Thoughts on Speaker Selection Tactics


After reading Justin Searls of Test Double’s post on Calls for Transparency, it got me thinking.  I’m on a variety of conference and event planning committees, and no two events follow the same speaker selection process.  These are just some of my personal thoughts and do not reflect the views of the committees that I serve on.

Blind Speaker Selection

None of the speaker selection committees that I’ve served on have used this process.  While I like the idea of anonymized submissions for an initial filter, I eventually like to know more about who’s delivering the topic – not necessarily who by name but who by experience.  Has this person spoken at conferences of this particular size?  If not, have they had significant amount of speaking at conferences or venues smaller than this?  If there was a way to convey this information while still somehow maintaining the anonymity of the speaker, I would definitely prefer this method. 

Invite-Only Selection

This definitely has its pros and cons.  For one, it could be a matter of the committee selecting only their friends and their heroes.  Or it could be seen elitist and that the committee only wants a certain caliber of speakers, which makes other speakers feel like they aren’t that caliber.  It could also be seen that the committee wants the best speakers possible to help ensure the success of their event – so they want the best speakers for their attendees so that the attendees get the best bang for their buck.  For the committees I’ve been on that have gone this route, I recommend speakers who are known for their topics and appropriate for the event.  While I love my friends, my job on a speaker selection committee isn’t to ensure that they get picked – my job is to make sure I’m selecting people that the attendees will want to hear.  As time goes on, this gets harder and harder to do, as there are so many people out there that are great speakers but days are only so long and conferences can only be so long. 

Open Call for Speakers, Non-Blind Selection

This is the most common tactic I’ve seen on the committees  that I’ve served on.  I like it in that it opens the submission  process up to the whole community, bringing in speakers that we may not have even known about or even bringing in new speakers who are ready to present at our event’s level (whatever that translates to).  This presents some problems though:

  • More submissions means more for a committee to filter through and decide on.  This can make the process that much more difficult.
  • Being non-blind, there’s always the fear of the committee selecting just their friends.
  • Being non-blind, there’s also the fear of the diversity factor. People fear being selected (or not selected) because committees may have quotas or ideal mixes in mind.

The Diversity Factor

This is one thing that I’m sure other speaker selection committee members have weighing on them.  In a non-blind selection or even in an invite-only selection, you can make sure that your selections meet whatever it is that you’re shooting for – be it mega rockstars, more female presenters, or some other mix.  As a female presenter who has been on teams that have tried to take on the diversity factor, I’m begging you other speaker selection types – don’t choose speakers just to meet a quota.  If they don’t talk on topics relevant to your event… if they aren’t experienced enough to be speaking at your event…. please, please, please don’t select a speaker just for diversity.  While diversity is nice to have, sacrificing the quality of your event at the risk of diversity isn’t necessarily a good idea.


I’m currently on a bunch of planning committees.  We have an open call for speakers for SQL Saturday #241 (closing on 12/15); however, our pre-con talk speaker(s) are invited.  For PowerShell Saturday 009 in March 2014, we’re still in our early planning stages, and we are reaching out to local PowerShell resources to help find speakers.  If you’re interested in speaking at PowerShell Saturday 009 in Toledo, OH, definitely email me or ping me on Twitter.  For my event in late March, there are only 2 of us presenting, as it’s a small event and we’re doing it to promote some local groups.  As for Stir Trek, just stay tuned to @stirtrek on Twitter or the website for further news, as it’s always an evolving process – what started as invite-only eventually grew to invitations and open call for speakers.

I can only hope other conference organizers see Justin’s call for transparency and get on board with it.  I don’t know if there’s a speaker selection process that isn’t subjected to criticism – they all have their merits and pitfalls.  But hopefully through transparency we may be able to find a better way of selecting speakers for our events.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Speaker Selection Tactics

  1. Mark W. "catfood" Schumann says:

    Where I think Justin’s a little off is in referring to inviting speakers as “unfair.” It’s not about fairness. Maybe you invite a few specific speakers because off their buzz, ability to draw a crowd, unique style, or great work at your prior conferences.

    I do agree with his call for transparency. It would be great if a conference put it right out there on the RFPs, something like this:

    We expect to pull 120 or so proposals to fill eighteen open speaker slots. We will evaluate your proposal according to Criteria A, B, and C. Additionally, about six speakers have already been selected as special invitees. Be assured that your proposal will be evaluated on its merit within the proposal pool.

    That would be honest, informative, and helpful.

    I also agree with you, Sadukie, about diversity. It’s never good to select a speaker who isn’t up to your standards. But there’s usually a surplus of good presenters with interesting topics, and there’s nothing wrong with giving some preference to people who are going to improve your conference in other ways. Don’t assume that diversity means compromising on quality.

    1. sarah says:

      Oh I agree that there are plenty of great presenters with interesting topics that could bring diversity to a speaker lineup. What I’ve unfortunately seen is that we get submissions from potential speakers with either the wrong topics for the conference (something along the lines of AS400 mainframe topics for a mobile conference) or the wrong presentation skills and that organizers have chosen those speakers because they’d make the speaker pool diverse, forgetting that the speaker isn’t ready to present at that big of a conference or that the topics just weren’t the right fit for their audience. I know a lot of speakers who could make a speaker lineup diverse, but it has to be diverse with the right fit for the conference.

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