17 Things to Know Before Submitting a Tales of the Cocktail Seminar Proposal

Whiskey writer Dave Broom leading a panel
Dave Broom leads a seminar about rancio alongside Ryan Chetiyawardana and Arielle Johnson at Tales 2016. Photo: Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

Proposing a seminar for Tales of the Cocktail is a daunting process. It requires hard work, research, foresight and a whole lot of planning, and that’s before your seminar is even chosen — the real tough stuff comes after you make the cut. In a Facebook Live session, Tales of the Cocktail director of education Philip Duff talked us through what it takes to write a proposal that stands out, as well as what happens when you do. Here’s what we learned.

1. The people choosing seminars are total pros.

Seminars are not chosen at random, nor is there just one person selecting seminars based on biases or popularity. There is a seminar selection committee made up of volunteers. Tales Director of Education Philip Duff recruits them, but he is not on the committee himself. The committee is made up of people from around the globe who are well-established in the bartending community, and “they’re also the kind of mature, experienced people who will take the responsibility seriously,” says Duff.

2. Seminar selection is based on an intricate scoring system.

The seminar selection committee evaluates hundreds of proposals and evaluates on various criteria like the quality of the presenter, title, description, feasibility and whether it’s too branded. For each set of criteria, a score of 1-10 is assigned by each member of the committee and then those scores are tallied to determine which proposals make the cut.

“We get several hundred proposals, [but] there’s really only room for 84 seminars every year,” he says, and that makes for a challenging selection process.

3. Philip Duff does have executive power.

“I have a veto, I very rarely have to use it but every now and then you get some seminar proposals that are just hilariously funny.”

Although Duff rarely rejects a seminar that’s been selected by the committee, he watches out for any topics that have been done at other conferences, whether there’s enough variety in the topics being covered and, of course, for anything that is inappropriate in some way.

“Getting the highest scored proposal doesn’t automatically mean you get to join the Tales seminar presenters club (it’s not really a club), but it is a good hint.”

4. Don’t take last year’s “no” as an answer.

Just because your proposal was rejected last year (or even several years before that), doesn’t mean it will be rejected again. If you think you’ve honed in on a topic that has even more relevance this year, try your pitch again.

5. Money can’t buy seminars.

“No, having a sponsor does not help your proposal in any way," says Duff. "Not having a sponsor does not hinder a proposal in any way.” Seminars that don’t have sponsors still get put on at Tales — so, don’t be discouraged if you’re sending in a proposal without a sponsor.

However, if you work with a sponsor for a proposal that involves them in ways that are more than just funding, your proposal is probably going to be better. For example, sponsors can provide you with more context, imagery and tasting components that will add to the value of your seminar overall.

6. It’s all about quality.

“That’s the most important thing — if somebody is going to give up their hard-earned cash to come and learn at Tales, we want to make sure that they’re going to get the very best seminars in the world,” says Duff. So ask yourself — what will my seminar provide Tales attendees that they can’t find anywhere else? This is what we need to know.

7. There’s room for both repeat seminars and new blood.

About 30% of the seminar presenters are new each year. And if you’re looking to break into the role of presenter, keep in mind that there are smaller ways to get involved at first. “I’m always looking for people to present with someone or be on a panel who might eventually be ready to do a seminar by themselves,” Duff says.

8. The deadlines are no joke.

Upon making it to the final rounds of selection for presenters, applicants will have a phone call with Philip Duff to determine whether they’re ready and able to make all of the deadlines involved. “We want people to show that they’re prepared to do the serious work of preparing for a Tales seminar from the very first contact,” he says. “I want them to say to me that they’re going to hit the deadlines and they’re going to really knock it out of the park.”

Once the seminars are officially chosen, presenters begin to practice and prepare.

9. You’ll need to think visually.

Ask any of the former presenters, and likely they’ll tell you that the worst part of the job is writing the PowerPoints. “Everyone universally hates them and people always need them,” says Duff. “Otherwise it’s 90 minutes of stand up, and very few people can pull that off.”

PowerPoints (or slides of some kind) help keep people engaged, they make information easier to remember, they guide discussion and they make your presentation more interesting.

“I say to people start early, prepare well, put in lots of visuals and not too much text — that’s my personal opinion.”

10. Prepare to be coached.

Being chosen as a presenter can be just as frightening as the prospect of applying. And although the job requires significant work and preparation, you will have help along the way. Duff and his team coach presenters through the process, and by the time Tales rolls around, you’ll be prepared to speak confidently and present clearly.

11. Keep it simple.

When it comes to your seminar title, the best advice is to keep it simple. “I used to love giving these esoteric titles to seminars … but these intriguingly titled seminars don’t sell.” The success of presenters is judged on many criteria, but ultimately what matters is what sells tickets. So, put your best foot forward by being clear. “When you’re coming up with a title for your seminar, keep it short — about 40-50 characters — and keep it straightforward.”

Keep in mind that you can propose as many seminars as you like, but you can only be in three seminars (not including SED Talks).

12. Yes, you really have to write a proposal.

There’s just no getting around this one. And although it’s not the most glamorous or enjoyable assignment, it’s obvious when someone has invested the proper time to write a compelling proposal — and it’s that kind of initiative and work ethic that we’re looking for.

13. It’s very hard work, but it’s worth it.

“You will be world-famous within the mixology community... for at least a couple of days,” says Duff.

14. Seminars can only have panels of five people.

“Otherwise not everyone speaks for very long,” Duff says. So propose a seminar that will have one moderator and four speakers.

15. The CAPs vet the cocktails.

Seminars typically have about four cocktails or about six tastings. The cocktails have to be served in the recyclable, compostable cups for quality control reasons (as well as to manage the waste). The CAPs look through seminars to be sure all of the drinks are possible. For example, serving espresso for 30+ people at once is just not possible.

16. Choosing your panels is not like fantasy football.

“You have to speak to the panelists and get them to agree before you send in the proposal … And if they’re not answering the phone or emails in the beginning, it isn’t going to get better,” says Duff. You need to sit down and make a plan. You have to prepare to manage your panelists and make them realize what you’re asking of them before they say yes.

17. Philip Duff and the Tales team are here for you.

Still feeling unsure? Take a look here and here for more information about submitting a seminar proposal. And if you’re still left with questions, contact Philip Duff at (write ATTN: Philip Duff in the subject line).

From our partners