This blog post is part of a “blog ring” about the ATD selection process. Other posts about this topic:

Having a talk rejected is hard,

especially when you really cared about the conference you wanted to speak at. It’s even harder for people that can only go to that conference if they get the benefits ( ticket) of a speaker – I feel that because I’m also in this group.

I have been on a couple of conference review committees, reviewed and judged hundreds of abstracts and I would like to share a couple of reasons why a talk might be rejected.

The main reason for this blog post was my participation in the review committee for Agile Testing Days 2022 and the many disappointed reactions to having their abstract rejected in the community. While this post is not exclusively about Agile Testing Days, it’s heavily influenced by it.

Quality and Structure of your abstract – the only reason in your area of influence

Let’s get over this one quickly: of course, the quality and structure of your abstract has some influence on getting accepted or not. Others have already written a lot about that, what you can do and how you can create a great abstract.

Here are some of my most important tips:

  • Write for a specific conference and audience. Yes, it’s more efficient to write one abstract you can send without change to different conferences, but it will never be as good as several different versions of your abstract that are tailored to the specific topics, preferences, and audience of a specific conference.
  • Check previous talk descriptions of the conference you want to apply for. I always do this if I don’t know about a conference yet. It gives so much information about what they value and prefer.
  • Use the advantages of written text to structure your abstract. Of course, you can write prose without any highlighting, just as if you’d speak. But that will probably be less appealing because you cannot carry emotion, timing, change of voice pitch, etc. in written text. The advantages you have with text, though, are headlines, formatting, paragraphs, and bullet-point lists. It will provide a lot of additional structure and makes it a lot easier for the reader (reviewer and attendee) to grasp the message.
  • Reach out for help. Nobody is perfect, and even if you have a lot of experience with writing abstracts, it can always be improved. There are a lot of people in the community who love to give feedback and do reviews of your abstracts before you send them in. Yes, it is additional work. The thing is: if you decide to not put in that work, someone else with a similar topic might, and then they have an advantage.

Having said all of this, it is very important to notice that this is the only thing you can influence. As you will see, there are a lot of other reasons that you cannot influence, or that just make it a lot harder to get accepted.

An awful lot of abstracts for a very small number of slots

Conferences have a limited number of slots they can fill with talks. This is obvious, but I think it is often not well-known how limited these slots really are compared to the number of abstracts handed in.

I always do a small calculation of the “abstract vs. slot ratio” when I’m on a review committee, and even for small events that are not that popular, this ratio is usually around 2:1 or 3:1. That means for every possible talk slot at this conference, there are 2 or 3 abstracts competing (totally ignoring the different topics and if they fit the conference or not).

For Agile Testing Days 2022, I went a step further and asked for specific numbers per presentation type and came up with the following abstract vs. slot ratios:

Social Activities4:1

This is brutal. Even for the social activities, only one out of four abstracts could possibly be selected, even worse with the talks and combo sessions. Nearly 90% of all combo-session proposals had to be rejected just because of the limited slot capacity.

These numbers also show, that the challenge of being accepted at Agile Testing Days is harder in general compared to other events, because they get a lot of abstracts.

Overall high quality of abstracts

Some events do a lot to help people writing good abstracts, and Agile Testing Days is definitely among them. There are blog posts, preparation sessions, tips, a friendly and helpful community, a lot of helping and sharing.

This results in an overall higher quality of abstracts. Yes, I can confirm that from experience: I had very, very few abstracts that were of low quality (technically).

I think on top of that, there is also a relation between the popularity of a conference and the amount of effort people put into their abstract, further increasing the quality of the proposals.

From the conference organizer’s perspective, this is an awesome situation, because it makes it a lot easier to create a high-quality program. From the speaker’s perspective, this means a lot more and tougher competition, and means it becomes less likely to have their abstract be accepted.

(By the way: from the reviewer’s perspective it makes judging and reviewing also harder, just saying, not complaining 😉)

Similar topics and theme of the conference

There is usually a very limited number of “hot topics”, and even a limited number of topics that fit into the theme of a conference, which means that it is likely that different abstracts have similar topics.

In this case, and if the abstracts are all of high quality, it will depend on the personal taste of the reviewer or program committee member for which talk is selected. This happens, and even though we have guiding categories to judge at Agile Testing Days, which makes judging “more objective”: Whether one or the other abstract is selected can depend on a lot of very subjective things, even on the current mood of the people involved in the decision.

At some point, there is just no objective way to decide which abstract to choose.

One thing that you could try as a speaker is to add an element of surprise, something special, or anything that makes your talk unique. But even then: You might not meet the taste of the person making this final gut-based decision. If you choose to take a niche topic, that will of course reduce the “similar topic” problem, but it also makes it more likely that it will not fit into the theme of the conference.

Having a line-up that meets the conference values

Tech has a huge overrepresentation of white middle-aged men. We are in general more encouraged, have more freedom, more backing and support, more assumed expertise and less limiting factors when it comes to public speaking.

Some conferences care about that and work hard to create a line-up that reflects their values more than the current status quo. I applaud every conference which cares, I appreciate it deeply, and I know this is the case for Agile Testing Days.

Oh my, Samuel, does that mean that, as a white dude in tech, I might have a harder competition to get selected?

Hell yes, I hope so! Because that little bit of extra competition is nothing compared to the extra effort members of underrepresented groups have to put in to even get the chance (and then to make it a success and have it perceived as success). Guys, deal with it and check the privileges you have.

One word to all the conference organizers who claim to care: If you don’t offer travel and accommodation for your speakers (ATD does, just to make that clear), you already make it a lot harder for people of underrepresented groups. So please don’t tell me about “equal chances”.

Other reasons

Depending on the conference, there are even a lot more other reasons why an abstract is not chosen. I won’t go into detail, but here are some ideas of possible reasons that in the end can all affect the individual “abstract vs. slot” ratio of your talk:

  • Cost efficiency (Maybe have more talks of the same speaker, have a limited number of international speakers, etc)
  • Specific slots for new voices
  • Language (some conferences prefer talks in the national language)
  • Employer/Company (maybe the conference only wants X talks from one company)
  • Popularity (maybe some well-known speaker is preferred in case of similar topics, which makes total sense for the organizer)
  • Slots already given to specific people (there are a multitude of possible reasons for this)

You are not a failure.

Being rejected is hard, but it does not mean that you are a failure.

I hope I could explain that there are so many things that can affect your chances of getting accepted and that a lot of them are not even in your area of influence.

Keep going. Keep handing in. Reach out for feedback. Keep improving. You are not a failure.

Nobody has ever told your story from your perspective.


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