Why did you reject my talk?

Inspired by Cal’s recent Twitter thread about conference talk rejection, I have been thinking about why conference talks are rejected.

I’ve been participating in running conferences and other events for more than 15 years, in one capacity or another. The part of the process I most dread is when you get the email from the rejected speaker.

“Why was my talk rejected?”

Or, even worse:

“Can you give me some tips that will help me get my talk accepted next time?”

The trouble is, that’s just not how any of this works.

It is almost never the case that talks are rejected. Rather, they are not accepted. This may seem like sophistry, but it’s really true.

For the normal event that I am involved with, we get anywhere from 2 to 5 talk submissions for each available spot in the schedule. A conference is bounded by space, time, and budget limitations that say that you can only have N talks at the event. N is often eroded even further by the need to have keynotes, sponsored sessions,  invited presentations, coffee breaks, and so on.

The upshot is that for every talk you schedule, you’re going to have to reject somewhere between 1 and 4 other talks. As much as you want to, you just can’t schedule everything, even when they’re all awesome.

Now, at the start of the process, there are in fact a few clunkers – talks that you’ll reject because they’re awful, off-topic, spam, or offensive. That’s easy, and I feel no remorse whatsoever about those ones.

The next step is harder. You have to decide what kind of story you want to tell with your content. You want to select a schedule that allows the attendee to take a journey. Perhaps it’s from beginner to expert. Or perhaps it’s a tour of a particular topic, covering all of the high points, and a handful of the deep-dives. The more sessions you have submitted, the more you can craft that story.

This allows you to have an event that crafts a narrative, rather than just having a pile of talks. That, in turn, means that you might schedule a talk that is a 9 out of 10, while dropping a talk that is a 10 out of 10, but which doesn’t fit the narrative, or which is a duplicate of content in another awesome talk.

When you’re done, you have your list of accepted talks, and then you have everything else.

This DOES NOT MEAN that the “everything else” was crap. It means that it didn’t fit the story that you were trying to tell.

And so you send out the reject notifications that say something to this effect:

We regret to inform you that your talk was not accepted for our event. We get a lot of submissions, and have a very limited number of sessions to schedule. Unfortunately, we were not able to include your talk in that selection.

So when you get the followup email asking for the reasons that the talk wasn’t accepted, that’s never, ever, an easy question. Often there isn’t any answer at all, because the selection had nothing whatsoever to do with the talk that was not accepted, which may have been awesome. There’s really nothing they could have done differently.

If there’s one answer I can offer, it’s that you should collaborate with other submitters to craft a story. Get together with your community to decide what story you want to tell, and craft 3, 5, 10, 20 talks that tell that narrative, and present them to the event producers as a track, or a mini-conference, and explain what story you’re trying to tell with the track.

Are you training? Educating? Recruiting? Persuading?

If you attend these talks, in this order, you’ll go from being a Java newbie to being able to write a functional application.

Or

If you attend these talks, in this order, you’ll understand all of the important technologies in HPC, and how they interrelate.

That’s compelling, and I’d schedule that.

But if your talk is an island, unrelated to any other content at the event, even if it’s an awesome talk, chances are I won’t schedule it, because this isn’t about you. It’s about the event’s audience, and what they will take home with them.

And this is why, at ApacheCon North America 2019, I’ve asked ASF projects to sign up to run their own track, summit, mini-conference, or whatever they want to call it, and craft their own story to tell in that track. I want to foster that collaboration, and encourage each community to decide what story they’re trying to tell.

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