rsvp cardThroughout 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

Jill O'Neill

Jill O'Neill

Jill O'Neill is the Educational Programs Manager for NISO, the National Information Standards Organization. Over the past twenty-five years, she has held positions with commercial publishing firms Elsevier, ThomsonReuters and John Wiley & Sons followed by more than a decade of serving as Director of Planning & Communication for the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS). Outside of working hours, she manages one spouse and two book discussions groups for her local library.


18 Thoughts on "Répondez s'il vous plaît: Ravings From A Conference Planner"

The other side that might at least be briefly mentioned here is making sure that those who send proposals to a conference that invites submissions receive a response one way or the other for the same reasons as given above. My spouse recently submitted a paper to a local, but important, conference and never heard anything. A similar notification issue occurs when the announced decision date is pushed back, especially if attending means extensive and costly travel and rearranging other commitments.

Courtesy imposes obligations on both sides of the conference planning process.

I quite agree, Bob, and I wish I could say that I’ve never been guilty of keeping someone waiting for a response. Your point is well taken.

I think there are some general etiquette principles here that any editor would recognize if you substituted the words “peer review request” for “speaker invitation”. There’s no ill will toward an invitee who says no, but there’s an incredible level of annoyance with someone who doesn’t respond.

The “etiquette principles” are very general, indeed. They extend to authors waiting for first decision on a MS, a patient waiting 30 min for a doctor’s appointment, because the doctor was left waiting for the 3 patients before, someone showing up late for a team meeting, then needing a recap that uses ever MORE time.

Etiquette is based on mutual respect.

Living in a bit of a glass house (I once had a boss refer to me as “calendar challenged”) – but the fact is this: wherever your calendar or tasks overlap someone else’s, you are spending not just your own time and effort, you are spending theirs as well.

In person conferences are an outmoded form. More precisely, travel is an outmoded form. I (and probably many others) would be significantly more likely to ‘attend’ if I could present via Skype (or whatever). Someone should try to run a conference entirely in cyberspace – it’s probably been done already.

Virtual seminars are not unheard of in the information community, Jeff, as both NISO and NFAIS have held such one day events. However, NFAIS attendees have consistently told us that they want the face-to-face networking that on-site events offer. Have you an idea of how that might be achieved in the context of a conference held in cyberspace? (Not everyone finds Twitter to be a comfortable networking option.)

One word: Telepresence. This could be done by robot (look up telepresence robot), or clever use of things like Skype. The difficulty is not the technology – well, given that we usually spend ten minutes at the beginning of every talk trying to find the right dongle, the technology will alway be a problem to some extent, but just as in that case, the difficulty is not primary the technology – the problem is human infrastructure. This is solved for food; we call it catering. Someone has to start a catering company to provide telepresence for conferences. Actually, a whole teleconference solution company would make a mint.

I think you’re right that better services in the area of remote conferencing would help. I spoke at a conference recently where, in order for my virtual co-presenter to be able to speak, I had to download Skype to the conference centre’s PC (not being permitted to use my own Mac), and then the A/V system in use somehow prevented her from hearing my bit of the talk, or from hearing questions, which I hastily had to type in for her. We just about pulled it off, but it wasn’t easy – there’s a way to go here.

I’d also echo Jill’s point that conferences are more than just seminars; the content is part of an integrated program that usually is just as focussed on opportunities for people to meet, often serendipitously. Sure, not every invited speaker has an interest in meeting members of the conference’s community so a virtual presence would be helpful for some. But for many, conferences are not an outmoded form – they’re a useful context in which to forge unexpected new connections. I do a lot of ‘virtual’ networking but still find the in-person form equally useful, if not more so in some contexts.

Try splitting a bottle of really good bourbon with a colleague (or potential colleague) via telepresence. Somehow it’s not the same.

Frankly I could not disagree more. If the value you’re getting from conferences comes solely from listening to people give talks, then, to quote the internet meme, “you’re doing it wrong” (

Depending on the conference, the value I get outside of the talks probably ranges anywhere from 50% to 90% of the total value offered. I’ve brought in an enormous amount of business to my company from making connections, meeting people face to face and having conversations with them.

The same goes from scientific meetings back from when I did research. The old adage is that what you get out of the Pub is greater than what you get out of the Posters which is greater than what you get from the talks. In the era of social media, very few researchers are willing to talk about unpublished research, because they know it will instantaneously be broadcast worldwide. Hence most speak only about work they’ve already published, which makes the talks a lot less interesting. The real scientific meat of the meeting comes at the posters, where you can see work in progress and have a one on one conversation with the person doing the research. Better yet, meet them at the bar and have a few drinks and you may end up with a new collaborator.

