Speaking is a lot like applying for jobs in that most of the time, you’re going to be rejected no matter how good you are. Knowing what to expect when you are accepted or rejected from a conference can help soften the blow, but it still hurts.
In this section, we’ll cover some of the reasons your talk might have been rejected, what to do when you do get a talk accepted, and how to respectfully decline giving a talk when you can no longer commit to it.
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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Speaking is a numbers game. The great players in baseball only hit the ball 1/3 of the time at best. I find I only get accepted to every 1 out of 3 conferences I apply to. There’s a zillion reasons why your talk wasn’t accepted that has nothing to do with you:
- Too similar to another already accepted
- Too different to the other talks accepted
- Technical, and they needed more non-technical content
- Too advanced
- Too geared towards beginners
- All over the place
- Too specific
- Not the right fit for attendees
- Your talk isn’t unique (gave at other conferences)
- Your talk is too immature (haven’t given at any other conferences)
As you can see from the above list of reasons that speakers can be rejected by a conference, there is almost no way to get every talk accepted, and it’s usually not a judgment on you, your ability, or even your qualifications. Conferences are just overwhelmed with submissions and have to draw the lines somewhere. Many times that means you won’t get chosen.
Most of JSConfs receive an average of 500 proposals… Karolina Szczur
1. What you’ll hear when you’re rejected
Unfortunately, many conferences don’t even notify speakers when they’re not chosen to speak. This means that you might not even know your talk was rejected until the conference releases its lineup. It’s frustrating, but a reality to get used to before you get into speaking.
That said, it is really nice when the conference does take time to give you a rejection and feedback about why your talk wasn’t chosen.
I really appreciate when conferences give you feedback so you can apply that to the next one you submit to. I’m learning from each rejection I get. Kara Luton
2. You’re not alone
Once you realize you’re not going to be speaking at this particular conference, take heart! You’re not alone - most of the people who applied were not accepted. Even prolific speakers at tech conferences are rejected frequently:
My CFP rejected-to-win ratio is probably around 0.00001 which is definitely an exercise in learning how to accept rejection and not take it personally. Rizwan Javaid
You shouldn’t let the rejection emails get you down. I’ve spoken at conferences on three different continents, and I still regularly get rejected. Keep applying and refining your proposals. Anjuan Simmons
It’s especially tough for new speakers though as this kind of rejection is probably not something you’re used to.
It is usually difficult to get started as a conference speaker in terms of getting your CFP submissions accepted. This is totally okay and you don’t need to worry about it! Jaime Lopez
The best thing you can do is learn from each rejection and try again. There’s no shortage of technology conference CFPs to apply for, so keep a positive attitude and keep trying.
It’s like for pull requests: just as you’re not your code, you’re not your submissions. Accept probabilities are not in your favor, and face rejection with the same maturity. Nicolas Fränkel
3. Improving for next time
Rejection is most helpful when it can be turned into a learning experience. If the conference doesn’t give you a reason for your talk not being selected, you can email the organizers and ask them for feedback:
Some conferences are happy to provide feedback when your session isn’t selected. Ask for it. It doesn’t hurt, and if they have time, they may respond. Some won’t though as they are often dealing with hundreds of sessions. Jono Bacon
In addition to asking for feedback, you can do your own sleuthing to find out how you could improve your talk for next year:
Look at the talks that were accepted, what did they have in common with your proposal? What did they have that was different? Maybe you can ask some of the people who got talks accepted to share their details & pitch (things that are not put on the schedule). Richard Schneeman
Finally, you might get a discount to attend the conference just because you submitted to. It might be worth going so you can meet some of the other speakers and organizers and learn what things will make your application stand out next year. Getting engaged with the speaker community is a great way to learn more about what makes a successful conference speaking proposal.
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You will probably get more rejections than you do acceptances, but if you submit CFPs long enough, you’ll eventually get a talk accepted. Congratulations! Enjoy the moment. Once you’re ready to think about what comes next, there are a few things to keep in mind.
