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The Care and Feeding of Your Conference Speakers

jenlooper profile image Jen Looper ・7 min read

This post is intended to be a sort of a 'cri de coeur' from a seasoned conference speaker and pro traveller who, as a Developer Advocate (the lingo nowadays is 'Developer Avocado'), criss-crosses the world giving technical talks and leading workshops at conference after conference. Are you organizing events or conferences where speakers congregate, ready to impart information to your eager listeners? Perhaps this post might give you some ideas.

Travel is wicked fun
drankin

Before I start, I realize that I'm writing from a place of immense privilege. I've got a great job in DevRel, I have the honor of being invited to speak or being accepted to speak at events around the world, and for someone who styles herself a 'multilingual multiculturalist', I still get a frisson of excitement when stepping foot into a new location. But I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of conference organization, and I'd like to share some thoughts about how conferences can treat their speakers so as to bring out the best in us. After all, that's what we all want - attendees, sponsors, speakers, and organizers - for conference participants to be able to present our best selves and represent our companies in the best way to benefit your audiences and communities.

Assuming that we all have aligned goals - organizers want great conferences where speakers are able to satisfy their audience's needs and speakers want to interact with audiences to deliver that content effectively - I've listed a few 'helps' that I've noticed to be particularly effective. This may read as a sort of 'academy awards' type speech where I call out really good organization, but that's not really my intention. If I didn't list a particular conference, it's not because it was terrible! I'm just thinking about particularly good examples of cool touches that made a big difference to me.

Help with travel arrangements

Shout out to Web Unleashed, whose organizers' relentless organization made it impossible EVEN FOR ME to screw up my conference travel plans. Since they offer to pay for travel and arrange it for you, they are in control of ensuring that your travel will not conflict with their speaking schedule as they design it. Some speakers don't like to have conferences book travel for them, but there was good communication about proposed schedules and routes and an agreement struck before any booking was made. Granted, Boston to Toronto is a breeze on Porter, but many scheduling snafus could be avoided if the organizers are able to help with this aspect of the trip.

The Web Unleashed Speaker Kit PDF
speaker kit

Conference lanyards

Node+JS Interactive did a great job recently presenting all attendees and speakers with color-coded conference lanyards,with their meanings clearly posted: green meant "talk to me", black meant "no thanks" and so forth. This detail helps a lot to break the ice, such that 'green' people felt empowered to gather with strangers and say hello. That Conference went a step further, offering all kinds of ribbon badges to stick onto a name badge, leading to more interesting conversations as ice breakers. Speakers are looking for good conversations, and this type of thing made it a little easier.

Name badges

Speaking of name badges, these are one of the most critical areas of information dissemination whose design can make a big difference in the ways speakers and attendees interact with each other. Having a QR code or RFID embedded in a badge, as is done in some larger conferences such as ng-Conf, allows sponsors and speakers who are working a booth to quickly scan badges, gather a lead, and get that over with so that a conversation can begin.

But the content on a name badge that you can see is just as important as its lead-generation potential. A good name badge should have a name large and visible and, if possible, a Twitter handle. Some folks are better known via their Twitter handles and it's one more helpful way to identify folks with whom a speaker might have interacted via social media. You should be able to gather all this information with a quick flick of the eye at a badge, so design is crucial. Some badges include a full conference schedule or map printed on the back, which is even better. Think of it as a conference passport.

Speaker dinners

Speaker dinners are expensive, especially for larger conferences in expensive locations. Not everyone can be as truly special as the Vue Amsterdam experience, where speakers were treated to a lovely dinner cruise through Amsterdam. That's not even a fair comparison :) - But speaker dinners are very important. They allow us to network, compare notes, assess audience, discuss tech, and basically interact with like-minded professionals before the real work of the conference begins. For conferences with smaller budgets, a calm wine-and-cheese reception might be nice, with the operating word "calm". Crazy, raucus dinners are murder on a speaker's voice the night before a technical presentation. Serving too much alcohol without a dinner (or just too much alcohol, no matter what) is a recipe for a hung-over speaker. Moderation is key, but the event itself is critical.

