Monday, April 2, 2018

How Conference Speakers Get Selected

Why should I care about Kepler-452b?Nobody likes getting that email letting you know what your submission was not selected, but even the most experienced and well-known speakers get them. If only organizers would provide more insight into why other submissions were selected instead of yours! While it's not possible to give personalized feedback on each submission, there are a handful of reasons for why most submissions don't get picked and chances are extremely high that at least one of them applies to yours.

The Evaluation Process

Before we get into specific scenarios, let's take a brief look at how submissions get evaluated for Music City Tech. The first step is review by a team made up of thought leaders and subject-matter experts. The purpose of this phase is to get input from multiple perspectives and provide a relative ranking of submissions.

A smaller group of organizers will then focus on the highest ranked sessions to identify topics which will be of the greatest interest to attendees. Our objective is to provide representation for as many major technologies and innovations as possible, while still including a significant amount of content that focuses on topics relevant to attendees' daily work.

The end result is intended to be a lineup that provides maximum attendee value by providing opportunities for growth in existing areas of focus as well and exposure to new ideas and concepts. So what are the most likely reasons why your submission didn't end up in the lineup?

Reason #1. Too Many Submissions on the Same Topic

Issue: For conferences which try to be polyglot/technology agnostic, the most common reason why a submission won't be selected is the amount of competition for the same topic.

For instance, Music City Code 2018 received 16 submissions on React. While React is a popular topic and many attendees will be interested, we only have room for 50 sessions to cover a wide array of topics. No matter how great those submissions are, only a handful could possibly be selected.

In the case where abstracts are similar, the question is which speaker will deliver the greatest value for attendees. Often the submissions that get selected will be from speakers who have established a reputation of thought leadership for that subject or have a track record of delivering solid presentations.

Solutions: Less experienced speakers who are having trouble getting submissions selected on an extremely popular topic might consider shifting the focus of their talk to make it more unique. Establishing a track record of delivering quality content at smaller venues can also help show organizers that you can be counted on to deliver at their event.

Reason #2. Submission is Too Specific/Advanced

Issue: Unless the conference is focused on a particular technology or topic, it can be difficult to justify including a submission that will only appeal to a very narrow slice of attendees or requires a significant amount of past experience. Polyglot/technology agnostic events cater to a broad audience and generally focus on topics which are accessible and applicable to a decent portion of the target audience. How broad the appeal needs to be will depend on how much of the event capacity will be devoted to that presentation. Music City Code will feature room for six simultaneous presentations and, while room sizes do vary, a good rule of thumb is that each session should be of interest to approximately 15% of attendees.

Solution: The first step to ensuring your submission has the best chance of being selected is to know your target audience. If your topic is only relevant to a small portion of the event's attendee base, then try removing some of the more complex aspects and focus on important concepts. Principles and patterns are often relevant to a wide array of technologies.

Reason #3. Clever Titles and Vague Abstracts

Issue: It's tempting to spice up a submission by coming up with a catchy title or trying to tease attendees with hints and leading questions. Unfortunately, some speakers lose sight of the fact that most attendees will end up scanning upcoming session titles during breaks and may not have the time, interest, or access to read the entire abstract. If a reviewer has difficulty determining the focus of a talk then it's a fair assumption that attendees may have the same problem.

Solution: While we try to give speakers feedback about how they might improve their submissions during the evaluation process, most reviewers don't have time for such a discussion. The easiest way to avoid this issue is to include relevant keywords in the title and focus on the purpose of your topic. While a fun title like "Game of Phones" will get a chuckle, something more informative such as "Native Mobile Development with Ionic" will help attendees understand the focus of your session.

Note: For bonus points, try to keep titles relatively short. Long titles can be difficult to fit in schedule grids and printed materials.

The Takeaway

The most important point to take away from this article is that there are many reasons why a submission might not be selected for a particular event and often it comes down to the competition. With over 500 submissions for Music City Tech and less than 100 session slots, we have to say no many more times than we get to say yes.

If your submission was not selected and you would like more insight into how it might have a better chance next year, contact the organizer. There's a good chance they will be happy to provide you feedback once the chaos of event planning is behind them.