Why Your Excellent Conference Talk was Rejected

How to avoid heartbreak when submitting conference talks.

by Sarah Gray

For the past year or so, I’ve been serving on the organizing committee for DevOpsDays Philadelphia, coming up on October 26th and 27th. Though there have been many eye-opening experiences, talk selection has been by far the most surprising. I’ve proposed talks, I’ve cultivated speakers for local meetup groups, but this is the first time I’ve waded through a huge pile of talk submissions in one go. Here’s what I learned . . .

First, let me say that our committee was very fortunate. We had six submissions for every speaking slot and submissions were uniformly good, which meant that we were in the unenviable position of turning away exceptional talks. A quick aside — oh man! This is going to be a great devops conference and we have excellent speakers. Thanks to our sponsors (hi there Promptworks!), we have a superb venue and event planned. You should get tickets if you are interested in this sort of stuff.

One of the interesting things about looking at so many talks at once is that we saw patterns emerge in successful and unsuccessful talks. There are a million blog posts about what makes a successful talk topic, so I’ll leave that discussion to others. And, there are unavoidable and boring rejection cases that I’m not going to discuss either: the proposed talk is very off topic for the conference, the topic was already submitted, or the talk is an obvious product pitch. What I want to talk about are the heartbreakers.

We saw lot of talks that had a great premise, but the speaker just couldn’t get us to bite. Before I go any further, I want to thank those who devoted time and energy to submitting a talk. To protect the identities of those who pitched, I am going to use toy abstracts. I hope you like gardening, dear reader.

Heartbreaker #1 — The Rhetorical Question List

Are you curious about training fruit trees to grow along a lattice? Not sure how to winterize your espaliered tree once it’s been shaped? Are you worried about decreased fruit production as a result of shaping? Come to my talk!

As we read talks like this, we kept waiting for the payoff. The speaker definitely shares our concerns, but has given us no clue about how they will be addressed. Will the speaker just rehash known solutions? Will they propose novel solutions? Will they cover things with sufficient depth? We couldn't tell from abstracts like this. This presentation would have been accepted had the speaker given us a few clues about how these questions would be answered.

Heartbreaker #2 — The Controversial Topic

In this talk, we’ll discuss the best methods for transplanting your grandfather’s prized roses. Though I have never grown roses, this guaranteed method works regardless of climate and condition of the bushes.

Yes! We need talks that address difficult topics, but it’s hard to trust that the presentation will be informed, sensitive to others, and productive without explaining the position more deeply. This would have been a more effective presentation had the speaker explained more about his experience despite not growing roses and how he developed his foolproof method. And, engineers love a good metric. A data point or hint that there would be data points could support his bold assertions.

Heartbreaker #3 — The Shorty

Tomatoes are best grown in the ground and not in hanging baskets.

The premise is good, but the abstract is so short we have no idea where this is going to go. Even if the speaker were experienced and a known conference superstar, it is hard to give the presenter a speaking slot without more detail. Just a few more sentences would have made us accept this talk.

Heartbreaker #4 — The N00b

In this talk, we’ll discuss best practices for composting kitchen waste. As an avid amatuer gardener, I’ve been composting for years and increased my yield by 40% on average while lowering water consumption by 25%. I’ll show you the right ratio for mixing browns and greens, how to get a good mix of bacteria and bugs brewing, and when to turn (or not turn!) your heap. With a few simple techniques under your belt, you can start successfully composting today.

Sounds pretty good, right? The speaker has a clear goal, outlines benefits, and hints at what kinds of tips and tricks will be shared. It’s easy to know what you’d get out of this talk, so why would we turn this down? We had several great pitches from people who have never given a talk before; we asked about presentation experience as part of submitting a talk and we did a little googling too. It’s crummy to turn away such a good presentation, but it’s also risky to entrust your conference audience to someone who has never presented before. We don't know if the presenter will be engaging, in addition to being informative, if they have never spoken before. This presentation would have been accepted if we had seen speaker talked at local meetup groups, had a recorded presentation we could view, or maintained a blog so that we could foresee of how he would present his ideas and build an argument.

So, in conclusion, a solid idea is not enough. To sway your reviewers, you need to:

  • Hint not only at the problem, but also at the solution.
  • Touch on why your experience matters and give data points where helpful.
  • Make sure your abstract is sufficiently long and detailed.
  • Make a convincing case for yourself as a presenter by presenting elsewhere or maintaining a blog.

As spring conference submission deadlines loom, I wish you happy pitching!

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