On Collecting No's

Posted by Katie McLaughlin on April 11, 2017

This topic has been on my “I should write a blog post about this” for a few months now, but Vicky brought this up today, and my initial tweets weren’t enough to cover everything I have to say on this topic. So, blog post it is!

I got rejected from [CONF]. I must be a terrible speaker.

Stop. Don’t talk like that. There are many reasons why speakers get rejected. Speakers get rejected all the time.

Anne-Marie taught me about the concept of “Collecting No’s”: keeping a list of declined submissions and acknowledging that yes, rejections happen, but they aren’t the end of the world.

I’ve got so many rejections from many conferences.

Why would my talk get rejected?

There are so many possible reasons for this. These are based on my past experiences being on the proposal review team for a few different conferences.

  • Your topic was similar to other submissions, and their submissions were better. This is OK. You can’t have a conference full of the same topic, it’d get boring. If 5 people apply to speak on something specific, they’re directly competing against each other.

  • There were just too many submissions. You could have gotten very high marks from the reviewers, but in a conference with hundreds of submissions and only a few dozen slots, even some very good talks will get rejected.

  • Your talk was off-topic. Some conferences adore the talks that are a bit different. Others prefer things to be in-line with their main theme.

  • Your talk was too on-theme. A talk about “Subject 101” may not go down well at a conference dedicated to that subject, but it would be wonderful for a generalist conference.

  • Your submission was incomplete. I see this one a lot. If a Call for Proposals specifies that submissions must include, say, a rough outline of the talk, and that’s not included, it’s an automatic rejected. Mind you, some conferences that operate on this rule sometimes have people reach out to applicants before submissions close to let them know “Hey, you didn’t include an outline, can you please add one? Ta”.

  • You didn’t submit a talk. Now, this one is rare, but it happens. Depending on the conference, a talk includes: an abstract, a private abstract, an outline, and any notes you want to give. “[TOPIC NAME]. IDK, I’ll just rant about [xyz] for a while” does not a submission make. You may know your stuff, but you need to communicate that to the people seeing your submission.

  • Your submission was a sales pitch. Okay, look. I know. Sales people gotta sales. But, when a conferences asks “No pitches” and you throw a dozen “BUY ME NOW” submissions, yeah, you’re going to get rejected.

  • [Particularly for conferences with speaker travel] You were too expensive. I live in Australia. I’ve applied to many conferences that say they’ll cover speaker hotels and travel, including for international speakers. I’ve only been accepted to one of these conferenes. One. And I gave two talks for the costs they were covering. It’s cheaper for conferences to get local speakers. It doesn’t mean that you were worse than the locals.

What can I do better?

Don’t give up. That’s a big one. Just because one place didn’t want your talk doesn’t mean that any other place won’t.

Ask for feedback. Now, conference organisers are often starting to ramp up with work when they start sending proposal acceptances and rejections, but it can’t hurt to ask for feedback. Many conferences will specifically say “We can’t give feedback”. Please respect that. A lot of conferences are run by volunteers who need to get so much in such a short time, that they just can’t respond to everyone.

Have someone review your proposal. Ask a speaker or friend or coworker to look over your proposal. Can they see anything glaringly obvious that could have been your downfall. It always helps to have a second set of eyes over your proposals

Make sure you read the instructions. If you’re asked to include an outline, make sure it’s there. Incomplete proposals may be rejected without reading.

Apply, apply, and apply again.