Avoid this common mistake when planning meeting programs


Although I have good reasons to champion meeting designs where the participants get to choose what they want and need to discuss and learn rather than a program committee, there is invariably a place for some predetermined presentations at conferences. Unfortunately, most program committees use a flawed process to select session content.

They rely extensively on calls for proposals (CFP).

When you issue a CFP you will get submissions for all kinds of reasons. For example:

  • Suppliers want to pitch (subtly or blatantly) their products or services.
  • Speakers have an existing presentation they hope to shoehorn into your program.
  • Sexy-topics-of-the-month attract pitches like moths to a flame.

Do not assume that the submissions you receive accurately reflect what your meeting actually needs. For an example of this kind of bias, here’s an excerpt from a recent Successful Meetings (July 2017 print edition) article:

“Through the call-for-papers process, you may notice certain trends in the content choices that your potential speakers are making. If potential speakers are flocking to apply for a specific subject matter, this may indicate a demand from your event to address that topic and include more speakers on it.”
How to Get Compelling Content For Your Conference by Allie Magyar, Successful Meetings, July 2017 print edition

Although Allie’s article includes many good suggestions, I take issue with this one. Receiving many proposals for a specific topic only indicates that there are many people offering to speak about it. It does not follow that the topic is pertinent or should be emphasized in your conference program.

If you only choose program sessions from those offered in response to a CFP, you are letting the CFP tail wag the meeting program dog.

Instead, do the following:

  • Confer with stakeholders and participants to determine realistic goals and desired outcomes for your event.
  • Use these goals and outcomes to determine topics you want and need covered.
  • Contact known-quality appropriate presenters who may be able to a) meet these objectives and b) suggest additional relevant topics for inclusion in your program.
  • Use the resulting information to work both inside and outside your CFP responses to select good presenters who can deliver on topics that your participants may actually want and need.

Your meeting program will be all the better for it.