I regularly attend webinars, and I have to say that I have never accomplished any of the above during one.

Actually, I’m not “doing it” at all, but I agree with you, the talks aren’t what meetings are for. However, you probably don’t live in Silicon Valley, or any of the similar places around the world where The Red Queen wouldn’t be able to keep up no matter how fast she ran! The question isn’t whether you make significant connections at a meeting – I’m sure you do, and I’m sure that I would too – certainly I did when I used to go to them. The question is, can you get the same benefit another way that costs less in time and money, and what can you do with the time and money you save…esp. the time sitting in hotels and airports, and on airplanes and taxis, and, yes, in talks, all of which are complete wastes of time!

Sometimes wasting time is a cost of doing business. And given modern communications technology, time spent in hotels, airports, even on planes and taxis can be put to productive use. Even better, I do some of my best thinking when I’m forced to unplug for a few hours and am freed from distraction.

But no, I don’t live in Silicon Valley, and while the inhabitants there often think their principles are universal, I have great doubts about their applicability in many areas. Given the availability of venture capital, and the assumption that most investments are going to fail (one might even say a fetishization of failure, “fail early and often” as the mantra rather than “succeed and improve upon it”), the business culture acts differently than in places where funds, and particularly material resources are tighter. The digital nature of software and code makes experimentation and collaboration easier and cheaper, and hence requires less scrutiny in your potential partners.

But if you’re a not-for-profit publisher, tight on funds, and you’re based out of a cancer research center, you have to make tough decisions. Every dime you waste on a failed venture means a dime that could have been spent toward curing cancer. That means you have to make very careful choices, and that can be aided by building personal relationships and knowing the people you’re going to get into bed with, rather than just seeing them on a screen or knowing that they leave clever comments on Reddit.

It’s even more crucial for researchers, where the market is insanely tight, time is your most valuable commodity, funding is increasingly non-existent and often you’re working with rare and precious material. You can’t afford to jump into a collaboration with just anyone–wasting a year with someone difficult to work with could ruin your, or your student’s career. Wasting your rare grant funds or reagents on an expensive series of experiments with someone who may or may not be competent at the bench can destroy you.

Things are a little closer to what you seek for computational research, where the costs of collaborating are much lower (download my code and run your data on it). But most of us can’t rely on surface knowledge of collaborators or business partners. There remains a human element to many interactions, that, despite the best efforts of Silicon Valley, is unlikely to go away.

Well I also work on cancer for a non-profit, but I have never found it particularly useful to judge who’s going to make a good collaborator by whether they can afford the time and money to go to conferences and drink really good bourbon. But that’s just me.

Indeed those organizing the SSP Annual Conference will be singing your praises! We sincerely appreciate all our speakers that are volunteering their time to share their knowledge and experiences. Declining an invitation at the outset is completely acceptable and understandable and as Jill indicated, much preferable to accepting and then cancelling. If for some reason you do have cancel last minute (we understand things happen!), please be kind enough to suggest some possible replacements. It will go a long way to helping the session organizer get the program back on track. Thanks for the great post Jill!

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.

This point is worth emphasizing. I think one reason people ignore these invitations is that they assume the lack of response will be taken for a refusal and the conference organizer will just move along to the next-most-desired potential speaker on the list. But you can’t do that unless you’re certain the one you invited is really saying no, rather than just being slow to respond.

(The only exception to this rule, as far as I’m concerned, are the emails I receive that are addressed to “Dear Doctor” or “Dear Esteemed Colleague” and that invite me to submit a paper to a conference in Malaysia on quantum environmental mathematics. Those I simply junk with extreme prejudice. But of course, they’re a separate class of message and not what Jill is talking about here.)

I have to say that one annoyance invitees face is finding out once they get to the conference that the panel where they are speaking is one of fifty being held simultaneously. This famously happens at academic conferences where publishers are invited to speak about publishing in the field, and they find themselves in a small conference room with mostly grad students in the audience who want to know what they need to do to get their revised dissertations published. After attending many such panels, I finally decided that I would not accept any more invitations to speak unless the session was designated a plenary session so that everyone attending could get the message.

The last time I spoke at ALA, my talk was up against Temple Grandin’s keynote. Even I was tempted to skip out of my own session.

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