An open letter to conference organizers

Dear Conference Organizer:

For centuries you and your peers have helped spread good ideas. For that, I like you. Events are important and organizing them is a thankless job. I’ve run my share of events, so I know. But there is an unspoken, often forgotten, problem I’m compelled to bring to your attention: most speakers do a bad job.

Some of this is not your fault. Good speakers are hard to find, especially ones who are available, affordable, and reputable. It’s challenging to fill an afternoon with great speakers, much less a 5 day, 3 track program. But it’s commonly forgotten in your trade, or by your sponsors, that speakers are the center of your event. They are the core of the agenda. They are what you advertise. And it’s what speakers promise to teach that gets people to pay to come. Yet once signed up to speak, they are often an afterthought, neglected behind the other critical tasks organizers have to manage.

There are simple and inexpensive ways to solve this problem.

  1. Don’t forget speakers are the stars. Most professional events sell tickets based on what attendees will learn and experience from the speakers. The people on stage are the primary talent. It’s true there are dozens of other demanding tasks in planning an event, but don’t make the mistake of losing the speakers in the shuffle. Make choosing and supporting them a top priority.
  2. Provide audience demographics.  Make it easy for speakers to make the right assumptions about your audience. Give a sheet listing: age breakdown, job titles, gender breakdown, reasons for attending, and more. Most events have this information for marketing purposes, but rarely provide it to the speakers who need it the most. If nothing else providing this data helps reminds speakers it’s the audience that matters, not their egos.
  3. Give them a rundown sheet or a checklist. There are many details speakers have to take care of, and it’s in your interested speakers do as many of them as possible.  If you give a rundown sheet, listing where they need to be and when, contact phone numbers, addresses, and confirmation numbers, odds go up they’ll do fewer stupid things. And a great checklist for preparing to speak, helps remind them of the little things that make a big difference.
  4. Let speakers use their own laptops, and slide designs. Speakers are performers and you want them as comfortable as possible (both Keynote and Powerpoint provide a special view that shows the next slide, time elapsed, and other performance enhancing features that they may depend on). Moving slide decks between computers often breaks fonts and other formatting, problems organizers rarely notice, but can be devastating to even a well prepared speaker. Give a basic template to speakers as an option if you must, or as a head start for first time speakers, but that’s the limit of the value of slide templates. The audience is sitting there all day and knows where they are. Have an interstitial slide with your branding or event info, but make that your task, not the speakers.
  5. Send example videos from previous years.  Talking about presenting and watching a good presenter present are different things. Give people a sense of what you, as an organizer, hope they achieve. It will also familiarize them with what attendees saw, and how they responded, in previous years.
  6. Schedule a walkthrough / tech-check for each speaker. We know how fear works – unfamiliar rooms and spaces increase people’s nervousness. If you schedule a 15 minute slot early in the day, or the day before, for speakers to go to the room, try out their gear, and get comfortable, everyone wins. This reduces the risks of letting speakers use their own laptops, as you’ve tested their gear before they speak. It’s also insurance against any compatibility issues (projectors vs. laptops), as there is nothing worse than discovering these problems in front of a live crowd.
  7. Provide speaker training. There are many great books on public speaking and books are cheap. Send them to your speakers, and do it far enough in advance for it to impact their preparation. It signifies you care about their skills and want them to do their best. If even 20% of them read the book, and each avoid one basic mistake, it will pay off dramatically in higher quality sessions. Presentation Zen, which focuses on slide design, and my own book, Confessions of a Public Speaker, which covers everything else, make excellent companions. Major events and corporations hire speaker coaches, as speaking is a performance skill, but this can be expensive for large events. Books are an affordable place to start. Put this in a packet with #1, and send it out when you sign a speaker.
  8. Have a volunteer in the room during the session. Every room should have a volunteer who can assist the speaker for any last minute needs or problems. This includes assisting with tech problems, getting water, helping with Q&A at the end and more. For a free ticket, many people will be happy to play this role, so everyone wins.
  9. Provide confidence monitors in every room.  One distracting habit among many speakers is they look at their slides, annoying the audience. Some of this is lack of practice, but part of the problem is room design. If you put a confidence monitor in the front of the room, facing the speaker, so they can see their own slides while looking at the audience, everyone wins. It’s not expensive, has clear benefits and increases every speaker’s ability to do a good job. Events like Ignite Seattle consistently do this, which helps explain why so many good talks have happened there.
  10. Have a speaker’s dinner or happy hour.  Have an evening before, or early in, the event where speakers can meet each other, and the organizers, and make some social connections. You want the speakers to be happy and friendly at the event, as it’s the interactions they have with your customers between sessions that are likely to be the most memorable for them. The more social you are with speakers, the more social they will be with your attendees. And some speakers are dying to meet some of the other speakers and that’s made easier if you lead the way.
  11. Rate your speakers and share the data.  Speakers rarely get any useful feedback on how well they did. Everyone is polite and tells them they were great, even when they bombed. Most events do surveys after each session, but the data oddly never makes it to the speakers. This is broken. A simple stack ranking tells every speaker how they compared against their peers (e.g. “You were the 5th best speaker out of 10, based on audience surveys”) is a potent  motivator for them to examine their skills, and to pay attention to what the better speakers did differently.  Have a best session award, so everyone sees the feedback loop in action. UIE events even pays speakers a bonus that gets larger the better they scored. Shouldn’t pay be tied to performance for speakers too?

