Cover Photo Caption: The presentation room at CSICon 2018, Westgate Resort, Las Vegas
It’s that time of year again: CSICon 2019 is open for registration, and the “call for papers” for the Sunday Papers session has gone out.1 If you are at all considering submitting a proposal for the chance to address the conference—or are even just curious as to what the application experience is like—I’m in a perfect position to tell you all about it.
Why? Because exactly one year ago, I was reading the same announcement for the 2018 conference. That’s when a question I originally had while watching the Sunday Papers at the previous CSICon came back to me: “I wonder if I could do this … could I give a presentation at CSICon?”
And then, on the morning of October 21, 2018, less than a half-year after first seeing that call for papers, little old me—someone with no name recognition in the skeptical community (despite my tongue-in-cheek column title)—was presenting to an audience of hundreds at what is arguably the most prestigious skeptical conference in the world. For fifteen minutes, I was in the spotlight on the same Las Vegas stage that had just featured the likes of science and skeptical luminaries including Massimo Polidoro, Steven Fry, Jen Gunter, and even Richard Dawkins and James freakin’ Randi.
So, how did this happen? How did I obtain one of the six coveted speaking spots for the CSICon Sunday Papers last year? And more importantly, what do you need to do to present at CSICon this year?
First, let me explain exactly what the “Sunday Papers” are. What is officially called the Sunday Morning Papers Session is a tradition that began in 2002 at CSICon’s predecessor conference, The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM). It involves a multi-speaker session held on the final day. Unlike the speakers appearing in the first several days—those who are “well-known” and seasoned presenters—the Sunday Papers Session has the goal of giving unknown skeptics a turn at the podium. Rather than getting an unsolicited invitation from the conference organizers like the primary speakers, this is a ticket that needs to be earned.
My personal path to the CSICon stage started when I attended CSICon 2017, my very first skeptical conference. Listening to the Sunday Paper presenters, I thought “Hey, some of these folks are not the most polished of speakers. I could probably do this too.” This was quite a thought, coming from someone with no background in these types of presentations and with no obvious topic of interest to present at such an important skeptical gathering! I realized how long the odds were, and I dismissed the idea as a crazy flight of fancy.
But in early 2018, in an attempt to recruit for the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) team of which I am a member, I applied to do a presentation about our activist group at New York City Skeptics’ SpeedyCamp. Without much fuss, I was added to the schedule along with five other speakers. After securing a spot, I created a presentation that was just ten minutes long. (It’s not called “SpeedyCamp” for nothing.) Before I knew it, I had made my first presentation to skeptics. It had not gone too badly, and I even garnered one recruit for the GSoW team in the process. All of a sudden, the CSICon podium did not seem entirely out of reach.
So, with that first skeptical presentation under my belt, I had the courage to investigate for the first time exactly what was required to apply for a Sunday Papers presentation. The submission instructions said:
Provide a concise summary of your proposed presentation in at least 100 words … A description of how the topic is relevant to the CSI mission is mandatory … Relevant topics for papers include (but are not limited to): Analysis of questionable claims, rational examination of claimed paranormal phenomena, ideas in critical thinking education, psychology of belief, or any of the usual topics of interest explored in Skeptical Inquirer magazine or that support the mission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
That sounded easy enough. Using my SpeedyCamp presentation as a foundation, by the August 20 deadline, I created and sent in a proposal that (I hoped) satisfied all of the stated requirements.
To my amazement, on September 8, I received an email from Ray Hall, the chairman of the Sunday Papers Organization Committee,2 which said, “On behalf of the CSICon 2018 Organization Committee I write to inform you that your proposed talk, Guerrilla Skeptics: A Pathway to Skeptical Activism, has been selected for further consideration for the Sunday papers session. We completed the first pass selection process3 last night and I thank you for your patience. Your talk was one of nine selected for further consideration for one of six speaking slots out of sixteen worthy proposals.”4
I was actually shocked. This news came a full nine days after the expected notification date, so I had presumed that no news by that time was, in fact, bad news. But suddenly, speaking at CSICon had gone from the slimmest possibility it seemed back in 2017 to an amazing 66 percent probability of success. (Just nine proposals remained for the six spots.) I began to think that I might just actually get to do this! As I considered my odds, it occurred to me that some people might fail to follow-through. Everyone might not submit the final paperwork for any number of reasons. So, it seemed my chances were likely actually better than 66 percent. If just one person dropped out, my odds climbed to 75 percent.5
And then a moment of panic took hold. What if I actually was selected to speak? How was one presentation for nineteen people in a small café, adequate preparation for speaking to a room of hundreds from a stage in Vegas? I took a deep breath.
