April 12, 2017 by Dave Lutz
When Velvet Chainsaw Consulting conducted speaker research with 120 associations with research and consulting company Tagoras Inc. in 2013, we found that nearly 77 percent use a call for speakers/sessions process. Associations value member input. One-third of these organizations accept 60 percent or more of the proposals, indicating either a low number of submissions or very forgiving quality filters. About 62 percent close off submissions eight months or longer before the conference. These longer timelines were created when information moved a heck of a lot slower.
Widely used by associations as a tool for crowdsourcing the meat-and-potatoes education content for annual conferences, the call for speakers and sessions doesn’t need to be an arduous process. We’ve compiled the current best practices to achieve efficiencies, which, more importantly, result in better-quality educational offerings.
Some organizations do — and more should — institute blind reviews. This puts the reviewers on more equal ground with the paying attendee in terms of how to evaluate which sessions to attend. When volunteers are asked to score a rubric on a submission, ratings can and will be greatly affected by who the submission is from. Mask the speakers name and company. Add a field so that staff can indicate if they’ve spoken before and the session-evaluation scores.
In the submission form, ask if this session has been presented at another industry conference. To differentiate, you want your conference to be the first. Also consider leaving 25 percent of your sessions open for slotting emerging topics two to four months prior to your conference.
If you’re like most, you receive 90 percent or more session submissions in the last week of the submission timeline. Take a page from agile tech developers who now do multiple sprints for complex projects. Break up the process into several major themes and open submissions for two to three weeks max for each. This will deliver improved marketing value, increase relevance, and chunk the process for both staff and volunteers.
For most conferences, the call for sessions or speakers should not open earlier than seven months before the event. Any sooner extends the process and, even worse, decreases the chances of relevant, timely session submissions.
Make it clear that the submission must be made by the person or people that will be presenting. Don’t allow submissions proposed by a corporate marketing department or public relations firm.
No single volunteer should ever need to review and score more than 25 submissions. Keep the ask to a limited number and encourage them to be more thorough in their vetting. Consider having staff do the first cut to decrease the number of submissions that are peer reviewed.
We find that most submission processes do not attract the most progressive sessions or speakers. Conference committees should be leveraged to identify the pressing problems to solve or opportunities to seize for the conference’s target market. Identify these topics in your call-for-session communications and curate for any remaining gaps.
Do you receive roughly 90 percent of your submissions in the week before the deadline? What other best practices can you offer to ease the process?
Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2017
Filed Under: Conference Education, Event Planning
I really like the idea of leaving out the speaker’s name and bio. I do find that some abstracts are accepted because of who the person is or the company they work for. A couple of years back I created an Abstract Review Subcommittee that pre-reviews the submissions before they go to the full Advisory Committee. There are no vendors on the subcommittee. They are broken up into groups so no one reviews more than 20 sometimes fewer. That has helped streamline the committee meeting so time isn’t spent by the full committee discussing abstracts that are clearly commercial or aren’t relevant. I do a little weeding before as well.
We accept about 40% and build the rest of the content which really strengthens the program. We leave 1 – 3 session slots open to add content closer to the event if something really important crops up. I’m fortunate though as we specialize in our company and I get to focus a lot of time on content building which is more time-intensive than simply accepting abstracts. Lastly, even though our Call for Presentations webpage says it’s closed, I never fully shut the portal down so that I can continue to collect submissions. They might be good enough to create a new session around, or you just have something in your pocket if a hole opens up close to the conference conference and you need to fill it. I’m sure we’ve all been there.
Cassie, thanks for sharing your journey on improving the content process. Sounds like your continuous improvement efforts are right on track!
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