Thoughts on PASS Summit Speaker Selection

It's getting to be about that time of year again. Bees are buzzing, Summer's nearly here (at least in the northern hemisphere), and PASS Summit 2015 session selections will probably be announced soon. I don't know this for sure; I'm not part of the speaker selection process this year, but based on the dates the notification emails went out the past few years:

  • 2014: June 24
  • 2013: May 17
  • 2012: June 6
  • 2011: June 15

I'm guessing it will be in the next few weeks.

As always, questions come up when notifications are sent out. While I can't even come close to having all the answers, there are a few questions I've always wanted to share my thoughts on. In previous years I didn't feel it was appropriate to add my two cents in because I was part of the process, but this year I'm not. The following thoughts are my own opinion and nothing more.

Why didn't I get picked?

In the past, the "reasons" sent out in speaker selection notification emails were extremely vague. They've gotten better recently, but before that you would see such extremely descriptive statements as: "poor quality abstract" and nothing more.  Whatever the explanation, I tend to lump reasons for not getting picked into one of two groups:

Your abstract wasn't good. There's no way to sugarcoat the fact that some submissions are lacking in quality. I've seen plenty of abstracts that were incomplete when submitted, or full of factual or grammatical errors. I detailed a lot of these issues in my previous post. Even if you have great content, errors like these are hard to survive. Fortunately, the quality of your abstract is something you have complete control over. Proofread. Over and over. And when you get tired of proofreading it, have someone else look at it – maybe 2 or 3 people. PASS even offered confidential abstract evaluation this year, and hopefully they will continue to do so in the future. An abstract, much like a résumé, can never be proofread too many times or by too many people.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, please realize that most abstracts are good. Of all the abstracts I read over the past few years, maybe 10% fell into the category I just mentioned. The vast majority of rejections occur not because an abstract isn't good, but because someone else's abstract was better. Maybe they had a little something extra in their wording or explanation that resonated with the abstract review team. Perhaps their session included an additional topic that will make it appeal to a wider audience. Whatever the reason, it's something that's out of your hands. I liken it to getting dumped by someone and having them say "it's not you, it's me." You can't force someone to like your abstract (or you, for that matter.)

This is a tough group to be in; you don't have any control over making sure your abstract is liked more than someone else's that you can't see. Actually – scratch that – you CAN see them. While the call for speakers is open, you can read all the abstracts that have been submitted. You'd probably be doing yourself a favor by checking submissions on similar topics and seeing if there's any changes you'd like to make to your abstract based on what else is out there. You'll still have zero control over whether or not the abstract reviewers like it, but at least you can say you tried everything there was to try. I think this is completely fair; the list of submissions is out there for everyone to see, and others are free to read your topics and adjust theirs accordingly as well. Unless you don't submit your abstract until the last possible second so others can't see it ahead of time, which seems to be occurring more and more frequently the past few years. It can be argued that many who do this are clearly gaming the system, but it's their right to do so. They are still abiding by the rules (the deadline), and if they want to sneak submissions in right under the wire, there's nothing that says they can't. While I think it's unfortunate that things have gotten to be like this, it's still fair in my mind.

Why don't I have comments?

While working as an abstract reviewer in previous years, the instructions were to give as many comments as possible. Comments are a wonderful thing. In theory, they can help everyone improve their submissions for the next time around, except when they can't. If an abstract has obvious errors, those are easy to comment on. If I think you could have worded something a little better, I'm more than happy to comment on that as well. If I have any constructive criticism at all, you'll see it in a comment.

But what if I read your abstract and I think it's perfect? It's well-written, easy to understand, and the topic is so compelling that I'm looking forward to attending your session. I write all these things down as comments. It turns out all the other abstract reviewers feel the same way and write similar comments. But then that abstract doesn't end up getting selected, perhaps because someone else's was better. Now you have a rejection with a side of comments saying how awesome your abstract was, and that doesn't help you out at all.

From what I've heard, some reviewers will leave no comments if they liked an abstract and found nothing wrong with it. But that doesn't help you improve, which is why we're submitting sessions to begin with, right? I've always tried really hard to find something to comment on in every abstract I review. No abstract is perfect – there's always room for improvement.

How can I improve for next year?

This one's simple. Don't give up! Keep trying. Submit for local user groups and SQL Saturdays while you continue to hone your skills. Many speakers try for years before they get an abstract accepted for PASS Summit. I tried unsuccessfully 3 or 4 times before I was accepted. The only way to ensure you'll never speak at Summit is to give up and stop submitting abstracts.

What if I have more questions?

This one's easy too. Don't ask me – ask the people who really know what's going on! It just so happens that PASS is hosting a Town Hall meeting tomorrow, 27 May, at 8:00 PM (UTC) and the topic is the PASS Summit selection process. You can register to attend by clicking here and be sure to bring your questions. I will definitely be there and am looking forward to it. Hope to see you there!