Presentation Hack: Calls for Papers vs Invitations to Speak


This is more of a monologue about the processes to fill speaker slots at a conference or event.

Earlier this week, I posted this on LinkedIn:

Q: Why don't you speak at conferences? A: Because I refuse to submit proposals. if they want me, they'll ask me. Yes, I'm aware I may be waiting a very long time... For over a decade, I helped organize an annual conference (750 attendees). The process to get our speakers was simple: We invite them. They accept. We never paid a speaker fee. We did, however, take care of their travel, lodging, meals, & social events. I still like this model. Why are so many conferences based on submitting papers & proposals? It not only seems lazy, but out of touch with membership's & attendee's wants.

The response was pretty much as I expected it: split among supporters and debaters.

Let's look inside the two (2) processes:

CALL FOR PAPERS

In Calls for Papers process, conference organizers post a request for prospective speakers to apply for a slot. Speakers are to submit content, topics, title, and a biography. Organizers outline what (if any) compensation is offered, such as travel, lodging, meals, etc. But most often, I see only offers to discount or eliminate the event registration fee.

This process opens the doors to a wide array of submissions by a wide array of potential candidates. Some argue the tables get filled with more diversity of thought. It brings the options to the conference speaker selection committee.

INVITATIONS TO SPEAK

With an invitation-based process, the conference organizers seek out the speakers. The organizers usually offer some sort of compensation, such as speaker fees, travel, and lodging expenses. It seems as though event registration fees are almost always waived in these sorts of invitations, with some add-on benefit to accept the offer.

The only way in, is through the gatekeepers of the event. Some argue this is a more biased, narrow selection of speakers and content.

MY BEHIND-THE-SCENES EXPERIENCE

For a dozen years, I was elected to a volunteer board of directors for a fraternal state-level association for tactical police officers. Part of our duties was to assist our committee on selecting speakers for keynotes, large group sessions, and smaller group breakouts for our annual conference of 750 attendees.


How did we get speakers? 

We invited them. Each of us had a decent network across the country to find what we deemed the best of the best. We attended similar conferences at state and national levels, and invited those speakers we liked. We took recommendations from trusted sources across the country. We read the industry books and attended classes, courses, and workshops to audit potential speakers. All said and done, we pretty much knew what we were going to get. There were very few surprises.

We even worked with the speakers to help them tailor their content to dovetail into the climate of the year's particular theme (if it existed), or to address general interest among our membership.

We also took great care of our speakers. Limo rides from the airport. Paid hotel rooms. Free attendance to the conference. Gift baskets. Entertainment and dinners each night. And we never once paid a "speaker fee;" I believe our reputation for a great event was solid enough to bypass that extra expense!

Our committee and board of directors did frequently receive requests to speak at the conference by aspiring presenters. These requests were generally met with rolls of the eyes, as if to say, "That's not how it gets done."

This experience groomed me into seeing the value of the process for personally inviting speakers. And turned me off from asking to present at a conference.

SPEAKER EXPERIENCE

I have participated in conferences where I had to submit a proposal with topic, content, and biography in order to give a presentation or workshop. Knowing that everyone had to submit a proposal, I felt a little less dirty submitting it.

There were times when I was accepted. There were times when I was rejected. But through them all, I sensed winking & nodding.

I felt as though I had wasted time submitting for an organization that wanted me...as they could have just asked. And really felt like wasting my time submitting for an organization that did not want me. Were their minds made up beforehand? Was this all just smoke & mirrors? The illusion of fairness and impartiality? I believe so.

The experience left such a bad taste in my mouth that I've ignored any organization or event that asks for Calls for Papers.

THE DEBATE

Some in my LinkedIn comments say that Calls for Papers allows for more opportunity for beginner presenters. It gives prospective newbies the chance to be seen and considered, who might not have otherwise been known or available to the selection committee. It also opens the door for more diversity in content, perspective, and angle at a topic or industry.

Invitations go to those who support the mission or agenda of the association or sponsor. They might have an incestuous take on controversial topics. The content might be one (1)-sided. It might be good ol' boys club.

My response is quite simple: Calls for Papers is just as biased. The biases of the selection committee filter the same whether cherry-picking their own or picking off a list of submissions. Black-balling impacts the process just the same. The biggest difference I see is that the overall quality of speakers is higher for an invitation-based process.

Invitation-based processes do not take huge chances on those without solid reputations, recommendations, or experience. These are people who have proven themselves and earned the respect of the selection committee. The risks might be ones of graduated scale - where a speaker who usually faces groups of 50 is now in front of 300. Calls for Papers might permit an untested speaker to try out material for a first time to that group - if s/he submitted a convincing proposal!

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR US AS SPEAKERS

Organizations that want the best will seek out the best and cater to those invitees. Organizations that are lazy will ask for candidates to come to them (in a sort of begging posture) - and then pick from that list. I can't rightly say that either of these is less biased than the next. But I can argue about which is more likely to get quality.

I recognize that my phone is not ringing off the hook to present at conferences and provide workshops. I accept that I might get some more exposure by submitting a few Calls for Papers. However, the process of submitting them seems so undignified that I just can't bring myself to it.

Instead, I will take on the righteous gigs that are offered to me, regardless of size. I am taking a chance that I prove myself worthy to be given gradually bigger and broader audiences with which to share. Right now, I know when I get that phone call, that LinkedIn message, that email...that the person on the other end wants me. They seeked me. They came to me. And that makes me feel so much more worthy than whenever I received acceptance notifications from those Call for Papers associations.

Have some faith in yourself and wait it out. Just like I wait it out. Prove yourself. Pay your dues. This is not supposed to be fair for us. It's not about giving us opportunity.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR CONFERENCE ORGANIZERS

Do your work. Hunt out the best. Give some fringe presenters an opportunity. Don't make your speakers jump through hoops. Take care of them and their expenses.

Talk to your membership, your attendees, and those in your industry. Get their recommendations as to who they want to hear and learn from. Expand your network.

This is not easy. It requires constant awareness, asking around, vetting out, seeking nominations, and researching those who might fit into your event.

The goal is not to be most fair to new and potential presenters. It's not your job to be open. You have a duty to give your attendees the best experience possible. Go find those who will help make that a possibility!

SUMMARY

True dignity comes from being asked to do something. You'd never ask to come into someone's home. It's based on an invitation.

The same goes here. You want to make someone feel special? Ask them to share their time and experience with others. I'm not sure anything can bring such joy as that invitation. 

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Aside from writing on a variety of topics, I publish a column of blog posts under the label Presentation Hack. Check them out for ideas, tips, and tricks to better public speaking or classroom experiences!

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Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.

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