Invited Talks versus Submitted Talks

Recently, after giving a flurry of talks and press interviews, I started talking to colleagues from a variety of fields about the process of speaking and the somewhat bizarre rituals that occur in order to create good events.  Almost everyone I talked to had some funny story about speaking, and the humor was often generated by unexpected deviations from the community norms around talks.

Which made me realize that there were community norms, but like most norms, they were encoded and passive and rarely discussed.  Which naturally made me want to discuss them.  So now, settle back and enjoy a few definitions, a brief rant, and the occasionally lame joke.

Now that you know why I’m writing this post, let’s get to the what of the matter.

Invited talks are exactly what they sound like: an inviter (usually an individual, though often acting on behalf of a group as an organizer, curator, or editor) and an invitee (presumably an expert in the field).  The inviter generally sends the invitee a personal note or gives them a call, asks if they’d like to talk at a particular event, and relays details about the event.  The implicit assumption is that the invitee is doing the inviter (or at least the inviter’s organization) a favor by appearing; travel costs are often covered and if they aren’t, the invitee is at least wined and dined.  The invitee is free to talk about whatever they want and they submit nothing in advance.

This usually works out well because the community is self-policing.  If the invitee was a bad speaker or prone to giving inappropriate talks, they wouldn’t get invited to give them again – interests are aligned because presumably the invitee wants to be heard in the world and so is motivated to present such that people will continue to listen.  And because they are invited by an individual, there is also a smaller social effect at work, such that the invitee doesn’t want to disappoint the inviter, who puts some of their reputation as an editor/curator/whatever on the line in having issued the invitation.  A bad talk is bad for all and so there is a strong aligned pressures for everyone involved.

But invited talks do have a significant downside: they favor the established over the undiscovered.  You’ll rarely see a grad student give an invited talk, for example, unless they have a particularly notable career already.  Inviters tend to work with known quantities, often those they have personal ties with, and this can lead to a cyclical series of invitations that means you hear the same ten people speak most of the time.  It also means that hot topics tend to rise to the top because of a recency effect: the inviters often heard the invitee speak recently, which makes them top-of-mind for inviting.

Submitted talks aren’t new, but they are become more common in some arenas.  Basically, they’re the opposite of an invited talk: people are asked to submit proposals or videos or some sort of evidence of what a talk is going to be about to the inviters, and then the inviters select from that pool.  Usually this submission process is open to almost everyone, although there may be explicit or implicit requirements.

Originally, these were most common in very large academic conferences, where there were main invited talks, but plenty of smaller sessions that were filled in with people presenting papers, often in a panel format.  And by people, I generally mean grad students – they didn’t get travel money, they have no reputation, they’re just hoping to get noticed.  It isn’t quite vanity press, in that many more submit than get picked; it is more like trying to walk-on to a sports team – you only really show up if you think you’ve got a reasonable chance of being picked.

Recently, however, this format has expanded beyond second-tier academic slots.  With the rise of social media and the increasing ease of collecting electronic video, many venues, including TED and Ignite, have increasingly been at least partially filled with submitted talks.  The 2013 TED has promised that over half their speakers will come from a “worldwide talent search”, in which people submit applications and give a demo talk.

There is an argument to be made that the submitted talk is actually a form of egalitarianism.  Yes, not everyone always has the ability to submit, but it is certainly more broad reaching than the invited talk and it does help promote new voices.  In theory, the best of the best can rise to the top, even if they’ve never been seen before or don’t have the same stodgy track record that others may insistent upon.

But a major drawback is that because most submitted talks are still curated, the inviters actually not have significantly more control than with invited talks.  Not only are they taking a pass at initial submissions, but they continue that editorial power down the line; the presumption is that there are always more people who submitted than were selected, so if your talk doesn’t fall into the desired shape, you can be replaced.  Unlike the invited talk, where oversight is actively discouraged and inviters would have difficulty pulling back from someone once they have been invited and announced, submitted talks give inviters the ability to meddle in the content of the talk itself.

And why not?  After all, it is the inviters conference and can’t they damn well do what they please?  Depends on your goal for talks.  The trouble is that a format that appears more egalitarian (submitted talks) can actually be significantly less so because of the ability of the inviters to control content.  Just as tenure exists in academia to make sure that controversial research still gets done and controversial classes still get taught, there is a very real danger that the curation of submitted talks can actually stifle the very voices that the format originally encouraged.

Perhaps more passively (and more importantly), submitted talks also privilege a certain kind of speaker: one with time on their hands.

Preparing a submission, a video, and trying out adds to the already onerous process of doing a talk, which is particularly difficult if you’re not simply sitting on your duff and are actually trying to do things in the world.  In academia, the active researcher always has things happening in their lab and simply may not have time to go search for speaking opportunities and submit themselves to them – that is an inhibiting pressure in a world of competing pressures.  And outside of academia, people who are actively directing projects meant to help and change and create face the same pressures: they may simply be too busy to submit a talk that, if they were invited, they could find the time to give.

This is the true loss of submitted talks for me.  As someone who has never looked for the opportunity to speak, I treasure the process of spreading a particular message but would much rather be building than looking for someplace to talk about what I’m building. We can avoid the censorship issue by simply insuring that submitted speakers are allowed to speak freely on the topic of their choice, but it is difficult to get around the sheer inhibiting pressure that is the act of submission.  Any college admissions officer will tell you that inviting minority students to attend guarantees you higher admission from that pool that asking them to submit themselves, and such invitations have had a significant impact on the face of college enrollment.

Submitted talks make life easy for inviters, but I doubt highly that is the explanation for their rise.  Its us, the masses, the people who dream of one day being on the TED stage.  It fuels reality TV and game shows and the idea that we can be famous, if only just for a moment.

The problem is, fame should actually be earned – it should be a mark of respect for genuine achievements.  And in our clamor to have the chance at the TED stage, we’ve forgotten that what made TED so unique was the ability to see truly insightful talks by people who had put years into gaining the expertise that made their short talks such a mind blast of knowledge.  The reason we loved TED talks was because they were drinking straight from the geek tap.  And ultimately, submitted talks will water that down, because you will lose out on those geeks who you have to ask to come out of the lab or their non-profit or the boardroom long enough to talk to us about something they are truly expert about.

Let us do our job, as inviters and audiences, and not just pander to the need for instant fame.  Go find the speakers too busy doing awesomeness to submit an application and make them talk, for all our sakes.