If I were running a conference, here's how I'd approach the talk selection process:

  1. Skip the call for proposals entirely.
  2. Advise those interested in speaking to prepare a video of the first three minutes of their talk.
  3. Conference organizers do a first pass on the videos to weed out the weakest submissions.
  4. All registered attendees are asked to vote on the remaining videos.
  5. After votes are tabulated, the top N speakers are offered the chance to present their full talk at the conference.
  6. Speakers that didn't make the cut can choose to run small breakout groups after the main event.

I think this approach is superior to the standard CFP process for the following reasons:

  1. It allows for the evaluation of speakers on their speaking, rather than their ability to write a proposal. Imagine your results if you hired someone based solely on the writing quality of their cover letter. You'd end up with a strong writer, but would likely discover that writing skills and day-to-day job performance are only somewhat correlated. So it goes with talk proposals. Conference organizers sometimes accept intriguing proposals only to discover that the speaker does not have the ability to present a compelling talk on that topic.
  2. It lets the audience choose the topics that will be covered at the conference. Each year, conference organizers must guess which subjects will be most useful to their attendees. Why guess when you can collect just-in-time data?
  3. It is relatively unbiased against new speakers. In the normal CFP process, inexperienced presenters are often edged out by their better-known peers (particularly if they are friends of the organizers). It requires a leap of faith to accept a rookie's talk without any proof that they'll do it justice. Under my system, new and experienced speakers alike must both prove they're prepared to do a great job.
  4. It leverages the wisdom of the crowd. It seems likely that 300 attendees in aggregate will make more informed decisions than a small handful of already overworked organizers.
  5. It's easier on those running the conference. Organizationally, certainly; but also socially. If the talks at a conference are of poor quality, it's natural to blame the organizers. But if the attendees as a group selected the speakers, they are more likely to empathize with the difficulty of predicting speaking success. Moreover, the attendees would likely be biased to consider the speakers to be better quality than they were, rather than face the cognitive dissonance of having chosen bad speakers.

Possible drawbacks of this approach include the following:

  1. It may be harder to market a conference with no pre-announced speakers. LessConf can sell out without telling anyone who will speak, but this seems to be an exception. Perhaps my approach would pair well with choosing a few anchor speakers who are guaranteed slots. This retains most of the advantages above while ensuring that organizers have some big names to announce.
  2. It's unlikely to address a lack of diversity amongst speakers. Organizers must often work to ensure that minority groups are sufficiently represented in the final list of selected speakers. Like the first issue, this could be addressed by having a small group of (diverse) pre-selected speakers.

What say you, conference organizers? Any interest in giving this a shot? Have I missed any potential drawbacks?

Note: I made some significant changes to my proposed process based on feedback from the commenters below. Thanks to all of you for the ideas!