/ CONFERENCE

Do's and don'ts for conference organizers, a speaker's point-of-view

My job requires me to speak at conferences. Despite the current situation, this hasn’t changed much. At the time of this writing, I submitted 439 different proposals to 215 unique conferences in 2020.

I already wrote some advice for junior conference speakers. As a follow-up, I’d like to offer my view on the organization of conferences, from my speaker’s point-of-view. While the online and the on-site experiences are quite different, most of my feedback applies to both.

DO send approval letters

Let’s start easy. Just send approval emails when you’ve made the decision. It feels weird to learn about one’s acceptance from the conference website.

For the record, it’s not a theoretical point. It happened to me on more than one occasion. Weird.

DO send rejection letters

It goes without saying, but we need to plan our speaking gigs. I’m talking about travel and accommodation, but not only. Time spent at the conference is time that is not spent somewhere else:

  • if one is an employee, one needs to ask one’s boss
  • if one is a consultant, one needs to let know the customer about one’s time away
  • if one speaks professionally, choosing between conferences set during the same timeframe
  • etc.

Letting rejected speakers know about their status as early as possible allow them to plan depending on their respective situations.

Please provide the date limit for which you’ll send acceptance/rejection letters along with the Call for Papers…​ and stick to it! It feels unpleasant to have to reach out to organizers to query one’s status after the date has passed.

On the other side, I understand organizers might want to keep some options in case selected speakers cancel their attendance. But then, please be upfront about it, and communicate it straightforwardly: let speakers choose whether they accept this option or not.

DO offer feedback on rejections

I get it, organizing a conference is a lot of work. Really. However, sending a rejection email with the same auto-generated statement sends a bad signal. Here’s a sample of the email I receive:

We’re sorry to inform you that your proposal REDACTED for REDACTED was refused.

Do keep in mind that we received over X proposals and the available slots are very limited!

We would like to thank you sincerely for your proposal and shown interest.

If you’re interested in purchasing a ticket for the conference we are happy to offer you a Y% discount using the following URL.

It feels as if you care no more about speakers, once you’ve rejected their proposal(s). And still, this year’s rejected speakers could be next year’s accepted speakers.

If the selection process has been transparent, why don’t you provide the data you based your decision on? A bare minimum is to provide the feedback upon request. But it’s better if you send it along with the rejection email.

DON’T force presentation templates

Some conferences want to provide a sense of unity to presentations. For that reason, they provide a presentation template that speakers need to apply to each slide of their deck. It’s not a good idea:

  1. Most templates are not templates. They are just slide decks. Hence, every speaker needs to copy-paste one’s content into the provided "template", then adapt it. I believe that the time I spend on this can be better spent rehearsing or digging deeper, or whatever.
  2. I know at least the following widespread presentation software/stacks: Microsoft PowerPoint, Apple Keynote, Google Slides, and Reveal.JS. It means organizers need to provide templates for them. Again, don’t you have anything else to spend your time on?

If your marketing team thinks this is important, there’s a much easier way. Just set a border on the screen where you display the slides - see it in action.

DO organize a speakers' dinner

Among the benefits of being a speaker is the networking part: you get to meet interesting people, talk to them, know them and sometimes, keep in touch. This is only made possible because organizers take some time (and money?) to organize a time for speakers to mingle together.

It’s a big miss if there’s no such time…​ and it removes a huge benefit of speaking at conferences.

DO provide a quiet room

Obviously, the following items are not meant for online conferences. But the pandemics are not going to last forever.

Some speakers I know of travel a lot. Providing a room where they can rest is basic care.

I didn’t use the term "speakers room", but "quiet room" on purpose: Speakers are not special snowflakes that need to be protected from the crowd. I’m not against a dedicated speakers' room if one is available. But the most important property is that it must be quiet.

There’s one more requirement: provide enough power plugs so that speakers can recharge their laptops (and phones), for this conference - and potentially the next one(s).

DO provide Wifi

I benefit from a great mobile phone plan, with 25Gb data across all European countries plus several other countries. Otherwise, I know that not every mobile company has such a plan.

