Most technology conference attendees never dream of speaking at an event, so they probably don’t even realize what goes into the speaker selection process. In this section, we’ll take a look at common forms of the “CFP” (Call for Proposals) process, and some of the factors that make technology conference speakers stand out.
This post is part of an 8-part guide to speaking at technology conferences. Be sure to check out the other sections listed here.
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The Call for Proposals Process
I wish I had realized sooner that you don’t always have to be personally invited to speak at events. Now that I’m aware of the CFP process, I’m speaking regularly at conferences across the country. Laura Janusek
While there is variability in how an event decides on which speakers they will invite, most technology conferences offer some form of public Call for Proposals (“CFP”). When conference organizers start planning their event, they usually choose a date, and soon after, they will open up a CFP. The CFP may be managed on a platform like Sessionize or PaperCall and promoted through channels like CFP Land.
More tips for finding CFPs are available in Section 4: Finding and Selecting CFPs.
In addition to accepting public submissions, many conferences will invite specific speakers - especially those they’ve identified as possible keynote speakers. It takes a while to get recognized as a possible keynote speaker, and by that point, you’ll likely have met many of the conference organizers already. So, most speakers start by submitting their talk proposals to open CFPs.
Because most conferences get hundreds of submissions, they use an orderly process to evaluate and select talks. I’ve heard of conferences using one or more of the following methods, but others may also exist:
1. Rolling Review
Some conferences start reviewing submissions as soon as they come in. This helps the reviewers keep from getting overwhelmed by evaluating hundreds of submissions all at once, but it means that the conference may not have enough spots for late submissions. Sometimes conferences will advertise that they evaluate submissions on a rolling basis, but many do not, so if you’re really serious you might want to email the organizers to ask.
In the case of rolling reviews, it pays to submit your abstract or proposal early.
2. Public Voting
Other conferences open up all submissions to public opinion. I’ve usually seen this in the form of an open voting period, so speakers are expected to help promote their session. The upside to the conference is that they build community awareness for the event, and have an easier time selecting talks. The downside is that voters may or may not actually attend the conference, and they may not select a diverse range of topics or speakers. Usually, the conference organizers will mix open voting with some personal selections to ensure a good balance.
3. Post-Deadline Review
The majority of conference organizers I’ve spoken to wait until all submissions are turned in and the deadline has passed before reviewing them. While this creates a huge backlog of abstracts to review, it allows the organizers to ensure a good mix of talks and not give any preference to early submissions. In this case, submitting early won’t help you, but you really need to work hard to make your proposal stand out.
Notifying and Confirming Speakers
Sometime after the review process ends (or during it in the case of rolling review), the conference organizers will reach out individually to each speaker they’ve selected. Because speakers often apply months before they hear back, the organizers want to confirm that the speaker is still interested and available. If not, they may invite another speaker to replace them.
This is the reason that conferences are typically very slow to send rejection emails - if they send them at all. But it also means that even if a conference starts to announce speakers, they aren’t necessarily done with the selection process. You may still have hope!
More on handling success and rejection is available in Section 6: Dealing with Success or Rejection.
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Why Do Speakers Get Chosen?
Assuming the conference is not using public voting to select speakers, it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what will stand out to a conference organizing committee. Each one is different, and each conference has different stated (and unstated) objectives. It certainly helps if you have been to the conference before (or have seen the sessions they selected in the past), but even then, things can change.
While there are many factors involved, technology conference speakers are usually chosen based on some combination of the following criteria:
1. Great Topic and Abstract
Writing a great conference proposal (or abstract) is an art. It takes a mix of skills - writing, storytelling, and creativity among them - but a great abstract for one conference won’t necessarily work at another. The most successful speakers submit multiple abstracts and tailor each to the conference they’re targeting.
Much more on writing and submitting a successful abstract is available in Section 5: Submitting Abstracts.
2. A Good Blend of Topics
Most conferences want a mix of sessions because attendees are often looking for different things. Some want to be inspired by the big-picture sessions and keynotes; others want to learn specific niche technologies from experts; others are just curious, and want to know what’s trending.
Having big-picture sessions can make for a very generic program. As such, a limited number of big-picture presentations tend to get picked with a larger number of more specialist topics. Jono Bacon
Experienced organizers usually shoot for a good blend so they can maximize the value to attendees.
3. Speaker Reputation
Famous speakers will tend to attract money, in the form of more/better sponsors and more attendees. Nicolas Fränkel
Developing a reputation as a speaker takes time, but once you’ve done it, organizers will likely give you a leg up over new speakers. It’s not fair, but it makes some sense - there’s always a risk that a first-time speaker will get too nervous and flake out before the event - plus widely known speakers may actually draw an audience on their own.
“The biggest conferences may have selection processes that favor experienced speakers, since they don’t want to risk a 50-minute time slot on an unknown quantity.” Nick Heiner
At the same time, conference organizers are annoyed by overly self-promoting talks too. Speakers who can’t stop talking about themselves will gain a negative reputation that’s just as hard to overcome.
“Program committees often don’t want ego-ridden sessions, not just because they are annoying, but also because they often become advertising carousels for the speaker’s books, videos, events, and other material they are schlepping.” Jono Bacon
4. Speaker Qualifications
Just because a speaker is new does not mean that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve met a lot of speakers with 20+ years of experience in their field, so it’s pretty safe to say they’re qualified to give a talk - even if they haven’t before. That said, even qualified speakers need to show the organizers that they’re qualified in some way, so writing blog posts, books, or courses can be a good way to demonstrate your knowledge even before you start speaking.
“Why should I listen to them? Are they an amazing speaker and will give a great performance? Are they an expert in a field that they can speak authoritatively on? Do they have some unique experience that makes their content special or different?…Did you win “best comedic presentation” at your local toastmasters? Were you in every theatre play and musical production in school? Did you write an open-source tool or library that deals heavily with the topics involved? Have you spoken before? Richard Schneeman
5. Diversity of Speakers
There are many that simply won’t see what’s in front of their eyes. They are completely unaware of how unwelcoming many technical events are for those with diverse backgrounds. There is a reason it is like it is. Kellyn Command Line
Speaker diversity comes in many forms, but some examples are:
- Training and education
- Race and ethnicity
- Sexual orientation
- Socioeconomic background
- Company and team size
While some organizers ignore speaker diversity, it is becoming a bigger issue for many conferences and speakers.
6. Cost of Transportation and Hotel
If the conference offers perks like free travel and hotel for speakers, they often must consider this cost when selecting speakers. In other words, even if your abstract is great, some small conferences won’t be able to fly you halfway across the world just to speak. You can get around this limitation if you (or your employer) are willing to cover the cost, so be sure to mention that in your application.
7. Event Sponsorship
Finally, some technology conferences give dedicated speaking slots to sponsors. If you work in developer relations or you’re hiring a lot of people, your employer may be willing to sponsor some events in exchange for some stage time.
Now that you’re familiar with how conferences choose speakers, it’s time to find some open calls for proposals (CFPs). The next section covers this in-depth as well as some of the ways you can ensure the event you’re applying to is worth your time.