Just to note, conference speaking, even for those folks who love to travel, is not a long series of vacations. It can take a toll, as Sara Vieira noted. So I want to mention that speaker gifts and excursions after the event are both luxurious and appreciated, although certainly not mandatory. Local gifts like the salt from Vancouver at Node+JS Interactive or the very packable Tile given at Connect.Tech are deeply appreciated, but not necessary, of course.

Cheese, Stroopwaffels, and shoes from Vue Amsterdam
gifts

Speaker/Sponsor quality time with attendees

qCon, which is a model of the care-and-feeding of sponsors, had a great way of ensuring that sponsors (who are often also speakers) working booth have the ability to spend quality time with attendees, not just give elevator pitch after elevator pitch in return for a badge scan and a turn at the spin-the-wheel game. During an open-hour sponsor mixer, they simply put dishes of snacks at all of the sponsors' booths so that attendees are obliged to talk to sponsors if they want to eat. It works quite well.

Help with the tech on stage

Coming into an empty conference room and being presented with a jumble of cords on a table, with no AV/tech to help connect a laptop to a projector is a nightmare, especially for new speakers. Even in little local meetups, someone who can help with tech, especially as those of us on Macs keep losing ports, is really important. Pro speakers usually carry a sheaf of dongles in their bags, in case of emergency, but accidents and snafus can happen. I once presented a talk with my laptop on my hand like a cocktail waitress, shouting the whole time as both the projector and the mic' failed and no one could figure out anything on the AV. Big conferences like Vue London and ng-Conf have excellent tech support for speakers, but so do smaller events like GDG DevFests in New York and New Haven.

Connect speakers to local events

It's a smart idea to help speakers maximize their reach, especially if they have traveled internationally, by helping organize talks the night before a conference starts at a local meetup. Because Atlanta Women Who Code are such an amazing bunch, they organize excellent pre-conference meetups before Connect.Tech. So did Vue London, connecting speakers to the well-attended Vue.London meetup. Interacting with the local community is a great way to extend a conference's impact for speakers.

Create a good backstage environment

Imagine a performer of a musical instrument hanging out awkwardly offstage, in full view of an audience, because there's no backstage area to tune up and prepare for a performance. I like to perform power poses before speaking, and have sometimes had to resort to doing this in the bathroom next to a conference room. For big conferences with big audiences and impressive stages, it's surprisingly rare to have a backstage area where speakers can get mic'ed up, probably because conferences are rarely held in concert halls. It created a great atmosphere, therefore, at Vue Amsterdam, to have a backstage area where all the AV work was done prior to anyone seeing the speaker appear onstage. It was such a scary stage, actually, that someone-who-shall-remain-nameless brought a few bottles of adult beverages and shots were being taken in paper cups either before or after speaking. The whole show was a great bonding experience for the Vue community, and that added to it.

Speaker rooms

It's somewhat normal to have a speaker room, or quiet room, where the speaker can run slides and get ready to speak. Fluent conference probably had one of the best ones, with a nice array of snacks, drinks, and healthy food for speakers. A well-stocked and tranquil speaker lounge is a big plus.

These are my tips for the care and feeding of your conference speakers! Believe me, any steps taking along these lines are so very much appreciated! Big kudos to the many organizers who work so hard to do the impossible: to please a large and diverse array of attendees and corral speakers and sponsors into one venue all together over a few days to share knowledge.

Posted on Oct 14 '18 by:

jenlooper profile

Jen Looper

@jenlooper

Jen Looper is a Google Developer Expert and a Cloud Advocate Lead at Microsoft with over 20 years' experience as a web and mobile developer, specializing in creating cross-platform web & mobile apps.

Discussion

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Jen this was amazing. A lot of people tend to believe that conference speaking is always a breeze and even though it can certainly be awesome to travel to new places and meeting people there's a lot of work and preparation as well as the fact that DevRels go to sometimes more than one event in less than a week. Also it's a good way to bring the human side.. how can we both have an easier and more successful outcome in an event.

Thanks for this!