For this reason, it’s useful to provide a free reliable Wifi. There should be one dedicated to speakers so that it can deliver data with acceptable speed. If the Wifi is open to everyone, the risk is that a lot of attendees will connect and make the network unusable. Note that it doesn’t prevent the conference to provide two Wifi networks, one for speakers and one for attendees.

Extra points if the password is available on the badge, or in the speakers' room. While it seems to be a great idea to send the password by email, speakers receive a lot of emails, and there’s a high chance they will overlook it. The lesson here is that it’s not enough to give the right data, you should provide it at the right time.

DO have a dedicated speakers' registration desk

I already wrote that speakers are not special snowflakes. Let me reinstate it here. And yet, we do have specific constraints.

It’s not uncommon to rush directly from the airport to the venue, just in time for our talk. If we need to queue, we might be running late, which is bad for everybody: speaker, attendees, and organizers.

Hence, a dedicated registration queue is more than appreciated, it’s necessary. Even better, give out the badges at the speakers' dinner, or send an email with a QR code ahead of time.

DO have a dedicated speaker’s lunch queue

For the same reason, I’d recommend having a dedicated speaker’s queue for lunch. In general, I am always stressed to be on time. This is worse if the conference scheduled my talk in the slot just after lunchtime: having to queue for ages and see the clock ticking won’t make my talk better, far from it.

This is worse if the food is bad…​ Sorry, I’m French.

DO/DON’T rank talks

Ranking talks is good, depending on what one wants to achieve. In my experience, I’ve seen two reasons:

Provide feedback to the speaker, in the spirit of continuous improvement

As a speaker, I care most about that. There’s always room for improvement, and I can get better if I get the right feedback. In that case, grades are useless: comments are the most useful way to get this feedback.

Yes, I understand that most attendees won’t leave any comment at all, but I prefer a couple of worthwhile comments instead of all the room leaving good grades.

Competition

Who doesn’t want to have the best talk at a conference, or at least be in the top X? I, for sure, love when it happens. Yet, at the same time, I must admit it brings nothing but a nice rub on my ego.

As conference organizers, if you want to provide a grading system, make it at least fair. For example, I’ve had experienced the following: the grading system discards the votes where there are less than 20 votes. That seems like a good idea because lower numbers mean they are not representative. Now, as conference organizers, you schedule the most well-known speakers in the biggest room, with a 300 seats' capacity. Other rooms have 50 seats' capacity. But it’s nearly impossible to have 20 votes out of 50 people - provided the room is full.

As a consequence, only talks that took place in the 300 seats' room can compete. This is the poster child for self-fulfilling prophecies: the organizers were right to put those talks in this room!

DO expense speakers

This last point might be the most controversial. But what would be a conference without speakers? Shouldn’t they be cared for? This requires a bit of context.

First, is the conference community-based or commercial? Or to put it more bluntly, is the conference’s main goal to make money, or not? In the first case, it stands to reason to help speakers by reimbursing their travels and accommodations expenses and even paying for their time. If community-based conferences that charge attendees a low fee can reimburse, what reason would money-oriented ones invoke not to?

Then, there’s the profile of the speaker. Speaking is now my job, but before that, I took time off to speak at conferences. If I used my own free time to speak at your conference, why would I also pay for travel and accommodation?

Some conferences consider themselves above that: they attract enough good speakers as it is. That’s fine…​ if you belong to that exclusive club. If not, then my advice would be to think about your speakers' compensation scheme and to be transparent about it.

DO rotate speakers

I understand that some speakers are so good that it’s a hard choice for conference organizers to do without them. These speakers attract attendees who are the measure of the success of a conference.

On the flip side, for some conferences, only the names of the talk change from year to year. Speakers are the same. Think that it becomes perhaps boring to watch the same speaker, even the greatest ones, at one point or another.

Conclusion

Most of the advice above should be common sense. It feels redundant having to write it. But it’s not.

If you’re a conference organizer, I’d be grateful if you took some time to read this post and think about applying some of those recommendations.

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Currently working for Hazelcast. Also double as a trainer and triples as a book author.

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Do's and don'ts for conference organizers, a speaker's point-of-view
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