Planning for this eventuality weeks earlier, I had arranged to give my GSoW presentation at two local venues: for the Philadelphia skeptics group (PhACT) and a humanist group in Red Bank, New Jersey. This would allow me to gain some additional presentation experience. Hey, and even if I ultimately didn’t secure a CSICon spot, these were additional recruitment opportunities for my team. By the time I received that notice of making the first cut for CSICon, I had expanded my SpeedyCamp presentation to forty-five minutes (also improving many of the slides), and I was on both groups’ calendars for September as their featured speaker. Hopefully that would give me enough practice.
So, regarding the Sunday Papers, now that I had made the first cut, the next step was to submit two things: a written article and a presentation. The remaining candidates had just seven days to do all that—four days less than originally posted due to the first-cut announcement slip. So be aware: if you decide to try for a Sunday Papers spot, do as much work as early as possible. The time frame to get everything done—write an article plus create a presentation—if you make the first cut and have prepared nothing in advance, is rather tight.
To my advantage, I did not even need to write an article that, per the Sunday Papers submission instructions, needed to be “at the level of a magazine article (like that of Skeptical Inquirer magazine) or a journal article appropriate for your professional discipline.” As mentioned, my presentation was based on my already published, online article. I only had to provide a link.
So, the only thing I needed to do was to create a fifteen-minute presentation. (The time allotted for each Sunday Papers presentation was just half the time scheduled for the conference’s primary speakers. This could be seen as either a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.) By this time, I had two presentations I could tailor. I had a ten-minute presentation and a newer, improved, forty-five-minute one. I needed to cut the more recent (better) version down by two-thirds. Yikes! That process did take some work, including many, many dry-runs to get the timing correct. I actually worked on and completed the CSICon presentation while also planning for and presenting at my two local venues in early September. I really should have planned that better! On the night before the September 14 deadline, with a good degree of satisfaction, I submitted my presentation (with a link to my published paper) to Ray Hall.
Then, on September 21, after a week on pins and needles, I received the following email from Hall: “The CSICon 2018 Organization Committee has finalized our selections6 and we are pleased to formally invite you to present your talk at this year’s Sunday Papers session. Please respond to this email if you will accept one of our 15-minute speaking slots on the Sunday morning of CSICon 2018. Once the committee has confirmed the speakers, we will send out a final schedule of the Papers Session.”
I had done it! For the better part of the day I was caught between euphoria: “OMG, I get to speak at CSICon!” and absolute dread: “OMFG, now I have to speak at CSICon … from a stage in front of hundreds of skeptics who will already have heard from Dawkins and Randi. What the hell had I done?” There was nothing left to do but wait for the big day, Sunday, October 21—exactly a month away.
So, to summarize, how did I get invited to speak at CSICon? I had a topic of interest to the Sunday Papers session organizers, put together a convincing proposal on the subject (based on a paper I already had published), and then submitted an interesting presentation for consideration by the selection committee. I also, no doubt, had a large degree of luck (do skeptics believe in luck?).
The clock is ticking. If you want to take a shot at this, I suggest you submit a proposal, and get to work on an article and presentation—pronto!
- To submit a proposal for 2019, see the application here.
- Hall told me that “The committee varies in size and expertise depending on the content of the proposals. I have a list of experts to incorporate into the process if any of the proposals are significantly outside my field.”
- I asked Hall to explain the criteria used to make the selections for the first cut. He said: “In terms of the selection process, the first cut is to ensure the topic aligns with the mission of skepticism and the dissemination of critical thinking skills. If the talk is a good fit, the selection criteria, like skepticism itself, are about evidence and logic. Papers that are data driven get high priority. Sometimes I get proposals that are mostly a description of a project in the planning stages, or sometimes it seems the proposal in only an attempt to use the stage to crowd source a project. These are given much lower priority than studies that have already collected and analyzed data. Priority also can go towards media campaigns that have measurable outcomes to report. Proposals that make it to the stage have some or all of these characteristics: they are well researched (with citations), introduce new data and analysis, discuss successes in media outreach, and the speaker’s credentials are well matched to the content of the proposal.”
- Hall divulged that twenty-one proposals in all (“a typical number”) had been received. So, I presume that five did not meet the committee’s criteria for consideration.
- It turns out that this had been only wishful thinking. Hall told me that everyone who passed the first cut submitted something for consideration. Hall also said that “Only a few have dropped out at this stage in my 15 years of vetting.”
- I asked Hall to explain the criteria used to make the final selections. He said: “This depends on the variety of the submissions. Weight goes to those who have been conscientious towards the 15 minute limit. I always get a couple submission that offer powerpoint slide sets that have more than 60 slides—clearly an indication that the speaker has not taken the constraints seriously, or has limited experience on the stage.”
My articles mentioned above: