Dear Conference Organizers: Improving The Speaker Experience

Juggling several speaking engagements coming up, I’m reminded of how hard the job of conference organizers is.  Having helped to run ApacheCon as part of a volunteer team for years, I know how difficult it is to select talks, wrangle speaker acceptances (and rejections), and ensure your final conference schedule is appealing.  Updating the clunky CFP system and keeping the finicky schedule website updated are two problems that software hasn’t solved yet.

Equally important is how the conference acceptance & organization process works from the speaker’s side.  Remember?  Those people who make all the content your conference relies on?  All those people who you love and appreciate – not that you pay them anything – and who you’ll do anything to fix last-minute problems for?  While we can’t prevent all the last minute problems, there are a few simple steps to improve the speaker communication process to help prevent problems.

Speakers are as busy as you are – and your conference isn’t their dayjob.  So ensuring all emails going to your speakers are very clear, detailed, and to the point is doubly important.  Including the right kind of content directly in each email is important to serve as a reminder when speakers are searching their emails in a hurry later.  Having a detailed speaker guide page on your website that’s comprehensive and findable is needed too – and it should be simple to repurpose this content later.  Just emailing the link isn’t enough for when the speaker’s rushing to find the information.

There are a lot of posts about improving the speaker experience, so let’s just focus on one topic here: key points to put in emails to speakers.

Simple Things Accepted Speakers Want To Know

  • Do they have to register? If yes, state clearly that they must do so, exactly how to do it (speaker discount code), and include the reg link right there in the email. If your email system knows who’s registered, please either include or don’t include this point in future emails to each speaker.
  • Session Room & Projector Details
    • Date/Time they’re speaking. Include the full date, exact local time, and the day of the week.  Knowing the day of the week helps prevent errant off-by-one travel mixups.
    • Length of session.  Just let them know directly, rather than having to figure it out from your website.  Also: do your attendees expect Q&A at the end of the session or no?
    • Title & Abstract they submitted.  They submitted to your CFP months ago, so reminding them up front what you’re accepting really helps.
    • Projector details like aspect ratio and input(s) accepted. Telling speakers up front 16:9 or 4:3 saves headaches later with fancy backgrounds, and reminding them which adapters to bring makes packing easy.
    • Microphone / sound system details. This is doubly helpful for newcomers – also, noting explicitly if sessions are recorded is key to ensuring people repeat the question before answering at the end of sessions.
    • Bring their laptop. It’s not always obvious, especially to speakers new to your conference that they’ll be running the slides from their own laptop on your podium.
  • Slides, Practicing, Recordings, IP
    • Slide formats or conference graphics. If you require a custom slide format (you shouldn’t, BTW), let speakers know what options there might be. In any case, include a link to some conference logos that speakers can incorporate in slides directly for when they want to give you credit.
    • Where/when to upload slides. Many speakers will be late, but including a clear and simple instructions with a link helps get more slides in your system.
    • IP Policy for slides, video, audio. You do have a clear speaker agreement about how conference videos, etc. can be shared, don’t you?  And a clear indication if my talk is going to be recorded audio or video?  A lot of conferences include some rooms in videos but not others; telling speakers directly if they will be recorded helps.
    • Green room / Speaker practice room available? If you have one, include detailed directions for how to find it. Some speakers count on being able to find this quiet spot for practice right when they arrive.
    • Conference badges, IDs, affiliations. Tell speakers exactly what you will print on their conference badge – and include a way for them to update it.
  • Conference & Location Details
    • Hotel / Travel / Speaker Assistance Contacts. Modern technology conferences no longer pay for these things for session speakers, but be sure to include the name of the hotel/conference center in your emails, along with links to how to register & get there.
    • Code of Conduct. Include the link. If you have any concerns that some of your sessions may prove problematic, include a clear reminder that you expect everyone attending to abide by your CoC.
    • Accessibility issues. If your conference space has any sort of unusual physical layout, be sure to note that. Raised stairs to podiums? No podium at all? Long distance between session rooms and the speaker room (or the bathrooms!)? Physical disabilities are not always obvious.
    • WiFi – where & how good? Yes, tech conferences have wifi.  But do you run a reliable and high bandwidth wifi yourself, or do you simply rely on the default hotel/conference center network with hiccups? In particular, speakers want to know where the conference wifi will work: in the hotel? In hallways, other open spaces? All session areas and in the green room?
  • Avoid The Mortal Sin Of Conference Organizers
    • Inform all your CFP submitters of their status. Especially inform anyone who was rejected or waitlisted.  It’s really sad to submit to a CFP but never, ever hear anything back.

If you are a speaker – what did I miss? Comment or tweet @ShaneCurcuru. There are a plenty of guides for speakers out there, but we still have a way to go in terms of some similarity in how conference organizers communicate with speakers.  All the conferences I attend provide great speaker support onside, but I keep seeing places where speakers wouldn’t have needed to ask for help if the communication ahead of time had been clearer.

As we all know, good communication doesn’t ensure every speaker’s trip is smooth or that their slides are on time.  Some speakers don’t read all their emails, but including as much information up-front in emails – and easily findable on your conference website – will help reduce questions and emergencies later.

Other Conference Resources

The lack of a solid and widely-used CFP system is well known across the tech industry, although there are a handful of open source tools with enough features and community to start gaining real traction.

FOSS Conference Tools

  • OpenCFP (MIT) a PHP-based conference talk submission system.
  • OpenConferenceWare (MIT) a Ruby on Rails open source web application for supporting conference-like events.
  • Open Source Event Manager (MIT) a Ruby on Rails event management tool tailored to Free and Open Source Software conferences.
  • Frab (MIT) a Ruby on Rails application derived from pentabarf.

@rachelandrew posted “What I Learned From Posting a Survey of Conference Speakers” with great feedback from a speaker survey.

If you are (or want to be) a speaker, you should sign up for Technically Speaking, a nice little newsletter with tips and CFPs.  If you’re a conference organizer, you should sponsor @catehstn and @chiuki!

FOSS Conference Listings

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Briefly, Shane is: a father and husband, a friend, a geek, a Member and director of the ASF, a baker, an ex-Loti, a BMW driver, a punny guy, a gamer, and lifelong resident within the 495 belt. Oh, and we have cats.

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