Reasons Not to Speak at a Conference

Recently, a colleague of mine said that she won’t apply to speak at some conference as it was someone else’s stomping ground.

@franz I won’t apply to speak as this is Graham Armfield’s stomping ground. I’ll be there to work on a11y with Sami and Graham and talk to Tammie
Screenshot of the original Slack message.

To be honest, I was puzzled at first, most probably because I never really thought about it that way. That’s why I published this post, and why I would like to discuss possible reasons for explicitly not applying at a conference, even though one is both able and willing to do so.

Why to Apply at Conferences

I love WordCamps, and related events too. Being a heavy user as well as advocate of open source, speaking or giving a workshop is part of how I give back—another part is to contribute to the software projects.

Being able to speak to—or even interact with—conference attendees is usually of value for everyone involved. You can share your knowledge about a field you specialized in. You can share your insights into something that you might not be an expert in, but what is fairly new to other people. You can share your lessons learned after having overcome something that other people might struggle with as well. You can provide hands-on experience to people not knowing where to start with something.

Also, you can seek for opinions or even help regarding something you are struggling with. Speaking slots are not only meant for lecturing. You can also be part of a panel, or lead a group discussion, or present a problem as well as potential, yet failing solutions, and then hope for feedback from the audience.

I’m sure there are lots of further reasons for being a speaker… If you know any, please let me know too. 🙂

Why Not to Apply at a Conference

So, now that we enumerated several reasons why you should speak at a conference, let’s come to what this post is set to be about: reasons not to speak.

I thought about this for a while, and here are the (only) reasons I could come up with.

Being Part of an Overrepresented Group

Having diversity in mind, you might want to not apply at a conference if you belong to a group that is overly represented already. That group could be defined in terms of profession, for example, developer, designer, and user, it could be about nationality (also see next section) or sex, or anything else that makes sense as a criteria.

The problem with this is that you cannot know about the groups and their strengths. Usually, you don’t know who applied to speak at some conference, and even if, it is still up to the selection committee to decide for who gets to speak, and who not. If you would like to consider your affiliation, you can only base that on assumptions.

Being Nonlocal

Another reason is where you come from, and where the conference is going to be happening. As a foreigner, you might want to not apply for several—to be honest: only half-baked—reasons. One could be that you are unable to give your talk in one of the local languages. This should not be a problem at all, however, if your presentation language is one of the accepted ones. Over the last two years, more and more European WordCamps accepted English as official presentation language, and even actively encouraged nonlocals who could understand English to come to the event (and maybe even speak).

Being Pretty Much Booked

An easy to understand, and of course valid, reason to not apply at some conference is when you have been accepted at quite a few events already. Even if you generally would like to speak there, by deciding not to you make room for another speaker.

The only bad thing about this is that, in some rare cases, the selection committee has to choose one or more talks that they wouldn’t have chosen if there were other options. It could be that there is a disbalance between the individual target audiences, or it could be that a talk of to-be-expected lower quality has to be included, or even that more than one talk of the same person needs to be accepted.

Actually, it happened to me three times that I was accepted with more than one application.

Combinations of the Above

Of course, there have to be other reasons. But also, it’s possible that a combination of any of the above reasons is why you decide to not apply.

In Rian’s case, it was the combination of being nonlocal and the fact that there already is someone local, someone experienced in the field where she would have applied in, someone she assumed or maybe even knew would apply at that event.

Now What? And What About You?

I never gave a moment’s thought about anything of the above, to be honest. The main reason for this always was that there was a selection committee that was in charge of choosing the best—as in best-matching—applications for the individual event. They would (have to) take care about diversity, balance, quality, and other sensible criteria or metrics.

But what about you? Have you been speaking at a conference? No matter if you have, what do you think about the reasons mentioned above, both pro and con? Did this post change the way you think about applying to a conference?

Let’s discuss this! 🙂

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