Picking the Right Speakers for Conferences

My take on the right process for choosing speakers.

I have been involved in events for some years, ever since running Flex Camp Boston back in 2007 and as recently as handling many aspects of the planning, in particular the speaker lineup, for this year’s TelerikNEXT event. I’ve also served on conference committees for events like QCon New York and Fluent. In my personal experience, the hardest part of running events are getting the word out and choosing the right speakers. Arguably, choosing the right speakers can heavily impact your ability to get the word out - after all, your content is the biggest selling point of your event.

Yesterday, Lea Verou posted an opinion piece saying that blind reviews for technical conferences is a broken model. You should read the full post.

In summary, she believes that while the goal is to reduce bias and allow unknown speakers an opportunity, it ends up leading towards choosing “safe” topics. This is because the fear is that the more advanced or atypical topics, in the hands of the wrong speaker, could totally bomb (I’m paraphrasing - these are my words not hers).

I agree with her, and while I laud the goals of making the speaker selection more egalitarian, there is simply not enough information in a typical abstract to know how successful a presentation will be as the text doesn’t indicate the speaker’s ability to communicate effectively in the format of a session (and requiring a prior session recording already starts making the process less open to fresh faces).

Here’s the response I added to her post:

I totally agree with this. When I ran a conference for 5 years, I was of the mind that who gave the talk was generally more important than what they were talking about. There are people whose talks I want to see regardless of what the topic is - they are engaging, thought provoking and I always come away learning something. Other people could pick the best topic and even have the best slide deck and bomb.

I chose to have invite-only speakers list. That being said, I always set aside a certain amount of slots for speakers I’d never seen or who were new. The trouble with invite only events is the tendency to invite from within the same group every time.

To me the best option is to have a committee that you trust and who represent a diverse set of experiences, backgrounds and views. Have this committee be conscious of efforts to be inclusive and make sure there is room for some fresh faces (even acknowledging that some of these will inevitably bomb).

As you say, each method has its flaws and potential for bias, but even the blind review (as you point out) has bias, just of a different kind.