Every year around the same time, the emails start piling up, inviting you to register for the year's conference season. Whether it's an international tradeshow in Vegas or an intimate two-day retreat in Aspen, determining what to attend can be a project all its own.

Before deciding, take a minute to think: How do conference leaders determine which speakers will bring something new to a conference, and which speakers aren't among just the same-old faces?

It's all about spotting the new names before they get big, keeping your conference spend specific to your goals, and matching your expectations to the speaker and event itself.

Based on my 10 years as an organizer of industry events, here are four easy ways to vet a conference you're considering attending to make sure you'll get what you're looking for.

1. Take a chance on new names

Sure, it's fun to brag about having seen industry influencers, social media celebrities, big-name investors, or entertainment hotshots. But popular names can highly inflate ticket prices to accommodate the speakers' costs.

If you're looking to learn, gain value, and put into practice knowledge you've gained at a conference, take a chance on a name who has a strong following and background—but hasn't spoken at every event on your industry roster. You'll get a lot more return on your ticket investment.

For example, SEMpdx's annual conference, Engage (formerly SearchFest), has been successful booking speakers who are on the rise rather than hitting their professional plateau. We were one of the first to book author and entrepreneur Marty Weintraub. We were impressed with his online presence and his work growing digital marketing agency, Aimclear. Though there were bigger names on the agenda, we had the most positive feedback from attendees on Weintraub's session.

2. Look for events that book doers, not just talkers

Let's face it, there is a difference between being good at achieving groundbreaking accomplishments and being good at talking about one's success. When you're looking at an agenda of a conference you might potentially attend, make sure you draw a distinction between the grit of work and the gloss of talking about that work after it's already happened.

Yes, writing a book is impressive, but if that's all the speaker has been doing for the past 10 years, you probably won't be getting first-hand, on-the-job insight from that speaker. If you want to hear what's really going on in the industry trenches, you'll be far better off learning from an executive leader, a founder, or an entrepreneur rather than someone who now makes a living on the conference circuit.

3. Set a goal for your conference commitments

Ask yourself this: Am I interested in big-picture takeaways, or strategies I can apply to my business?

If the former, you'll probably be more interested in speakers who come from the fields of user experience, psychology, and research; you might be less interested in hearing case studies and lessons learned from a sitting CEO. If you'd rather gain nitty-gritty, day-to-day tools you can implement in your business right away, consider opting for a lineup of relatively new speakers who remain active in their company.

Both types of speakers have value. Being satisfied with your conference experience is a matter of clarifying which type you're looking for and deciding accordingly.

4. Look into how the conference selects its speakers

The process of selecting speakers for national events is a year-round endeavor. We start planning the next year's event as soon as each Engage conference is complete. We forego the formal "pitching" process and instead approach speakers we're interested in based on the work that impresses us.

However, every event has a slightly different approach. A quick online search or visit to an event's speaker page will usually yield and explanation of how the organizers select each year's speakers.

SXSW events, for example, select panels via an open vote, so big-name celebrities with large followings are more likely to be selected. Some industry events require service providers to present alongside a real client, in an effort to ensure that sessions remain tactical. Some conferences, like TechCrunch Disrupt, ask for only a few sentences about a topic, while other events require potential speakers to complete an extensive dossier and submit a sample speaking video.

If an event asks only for a few sentences from speakers, organizers are probably going to make decisions based on name recognition and the size of the speaker's company. If speakers are selected by open voting, it might be a matter of who can galvanize a social media following rather than who has the best tactics to share. If a video sample is required, the speaking roster is probably going to feature more polished and experienced presenters who have the resources to compile that material. With a curated list that comes directly from organizers, you're more likely to catch an up-and-coming name who is still involved in day-to-day execution and strategy rather than spending time building his or her name as a speaker.

* * *

When you're making conference decisions this year, you ask yourself:

  • Do I want to see the same presenters I saw last year, or do I want new insight?
  • Do I want to learn from talkers, or doers?
  • What am I hoping to get out of this conference—overall leadership skills, or specific industry tools to implement?
  • How does this conference select its speakers, and what does that mean about their philosophy?

By asking and answering those questions before getting your conference badge, you're more likely to select conferences that add value and are worthy of the time and investment.

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Four Ways to Select the Right Conference for You to Attend

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image of Alan George

Alan George is the president of SEMpdx and marketing manager of Columbia Steel Casting Co. He has 10+ years of experience organizing events for business leaders. He spearheaded the rebranding of SEMpdx's annual digital marketing conference, Engage, to reflect the evolution of the industry.

Twitter at @superalan