Saturday, April 30, 2016

Something is off with conference talk selection

To get to talk in international conferences, there’s two distinct phases you need to nail - sometimes through pure chance. 
  1. Creating and submitting a great abstract that gets accepted
  2. Delivering a talk/session that leaves the audience with a positive buzz

The bigger the conference, the more time between the two phases there is. And in this industry, time means that learning happens.  

Why is this worth mentioning?

In a recent conference, a relatively new speaker approached me after his session for feedback. He came to ask for feedback because he knew I had been in his session - he in turn had not been in mine, I’m not even sure if he knew I had a session in the conference. I, however, had asked a question in his session and that was the reason he looked me up. 

My feedback was a mixed bag of positive and negative, but there was something that I find exemplary to so many of similar discussions I’ve had before. He told me that when he was submitting, he submitted a combination of a cool domain (that he had no experience on) and a tool, thinking that it would attract an audience. When he was accepted, he acquired the experiences he had promised to deliver on in his talk, and learned things were different than he imagined before doing it. However, he needed to stay true to his abstract and promise. And I, in the audience, sensed the lack of interest and energy in the presentation because the talk experience for him was not the best he could deliver. It was only the best he could have planned for six months in advance. 

This happens over and over again, and has happened to me. People make public promises on talks and learn that what they promised isn’t where their hearts are, but still deliver according to promise.

What should change?

I find that there are two types of conference sessions. The big-name keynotes are sessions conferences use to sell the tickets, and if those change in topic, people might care. But all the session from call for proposals, I feel people care a lot more on the speakers delivering the best they can, over what they planned and promised in advance.

Let’s still split the “in advance” part. I’m completely happy changing topics as long as on the day of the conference, the handout of schedule works to help me pick the talks and tracks I’d be interested in. Last minute changes are not welcome. But two weeks into the conference, if you as a speaker know your energies around a topic have been shifted, I’d love to see you start a discussion on changing your description to be for the best talk you can deliver. As a participant, my investment in time is in sitting through the session, and I would love you to be at your best. 

Things are different for the seasoned speakers

Seasoned speakers tend to deliver the same (or slightly adapted) talk time and time again. For them, the two phases look very different. They tend to have a ready portfolio of talks they offer. The talk portfolio is a result of an ongoing process to create a limited number of talks that are ready for delivery. New talks get added on inspiration. The saved descriptions get updated based on the latest ideas at submission time, and a lot of time the main changes are different sections different conferences require. 

Submitting to a conference is a 5 minute exercise for a seasoned speaker with a portfolio. It’s easily a week of work into the abstract if there is no reuse involved.  The best abstracts talk about the talk they are attached to - and to be able to do that, your talk has to come first. 

But there’s more!

I’ve been part of selecting talks for conferences a long time, and for a variety of conferences. I love the behind-the-scenes work. I love seeking the talks and topics that would teach me something. And at this point of my career, I’m feeling confident that sessions I enjoy end up often being sessions other people enjoy too. 

Doing a lot of session selection, I’ve learned there is often no correlation between the quality of the abstract and the quality of the talk. Creating an abstract requires very different skills than creating and delivering a talk. And I’d rather choose people to be on stage based on how well they do on stage - I can have a ghost writer talk to people and write abstracts, if that’s where the people are lacking. But I cannot fix an insufficient delivery quite so easily. I do try - offering mentoring, helping good people become great through practice and feedback. 

I look for people who could deliver well. So instead of paying attention to their abstracts, I need to pay attention to their experiences, their stories and their ability to speak up about their topics. 

I seek people who have experience and a track record. But I also seek people who have potential. Potential is often, in my mind, connected with a curious mind, an effort to understand and explain the world, and a slight amount of openness to be willing to bring in a personal twist to the stories. I’m strongly in favor of experience reports over theories on a topic. 

Conference requirements?

The conferences require very much different things in their call for proposals. Here’s my list of what I’ve observed from the first item in the list being enough to all these things are asked for:
  • A talk title and 3 bullet points on what you will talk about
  • An abstract: a few chapters of marketing oriented text that will end up in the conference program
  • A bio: description of the speaker that will end up in the conference program
  • A takeaways list: what will the attendees gain from this session, benefits and takeaways listed
  • A ‘for committee only’ session delivery notes: what is your session structure, how are your planned timings to show you have thought more about your delivery. If the conference does not ask for this (many don’t, adding this in the end of your abstract without them asking significantly raises your likelihood to be accepted)
  • A video of you speaking about the topic from another event of a piece of your idea of delivery recorded on your own

That all is a lot of work. 

What will I do differently?

For European Testing Conference 2017, I plan to take the speaker selection yet a notch more to untraditional direction. Our Call for Collaboration asks for names and topics, without an abstract. We’ll use the time on talking over Skype to see if our interests match and to learn about each other. And a lot of the session related selection discussions have happened in random encounters in the various conferences, ending up with an invitation. I want to extend the random encounters to be online, to find all the people who feel they’d have stuff to contribute. 

There’s always a limited amount of speaking spaces on one year, but there’s more years and more conferences. While organizing one, I will help with my best ability to connect great people with the others. And while I might not be able to talk to everyone this year, the process of getting to know options is continuous. 


  1. That's a very interesting approach, and as someone who have never spoken at a conference (yet?) I must say it is much more inviting - building an abstract (not to mention a full outline) is quite intimidating.
    It does seem, however, that such an approach might consume more time (Mainly on filtering proposals with close to zero information up front) - so thank you for conducting such an experiment. I am certain that the next European testing conference will be at least as great as the last one was.

  2. Hi Maaret,

    nice post. I agree with your points. I hate to see always the same speakers at conferences. The same if conference organizer going on a tour with the exact same program schedule from city to city.

    I really like your approach to select speakers for the conference you are organizing and looking forward to the results of it :).