Why your talk was rejected (or maybe accepted)

I had a few snarky opening lines for this post, but decided that was a bit unfair. Let’s just say that people get very impassioned about tech events and getting talks accepted. If you’re on the conference committee, it can be… intense, sometimes, managing the needs of an event versus people’s deep interest in being one of the speakers. I thought it’d be helpful to give some insights into why talks are and aren’t accepted.

In no particular order:

  • Slots available: Depending on the event, there’s probably something like two to 10 talks submitted for every available slot. By definition, some of these talks won’t make the cut simply because there’s not room.
  • Uninspired: I’ve seen a lot of one-liners and blah submissions. If the submission is boring, I’m guessing the talk will be too. Conversely, a really inspired / inspiring talk is going to get a slot very often.
  • Conference carbon copy: Some speakers submit the same talk or a cookie-cutter approach where they just slot name-of-technology into the same title and abstract. I’m disinclined to accept those when I spot that.
  • Topic fit: The topic either isn’t a good fit, or we got 10 submissions on the same topic and only needed one. Or it’s a great fit and immediately selected.
  • Speaker fit: The talk looks good, but it’s unclear whether the speaker is the best fit. If I have a talk submitted by a person with no distinctive credentials and a similar talk submitted by the inventor of the technology, it’s a no-brainer that the inventor gets the slot.
  • Something new: On the other hand, there comes a time to break with tradition and give other people a shot. If the same speaker has given the same talk every year there’s a point when it is time to give another speaker a shot. Sometimes it’s time to retire a talk or at least take a year off.
  • Audience level isn’t right: A 101-level talk might be great for some events and wildly out of place for others. A technology deep dive might be way too much for some events.
  • We have enough Acme Corp, thank you. If the conference is vendor-neutral, having too many speakers from one company is a bad look. A talk might be rejected simply because the event is over-saturated with talks from specific companies.
  • Customer talks for the win! If the conf is vendor-specific, talks from customers about technologies and use cases are usually better than talks from the vendor. It’s better for the attendees to get a customer-centric view, and it’s better for the vendor even if the presentation isn’t as glowing about the product, technology, or whatever.
  • Your talk was submitted by a PR firm. Generally speaking, this is almost always a hard no from me on principle. If, for whatever reason, the speaker can’t be bothered to submit the talk themselves, then I don’t want it. See also…
  • The talk is a thinly (or not at all) disguised product pitch. Most tech conferences are organized around money, in some fashion or another. Vendors sponsor the events because they see a connection between the event and sales, even if it’s just awareness that they hope someday will lead to sales. Vendors pay for speakers to travel because they see “value” at the other end of the rainbow in the form of sales, or are hoping for a halo effect that … leads to sales.I could go on, but the point is it all comes back to money at some point.That said, few attendees want to sit through a commercial. It’s OK to name-check a product. It’s OK if a useful talk just happens to guide people in the general direction of a product or service. If you want to do a product pitch, pony up for one of the paid slots. If the conference doesn’t have those, then too bad.
  • The talk is too negative. Rare, but I’ve seen a few that were shots at competitors or generally outside of healthy critique to outright attack.
  • You didn’t hit submit. This really happens. Some systems will show you talks that were started but not submitted, and I’ve seen some interesting titles that the speaker never finished the submission. If it’s not final, it’s probably not going in!

Those are just off the top of my head. Talk selection involves a lot of moving parts and is more art than science. Actually, I’m not sure it’s art, but it’s definitely not science.

All of that said, the point is this… it’s really not so much about you or your talks specifically. If you don’t get a talk accepted, don’t take it personally. It probably doesn’t have a lot to do with you or your submission. Unless you totally phoned it in and submitted a one-liner filled with typos. Then, you know, do better next time.

There’s a ton of writing out there with advice about how to write talks that get accepted. Some good, some mediocre. I might add some to the pile eventually, but the short version is: Have a good title and abstract. Demonstrate you know the topic well and are authoritative on it. Show you’ll do your homework and come prepped to give a good talk. And if you have compromising photos of the selection committee you’re almost sure to get accepted.

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