When to say when
I’m on the team that chooses content for the ASUG Annual Conference, co-located once again this year with Sapphire US, in Orlando FL. In earlier blogs (1/2/3/4) I talked about the selection process, how we solicit abstracts, how we sort through the avalanche of submissions, trying to match the proposed material with our themes for the educational areas, decide which Special Interest Group aligns best with each and every one of the thousands of abstracts, and rank them so we can host the best and the brightest speakers.
The process doesn’t always work as smoothly and easily as we’d like. People have different styles of communicating their ideas; after reading several paragraphs of buzzwords and lingo we sometimes scratch our heads and wonder “who would understand this and be motivated to attend?” We can’t base our decision on that first impression, though, as rewrites could make the ideas clearer and more meaningful, so we reach out to peers, call the prospective speakers, and look at history to see how well topics are attended and rated.
Back when I worked for the U.S. government, we would sometimes have to respond to what was called a “Congressional.” This was a letter from a citizen written to their Congressperson or Senator instead of directly to our agency. The elected official would forward the constituent letter, with directions to let them know what we were going to do about the specific problem. In some cases we were challenged to grasp exactly what perceived slight the citizen was reporting, and whether we could do anything about it. In other cases, we could not say (in writing) what we thought. Sometimes the writer was a developer (not the software kind, the kind that knocks trees down to build houses); sometimes it was an ecologist (not the EcoHub kind, the kind that has trees and doesn’t want said developer to knock said trees down). In all cases, our responses were designed to keep the “Congressional” happy, since they voted on our budget. But, the letters we wished we could write were quite humorous (we thought).
After our January meeting, the pressure ratchets up as we finalize our educational tracks and prepare the communications that are a little like the Oscars. Only one session can be presented in each room for each time slot. That might include one or two co-speakers, but the rest of the contenders are going to get rejection notices, or perhaps “stand-by” notices, telling them that they didn’t take first place, though if the winner can’t attend, they could be called up. Like being the runner-up in a beauty contest. Now, in late February, the notes have gone out, and the political pressure begins.
Despite what ever rules we publish, communications we craft, or announcements we make, we know not everyone deals well with rejection. I’ve received a number of “sorry, no room, maybe later” emails over the past decade, as I’ve put in abstracts to speak at the conference, and know it can be disappointing. I have also had to try to explain to friends and colleagues how the process works, why we can’t present 42 sessions about upgrades, much as we’d like to, and how they might draft an abstract for the next cycle. It isn’t easy saying no.
This year, we got an interesting response from a potential speaker, who was not taking the rejection well (at all), and seemed determined to appeal our decision. I’m not sure about you, but after hours, days, weeks, okay, months putting together an agenda, I’m not likely to respond well to pressure tactics. If someone says “what could have made this an acceptable abstract?” I’m sure I’ll help them. But someone who says “you made a bad decision, pick me!” is going to get little help.
People in my office who submitted abstracts have already heard whether they were picked or not, and I can tell them face-to-face if they are not in first place. That’s easier to communicate than emailing someone you might not know, in another part of the world.
Should you get a response to your proposal saying “sorry, maybe next time” please don’t write to your congressperson. Look at the accepted proposals, try to learn what audiences are looking for, and move on.