In 2013, I was asked to be part of a conference agenda committee. Since, I have been part of a couple more, for conferences in different parts of the world.
Being “on the other side” of a Call for Papers has been very interesting, and taught me that this is a difficult job. There’s lots of reading, discussion, re-reading and more discussion involved. At some point there comes the rewarding bit of accepting sessions to the agenda, and the part I hate the most: having to reject sessions.
Having been a speaker for a long time, and having submitted talks to lots of conferences, I have been part of both. I’ve had sessions accepted, but more often had sessions rejected.
Whether you are a beginning speaker or a well-seasoned one, those rejections may be discouraging. Why didn’t they accept this session I submitted? Is it because I have never spoken before? Do they not like me? Was it because my previous talk was not well received? Why did they pick speaker X and not me? All questions I have seen people ask themselves.
In this post, I want to open the curtain a bit, and talk from experience on various agenda committees.
Before we start: this is all based on my own experiences and thoughts being part of different agenda committees, and does not reflect the views of any particular company or conference. I hope sharing this experience will help aspiring and seasoned speakers understand the Call for Papers (CfP) and agenda-building process better.
Most often, a couple of months before a conference happens, a “Call for Papers” is opened where speakers can submit one or more talk titles and abstracts. This Call for Papers, or CfP, stays open for a few weeks. Once it closes, the conference organizers sift through all submissions and start building out an agenda for their conference.
Some time after the CFP closes, normally within a week or a couple of weeks, speakers get an acceptance/rejection e-mail.
Reading through session abstracts
What happens between CfP close and the agenda being published varies greatly depending on conference, and often also type of conference.
Almost all of the agenda committees I have been on were decently sized - anywhere between 500 and 1500 talks submitted. If every person on the agenda committee would read all of those abstracts and spend one minute on each, that amounts to one day (for 500) to three days (for 1500), just reading through all abstracts. An impossible task, given usually these agenda committees consist of volunteers.
So most committees divide that set of session abstracts among several members of the agenda committee. Sometimes, this is very coarse-grained and there are a few people handling “developer” talks while others handle “IT pro” talks. Sometimes, this is very fine-grained and there are specific people going over “web” talks, “architecture”, “mobile”, and so on.
In general, I would recommend picking the correct categories and/or tags for your session when submitting to a CfP. This will ensure your session proposal is handled by the right people.
Most conference organizers ask their agenda committee to start evaluating talks while the CfP is still open, or at least read through the sessions as they come in. This helps our human brains to retain some context on “what is in there”.
In general, I would recommend sending in your session abstracts early in the CfP process. When the agenda committee sees your session topic every two days when they read through submissions, they will be more familiar with your topic later on. Given the time it takes to go through a vast amount of session proposals, being “skimmed” a couple of times is probably a good thing.
One thing all of the agenda committees I have been on so far have in common, is that they work with “shortlists”. Each member of the committee comes with a list of the talks they deem a good match with the conference.
How are those shortlists created? That depends on guidance from the conference organizers, but in the end it boils down to each individual person making that list.
Personally, I like CfP’s that are done through Sessionize. They have a tool to “rate” talks, where they show 3 session proposals at a time and you rank them 1, 2 or 3. Each talk is shown a number of times, in a different set of three, so the score is a pretty decent metric over time. The best thing about this, though, is that when resizing the browser window, speaker names are not visible during this rating. I prefer to do a “blind” pass through the set of sessions, to keep bias to a minimum.
Edit: I just learned from the folks at Sessionize that inviting team members and setting them in “anonymous” mode always hides speaker details going though that ranking process.
Keep in mind that your session title and abstract are your most important weapons at this stage. Check out Niall Merrigan’s post - “Make me an offer I can’t refuse”, for tips and tricks around writing a good session title and abstract. Remember the agenda committee has to go through a lot of titles and abstracts, so remember that first impression counts.
Organizer notes, past speaking experience and other metadata
Many CfP’s ask several additional questions, next to the actual session title and abstract.
