Throughout the course of any given twelve-month period, the readers of the Scholarly Kitchen will be attending library and publishing industry events. Many of those reading this blog will be invited to present at those events, on the basis of their professional expertise and capacity to engage with an audience. As an organizer of many such events, I would like to share with you some of the basics of how to field such invitations and collaborate with conference organizers in such a way that all parties benefit. As a standard disclaimer, let me say that I know I am likely preaching to the choir, and that no one in the Scholarly Kitchen readership would be anything less than responsive and cooperative. But I beg you to hear me out.
First of all, there are three appropriate responses to an invitation to speak:
- Yes, I would be happy to speak on thus-and-such a date at thus-and-such a time;
- No, I am so very sorry, but other obligations prevent me from accepting this delightful invitation;
- What a great opportunity! I am running your message past the powers-that-be and will be back in touch with you on [specified date] to let you know if I (or someone else from within my organization) will be able to speak. If you don’t hear back from me on that date, please call me at…
Under no circumstances is it fair or appropriate to ignore an invitation, simply because it’s uncomfortable to have to compose a refusal or because other priorities arise. Yes, you are busy. But so are those who are responsible for these events. Whether paid or unpaid, conference organizers are obliged to develop a tolerance for rejection and will accept it if you simply and swiftly decline. (To borrow a legal phrase, no liability attaches.) The organizer’s agony occurs when an emailed invitation receives no response. She or he can’t move to invite someone else if they are waiting to hear back from you. Remember that he or she may or may not have another way to contact you to remind you of the pending request.
Courtesy alone suggests that this should not be the time you choose for a power-play, but let me add two related points:
- If what’s holding up a decision is a need for some level of honorarium or travel subsidy, let the organizer know that this is the stumbling block. (Particularly if you have a dollar figure in mind, it helps if you advise the organizer of what you estimate the need to be.)
- If what’s holding up a decision is a vague uncertainty on your part as to the specific scope of the presentation, do ask for more information, whether in terms of specific talking points or scope notes.
Conference organizers are aware that being asked to speak nowadays is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a chance to be in the spotlight which is always good for one’s self-esteem (At long last, my brilliance and expertise have been recognized…). On the other hand, it represents a burden in terms of time away from the office and potential travel costs (Wait a minute — what’s that hotel room rate again?) Organizers are also aware that the prestige associated with presenting at a conference is not what it was, back in the day. Your employer may not be enamored of adding yet another presentation to the corporate calendar if they think it will simply drain staff energies and/or productivity. If you accept the invitation, you can feel confident that the organizer recognizes your contribution as the kindness that it is in today’s professional environment.
At the risk of unpleasantness, there is only one reprehensible behavior in the context of speaking engagements and that is reneging on the commitment once you have told a colleague that you will be on a program.
Meeting organizers have a grip on reality. Weather events ground planes; travel arrangements get upended. Speakers (and members of their immediate families) do get sick. Political upheavals — whether national or corporate — are not unheard of. But when a speaker announces in an email two and a half weeks prior to an event that he or she can’t make it due to the press of business, that does present a problem for organizers. It’s not that easy to rearrange a timetable that close to the date of an event or to find a replacement speaker whose content fits appropriately. That type of last-minute #FAIL is received poorly by registrants on-site which in turn reflects poorly on the sponsoring organization of the event and heightens the stress of your professional colleagues, whether they be speakers, session organizers or moderators.
Lastly, as a word to the wise, those who build educational/professional programs have long memories regarding the circumstances around such #FAIL moments. The scholarly publishing community is not a particularly large one. Word does get around.
To end on a happier note, to those of you who do respond, who do participate in a session or act as moderators, to those who complete forms, sweat over deadlines and take the time to share your knowledge and insights with others, to all of my very generous colleagues in this business, please accept my grateful thanks. Those organizing the SSP Annual Conference (May 27-29, 2015, Arlington, Virginia) I’m sure will join me in singing your praises.