Anna Filina

Should Conference Talks be Written in Advance?

March 3rd, 2015

I had a discussion on Twitter today regarding a conference's selection process. It was suggested that speakers should be forced to write their entire talk before submitting it to a conference, perhaps even presented at a local event. This might work for speakers who give the same talks over and over again, but that's not the majority.

I organize a conference where I select nearly 150 talks each year. I also speak around the world (South Africa, Spain, Germany, USA, etc.) That gives me a unique perspective of the relationship between speakers and organizers and how they can better collaborate.

How hard is it to write a talk?

It's extremely time-consuming. I personally spend between 20 and 60 hours to prepare a conference talk, depending on how much code and research is required. It used to take me more when I was still new to the speaking scene.

I submit new abstracts all the time: different abstracts depending on the type of conference. I know these subjects very well, but I can't possibly write 10 or more talks each year if only a handful of them will be picked. First, it would take too much time. Second, those that will not be selected would be wasted and might not be relevant next year.

Is it fair to demand that speakers potentially waste so much time? After spending hundreds of hours preparing the talks, it would be even more crushing to receive a rejection e-mail from the committee.

How do organizers know if the talk will be good?

We look at both the speaker and the topic. A speaker who has a history of giving great talks would normally write subsequent talk of equal or superior quality. So if a speaker is good and has experience to show, we don't need the slides or the code. I have occasionally asked speakers to provide an outline when they had nothing else to show and that worked out well.

To determine whether the talk is good, we read the title and the abstract, and check whether the speaker has experience related to the topic. We discuss the interest in the topic, and in our case, check how many people voted for it. There are other criteria that are unrelated to this question. I blogged about them earlier here and here.


We know that the job of a speaker is hard enough. Even harder for those who are still trying to get into their first conference. We don't want to give speakers arbitrary work to counterbalance our own laziness. This is why ConFoo will continue asking only a title and an abstract for each proposal submitted.


Stephan Hochdörfer March 3rd, 2015 I am fully with you on that one Anna and I`d like to add a few things: Content is one part of the story, how to deliver the talk is another part. Just by seeing the content you have no idea how the content will be delivered. I have seen very good content delivered poorly by the speaker and I have seen poor content delivered by an outstanding speaker (which in the end made the presentation very entertaining at least). In addition to that a lot of talks these days contain "just" images (to support the story told by the speaker), having seen the slides beforehand won`t give you any clue what the speaker will tell you.
Stephan Hochdörfer March 3rd, 2015 Crap. Looks like your blog killed my content ;(
Fred Heath March 3rd, 2015 I agree with the author, however I've yet to come across a conference that requires the talk to be already written at the time of submission. Common sense prevails so far, let's hope it continues.
Stefan Priebsch March 3rd, 2015 Some conferences actually ask you to hand in your material beforehand. While I understand the reasons they do this, I find it limiting to speakers, because it sets your presentation in stone even before the conference begins.

I frequently speak at conferences around the world and have made it a habit to adapt my presentation to the event I am attending. This happens while I am at the event, and it allows me to be more verbose on topics I feel the audience is not so familiar with, or cut down on topics that other speakers have already covered in depth.

Joeri Sebrechts March 3rd, 2015 I agree that for speakers with proven competency this is too limiting and unnecessary, but for first time speakers I don't think it's too much to ask. As someone who just gave his first conference talk, I feel like this is a sort of entry fee that is not unreasonable to ask from the perspective of organizers.

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