Speakers And Organizers: Dealing With Conference Rejections

giphy So you spent a good amount of time and thought into a speaker application for that special conference. It’s the conference that everyone in your circle is talking about. You get the application in… but a short time later you find out you weren’t accepted. That’s a disappointment. Granted in the grand scheme of things isn’t life or death – but with the message from many conferences (including local based events like WordCamps) about “don’t be afraid, apply!” – it does get frustrating at times, especially if the rejections seem continuous.

I’ve been on both sides – i’ve been a speaker coordinator for WordCamp Miami (also help organize the WordPress meetups in my area) and also have applied to speak at events. Here’s some thoughts I would like to share.


I think this is important to get yourself in the right mindset. Honestly ask yourself why you are applying to speak in the first place. You should have more than one reason but the number one reason shouldn’t be self-promotion. If that’s your number TWO reason, fine. But in my experience and from what other conference speakers have shared (speakers from large and/or “professional” conferences) is that organizers and attendees (assuming you get through and speak) have a good tendency of picking up your true motivations.

I believe this to be true – experienced organizers tend to pick up when a particular application sounds more like a piece of marketing copy. Attendees can detect self-promotion in your presentation and when it goes beyond an acceptable level. Again, not to say that promoting yourself can’t be a motivation – actually, I think it should be. It just shouldn’t be the primary one, and when that is the case then rejections for your presentation tend to feel less personal.

Realize Your Odds

If you have a humble attitude and realize that you are applying for a conference that has a small number of open slots, you’ll understand why you might not be accepted even if you are an experienced speaker with a great application. My only advice is to keep trying.

A nice response from Adam Culp on how many applications one conference gets:

Ask For Feedback

This one is simple… if you don’t get feedback on your rejection, ask for it. Explain that you just want to use the feedback as a learning experience, and if they have any tips for applying for a future submission. Have a professional tone and aim to ask privately (email or direct message) to avoid putting them on the spot (and therefore defensive).

Do More Local Speaking

Speaking at meetups and smaller events is a great way to scratch that itch for speaking, plus it gives you experience. Asking for feedback from other professional speakers and event organizers might be a good idea as well.

What Conference Organizers Can Do

Conference organizers have a responsibility to treat any applications sent on time with a measure of respect.

Acknowledge You Got The Application – A confirmation message after a form submit is great, but for most people an email is better. Both are automated but still an email feels personal and that they at least have your email address makes you feel like they have your entire application.

Let The Applicant Know They Weren’t Picked – This seems obvious, but some conferences (sadly both “professional” and community based ones) don’t email the applicant back if they weren’t selected. That’s not right. Even an automatic email is better then none.

Let The Applicant Know Why They Weren’t Picked – This is tricky because you are running a conference not a consulting service for speakers. You likely don’t have anywhere near the time to respond to each application on an individual basis. It might be helpful to categorize the rejections into a few categories (subject matter doesn’t fit with conference, similar talks were submitted, etc.) In your reply: honesty is good but avoid being blunt. It’s preferable you encourage them to apply again next time, and even suggest possible other events in the area (or that fit a similar subject matter) that they could also look at. But SOME sort of feedback would “soften the blow” so to speak while providing perhaps some sort of education.

Let The Applicant Know When You’ve Closed The Call And Reviewing Applications – This is a “nice to have” because in my experience prevents people from emailing you asking if you’ve reviewed applications because they want to book travel… it’s a “hey we didn’t forget about you” message.

Make Public the # of Applications – This is up to you but might people understand after the event how much competition they actually had.

It’s about communication. The better the communication, the better the receiving of the rejection. Perhaps even a bit of an educational experience for the genuine applicant.

Go Ahead And Do It

To wrap up this post, it’s good to understand why people should continue to submit applications EVEN when they probably know they’ll be rejected anyway. I thought these were excellent points:

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I’ve created a bare-bones plugin if you use BuddyPress and interested in posting activity to your Slack channels. It’s available from my Github account, but also from the WordPress.org repo.

