Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Rejection Gets Harder (Not Easier)

When starting out as a speaker, you get a lot of rejections. It takes a while to get used to, particularly because you're never quite sure why your submission was rejected. I don't take it personally (at least that's what I say publicly even though it does feel a bit like a personal rejection).

Different events have different priorities: sometimes they are looking for particular topics, sometimes they are looking for particular speakers, sometimes they put preference on local speakers to build the community, sometimes they are looking for brand new sessions, sometimes they are focused on a particular audience.

You generally don't get feedback for a rejection. (I don't think I've ever received feedback from a rejection.) Many times events get so many submissions that they can't go through and say why a particular session was *not* selected. Often times, it's just that they have too many submissions for each slot, and you're number 105 when there are 100 openings.
Look to the next event on the list, trust that you'll find the right audience, and keep moving forward.
When you're first starting out, this isn't as big of a deal. Yes, it hurts when someone says "no". But it's also pretty much expected, particularly when you don't have much of a track record.

Fewer Rejections
Something I didn't expect is that rejection has gotten harder as I've been accepted at more places.

Here's why: early in my speaking journey, I would submit to a lot of events, and I would get selected for a few of them. It was really easy to double- or triple-submit for a particular time frame because there was no way that I would get selected for more than one of them.

But I hit a turning point, and I started to get more acceptances than rejections. I actually ran into a problem with this last year. I was accepted to two events for the same time period, and I had to decline an acceptance. (I actually had to do this twice.)

No More Double-Submissions
After this happened to me, I stopped double-submitting. This is because I know how difficult it is for a selection committee to get a line up that works well for their event. When someone backs out, it leaves a hole that they need to back fill.

In order to make sure that doesn't happen, I no longer submit for more than one event for the same time period. Often I don't submit for two events that are back-to-back so that I won't be too tired from attending multiple events during a single trip. (I did this one time last year; it was a great experience, but I was exhausted. It's not something I want to do again.) This is especially important since I am committed to being present at events, and I want to be able to talk to as many people as possible.

Picking the "Right" Events
So now comes the hard part. Now I have to select which events I'm going to submit to. This means picking one event over another (and sometimes over two others). And that makes each rejection that much harder.

For example, last year I submitted to a particular event that I was pretty sure I was going to get in to. There was another event that I really wanted to speak at as well, but the dates overlapped. Well, I submitted to the first event (and not the second). There were a couple of reasons for this decision (including travel cost), but I got rejected from the first event. That left a gap in my schedule, and I was left wondering if I had made the wrong decision.

Finding the Right Audience
In my particular case, I have a pretty specific focus: I deal with mid-level language features and patterns. You can look through my presentation topics to get an idea of what that is. These are core skills that are important for developers, but they aren't new or shiny.

No Feedback
It is difficult when you don't get feedback from an event. For example, if I knew that an event was only looking for fresh topics that haven't been presented before, then I would know that I'm not a good fit for that. If I knew that an event was focused on "what's new", then I would know that I'm not a good fit for that. Some events put this in their descriptions, but many do not.

"Wrong" Decisions, New Opportunities
The end result is that I do make "wrong" decisions, but those sometimes work out for the best. For example, remember the event I mentioned above where I got rejected? Well that opened up additional time for another event I was already scheduled to attend. Because of that, I was able to add a workshop for that event, and I got some good experience with a full-day format.

I've also received a rejection from an event I was planning on speaking at this summer, and I chose not to submit to another event in order to leave space for it. It was hard to get the rejection, but I think it will all work out for the best. I have some changes coming up in my life and having some free time during the summer is probably just what I need.

Rejection Gets Harder
When I have to pick among three events for a time period, I never know if I'm making the best decision. For the events that I know, I can make a pretty intelligent choice (Yes, this is the right audience for me. No, I don't quite fit in with what they are looking for.) But for the events that I don't know, I have to take a gamble.

As someone who loves to speak, I hate to miss out on opportunities. At the same time, I'm better off speaking in front of the right audiences.

This is one reason why I asked people to contact me if they want me to come to their events. If someone wants me at their event, then I know that I'll probably have the right audience. This makes it easier for me to prioritize things on my schedule.

The good news is that I have gotten to know a lot of event organizers. And I've also managed to build a good reputation at the events I've spoken at. This has opened up a lot of opportunities for me.

[Update 03/09/2017: On further thought, I'm going to remove the word "rejection" from this scenario. Read more here: Speakers, Let's Change Our Terminology: No More Rejections.]

No Second Guesses
Ultimately, when you're rejected from an event, you have to accept that you won't know why. And it's really easy to second-guess reasons. But don't do that.

Instead, look to the next event on the list, trust that you'll find the right audience, and keep moving forward.

Happy Speaking!


  1. Enjoyed the post Jeremy. Echoes my experiences. Here's the post that changed my 2017: https://sivers.org/hellyeah

    I've turned down over a dozen events with this new found clarity. The slack has given me the chance to focus on the few events and contributions that matter most to me.

    1. Thanks, Cory. That Derek Sivers post is a great one (I picked that up from one of your tweets a while back). I only submit to speak at events that I really want to attend. Unfortunately, that's still too many. I still have a bit of work to do on focus and figuring out how to make the best impact doing what I love to do.