1. You should confirm or decline the invitation
Just because you filled out the application months ago doesn’t mean your schedule will still allow you to speak. Most conference organizers know this, so when they accept your application they’ll ask you to confirm or decline the invitation. If you’re a new speaker or you’re less picky about which speaking opportunities you take, you might start off by accepting all of them, but I’ve met a few popular speakers who have had to decline conflicting speaking opportunities.
When you must decline a conference’s invitation, here are some tips:
- Be gracious but honest. You don’t want to burn bridges with the conference in case you have the opportunity to speak again next year.
- Suggest another speaker if you can. Do you know someone else who might be able to speak about a similar topic? It never hurts to send a recommendation along with your response when you have to decline a speaking opportunity, plus it might give you the chance to help a new speaker get their start.
- Offer to help promote the conference on your social media anyway. Once a conference picks its speakers, they need to start getting attendees. Anything you can do to help them sell tickets will help keep that relationship healthy in case you apply again next year.
Hopefully, you won’t have to decline too many opportunities, but when it happens, don’t feel bad. Conference organizers know this happens and probably won’t hold any ill will towards you if you’re prompt in your response.
2. Note any logistical details they give you
If you can accept the invitation to speak, there’s a lot to figure out before the big day comes. How will you get to the conference? Will you need a flight? Bus? Train? How will you get from the airport to the hotel? How should you book your hotel room? Which meals will be provided? What time am I speaking? Who’s paying for all this?
Hopefully, you worked out some of those details before you applied, but if not, you should definitely clear them up with the organizers as soon as possible. Experienced conference organizers know these things are on your mind and might give you a laundry list of expectations and a loose schedule, but if not you can certainly ask. Even if they don’t have the details ready yet, you can ask for a date to follow up with them and get them.
Finally, know what your next steps are. Some conferences are very good about keeping in touch between the moment they accept you and the conference start date, but others go silent until a few days before. As long as you know what’s coming next, that’s fine, but make sure you’re clear on everything first.
3. Don’t let imposter syndrome or nerves get you down
Sometime between when you get accepted to speak at a conference and the moment you walk on stage, you may feel that you’ve made a huge mistake. About half of the conference speakers I’ve met have specifically mentioned feeling some degree of imposter syndrome, “the anxious feeling that, despite all your accomplishments, you aren’t actually very competent and everyone’s about to find out.”
Here are just a few of the speakers I’ve interviewed who specifically mentioned feeling imposter syndrome and a little bit about how they cope with it:
Imposter syndrome is real and a totally normal feeling, so do not let that hold you back. Especially early on, I always had a feeling of “everyone in the audience will already know what I’m talking about.” That is not the case. If they did, they would not be there. Those that show up want to hear YOU and learn from your experiences. If it turns out there are a few people that decide to leave during the talk for whatever reason, there is nothing wrong with that. John Riviello
While you may not feel like the expert on this topic, the people listening to you came to hear YOU! Remember you’ve got friends in the audience — some you may know, and some you may not know…yet. Rhia Dixon
I’ve always been extremely uncomfortable with my content not being technical enough because I often feel like I lack technical skill, but I’ve always been confident with the delivery because it seems to come naturally to me for whatever reason. Tejas Kumar
Knowing that you’re not alone in feeling this way might help some, but the best way to overcome imposter syndrome is to power through it. The more you get on stage, the more comfortable you’ll be and the less inadequate you will feel about being there.
4. Keep your expectations in check
Finally, even after you’ve been offered a speaking slot and you’ve accepted, keep your expectations in check. In just two years of speaking, I’ve been invited to speak at one conference that was completely canceled, and one that bumped my 45-minute talk down to a 10-minute slot.
My point is that nothing is certain, so don’t wrap too much of your self-worth up into your conference talks. These kinds of changes may be rare, but if you speak long enough, you’ll run into a last-minute change that throws a wrench in your conference plans.
Now that you know what to expect upon being accepted to speak, it’s time to create your presentation! In the next section, we’ll look at several types of talk you can give and some tips for delivering your content from several great technology conference speakers.