15 ways to get fewer conference submissions — or why I didn’t submit my talk for your conference

I’ve not done much conference speaking in a while but I’m gearing up to do more in 2018. I’m a lot more informed about what makes a diverse and inclusive conference than I was 8 years ago, when I made the decision to limit my public speaking.

I’ve now got a very good idea of what type of event I want to speak at so I thought I’d help conference organisers by describing what they’re doing that stopped me submitting to their events.

In some cases, the topic of the event is just not right for me. It doesn’t help me, the organisers or the participants if I speak there.

Sometimes, though, there are other problems with event format or organisation that rule that event out for me even if it made sense for me to speak there. I’ve listed the main problems I’ve encountered below.

Event format

I’m unlikely to submit a session if:

  • it’s clear you’re running a sales event, not a conference — sales events usually have several sessions delivered by speakers working for the event organiser or customers of the organiser
  • it’s an entirely curated conference — it’s more inclusive to have a public call for speakers with an anonymised review process; this increases participation from under-represented groups and helps new speakers break into the speaking circuit
  • your conference is single track in a large theatre — I want to support events that are focussed on providing value to participants rather than making money; I believe that large, single track conferences provide poor value for participants
  • you only want talks — I do give talks sometimes, but I prefer doing workshops: organisers — mix it up a bit by including other session types; your participants will love you for this (and as an organiser you shouldn’t just do this by adding paid workshops!)

Submission process and organisation

If the session review process is unclear, or there’s a lack of transparency about it (“we have a panel of experts to create the programme”), I won’t want to submit. It’s also helpful if organisers are willing to discuss session ideas ahead of submission — if you’re not, it makes your event less attractive to me.

The user experience of the submission process is important as well. It puts me off if:

  • it’s unclear what the conference is about or who the audience is — it’s surprising, but some event websites do a really bad job of explaining who the event is aimed at
  • the process is poorly designed; it’s not clear how or when to submit a session
  • you tell me I won’t get feedback on my session proposal
  • I submitted last time, but you didn’t bother to tell me I didn’t get accepted and didn’t respond to my message asking where things had got to
  • you told me I wasn’t ‘a name’ or didn’t reply to my emails/tweets

Fees and expenses play a part, too. It’s off-putting if I ask about travel and accommodation costs and you say you won’t reimburse because I’ll benefit more through ‘exposure’ (in my earlier survey of conference speakers, only 30% of people said they had definitely got work from speaking).

My circumstances mean I’m able to pay my own expenses when travelling in Europe — and I choose to do this for community events I really want to support — but not everyone is in that privileged position, and very few events are true community events.

It’s also not cost-effective if I have to pay some or all of the event fees.

Inclusivity and ethics

It’s really important to me that all events are inclusive, but particularly the ones I support as a speaker. If it’s obvious that there’s a lack of inclusivity from your approach to finding speakers, your speaker line-up, or the use of exclusionary language and imagery on your site, I won’t submit a session proposal. And if your event is in a country that doesn’t support diversity and inclusion, I’d only want to speak there if changing the political environment in that country and fostering inclusivity was an explicit focus for the event.

Events should also have a code of conduct, so if you don’t have one, I won’t submit a session. Likewise, if you have a code of conduct but it’s obvious that you don’t really care about it — or have the skills and experience to enforce it — that will put me off. I want to speak at events that foster safety for all.

The submission process is important for diversity and inclusion, too. There should be anonymity: without it, you are probably discriminating against under-represented groups. Your programme committee needs to be diverse as well — diverse programme committees are more likely to create diverse events.

Summary

You might think I’m being overly-prescriptive about my criteria for conference submission, but after 10 years in the conference business I think much of this is essential.

If you’re reading this as an organiser, I hope you take on board this speaker’s suggestions so we can raise the quality of events everywhere.

Thanks to Beck Thompson for content design assistance on this article and to @carahanman and @allibeaum for comments.

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Mark Dalgarno

Freelance Agile Coach | Interim Manager | Agile Programme or Project Manager. Conference Organiser. Improver.