One example would be the “organizer notes”. This field can be used to inform the organizers of something you don’t want printed in the agenda, but helps reviewing talks. Even though the field may be there, not all organizers check it.
I have seen this field used for a variety of things. Examples are a “this has not been released yet but by the time the conference happens, it will be” note which could be useful for talks about the newest of the newest technologies or concepts. Other examples could clarify why you think a certain topic matters. This sometimes comes in handy for “niche” talks, about a lesser known/used framework. Bigger conferences may skip that type of talk because it’s not “general audience” enough. Adding some notes may bring it more attention.
Another usage I have seen is speakers listing key takeaways of a talk. The abstract is there to convince attendees to come see your talk, “organizer notes” can be used to convince the agenda committee to consider your talk.
There is no rule for these “organizer notes”, so put in anything you feel matters in evaluating your session topic. And if you feel the title and abstract are enough, that’s fine too.
Another field is “past speaking experience”. This will be used to search for past session recordings and/or blog posts, to look at speaking style/communication style. This is by no means a catch 22, it’s really there to make sure that your talk will not be you reading a Wikipedia page for an hour. If past speaking experience is empty, that’s OK. Most conferences I know budget some agenda capacity specifically for new speakers.
Related is that dreaded “has this session been presented before?” question. Does that imply the conference only wants new content? Or do they want to check whether the session has had at least one run somewhere and thus has had a proper run-through. Two viewpoints that could be the truth, although there is a big chance this field will be ignored by folks on the agenda committee anyway - there’s already an information overload.
Sometimes, the session title and abstract are not clear enough. People on the agenda committee may choose to reach out to you and ask for clarification, and sometimes work with you to get the title and abstract in shape.
Now, don’t count on being contacted. It may happen, but it will be rare. What I have seen is that this sometimes happens early on in the CfP, when the agenda committee is still fresh and hasn’t read through 200 abstracts yet. Another good reason to submit early on in the CfP.
In general, try to write a good, clear title, and an abstract that sets expectations. Again, check Niall Merrigan’s post for tips on that part.
One thing I am seeing recently, is that these tools make submitting sessions too easy. For CfP’s where these tools are used, a session submission is often picking one or more sessions from your speaker profile and sending them in. Good thing is Sessionize now has a feature to limit the number of submissions per speaker.
At some point, even when doing “blind” session ratings, your name will be shown as well. Most agenda committees I have been on seem to dislike speakers with so many submissions. In general, I think the sweet spot is to send 2-4 session proposals in a CfP. This will help the agenda committee make a balanced selection, shows what areas and topics you can cover, and in case the conference offers international travel they might want to have you present two sessions.
Oh, and while we are on the topic of “number of sessions”. Some companies have multiple speakers submit very similar talks. Don’t. Communicate between colleagues on who will submit what. Ten talks about a certain topic by people from the same company will almost always come across as “too commercial”.
Agenda draft - Negotiating for spots in the agenda
At some point, the shortlists of each agenda committee member will be used to start building a draft agenda. Sometimes via conference calls, sometimes in-person with a group of 10 people gathered around a table and using copious amounts of post-it notes. When a session appears on more than one shortlist, that’s probably going to end up on the draft agenda.
Most conference organizers create a “budget” per track/category/tag. Don’t think monetary budget here (more on that later), but a budget along the lines of wanting 5 web development talks, 3 talks about cloud, 3 about mobile and 2 architecture talks.
Mixing and discussing those shortlists into a draft agenda is an interesting activity. Sometimes, that web development track may have 6 sessions you really want to see on the agenda, while the budget was to only have 5.
It could happen that the entire committee is convinced of that 6th talk, more often the people working around that topic will negotiate with another track to give up a spot from their budget to accommodate that extra session.
And with some conferences, we’ve jointly decided to “go for an extra session room” to accommodate these extra sessions from each track.
