiasm will shine through during the session. 

Staying informed

Once you’ve selected which conference you want to speak at, it’s a good idea to follow the organization on socials. This is where they’ll post information about their call for proposals. 

If the conference has a mailing list, I recommend signing up so you don’t miss any important information or dates. 

Writing the conference proposal

Each conference has a slightly different application process. It’s important to read the speaker proposal guidelines thoroughly before you apply and to get your application in on time. 

In general, for English language teaching conferences, I’ve found that most calls for proposals require the following: 

A title: Usually 10 words or less. The catchier, the better. 

An abstract: This is usually around 50–100 words and is a summary or your session. This is the text that participants will read when choosing the sessions they will attend. It’s a good idea to make it as appealing as possible. Including keywords will make it easier for delegates to find you in a search if the conference program is online or in PDF format. 

A summary: This is more detailed information for the conference organizers. It’s likely to be 200–500 words, but could be more. Here is where you can give information about the type of presentation you’re doing, what activities you’re including, and whether you’ll be promoting a product or giving access to openly available content. 

A bio: In this section, you get to briefly summarize yourself. Give the key points of interest and focus on your professional life. I tend to tweak my bio based on what I’m talking about and my audience. You may wish to include things like how long you’ve been in ELT, what roles you’ve played (e.g., teacher, materials developer, researcher), your qualifications, any publications, and specific areas of interest or expertise you may have. 

My top tip is to save all your conference applications in one place. This way, if you speak about something similar in the future, you can easily tweak them.  

It’s also a good idea to ask a friend to read it over for you. Ask them to check that it meets the guidelines, it’s clear what the session will be about, and it sounds interesting enough to attend. 

Session types

You may be asked to specify whether you’re delivering a talk or a workshop. If you intend to speak for the duration of your allotted time, select talk. If you’re planning something more interactive where participants work together or discuss certain aspects of the topic, choose workshop. 

Funding and getting paid

This is the tricky bit. The majority of ELT conferences don’t have the budget to pay all their speakers. Often it’s only the plenary speakers that receive a payment or funding for expenses (e.g., travel, accommodation, and food). However, it’s also common to get a reduced rate or free pass to the conference itself in exchange for speaking. 

In order to get paid, you could do one of the following: 

Ask your boss: If you’re speaking about a topic related to your organization, they may have a budget to pay your conference fees and expenses. They may also be able to either pay you or compensate for your time through additional vacation days at a later date. 

Represent a publisher or other organization: If you’ve been working for a larger ELT organization, they may want you to represent them and deliver teacher training based on one of their products or services. You could approach them, stating the benefits from their perspective. 

Ask the conference organizer: Sometimes there is a budget to pay speakers or to supplement their travel and accommodation fees. It can be worth asking. 

Look for scholarships: Large international conferences, such as IATEFL, have a range of scholarship opportunities. Get organized and research these early. They are offered for a range of reasons, such as: 

  • Where you live (e.g., Africa, Latin America)
  • Your teaching experience (e.g., IATEFL has one for early career teachers)
  • Your area of expertise (e.g., pronunciation, research, inclusion)

Stay positive when you’re applying for these scholarships and consider applying for more than one. Some are oversubscribed, but others struggle to find the right applicant each year. It’s often a game of being the right person at the right time! 

What are your top tips for applying to speak at an ELT conference? Feel free to share them in the comments. We’d love to hear from you. 

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