What questions to include in a call for papers for a technical conference

Being involved as an organizer for the Mobile Era conference. I was selected as the program manager, and with it the task of sorting out how to do a call for papers, how to select ‘the best’ talks and finally get people to actually show up. I’d like to detail my experience with the call for papers, and what questions are important to ask from speakers to get to get actionable responses from the committee?

Personal information

You need some contact info on people. Here we asked about name, an image, email address, phone number (we never had to use this, but it is a good emergency backup), company / organization, “a few words about you” and finally if they need travel expenses covered.

Already here we made two mistakes: We did not include a bio field, that would be used on the website to introduce speakers, and we did not include anything to indicate that there would be a speaker pair.

This was interpreted differently by the committe and the speakers.

The first question lead to us using “a few words about you” text as an introduction on the website. But not all speakers’ had anticipated that, and had included information they did not want publicy shared leading to many extra emails. Make sure to have a seperate bio field for speakers to introduce themselves to their audience.

The speaker pair was not something we anticipated either. Some speaker pairs submitted twice, while others tried to cram all info into the fields available. I suggest including a freetext field with the caption “If you are two speakers, enter answers to the above questions for the second speaker here”.

The paired speaker question is also a very important one for selection, as it influences the budget available for travelers.

Finally, on the “do you need travel expenses covered”, make sure to include the option that they will cover it themselves. Many companies will cover travel for employees that are accepted to conferences, here you could also put a notice section. Some will get flights covered but not their hotel stay or vice versa.

About the talk

For the about the talk section, we had the following questions: Title, pitch, length (10 or 45 minutes), topic, level of talk, long description (for committee), expected audience (multi-choice), need of special equipment and finally if the talk has been delivered before.

The unnecessary questions turned out to be:

  1. Level of talk — We had options for basic/intermediate/advanced, but the level was always evident from the title and pitch to the committee. I don't think we ever used this information.
  2. Audience — This also turned out to not be used at all. The topic is what is important, and as above, we could easily infer the audience from the talk pitch.

As before; it is important to communicate that the pitch field will be used on the website as a talk description.

We also noted; that length of the talk could be communicated several times after talk selection as well. Speakers are often attending several conferences with differing lengths of the same talk. Reminding them of the details of your conference is very helpful.

Portfolio questions

We also asked about the speaker’s portfolio. What talks had they given before, their GitHub and lanyrd usernames, and links to talks summaries and videos of their performances. The responses to this section was very helpful, and there were no major issues with any of the questions we asked.

Collecting links to their online presence saves a lot of work for the committee when it comes to googling. It might not sound like much, but when you have 150+ submissions, finding the correct profile for all is both error prone and time consuming.

Links to videos are a massive help when it comes to evaluating an unknown speaker. Often the videos will be of the talk submitted, or in a similar area since speakers often stick to their area of expertise. Videos often ended up as a tie-breaker between speaker, as it allows the committee to much more accurately assess which talk fits the audience better, more than any text.

Finally; make sure to include a special notes question, speakers often have thought of something you haven’t. And this is the place to express that concern.

I hope these few notes helps you shape your own call for papers. Mobile Era will be opening up for talk submissions in just a few weeks for next year’s edition and we will put our experiences to use in making this year’s conference even better!