The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Conference organiser tips (from a speaker's perspective)

– November 16th, 2013 –

Following on from my post about speaker and audience tips, I thought I’d also share a few tips for conference organisers from a speaker’s perspective.

I’ve spoken at well over fifty events over the past few years to upwards of about four thousand people. Along the way, I’ve had mixed experiences of what it’s like to speak at conferences big and small. Mostly, of course, the experience has been great. Organisers are lovely people, who work extremely hard and appreciate you being there and look after you well. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. If you’re thinking about organising a conference this coming year, maybe bear some of these details in mind.

  1. Logistics. Well in advance, give the speakers the logistical details; who’s meeting them at the airport, where they’re staying and for how long, what time the parties are, what other commitments they have etc. If you don’t have them, let them know you don’t have them yet and that you haven’t forgotten them.

  2. Pay them. Even if it’s a small amount, but especially if your conference is for profit and relies on the quality of their talks to sell tickets. Of course, travel expenses should be covered. Now, this may not apply to some ‘community’ conferences with many, many speakers. But, for most, it applies.

  3. Arrange travel. Book their flights (and make sure you ask for their frequent flyer number), pick them up from the airport, ferry them around if need be. They’re not to be pampered, but don’t underestimate peoples anxiety in foreign countries.

  4. Put them in a nice hotel. Again, consider the details. Make sure the hotel has confirmed the booking, and they know when the speaker is expected to arrive. Once, when arriving late at a conference hotel, I was told I didn’t have a room and ended up sleeping in a meeting room on a makeshift bed for the night.

  5. Confirm with them the pre and post talk events. Is there a speaker’s dinner? If so, where, when, what time (and where) is everyone meeting.

  6. Sound and technical check. A lot of speakers like to get this out of the way before their talk. They will want the name of the person they need to report to – either a stage manager, or a conference volunteer – in order to sort that out.

  7. Dongles. Make sure you have every known projector dongle available. People lose them all the time. Also, spare clickers and batteries is a good idea. Most speakers will be well-prepared and carry their own, but just in case.

  8. Tea. This is personal. Not everyone drinks coffee, and I would like tea at my breaks.

  9. Alcohol. Again, this is personal, but not everyone likes a piss-up. So, the after party should not necessarily be at a club where you can’t hear yourself think with as much free spirits as you can drink. Consider attendees may want to talk amongst themselves in a grown-up setting after a long day sat down. We’re not all party-animals.

  10. Green rooms. It’s important that speakers have somewhere to go and work, or cram their slides, or be by themselves with their nerves. This is very important for me. Last thing I want to do before I go on is mingle. I’m generally nervous and want to focus on the job at hand. It has been known for me to hide in the toilets for a while.

  11. Rights. Don’t ask for exclusive rights over speaker’s content. This happens, and increasingly so, actually. A conference will explicitly say that you are not allowed to talk about the same stuff in other places. Nope. That will not do. A lot of speakers produce one or two talks for the entire year.

  12. Video. If you’re going to video me speaking, and charge for those videos of me and my content, you should explicitly ask me. Not because I’ll say no (not every time), but because it’s nice to be asked. And, sometimes, I may be talking about content which I want to actually use at a later date for myself in a filmed workshop, or talk.

  13. Get a good MC. If you have someone introducing each speaker – and you should – then make sure that person is energetic, funny, personable and just plain pleasurable to listen to.

  14. Have a stage monitor. I use scant notes in my talks, but the most important thing for me are my pace notes see point 14. If those notes are on my laptop screen all the way over on the lectern, it’s sometimes a bit unnatural for me to be flitting back and forth. It’s much better, if you can, to have a monitor on the front of the stage showing Keynote’s presenter display.

  15. Set the expectation for Q & A. If you plan on doing Q & A let everyone and the speaker know. If you don’t plan on it, then don’t – after the speaker has finished – say ‘thanks, Mark. So, any questions audience?’. Invariably there won’t be any, because nobody – including the speaker – was expecting it. Also: it’s generally a bit of a bum note after the rousing ending to a talk see point 11.

  16. Your conference is not your ego trip. Everybody, including the speakers, are incredibly grateful for the effort you’ve put in over the year to produce a great conference. But, chose a time and a place to thank people. In between each talk isn’t it. Also: my guess is that most people in the audience have bought tickets to hear what the speakers have to say, rather than as a favour to you.

  17. Your conference is not your platform. Building on point 16, I’ve been to a few conferences where there is an agenda – a point to be made by the organisers – either by who is speaking, or about what. If you have one, and that maybe fine, but please let speakers know before hand.

  18. Talk to your speakers about their content. This is important. Many speakers will not have their talk ready until right at the last minute (especially me). But, they will have a pretty good idea of what they will be talking about. Talk to them. design the conference and the material. Create an experience for the attendees on underlying threads in the talks. It’s my feeling attendees should feel like they’ve been to a show, than seen a collection of people speak. It should feel united.

  19. 360 Degree Feedback. As a speaker I’d welcome the opportunity to feedback to the conference organisers about the conference. Consider a method of gathering feedback from speakers.

  20. Feedback from the audience. Feedback on speaker’s talks is generally through Twitter, which is an almost immediate response and gauge on how you’ve done. Mostly, it’s a good tool in that regard. Other conferences use questionnaires. I find this a clumsy tool and metric on which to base a speaker’s performance. One glance at Twitter, and a few conversations in the hallway, should confirm to you if it was well-received or not. I welcome constructive feedback. I don’t welcome ‘I can’t understand this Englishman’s accent’, or ‘that was boring’. That’s not a conversation. It’s a verbal drive-by. I know people have quit speaking because of this type of ‘feedback’. It’s not helpful.

That’s it for now. It’s worth saying I’ve never organised a conference, but I do know how much time, effort and money it takes to do so. I’ve nothing but upmost respect for people who do. That said, I hope these few tips help in a little way if you’re thinking of giving a conference a go.

Filed in: Speaking, Conferences.

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