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How to land a speaking gig at a [good] conference

It is that time of the year again, that is, time to select the sessions for the European Collaboration Summit. We knew going in that we had over 1000 submissions, not counting sessions from our ambassadors and featured speakers. We already had made an internal decision to approve only one session per speaker (the rule applies to ambassadors, too) in order to be more inclusive and to ensure that the right people get the right topics. We did this even when we knew that it would increase the conference costs dramatically. That is a big deal for a nonprofit community conference. Still, only one of ten sessions could be accepted. That means that many known and good speakers had to be rejected or put in the waiting queue. At the same time, some supposedly unknown speakers got a gig.

Why is that so?

The content team (Martina Grom – Office Servers/Office 365 services track, Mike Fitzmaurice – Business Track, Vesa Juvonen – Development Track, Spencer Harbar – IT PRO Track), aided by Toni Frankola (operating the system) and me (making coffees), set clear rules and guidance for session approvals. I’ve decided to put some of those here. It might help anyone who wants to get a session at the future #collabsummit incarnations, or any other technology conference for that matter.

Content is king!

This is the golden rule, which in its essence embraces all the others stated below. It really doesn’t matter what your name is, where you come from, or if you are a rock star. The only decision criterion is based on the content that you have submitted. If the topic fits in the conference profile, if it makes sense with common use cases and problems, it is likely to be accepted. Think about your sessions; read your abstract three times before submitting it. There is no “previous year’s speaker” bonus. No one will get a session because of speaking there before. The program team really does not care about that at all. The only thing they care about is content. So, you will see some pretty “unknown” speakers at the European Collaboration Summit because their content was good.

Don’t jump on the bandwagon!

Don’t jump from one “hot topic” to another. That is not cool. Do not “choose the topics to speak about.” Submit what you are good at. If you submit another Power Apps or adoption session, be aware that there are probably already 20 of those and that we will be taking the one submitted by someone who knows all about it. If it is your core topic, if you have something to tell about it, by all means, please feel free to submit it! But don’t submit it because it is a hot topic right now.

In the same way, don’t submit some niche topic just because you think that nobody else will and you feel your chances will increase that way. That topic is niche for a reason. It probably is not interesting for all that many people in the audience (and that is something that organizers and the content team really care about!). Again, if you are really good at it and you feel it is important to talk about it, please submit it by all means! But don’t submit it just because you think that an exotic topic will land you a gig.

Don’t submit only one session!

There is a good chance that your one session doesn’t fit the concept. Submit two or three sessions in the areas you are really good at in the fields where you are a recognized expert.

Don’t submit too many sessions!

Would you believe a doctor who tells you that he has broad experience and deep expertise as an orthopedist, cardiologist, anesthesiologist, dermatologist and neurologist at the same time? Exactly. The content team looks through all the submitted sessions carefully and has doubts about people submitting too many sessions from very different areas.

If it is not a poetry conference or a book fair, don’t be a poet!

We have literally read some session abstracts three times and still didn’t understand what they were about. You are free to use little tricks in the session title that are kind of catchy (but even there, stay on track), but please, use the session abstract to tell us and the delegates what you want to talk about. And please don’t use too many buzzwords. They do not help. If the content team was confused, imagine how confused the delegates will be. At one point, one of the content team members asked, after reading an abstract out loud twice, “Is this an adoption session?” Nobody had an answer. You guessed it. It was turned down.

Don’t push too much with redeliveries!

Content team members closely monitor similar events. Very often, they are speakers at those events themselves. Even more often, they know you personally. If they see the same session too many times, they are not going to like it.

It is okay if it is in different cities, timeframes, situations, etc. We all know how much time is needed to prepare a good session, and we respect it. So, redelivery is ok in many situations. But not in all. What will never work is if you apply with the same session for the same event multiple years in a row. The “things have changed in the meantime!” argument will not really help in that discussion either.

Use the system. Respect the timeframe.

Don’t send us the session abstracts via Facebook Messenger, please. That is not cool. Use the system we have built for the event. It makes the job of the content team much, much easier. Nobody is keen on copying and pasting your session abstracts. The fact that you know members of the content team personally does not give you right to send the session submissions outside of the system. Doing so shows *huge* disrespect for content team members and their time.

Oh, yes, time. There is a reason why there is a deadline for the call for sessions. The content team members start looking and evaluating session submissions immediately after the deadline. The “offsite day,” where the agenda is decided for the largest part, is just the last step. The process begins much earlier. Again, if you don’t respect that, you don’t really respect the work of the content team.

Don’t contact the content team.

By all means, for whatever reason you might have, don’t contact the content team members to “ask for the status” or “to explain what the session is about” or “to offer more sessions if those submitted don’t fit.” If your sessions are rejected, you can pretty much blame it partly on this. If they are accepted, they are surely not accepted because you asked and your doing so leaves a lasting aftertaste.

Be flexible.

It might happen that content team members ask you to modify your session a bit within its—and yours—core topic. There are different reasons for this: to differentiate from a session with similar topic, to cover some aspects of the topic the content team believes are not in focus enough, etc. If you can deliver the requested changes, please do. You will make the content team happy. If you cannot, please reject the request since “I will learn it in the meantime” is not a nice thing to do and will probably not work.

At the end of the day, there is only one rule, one which can supersede all those mentioned above: please submit only the topics that you are good at.

The audience will inevitably recognize your competence. This is how you build your personal reputation and the reputation of the conference you are submitting to.

If you fear that the topics you are good at will not be accepted, please still submit them regardless of that fact. You might eventually want to think about how relevant your knowledge is for your industry (or whether it will be relevant soon). If you feel it is not, don’t make that a reason to submit topics outside of your competence area.

Soon we will be sending welcome/acceptance mails to the European Collaboration Summit  speakers. We have a preliminary agenda but we need to sort out a few more things before publishing it. When I look at it, I dare to say it is going again to be the best Office 365/SharePoint/Azure event in Europe. For all the others who are in the waiting queue or have been rejected, please bear in mind that only one in ten sessions could be selected. There was no way to accommodate all the people we wanted to accommodate. For some of them, the reasons for rejection might be somewhere in the previous points.

See you all in Germany. Smile