Agenda draft - Checks and balance
Have you heard of Hadi Hariri’s Speaker Maturity Model? I share Hadi’s view, in that there should never be a level 0. As an organizer of a conference that has sponsors, an attendee entry fee or both, covering travel and expenses for speakers is good practice (think flights, hotel and a train ticket from/to the airport).
That means, of course, that there are financials involved! And the more expensive the agenda becomes, the more sponsorships are needed or the more tickets have to be sold.
So, almost every conference uses “cost” as an additional motivation to keep a session or not. If there are 2 talks in the Call for Papers about a certain topic, there is a big chance the “less expensive” speaker will be picked. But not always: if the “more expensive” speaker has a second session in the CfP that is selected, then there might be good value in that expense.
Cost is also tied to the conference’s focus. If a conference just wants an agenda, cost will probably be a bigger factor in the final decision making. If a conference wants to focus on “international speakers”, local speakers may not be the first choice. Familiarize yourself with a conference’s agenda from previous years if you want to know the focus, as it can often be deduced from there.
Some companies cover expenses for their employees, when they are selected as a speaker. Many conferences like to fill some agenda spots with “sponsored” speakers, as they are low-cost. Who wouldn’t want to have some international speakers at low cost? Regardless of your thoughts about this, it happens.
Running a conference and putting people on a stage/pedestal brings a responsibility towards making sure a safe environment for learning and communicating is created. So that is another part of the “checks and balance”. Does the agenda represent that thought, in terms of speakers and topics? If not, adjustments are made.
To be able to provide travel and expenses for speakers, to rent a conference space, to provide food for everyone involved, requires budget. Budget coming from sponsors and/or ticket sales.
But how do you attract sponsors? How do you convince people to pay for a ticket or convince their manager to pay for a ticket? Marketing, of course.
One way of marketing a conference is by putting some “big names” on the agenda, some “headliners”. This is similar to music concerts: the first line of band names on their posters are the headliners. They sell tickets.
So, there is a chance that the headliner’s session will be chosen over yours if the session topic is similar. There is no free lunch, and in this case having that headliner will help with providing that lunch at the conference.
Acceptance and rejection
Sending out those acceptance and rejection e-mails is a happy and sad moment.
You submitted the perfect session proposal title and abstract and got selected? Awesome!
You didn’t get selected? In my 10 years of speaking at conferences, I have been rejected more than I was accepted. For every accepted talk, there have been multiple rejections. Don’t be sad or mad when a talk is rejected. Keep submitting to user groups, smaller and larger conferences.
Check Niall Merrigan’s post for tips on making your title and abstract more attractive, but keep in mind other aspects like similar topics, budget in terms of number of available agenda spots and monetary budgets are a big influence, too.
Most often, the “why” of not getting selected is a simple capacity problem. Think 1400 session abstracts and only 120 available places in the agenda. Where those 120 available spots are really 80 spots, or only 6 if you count capacity for front-end web development. Of which there has to be a bit of Vue, a bit of Angular and so on. Some spots reserved for sponsors, and those headliners need some room as well. And international speakers have to do two sessions to make T&E worthwhile. And not to forget, a few spots for new speakers.
In other words: it’s probably not you, but a matter of marrying all aspects of conference planning into an agenda.
That’s it. This post was written based on previous experience, and I hope I have been able to shine a little more light on what happens right after a conference Call for Papers and in building an agenda.
Here are some more resources you may want to check (some already features previously in this post):
- Don’t fear the CfP
- Make me an offer I can’t refuse - writing abstracts for a CfP
- The Speaker Maturity Model - aim at least for level 1. Even and especially if you are just starting out. Your session and insights provide value that a paid-for conference capitalizes on.
- Trisha Gee has several good posts on speaking. Start with Speaker Tips - Focus on Either Content or Delivery and follow related posts.
Also, feel free to reach out to any speaker you have seen at a conference or elsewhere. They are not unapproachable rock stars, they are your peers and will be happy to help review a session abstract.