Choosing conference speakers: by Quality, or Employer?

A conference organizer for Virtual Worlds Forum Europe approached me a few months ago asking if I’d speak at their conference this autumn, saying they’d specifically been recommended me as a speaker. I was a little cautious because the recommendations they described seemed to be for things I haven’t spoken about in a long time, but they had suggested some interesting topics and the conference was close by so I thought it would be fun and interesting to do (and not too disruptive). So I said yes.

At the time, I was working for NCsoft. I left NCsoft a month ago, and I just got the following by email:

I have taken you out of the speaking slot as it was you as NC Soft representative that we wanted in that session. I was waiting to find out whether you were moving to one of the other companies that have been requested as speakers. Sorry if I wasn’t clear – let’s leave it for this year.

Fair enough – it’s their conference, they can do whatever they want. But bear in mind that THEY approached ME via a cold-call, and only after I’d accepted and taken the time to send them suggestions for session topics (and helped them find additional speakers for a different session) did they reverse this. It wasn’t the most impressive of experiences.

From the lack of RFP (request for proposals) process last year for this particular conference, I had a feeling that they were doing it something like this, but I didn’t expect it was quite so black and white. I find this approach to conference organizing intriguing – and after posting this, I’m sure I’ll never be asked back again :).

Personally, I see no point in going and listening to someone talk unless they are – independently – an expert in their field, or particularly insightful, or have something of value to bring to the topic. I’ve been to some excellent talks by “nobodies” who just had really awesome insights or particularly refreshing perspectives, but the kind of selection procedure being used by the conference organizers above kills that dead. Often, employees of famous companies are in a good position to become one or more of those things over the course of their time working at the company, but “being an employee of company X” is definitely NOT interesting to me.

Moreover, looking back, I’d say that the majority of poor talks I’ve been to over the years were given by people who didn’t really know what they were talking about, and of the rest most were by people who had nothing interesting to say beyond what was common knowledge and all over Google already.

It seems to me that choosing speakers based on the company they work for rather than their value as a person is likely to provide a lot more of that kind of poor talk. So, my default position is that I would rather not go to conferences where more than a small minority of speakers are chosen this way (perhaps just the Keynotes? Which I don’t really care about because I generally don’t go to them anyway. Partly because the keynote speakers are usually chosen by company not person/talk/value. Oh. We come full circle :)).

If I were to be uncharitable, I’d point out that this is the easiest/laziest way to select speakers for a conference. Or, if I were to be charitable, I’d say that conference organizers rarely know enough about the industry to be a judge of that, and so they’re reliant on other people to make the decision for them. I think the latter interpretation (the charitable one) is probably the cause more often than not. This is especially problematic if the conference is big enough that it becomes particularly difficult to have one person overseeing every single selection of talk. e.g. for something the size of GDC I suspect it is extremely difficult to prevent this from happening at least a little, no matter how hard you try – there are so many people involved in decision making / such a huge volume of applications to sift through. The sheer scale of the conference works against you. I can only think of two conferences I’ve been to where I would guess that maybe this didn’t happen at all, based on the quality of the speakers and the contents of each talk (ACCU and ION).

What I would like to know, though, is this: am I being unreasonable? Because my perspective is warped: I’ve organized conferences before, the biggest having an attendance of circa 1,200 people (i.e. medium sized by games industry standards), so I’m afraid that maybe I am too harsh and judgemental on other organizers. And I’ve never done a big one, so I’m having to extrapolate, and may be underestimating how poorly a lot of the process scales.

Bearing in mind my bias, I feel that even with a huge conference it’s perfectly reasonable to insist that every speaker is chosen on merit of speaker, and the quality of what they’re going to say. It requires additional organization time and effort, and it requires additional staff – you need some savvy industry people and domain experts to do the review – but that’s not much different from the stuff you’re organizing anyway with all the other aspects of the conference.

I know most conferences do this in some form or other, already, but I think a lot of them don’t police it enough and/or don’t put much effort into it. For instance, several conferences have almost exactly the same advisory board / selection panel from year to year, which really doesn’t make sense to me (from a perspective of quality and freshness of talks). In an ideal world, there would even be some form of application process for people to join the selection panel, with tenures etc. That might be overkill for small conferences, but perhaps for the larger ones it would fix some of the recurring complaints that are otherwise hard or impossible for the organizers to do anything about (e.g. speaker quality).

It’s almost certainly extremely frustrating (my experiences of running commercial competitions with a panel of 12 judges show that herding cats is easy by comparison) – but the pay-off, in terms of conference quality, I suspect would be more than worth the time and effort.

PS: One final note: I have been to a kind of conference where choosing people by company works perfectly well – “Trade Show” conferences. Here, the attendees genuinely want to listen to and then meet “any representative of company X”, rather than to learn from their peers and/or masters in their industry.

