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A reviewer's perspective on getting your conference proposal accepted

Vincenzo Chianese
Vincenzo Chianese is an Italian Software Developer focused on WebAPIs and User Interfaces. Currently doing APIs @SentinelOne
Originally published at vncz.js.org Updated on ・6 min read

This year I've been organising the Barcelona instalment of APIdays, where I’ve touched every aspect; from CFP evaluation, venue selection, catering as well as speakers' travel and accommodations.

I’ve spoken at 40 events over the last three years. I was rejected - a lot - a whole lot, and in some cases I really did not understand why. Now that I have been on the other side of the event, I have a better understanding of how things work behind the scenes.

Events get a lot of proposals

APIdays Barcelona had 41 speakers from multiple countries and backgrounds. We received 184 CFPs.

If we remove 20% from the total number because of duplicates and people filling the form with invalid data - that still leaves 148 CFPs to consider.

Problem: it’s too time consuming to evaluate every proposal in detail

Being involved in almost everything, it turns out that my original intention of going through all of the submissions one by one was not a viable option; it was very time consuming and I still have a full time job; therefore I had to develop a "fast framework" to decide whether a presentation was worth a serious evaluation.

I ended up checking the following in order:

  1. Presentation Title
  2. Presentation Abstract
  3. A previous video of a speaking engagement

In case a video was not provided, I would then check

  1. Company submitter working for
  2. LinkedIn profile

Failing any of these steps would mean not being evaluated.

Lesson learned: Title and Abstract are the most important filters

No matter what great company you work for or what great previous speaking engagements/videos, GitHub profile or Open Source projects you have on the internet, these were secondary verifications of your persona and get some more context; if the title and or the abstract did not engage the reviewer somehow, the proposal would not make it.

Note: I sometimes took the job position in consideration for one of the criteria; we'll talk about it more in the Work with speakers section.

Problem: titles and abstract might be misleading

Selecting a presentation is hard because the only information you really have is the Title and the Abstract; sometimes you might get a recording because the presentation has been given somewhere else and in that case, BINGO! You have almost everything needed to make a good selection.

Otherwise, you're left with your own judgement.

My original intention was to get in touch with all the candidates to get a better sense of their proposal, but again, this wasn't a viable option.

While it should not have been a surprise, I did make some poor choices where I was mislead by the title and the abstract where it sounded like there was going to be good content, only to realise later that I was accepting a sales pitch (or something not relevant).

On the other hand, I also feel that I missed selecting some very interesting papers because of mediocre descriptions and titles.

Fortunately several presentations that I had accepted, despite looking like they may not be very good, turned out to be great.

Lesson learned (for the reviewers)

You can't always make the right call. You're going to have failures in your selections, as well as great surprises.

Lesson learned (for the speakers)

You might get away with with a "fake" title and a sales pitch (or also something completely different); but rest assured the reviewers will remember you and you won't likely be able to get away with it a second time.

Yes, I've got my own list.

Work with the speakers

There were some presentations where I was like Yes, but… or also No, but maybe….

In these cases, I usually felt it was a good idea to get in touch with the speaker to kick off a "secondary" screening.

The basic idea in this situation was to review who the speaker was working for as well as to check the speakers peers in LinkedIn.

In case the speaker was working for a known company, like Microsoft, Google, GitHub, or any that are "known" in the space, it's possible that the speaker could either point you to the right person in their organisation who had a better expertise/experience in the topic you're looking at or
work with you on the proposal to be more in line with the topic.

The point is that for some companies there's always going to be a good story to tell, if you really look for them.

For this event I've been able to get very good presentations from some big companies that initially were off of the track; I proactively reached out to them, but more importantly, their willingness to work with me to find a good topic was the key to get them accepted.

I had the opposite experience as well; some big companies didn't respond at all (even though they sent in a proposal); some wanted to stick with their original presentation no matter what; others indicated they didn't come up with anything interesting.

Ultimately, we had to reject many of these proposals.

Lesson learned

In the unlikely chance that a reviewer reaches out to you, it is usually a good sign that they want to work with you, and as the organizer, after you work on the content a bit can let them in. If you were not serious about your presentation, you might want to start to be from now on.

Not selected anyway

One thing that surprised me was the amount of proposals that were totally not in line with the conference's main topic, which was (I think/hope) well specified in the CFP form as well as on the website.

I am aware there are speakers that are submitting presentations in bulk no matter what the general topic is; I also found people submitting presentations with APIs and other buzzwords in the CFPs (see point n.1), but the meat was still not in line with the topic. They tried, I guess.

Some of these presentations, though, were really good. They were just not a good fit for this specific event and topic.

Please take time to read what the conference/event is about.

No matter how good your presentation is — if it is not in line with the conference topic you can put whatever buzzword you want, but you won't make it. And if you do for some reason, you're going to be marked as a False Positive (see the relative section above)

Sponsors

This is kind of a delicate topic. Sponsors are an important for every event. They make the conference possible and help keep the tickets prices reasonable; but they will likely expect something back from you, and usually a speaking slot is one of these perks.

Some of the proposed talks might be good; in that case — BINGO!, go get a beer.

I also had sponsors saying to me that being a sponsor didn't really change anything for them and they wanted to go through the "regular" process. I've really appreciated that.

Unfortunately, chances are that the proposed presentation is something not in line with the conference. In the worst case, you might get a sales pitch.

In certain cases you might be able to work with the sponsors' speaker and get them back on track and deliver something valuable for the audience. Sometimes they won't change their idea and either:

  1. Reword the title and the abstract, but still plan to deliver the same content not in line with the conference topic
  2. Get a "NO" response from the sponsor - as in "This is what I have, and this is what I will deliver"

Lesson learned (for the reviewers)

There's nothing really you can do about this. You're going to get criticised anyway. The audience will usually not understand the situation and will send you emails letting you know when a presentation is not in alignment with their expectations.

Lesson learned (for the sponsors)

You might be in a position to force your content onto the organizer; be aware that both the audience and likely the reviewers/organizers will not really like this approach.

Timing is important

Since the inception of the conference (10 months ago), I had a clear idea of what the event should all be about. I had 4 main tracks in mind:

  • Stories from the transportation industry
  • APIs for B2B Applications
  • APIs for B2C Applications
  • APIs in Public Sector

As time passes and the CFPs are coming and coming, you will periodically review them and start sending notifications to your speakers, slowly filling the slots.

At a certain point, I realised that while I had some of the tracks pretty well covered, others were almost empty. For this reason, I had to change the strategy and give priority to empty tracks during the selection process.

Although the review process was almost the same, presentations in topic but not in the track that I wanted to fill were put on hold. Some of them were ultimately not selected even though their content was very good.

Lesson learned

Submit your proposal as soon as possible. The more empty spaces there are, the greater the chance you will be selected.

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