In this blog post, we want to give you an insight, based on our experience from the past years of speaking at international conferences, about some less obvious but quite significative things you should be aware of when submitting a talk to a conference. Since there are already a lot of blog posts about how to successfully prepare your talk 1 2 , we try to complement them by providing a quite different perspective with a different focus: we think it is inevitable to understand how conferences run their selection process, behind Call For Papers (CFP), and what are the factors that might influence your submission. Besides, we want to give you an overview of different speaker profiles and conference types that might be of interest to you.
This post was written together with Ionuț Baloșin who is a software architect, technical trainer and regular speaker at software development conferences and meetups around the world, delivering presentations, training courses, and workshops. All his Java performance-related but also software architecture blog posts together with his training catalog could be found on ionutbalosin.com.
Each conference starts with a selection process. This usually tells more about the event itself than any marketing slogan or other formal information you might get about the event. Not always, but very often, conferences allow speakers to apply. If there is an open CFP, it is worth it to get an understanding of how the selection process works, to have a grasp about what is expected and how the talks submission is rated. Multiple factors can give you such hints:
In most of the cases, the feedback received after the submission is just a generic polite sentence which does not offer many details. An example of this, extracted from one of our rejected proposals, is “We are very sorry to inform you that your proposal … for … was refused. Do keep in mind that we received over … proposals and the available slots are very limited! We would like to thank you sincerely for your proposal and shown interest.”. Is this feedback relevant to you, as an applicant? If you are not interested in anything else but just to know if you get accepted or not, yes, it might be enough. But you probably want to improve yourself and submit better proposals in the future. In such a case, it is not relevant at all since it does not contain any detail why your talk was rejected. Maybe you had a cool idea but unfortunately, it did not get selected.
In such a case, we would encourage you to reply to the organizers and ask for specific, detailed feedback. This way you might get a grasp about what they liked and what they did not like about your proposal, what were the evaluation criteria, etc. Even in such a case do not have high expectations. It could happen to still do not receive any answer (which is not polite, in our opinion), or the organizers might tell you they cannot provide any further details, unfortunately. This latter case could be understandable since collecting detailed feedback for submissions requires extra work, and for conferences with thousands of proposals it takes a significant amount of time. Nevertheless, in the best case when you receive it, do not take it personally, read it carefully and try to understand the committee’s point of view. Do not try to contradict or over-argue them. Do not forget they are still humans, they might or might have not properly understood your proposal, they might be biased towards other speakers or topics. It is subjective to a certain extent. In either case, take it as a win-win situation, an experience that could potentially help you in submitting better proposals.
Speaker profiles are quite diverse. Looking at any commercial conference schedule you could immediately get a grasp that there are multiple speakers typologies. It is important to understand them since they are your “potential competitors” during the selection process. We try to summarize such typologies as follows:
Of course, these are just stereotypes, and a speaker is usually a mixture of several types listed above. An advocate can still be a passionate practitioner who has turned his hobby into a job. It is still important to understand there is quite a huge amount of conference speakers, who do this as their profession. Don’t let them scare you, they all started small. Nevertheless, as an important lesson to learn: content is not always king.
Fortunately, the number of technical conferences keeps on growing, leading to an increased diversity and potentially better quality. There are more and more options to choose from, and people have now a lot of opportunities to share their experiences. But not all conferences are the same, they target different areas of expertise and have a different scope or mission.
In general, there is an infinite amount of conference types. On the other hand, they could be superficially drilled down in two distinct categories: (i) those which target profit, (ii) those which don’t. Hardly, there can be any in-between:
It is completely legitimate to make a profit out of organizing conferences, so why might this be important for you, as a potential speaker? Well, usually the target of the conference has an impact on the selected topics. Since a big part of the profit comes from people buying tickets and from sponsors, commercial conferences are usually striving for speakers that could help in better advertising the event and attracting a broader audience.
On the other side, community conferences are not driven by the goal of selling a higher number of tickets but rather finding the most suitable topics and bringing the right people together. Thus, the criteria behind the selection process are slightly different. For example, niche topics, which usually are appealing for a smaller group of people, even though they are quite innovative, or topics that might require an advanced level of understanding have higher chances to get accepted at these conferences. Of course, this is not black and white, but at least for us, it turned out to be a relevant enough indicator.
Nowadays, the number of conferences is impressive, there are so many alternatives, therefore you should be in a position to select rather than be selected. Favor quality instead of quantity and do not be a conference hunter. If you like conferences go for them and apply as a speaker. However, if you are not that guy don’t see it as an impediment nor a responsibility, as there are a lot of incredibly smart people who are not known as conference speakers. Nevertheless, be driven by passion in everything you do, be curious and eager to experiment with new things. Try to share what you have learned and always be open to criticism.
What we aim to emphasize in this blogpost is not intended to finger point or distinguish between good or bad conferences, neither to influence people to apply some but not the others. We still strongly believe the creation of a technical conference is a very precious giveback to the community at its very inner heart and we highly respect all the parties involved. Nevertheless, we would like to provide an objective and transparent insight into their inner workings. This way we strongly believe it will improve the overall quality of further events and make people more aware of the surroundings.