Please consider these simple things. You, your audience and your speakers all benefit at the same time. Perhaps you know better ways that the ones in this list – that’s fantastic and I’d love to hear about them, and I’d be happy to help promote their use to other organizers.

Signed,

– Scott Berkun, A speaker

Follow Up: See An open letter to speakers. Or my book, Confessions of a Public Speaker.

21 Responses to “An open letter to conference organizers”

  1. Kristofer Layon

    Fabulous suggestions, Scott! I’m proud do to several of them already, but will strive to add more to MinneWebCon’s *done* list. =)

    Reply
  2. Scott Berkun

    Kristofer: thanks – let me know if you think of any I should add. I’m sure there are other good ideas I’m forgetting or have never seen myself.

    Reply
  3. Scott Berkun

    Good suggestion: Have an “Ask the experts” social hour, where the speakers are invited to hang out near food/drinks and answer questions. (From here)

    Reply
  4. Dux

    Great points! Another suggestion is to build an online community for speakers so that even after conference, speakers can exchange ideas/tips/tricks to improve themselves for next year’s conference

    Reply
  5. Veronique Palmer

    I agree 100%! Most of the things you mentioned irritate me as well.

    I would just like to add to your list – making PowerPoint best practices available to speakers too. One would think that getting to speaker level you would be savvy enough to follow ppt best practices, but I very seldom see this. It drives me mad. Slide after slide of long winded paragraphs in tiny fonts and badly aligned elements. That’s not the way things should be done at this level.

    >V<

    Reply
  6. Corporate Geek

    All great tips. I’ve used most of them in the events I organized and they work.

    I would add one more thing to the list though: have a backup plan for the major logistic items that can go wrong and share them with the speakers. This applies especially when you have an event which mixes a physical audience and a virtual one, where there are more things that can go wrong.

    Reply
  7. Dan Greenberg

    GREAT suggestions! I wish all conference organizers followed these basic tips!

    One refinement: a walk through is indeed critical, but it’s important that the walk through be as close to the real thing as possible without the audience. At one conference where I spoke, the walk-throughs were in the room, with the mics and slides, and the lights dimmed. The talks, though, had the house lights _off_ and a very bright light on the podium to read your notes. This created the problem that you could not see the 800 people in the audience if you looked up… And then could not see your notes because your eyes had adjusted to the dark. It was horribly disorienting… So much so that one speaker (not me) passed out. Rather, I gave the worst talk I’ve ever given. So…

    Offer a walk through slot for every speaker. Remember that this is as much to increase the comfort of the speakers by letting them get oriented as it is a “sound check” of the technology. Make sure everything – lighting, mics, PCs, “clickers” – are exactly the same.

    Reply
  8. Emily holweck

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write such a great article. It made me feel good to read it because our conference goes already according to the points: 2,4,5,6,8, 9, 10 and because it was a good source for implementing new ideas and improve the coming conferences. Thank you! Hope to see you in Sweden so you can make a quality check ;-) Emily

    Reply
  9. mark reynolds

    I wanted to repost this letter, because I have a very peculiar mental image associated with this. I see a dying person, kneeling in an open field, progressing through the five stages of grief as they are grappling with their impending death. They plead to the sky for help, with sadness, with anger, with despair, hoping that someone will come down and save them. Their sense of peace comes only when they realize that the best is not yet to come but is what they already have. They pick themselves back up and continue along, determined not only to live out the rest of their life by treasuring what they have, but also in confident defiance of the empty promises of an afterlife. Death is only tragic when you are promised that life still lives beyond it.

    Reply
  10. Leanne

    Typo in item #7: “Provide confidence monitors in ever room” should be “every room”

    Reply
  11. Zsolt Fabok

    Great post, it will help me a lot with my next events.

    However, there is a third group (besides organisers and speakers) who could use an open letter: the hosts. I had the “pleasure” to be announced by a not prepared and disrespectful host, and this made the first part of my talk very hard, if you know what I mean.

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. […] It was an exceptionally well planned event. They did smart things like keeping talk length down to 20 minutes, having a social room with a live-simulcast, and mixing in ignite talks for a change of pace. They also sent all the speakers a dossier on the attendees, with demographics on their background we could use to aim our talks at. It makes my job as a speaker so much easier when the organizers are committed to making the event a great experience. […]

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