What conference organizers wish speakers knew


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What conference organizers wish speakers knew

Ever wish you could read the mind of an event organizer?

When they read your application, what do they really think? 

Do you sometimes get rejected, and just can’t figure out why?

You’re not alone: many speakers, from all levels of experience, ask themselves these questions from time to time.

In this panel discussion podcast interview, produced and hosted by Cal Evans from Voices of the Elephant, five event organizers weigh in on what kinds of things they look for in an application and how they decided on a speaker.

The panel also covers topics like how internal committees choose from a shortlist of speakers, the effects of having great testimonials, the right time to asks for your expenses to be covered, and what advice the organizers have for aspiring speakers. 

Event organizers featured in the podcast


Listen to the interview here: "What Conference Organizers Wish Speakers Knew"


Interview Summary

Question: What is the main reason you turn down a talk?

Adam Culp: How much great content will it give attendees: is it something they can use immediately, and something they can research when they get home.

James Titcumb: How many speakers can we host, and does our committee think they are going to offer valuable content to our audience.

Anna Filina: We ask ourselves: who is the best out of the speakers who applied? Do we have enough diversity in their proposals? Do the applicants have one sole topic, or can they talk about multiple topics? Having a topic that is too narrow is another reason some speakers get cut from the list.

Chris Cornutt: We pick the top topics, then re-review whether all the topics work together in tandem to make a great event.

Michelangelo van Dam: You have to decide which topics are best for the event. Once we reach a shortlist, we pick our "priority speakers" and if they don't respond, we just go to the next speaker. Rejections aren't always rejections, and sometimes they hire speakers because their choice speaker cannot attend.


Question: Do you do blind voting of submission? Public voting or internal committee?

Chris Cornutt: Ours is internal committee. We make our selections first then we have a big meeting (takes 2 to 3 hours, sometimes longer). We generally try to focus more on the topic than the speaker. Sometimes we do have to look at the speaker's experience.  We evaluate them based on the content, how well the proposal is written.

Adam Culp: For Sunshine, we use an app that was built for us. It allows the committee  to do ratings. It's available on Sunshine PHP for free download. It allows multiple users rate each talk from 1 to 5 stars. Then I will export it on Excel spreadsheet and that's where we will start with our preliminary choice. Personally, I don't want to do a blind. I want my audience to get the best talk possible. I want to know who I'm selecting.

James Titcumb: We have the blind selection. Once we uncover their names, we do take into account whether this person has spoken for us before. We also train new speakers. We look at the track record thing but we also consider new speakers as well.

Anna Filina: The way we do it is we have 20 advisors from different technologies so that they can give their perspective because we don't really know some of technologies personally. So there's a public voting which is blind voting so the public doesn't know who the speakers are. We also give new speakers a chance. We have 50% new speakers every year.

Michelangelo van Dam: The selection is basically a committee that is formed within our team. We go through the whole list of submissions, we come up with a shortlist and the shortlist somehow double the amount of slots that we have. We look at who is speaking and where are the people from. We need to make sure there is diversity on our speakers’ line up and that they are confirming that they can attend the conference.


Question: How important it is for speakers to actually have their slides done before they get to the conference?

Michelangelo van Dam: If you travel from Europe to the US, you have to pass border control where your laptop might be confiscated, if you don't have your slides prepared or store it in the Clouds, there's nothing much you can do. You need to make sure your slides are done before you go to the conference. You need to have it well prepared.

Anna Filina: We previously had people cancelling because their demos are not working. As soon as you are selected, do your slides, start working on that. Make sure you are ready possible.

James Titcumb: I'm a real organization freak. I would like things prepared way in advance. Some people kind of leave things to the last minute. For me it just leaves the nerves of doing the talk rather than preparing things to the last minute. It's up to the people doing the talk.

Adam Culp: I like mine to be prepared ahead of time. If you know you've been selected, inflict it on your user group prior to showing up at the conference. Not only it gives you rehearsal, it also helps out your user group who is always looking for speakers.