7 replies on “Choosing conference speakers: by Quality, or Employer?”

Well, I don’t know about other conferences, but for ION this year I can tell you that what company a speaker worked for had little to nothing to do with selection. (And switching jobs after being accepted wouldn’t get you kicked out as a speaker.)

Personally, I used these criteria:

Did I have any personal experience with this speaker’s previous lectures or writing?
Did one of the other advisors have that experience?
Do I know anyone who used to work with the guy, or at least see him speak?
Does this proposal look like it will just be a sales pitch for some piece of middleware?
Did the proposal itself look interesting?

Any of these could be positive or negative. Getting bad talks out of there was pretty important to me, and I used my previous experience with a speaker to reject at least one talk.

I’m an advisor for ION again this year, mostly because I know I can do a better job this year than I did last. We’ll see if I feel the same way after one more year. There will be some natural turnover on the board this year, though, so it won’t be 100% the same people.

So, out of interest, what proportion of proposals got a “No” from the first 4 questions (i.e. none of the advisors knew the person nor had heard them speak yet)?

And … what do you do when all you’re left with is the last question (does it look interesting) ?

Given how few people speak out of the number of people in the industry, my guess is that the majority of fresh blood in the speaking circuits comes in like this. An advisory board *of sufficient size* has a good chance of at least knowing the speaker themself, and for something focussed and small like ION I imagine (just guessing?) that you can cover a lot of the “unknown quantity” speakers this way…but how does GDC manage that? They have a TINY advisory board / selection panel by comparison (IIRC total of 20 or so selectors, reading a total of 2,000 or so proposals)?

So, what CAN you do if none of you know the person?

I have high hopes that someone has great ideas for this. e.g. I think the “audience choice” track at AGDC last year was a truly awesome idea (allow the conference attendees to pick 5 talks that were rejected by the selection panel and have them put back on the conference schedule).

Heh, I’ve seen this all to often. Admittedly, I haven’t heard anyone tell me to my face. But, I figure that my lack of a big name company associated with my name has kept me out of some conferences. CMP, in particular, seems not to appreciate me. I was a speaker at every Austin conference until CMP took over. Strange, given that I’m usually an informed and entertaining presentation giver, according to most people.

Part of it is politics, too. I’ve been none-too-kind to CMP in the past; I’ve flat out said on my blog that the GDC isn’t worth going to. So, I’m not too surprised when they don’t invite me along to talk at their conference. Luckily I know press people and advisers that get me in for free if I want to go.

The big question you have to ask, too, is who the conference’s audience is The GDC is theoretically for game developers, but my observation is that it’s more for newbies wanting to break into the industry. The conference is pitched as a way to mingle with game developers, and most “break into the industry” advice includes attending GDC. In this case, I figure that they get more traction out of having people with big names give talks in popular areas instead of some relative unknown telling people what they really do need to know (but don’t want to hear). The old hands like us still go along to network and socialize and complain about the lame sessions (while often getting the large company to buy a badge). A session with a deep topic is likely to scare off the newbies, but unlikely to really dig deep enough into a topic to be worthwhile for the rest of us.

Ultimately, no, I don’t think you’re too harsh. But, in many cases I don’t think we’re the target audience for the conference. This is one of the reasons why I like the smaller conferences like the IMGDC ( instead of the huge ones, and the focus is on providing good info for experienced developers. I’ll have to give ION a try next year.

Brian, pretty sure that politics has nothing to do with it. And one thing I’ll say about the main GDC itself (which, disclaimer, I am obviously tangentially involved with, since I organize IGF and Indie Games Summit and publish Game Developer/Gamasutra, etc) is that the advisory board is incredibly strict and stringent about voting on and discussing each individual lecture, in-person. And they care about presenting good material. They have (and do) reject big names who aren’t presenting fresh material.

Part of what it comes down to is – should your lecture line-up be decided by an advisory board who are working in the industry, by the organizers, or both, and if so, how do you negotiate both? It’s an interesting quandary, actually.

So, out of interest, what proportion of proposals got a “No” from the first 4 questions (i.e. none of the advisors knew the person nor had heard them speak yet)?

I’m not sure I can talk about specific numbers, but I was shocked at how large a percentage of submitted proposals had someone on the advisory board with an idea of the person’s speaking ability. The fact that most of my fellow advisors have been speaking at conferences for twice as long as me gives them a much broader range of experience than I had personally. (That I missed the last two GDCs because of Pirates didn’t help.)

I don’t think the attendee choice program had the effect they wanted last year. I ended up in there and got my talk approved by begging people who know me to go vote for me. It’s hard work to evaluate that many proposals, so I understand the appeal of leaving the rating to users, but I don’t think the “vote on the website” approach really gets them what they want.

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