brian_bourneA message from Brian Bourne, director and co-founder of Black Arts Illuminated.

For every proposed talk that makes it into the SecTor conference, there are many others that don’t make the cut. We decided to share this blog post to help those people understand why their talk may have been declined.

Hopefully, it will also give future submitters an insight into what makes SecTor’s speaker submission process tick. It includes some advice for those submitting their talks to the SecTor conference.


The speaker submission process

Each year, SecTor has two rounds of paper submissions. The first round typically ends around mid-April and the second in mid-August (this year’s specific dates are here).

We have two separate rounds of paper submissions to help balance our audience’s needs. In an ideal world, we’d leave the entire selection process until the last possible moment to give our audience the freshest content. In the real world, people want to sample what they’ll learn before buying a ticket. The first submission round lets us start shaping the event and gives the audience an idea of what to expect, while the second round gives us sufficient space for the latest content.

How we select papers

We accept submissions up until midnight on Sunday, and then the entire advisory group meets to review and debate the merits of each paper on Monday. This involves some spirited conversations, some name calling, a little soapboxing, some quiet researching and then some more high-volume opinion. The whole process lasts five or six hours and it is as exhausting as it is fun.

Our advisory committee is a group of security veterans with no financial interest in the event. They leave all bias at the door, and completely disregard the submitter’s travel expenses, employer, or sponsorship status. This leaves them free to vote for the talks that they really want to see.

Our bias-free mandate may upset some sponsors who are used to favoritism at other events. It can also be bad news for us financially, because we cover speakers’ travel expenses regardless of where they come from. But it’s great news for our attendees, because they’re guaranteed high-quality content judged purely on its merits.

Our selection criteria

Over the years, SecTor’s organizers have developed an acute sense of what makes a good conference talk. The selection criteria we describe in our stock response email includes:

  • The applicability of content to the audience.
  • The balance of content in our overall program.
  • Technical depth, with a preference for unique, bleeding-edge material and research.

This list has real meaning for us. It reflects SecTor’s underlying ethos. We want our attendees to take away something new and actionable, because that’s where the value lies for them. They should be able to apply what they learn at SecTor immediately to improve the security posture at their own companies.

Submissions that are quickly discounted

So much for what constitutes a good submission. How can you avoid falling into the list of proposals that definitely won’t make the cut? Over the years, we’ve noticed a few recurring issues that lead us to decline speaker submissions:

  • Submissions that appear to be a lightly veiled product pitch.
  • Submissions that are rants without research.
  • Submissions that lack an action the audience can take away and apply without buying the speaker’s product.
  • Submissions that have been presented many times before.
  • Speakers who have received low feedback scores at previous SecTor events.

Submissions that fail to follow our submission requirements. These often come from a marketing and PR team instead of a researcher, which itself often indicates that the content probably isn’t all that new or unique.

We also sometimes decline a talk that might have been awesome but didn’t include enough information for us to be sure. If a submission only includes an abstract, we are left guessing what content might go into it. Submitters that include a proposed talk outline or wireframe enable our advisory committee to see how their talk will flow and what topics they will cover.

“But I hit all your check boxes!”

Maybe your submission was relevant, new, and had actionable intelligence for our audience. Maybe your submission was something all the advisors wanted to see. So why did you still get a decline letter?

This year more than any other, we had to reject many high-quality presentations because we simply didn’t have the space to devote to them. We even tried to rent another room and add another track to accommodate more of the talks that we wanted to see, but we still have to balance our content.

Perhaps we already accepted a substantially similar talk in round one.  Perhaps we simply have too many talks on the topic. Perhaps we feel like an important, emerging topic isn’t represented enough in our schedule. Any of these constraints may force us to turn down a perfectly good talk.

Having too many good talks to choose from may be a good problem for a conference organizer, but we understand that it is frustrating for would-be speakers. If it’s any consolation, it upsets us twice as much as it upsets you.

Speakers and researchers matter to us.

From our inaugural SecTor talk back in 2007, we have always focused on making sure our speakers have an amazing experience.  We cover their travel, pick them up at the airport and treat them like the stars of our show that they are.

The experience interacting with us starts with the CFP submission. We value the time and effort each and every submitter puts into their work. Without these proposals, and the amazing community that creates them, SecTor wouldn’t be the conference it is. We’re very thankful and look forward to reading your next submissions and seeing you at SecTor next year!


Bookmark and Share