Chris Cornutt: As an organizer, I like it prepared way before. Some people are more creative than others. You can tell the people who spent time doing their slides versus everybody’s slides looking exactly the same.


Question: When is the right time and the right way to bring up a topic of speaker compensation and travel or lodging expenses?

Adam Culp: I think it's good to be upfront even before you submit your talk. Whey they are submitting their talks, they should know how their travel is going to be taken care of, are they going to be fed. If I'm not going to be paid for my job, I will less likely submit. You need to negotiate your compensation first before you accept.

Anna Filina: One more important thing is not just if the hotel is covered, but how many nights? Some conference doesn't provide the conference tickets for the speakers and you have to buy one. They give it at a discounted rate but I won't show up to speak at a conference, paid for my trip, paid for my hotel, and then I had to pay for the ticket which is kind of weird. Those three are very important to mention.

Chris Cornutt: It's important the stuff included in the speaker package but it's also important the contact person, the person dedicated to handling your questions.

Michelangelo van Dam: Compensation is always a tricky question. When you have to pay for everything because they consider you to be there for promotion for yourself or for your business. We at the PHP Community, we make sure the speaker will have a good time and we will take away all the trouble and the concerns.

James Titcumb: When looking at the budget sheet, the stuff are so expensive - the travel and lodging. Sponsorship can also help speakers.


Question: I will use the “Dear John” letter, the speaker rejection letter. Do you actually encourage your speakers to continue submitting? Do you push them anyway?

Adam Culp: What are the things that I do in the “Dear John” emails is that I have a bullet pointed list 1-10 that you can look at and do possibly better next year. I don't customize it for each speaker because that would be a nightmare. It's just a general bullet pointed list. I'd like to think I've contributed to the level of talk we've seen in the past few years.

Anna Filina: Our rejection letter is one of the most heartbreaking letters to write, it is probably the hardest day of my year because I have to say “no” to almost 200 people. When we actually mark as talk as rejected, we have some generic reasons so when they do get rejected, they see the reason and how they can correct it in the future. We point them towards helpmeabstract.com so that they can refine their abstract and invite them to next conference.

James Titcumb: Do you get any negative responses to your rejection letters?

Anna Filina: We used to that's why we refine our responses to be less personal.


Question: Does submitting talk proposals that was given at other conferences with positive feedback improved your chances of selection or does it harm your chances of selection?

Chris Cornutt: As far as our selection process, it definitely improves it.

Adam Culp: There are two different ways that I look at it. For Sunshine, my goal is for local people to gain knowledge, I don't pay attention to ratings and how many times you've given the talk unless you've spoken it in a public venue, then it makes the difference. For Zencon, it's a global conference where people are coming from everywhere. In that case it may play a part if you've given the talk in a lot of regions.

James Titcumb:  For new speakers, recordings can be helpful as well, it's useful to figure out the idea of the content.

Anna Filina: I would recommend that people do a dry run and record themselves. I think it helps a lot for us to see whether you are comfortable in speaking. Accent for example can be an issue because sometimes locals may have a trouble understanding the talk.


Question: What is the one piece of advice that you wish speakers do?

Michelangelo van Dam: Once you are a speaker, it's not easy. It's hard work. You have to put a lot of effort, research. You don't want to be in the stage and not be able to answer anything. In the preparation, if it's a technical talk or workshop, you need to have your examples and demos ready.

Anna Filina: Speakers are public figures. People look up to them. They mimic your behaviour. Act nicely to others.

James Titcumb: I certainly appreciate every speaker's effort. If we could pay speakers, we would.

 Adam Culp: For speakers to be understanding. Just be understanding and work with us. I don't know any organizer who will not make it right, give us a chance.

Chris Cornutt: Don't give up. Don't let rejection discourage you.

Cal: The one thing is for the speakers to make sure you can do your presentation without internet. If you are doing a live demo, just make sure you have screenshots to show. Be prepared to present your demo without internet.

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