Lessons from Conference Rejections

(originally posted in june 2012)

Kate Rotondo


after some great conversations with other women attendees at btplay in köln in april, i have been thinking a lot about the dearth of women speakers at tech conferences.

this is a nerve-wracking post to write, because its the sort of thing that takes some guts to admit, knowing that some people might look down on failure. but i think failure is an important part of the process. and i also think that i’m in a pretty good position to apply to be a conference speaker, being a published author, having taught at a renowned institution, having solid industry experience, and having spoken at numerous conferences. so if i’m getting rejected, i can only imagine how your average woman developer sitting at her desk thinks about the prospects of getting a conference talk accepted.

so. here’s what i’ve learned. from what i’ve can tell, there are a few main criteria for speakers that seem common across conferences. it seems to me that conferences generally look for one or more of the following traits:

  • how innovative are you?
    are you doing something original with the newest technologies? are you using the newest APIs for stagevideo, html5, siri, whatever is hot today and for the foreseeable future?
  • how successful are you?
    is your work/app/company/product widely popular? do you work for google? did you make angry birds? did you help build a framework that is gaining traction?
  • how famous are you?
    have you spoken at this conference before? elsewhere? is your blog widely followed? how many reputation points have you collected in the community? bonus points if you can point to recordings, screencasts, slides and feedback on social media
  • how inspiring are you?
    is your body of work impressive, enjoyable and thought-provoking? this type of speaker has a career attendees may envy, sometimes accompanied by a big personality.

your topic will also have to fit with the theme of the conference, and have enough appeal that the session description entices people. they won’t attend sessions about stuff they think they already know, or stuff they think is boring, even if it is for their own good!

so now, what are some of the barriers women (including me) face in applying to conferences?

imposter syndrome: i’m not good enough

when interviewing women, i always ask the question: “if you were to speak at a conference this year, what would your session be about?” and i get a lot of “hm, i don’t know” in response. often, it seems that these women think that what they are doing is not innovative, not inspiring, not successful, and that they have not yet gained enough notoriety — in other words, they decide for themselves that it doesn’t meet the criteria in the bullet points above. my advice: let conference organizers decide — don’t let your intimidation prevent you from sending out a proposal.

fear of rejection

this past year i applied to five conferences: flash on the beach, gotoAndSki, fitc amsterdam, btplay, and multi-mania (at which i’d spoken previously). my proposal was rejected by all five. this, of course, was discouraging. but was it a total loss? no. i was awarded an elevator pitch slot at fotb, which granted me a comp for the conference, even though i had to pay my own travel and lodging. and i was granted a comp to btplay as well, again paying my own travel/lodging costs, as a consolation for waiting a long time to hear a decision. so those were two conferences i was able to attend, learn from, and network at. i was lucky enough to be able to take advantage of these opportunities — and i think attending (even if not speaking at) conferences is worth doing, especially if your employer will cover the costs.

i’m often asked if the elevator pitch at FOTB was a boost for my speaking career, and i’m kind of disappointed to have to answer that it does not yet seem to have been. lately i talk about code review, and people think they already know how to do that (although many really don’t!). but it doesn’t have sex appeal, the way a “learn how to animate with javascript” session does. and i was on a year-long leave from work to parent a young child in a foreign country, so i didn’t really have much else to offer as a topic. i’m hoping, now that i’m back to work, to have new topics to propose in the coming year, with hopefully more success.

every time a proposal is rejected, i reply to the organizer and ask for more information, in the hopes of bettering my chances for the next year. but the responses i receive are generally along the lines of “nothing wrong, your proposal was great, we just didn’t have room.” unfortunately, not that helpful. more helpful is to look at the conference schedule once it is live, and see which sessions were chosen. then carry that information with you, ever wiser.

invite-only conferences

this is a fact that shocked me to realize. two recent examples were Geeky By Nature and D2WC. now, conference organizers have both a right and a responsibility to line up the most relevant and interesting speakers, so they do research year-round to find a perfect mix of beloved returning speakers and interesting new ones. this approach just worries me as being a sort of catch 22 — that you aren’t invited to speak until you’re well known, and no conference organizer will find you until you start speaking at conferences.

to mitigate this, i would suggest doing everything you can to raise awarenesss that you are out there, innovating, and want to share your knowledge. speak at events with a lower barrier to entry, like a local user group. participate in the community via social media. post screencasts or write rants on your blog, that you wish you could do in front of a live audience. have a compelling online portfolio. bolster your credibility however you can.

then, don’t wait for conference organizers to find you. be proactive and go find them.

proposal deadlines

another pitfall that i’ve encountered is that conferences don’t always clearly state their deadline for proposals to be submitted. i ran into this with fitc amsterdam. my advice around this is to look 6-12 months in advance, and to actively communicate with conference organizers far in advance of the conference.

am i discouraged?

well of course, a little. it’s a lot of work to submit a proposal, stressful to wait for an answer, and disappointing to hear “no.” but am i going to keep applying to conferences? hell yes. and i hope you, bolstered with some of my hard-earned experience, will too.