Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Handling Rejection (From Conferences)

Sometimes it seems like a significant part of my day job is having my submissions to various conferences rejected. Off the top of my head, here’s an incomplete list of conferences where I’ve had submissions rejected from over the last year(ish)

  • TechEd
  • DevConnections
  • DevLink
  • Agile Testing Days
  • Agile Dev Practices
  • StarEast/StarWest
  • Some testing conference in London whose name I’ve forgotten

There are a number of other conferences as well, but frankly I’ve lost track.

Rejection stings, for certain, but I have also come to view these rejections as a pretty good learning opportunity. After I get over the pain of rejection, that is.

First off, I always thank the organizers for considering my submissions. I can’t imagine how many hundreds of submissions conferences like DevConnections or StarEast/West get. Taking a moment to thank the content selection crew is simply good manners. (TechEd is different. It’s a total black box, impersonal process, so I never get any contact with humans.)

Secondly, I sit back and think about what might have been the cause for getting passed over. If possible, I try to get feedback directly from the selection folks; however, that’s not always possible.

I’ve found there are a number of useful aspects to consider:

  • Content doesn’t fit. Maybe you’ve just missed the mark with your submissions to that conference. Some years ago I tried wedging a testing talk to an open source conference targeted more to business application developers. My abstract simply didn’t make a good case why the talk would fit in their conference. Make sure what you’re submitting will be useful to the conference organizers.
  • Content lost in the chaff. You need to submit talks that stand out from all the others. “Intro to MVC” is outdated and doesn’t offer up anything unique from the 20 other MVC talks the organizers are looking through. Make a clear case of what value your session brings to the attendees.
  • Content selection crew was overwhelmed. Poorly organized conferences might have too few folks on staff to get a good review in. If you’re not known to the organizers, then they may have simply lost you in the tidal wave of submissions. Networking matters. Experience matters. (I’m very thankful that the CodeMash content chairs works hard to scale out the selection crew every year to avoid just this problem. They still have huge amounts of work.)
  • Poorly written abstract. It happens, even to someone who’s polished and submitted hundreds of abstracts over the last ten years. I’d like to think I’ve learned and don’t do this anymore, but it’s possible. I once wrote another blog post with some thoughts about writing a good abstract.
  • Better submissions from other folks. That happens on occasions, particularly for really large conferences. Look at what did get picked up and compare your submissions to those. Note that you’ll have to do some serious stepping back and viewing things with complete self-honesty and detachment. You can’t let your own pride get in the way with false impressions. Which brings me to…
  • Ego. Yes, sometimes my own ego gets in the way of submissions. Last year I put in four testing talks to a regional conference. None got accepted. Looking back I think I seriously slacked off when writing the abstracts because I felt I was well-known enough that the talks would get picked up anyway. That one stung but good—however, it was a good lesson learned. Respect yourself enough to put aside your ego and care about what you’re putting in. Remember, it’s not about you.
  • Drama. Conference organizers are horribly, insanely busy during planning and especially during execution of the conference. The last thing they need is drama or worries about unreliability. If you’re a Drama Queen or King, or if you’re a flake, then you’ve got a deep, deep hole to dig yourself out of. Getting over that can take years because that sort of trust is hard to rebuild. (As a personal note, seven years ago I bailed from a half-day workshop at a conference put on by my pal Chris Woodruff. I bailed the day before the conference. It’s perhaps the worst I’m a Douchebag moment of my adult life, and I’m still beating myself up about it. Thankfully Chris is an awesome guy who was extraordinarily gracious about it, and I think I’ve somewhat atoned for it by now.)

Rejection’s not easy. I’ve gotten three rejection notices in the last two weeks alone. That said, view it as an opportunity to avoid lashing out and instead consider how you can improve for the next conference you target.

I’m already working on a few more submissions now…


Catherine said...

Very useful post, thank you. Most of all, I'd like to say - it's a cliche, but - don't take it personally. Really. I've been on conference committees and it's agonizing having to turn away talks that you think would be good. We have a thriving user community these days, and it means an embarrassment of riches of talk options.

Another factor you didn't mention: some conferences prefer speakers they know and are familiar with; some slant toward broadening their speaker pool with new faces. Depending on how well-known a speaker you are (the latter in your case), one or the other of those could work against you!

Anonymous said...

There's a variation of "lost in the chaff" I think is perfectly valid, but still hard to take. If Scott Hanselman and I both submit a talk on the same subject, I'm going to lose, plain and simple. Even if the talk I've prepared is somehow superior, the event organizers haven't seen my talk yet. They have no choice but to go with the "proven" speaker option.

James Bender said...

Mel: That shouldn't discourage you from submitting. A lot of time the "big name" speakers are not a perfect fit. For example, sometimes (if they're not local) they expect the conference to pay for their travel. In the case of CODODN I had a couple "big name" speakers express interest but there was some condition that although reasonable, we just couldn't accommodate. Sometimes the "local guy" has a distinct advantage!

James Bender said...

In the "writer better abstracts" department we got a submission for CODODN this year that was _ literally_ one sentence that was ten words long. I hope that individual is not upset he was rejected.

Anonymous said...

Poorly organized conferences might have too few folks on staff to get a good review in.

.net Programmer

Pinal Dave said...

Hi Jim,

That has to be one of the best write up about how to handle conference rejections etc.

Thank you so much it!

Sahal Omer said...

i had a nice read...
thank you

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