I created this plugin in less than a day and it was really for my own purposes. I don’t plan on supporting it officially although (1) I do plan on adding features as time permits in the future and (2) I’m open to being hired by another party to customize it for them, or add features.

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Screenshot 2015-03-04 11.08.13

Going The Extra Mile For Conference Speakers

Recently i had some conversations about how conferences treat their speakers and volunteers. Most of the people – who were either speakers themselves or organizers – agree that the vast majority of all the tech conference they’ve seen treat speakers well. Very few (out of the dozens i’ve attended, maybe one or two) may could have given speakers more attention – either because of inexperience or because of planning problems.

All conference organizers – whether they have paid for their speakers, covered their travel expenses, or (as in the case of community conferences) have had speakers volunteer – usually treat their speakers very well. But I’ve gathered some suggestions that might make them REALLY feel special – and it usually doesn’t cost much or anything at all.

  • Have a dedicated speaker coordinators during the event. Probably a no-brainer since you have someone BEFORE the event accepting applications and communicating with the speakers – but making their lives easier by having one (or sometimes two, if it’s a big conference) dedicated volunteers there to greet the speakers in the morning makes speakers feel right at home. Coordinators ensure that speakers speaking in the morning are there a little early (hopefully) and have whatever they need in terms of fuel (coffee, for example) or cords/equipment. Coordinators might want to give out their contact info to speakers prior to the event in case speakers get lost on the way or there’s an emergency (one WordCamp, we had someone stuck in traffic for the day so we needed to move talks around… another speaker vomited that morning so we had to get our backup speaker ready, etc.)
  • Don’t make speakers wait for food. I’ve been to many conferences where there are long lines for lunch or crowded seating areas. Usually attendees make due, but it wouldn’t cost anything to give speakers a heads up or a head start to get them early access before the lines or crowds start. We did this at one WordCamp and we got alot of thanks from the speakers (the lines were longer at that WordCamp, something we fixed the following year). Not all speakers will accept the invite, but it’s nice to know you’re thinking of them. It’s the least you could do, and i’ve appreciated it when i was given the courtesy.
  • Refreshments. Along the same line as the above suggestion, have some water bottles for attendees available. I usually place a supply in the speaker’s room, near the podium. Have the “Room MC” ensure that the speaker has a bottle of water if they want it
  • Giving speakers full information on speaker/VIP dinners. It’s not surprising for medium or larger conferences to have a dinner for the speakers and pay for it. Sometimes smaller conferences aren’t as lucky. Either way, it’s best to give all your speakers the complete scenario prior to them coming down. Not just if the cost is being covered, but what food is being served. Provide gulten-free, vegetation options, etc. if possible. Personally, I would avoid areas that might make some speakers feel uncomfortable (like certain bars and nightclubs).
  • Don’t be afraid to check with speakers on spelling of their names on conference programs, posters, and website. Yes, i’ve seen conference speaker’s names and titles spelled incorrectly. It happens. Proofread, but in the past some speakers have appreciated the input or the fact they are seeing their name on something that will be available in print at the event.
  • Emails. I personally have speakers on their OWN mailing list (MailChimp) so they get any announcements all at once – quickly and easily. Sending a “Thank You” follow up email (along with a link to ask them to fill out a survey about the experience and the event) is also a great way of showing your appreciation after the conference. I’ve been guilty of sending too many emails, so don’t overdo it.
  • Speaker Lounge or Area. Give speakers a quiet area prior to them speaking so they can get their thoughts together and make sure everything is in order (slides, etc.)
  • Internet. If you can, provide a private internet connection just for speakers so that the general public internet won’t interfere with their presentation. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but especially if you are at a college, university, or paid conference hall there’s a chance they can provide this.

Take these as only suggestions, but doing these things will lead to speakers feeling THAT much more appreciated.  Sometimes organizers are crazy trying to keep the conference going in an organized fashion, but the above tips don’t really take that much more time or cost.

Any easy or low-cost suggestions and reminders for organizers that could help them further show their appreciation to their speakers?

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