Notes on supporting conference speakers

When I joined the team of co-organizers for satRday Chicago, Chicago supeRlady Angela Li tasked me with managing all-things speaker. This set me reflecting on the best and worst of my own speaker experiences and I began to list out highs and lows I’d experienced.

When I solicited feedback and more ideas on Twitter, the topic seemed to strike a chord:

The following list is based on a combination of my own speaking experiences, additional feedback and ideas that were shared with me, and new lessons learned from satRday. Hopefully it will be of use to other organizers as a checklist of information worth sharing or to other speakers to inspire questions they should be asking.

As I certainly learned from satRday, conference organizing is hard. The point of this post is not to imply that organizers must successfully do all of these things! This was just a helpful list for me to have in mind to try to hit as many as possible.

Advice is broken down by time-to-conference:

TLDR

Below, I share a lot of specific details, but in the end it is all about communication.

Communicate early. Only getting information upon arrival or at the beginning of one’s session is more stressful for both hosts and speakers. Share information early and build in opportunities for speakers to engage (e.g. day before or morning of system checks versus before session or at start of speaking slot.) Also if you want anything from speakers (e.g. a certain slide template, slide submission date, etc.) tell them ASAP.

Communicate frequently. At the risk of being annoying, incessant, and spammy, overcommunicate. Communicate early, often and, for important things, redundantly.

Communicate in detail. Don’t leave things uncertain or up to the imagination. Cater to the level of detail desired by the most inquisitive or nervous participant. Others won’t mind skimming (and probably will anyway).

Communicate two ways. Be sure speakers have the opportunity to tell you stuff as well, ask for what they need, or decline things they don’t want (e.g. social media).

Communicate concisely. Angela graciously edited my speaker emails and helped me remember that speakers have lives, jobs, and responsibilities beyond their generously donated time. Share information at the right time in the right increments. Don’t overwhelm speakers with content or assume they’ve retained everything you’ve told them. Require an affirmation for anything truly critical.

Communicate correctly. Bad information is worse than no information. If you don’t have all the details, feel free to tell speakers that, but don’t set expectations that may not be met and cause confusion during the session.

Before Conference

Before the conference, make sure you have everything you need from speakers and they have everything they need from you. The goal is for no one to be at all surprised on the big day.

Information Collection

  • When speakers are confirming participation, ask that they share additional metadata to be used in introductions. Specifically, be sure to know how to pronounce their name, their preferred pronouns, and any biographical information they wish to have mentioned
  • Make sure than infrastructure (e.g. bio/photo collection, publicity, feedback, etc.) allows for co-presenters if conference allows this
  • Collect consent to be included in photos / videos

Information to Share with Speakers

  • Clarify topic and time slot and whether stated session time includes questions
  • Set clear expectation of speakers staying within allotted time or being cut-off, for the sake of other speakers and attendees who need to stay on track
  • Confirm conference speakers as soon as possible to give them sufficient time to prepare their talk, book travel, and get permission for any sensitive material they might be covering
  • Establish and communicate a single speaker point-of-contact and provide both phone and email options to reach. This person should be the touch stone for any questions or concerns before or during the conference
  • Request that speakers upload their slides to internet, email to organizers, or bring on physical drive as a back-up in the case of computer problems
  • Offer the optional opportunity for speakers to practice their talk or show their slides to a conference planner or someone else before the conference
  • In case of any changes (like a speaker time slot changing after being announced), be sure to notify affected speakers or, better yet, ask them if its alright

Publicity

  • Make speakers social media handles available on website or conference collateral so it is easy for people to live-tweet their talk or otherwise engage with their content.1
  • When possible, offer option to record (and/or stream?) each speaker’s talk. Even if you don’t plan to mass distribute, it will be useful for them to have a copy to watch or share as they see fit.

On the Day Of the Conference

Throughout the conference, speakers should feel comfortable, have opportunities to relax, and get good visibility for their efforts and contributions.

At Check-In

  • Have a separate check-in table for speakers so they can rest assured
  • If possible, have the single speaker point-of-contact at check-in to great speakers. This may not be possible if that person has other responsibilities, but regardless make sure that person is available via the contact methods given to speakers (e.g. text)

In Opening Remarks

  • Foster a constructive environment by defining what does and does not constitute a question. (For example, rstudio::conf does a nice job of this, defining questions up front as a single sentence ending in a question mark.)
  • Be sure to recognize speakers for the tremendous time investment that they have made

Throughout the Day

  • Provide a “speaker lounge” for speakers to step away from conference, practice presentation, or get “in the zone” as desired
  • Make it easy to identify speakers with a different color of lanyards or name-tags versus attendees. This will help speakers network more effectively and be more available to interested audience members after their session

During Speaking Slot

During the speaking slot, things should stay predictable and under control.

Share Details about the Room Ahead of Time

Clearly communicate the following about their speaking slot to speakers via email:

  • Type of laptop connectors (e.g. HDMI, VGA) available
  • Type of microphones available (e.g. wearable, podium)
  • Slide progression options (e.g. from laptop, clicker)
  • Room set-up (e.g. stage or flat)
  • A time they can come ahead of their session for an equipment check (e.g. computer projection, microphone, etc.)
  • Room number and recommended time to arrive before session
  • How timing will be communicated during sessions (e.g. at what intervals will there be warnings? Who will give them that signal?)

Help Speakers Be Comfortable in the Environment

  • Provide an opportunity (as communicated above) for speakers to see the room and test their equipment before their session
  • Encourage session facilitators to step in and call-out “non-questions” in a positive way that keeps the session on track
  • Ensure room will have water available to speakers

Maintain Control of the Conference

While it is good to care about your speakers, recognize that you as an organizer are also responsible for the attendee experience. Don’t be afraid to do what you need to keep things on track.

  • Help speakers stay on track by an active session moderator in an easy to see location giving time warnings
  • Empower session facilitators to cut-off speakers at time. This is not to be rude to one speaker but rather to be fair to all of the others
  • Even better, consider purchasing a large clock or timer to hang in the room. This is easier to read and less distracting than a speaker waving their hand or a sign around

After the Conference

Speakers donate quite a lot of time and effort preparing for their presentations. After the conference, your main responsibility is to continue to make sure that the effort they put towards making your conference great is recognized, appreciated, and mutually beneficial to them.

  • Encourage speakers to write up their talk as a blog post and help them publicize
  • Share their materials (decks, videos, GitHubs, etc.) to whatever extent you are able and they are comfortable
  • When the budget allows, provide a speaker gift. This does not need to be economically valuable, but a momento and token of gratitude is a nice touch

  1. For satRday Chicago, I made a Twitter list of all the speakers, and Maëlle Salmon shared a way to follow them all [return]