Pure Danger Tech


Conference Expectations from Speakers

12 Jul 2012

I read Paul Irish’s “Open Conference Expectations” for speakers with great interest.  I don’t know Paul (other than by reputation) but I organize the Strange Loop and Clojure/West conferences.  While I typically cover the bulk of the items mentioned for speakers in the conferences I run, to me many of these are not something that I would include as a base expectation.

The art of putting together a conference is (similar to the art of software design) the balancing of many forces.  Different conferences will make choices with respect to their budgets and in my mind many of the expectations do not allow enough freedom for conferences to make those choices.  If you make this list a required minimum, you effectively tie conference organizers’ hands when planning their event (across several dimensions where I don’t think they are necessarily required).

Specifically addressing Paul’s points:

  1. Video recordings – recording (actually more the editing and hosting) can be time-consuming and expensive. Recording can also affect the market for tickets.  I don’t personally worry about that angle too much but it’s something to consider.  From my perspective, it is a perfectly viable choice for an organizer to not record or release videos, or to record them and release them in ways that support their bottom line.
  2. Travel reimbursement – travel is expensive. Personally, I think most conferences should prioritize speaker travel (and lodging) higher, but I also think it’s perfectly valid for a conference not to include it for some or all speakers.  Not supporting travel is one way to encourage a stronger local or regional response, which may actually support your goals as an organizer.  Managing travel and lodging for speakers also takes a tremendous amount of organizer time so it’s expensive in that (hidden) dimension too.  At Strange Loop, I prioritize travel and lodging highly and my costs for 2012 are likely to be $60,000. I think that’s quite reasonable (< $70/attendee) but that equation may not work out for every conference.  Please also consider that different speakers have different levels of experience and different amounts of effort – would you consider this minimum to be correct for a new speaker doing a 10 minute talk?  I just don’t think it’s this simple.
  3. Lodging – ditto travel
  4. Wifi – wifi is a factor of venue and contracts. While I think free (and usable) wifi for a conference venue is very important, I would prioritize free wifi in hotel rooms lower and balance it against all the other things in the hotel contract negotiations which typically revolves around room rate, food prices (often the highest expense), A/V prices, parking fees,  etc.  It is not uncommon for a venue to charge $10/attendee for wifi – costs can be significant.
  5. Honoraria – again, I’d say this is a factor of budget and other considerations.
  6. Food & beverages – I think having water or other beverages available to speakers is a reasonable “minimum expectation”. I’d say all meals and other expenses are again, subject to how a conference organizer runs their conference.
  7. Schedule – agreed, and I would say actually much sooner than 2 weeks before.
  8. A/V and power – agreed.

In my mind, #1-6 should not be “minimum expectations”.  Instead I think speakers should minimally expect a conference organizer to be clear (at the time a talk is accepted) what is and is not provided for all of those items: travel budget, lodging, honoraria, expenses, meals, schedule time, slides, video, etc.  I also expect an organizer to communicate responsively with a speaker about any understandings, disagreements, or gaps in that list.  And I expect an organizer to do their best to make my experience as enjoyable, useful, and productive as they can.

Setting aside the list as a minimum bar allows an organizer to shape their own event. If you are not happy with those arrangements as a speaker, then please discuss it with the organizer. If they have flexibility to honor your request, they probably will. If they say no (whether because they can’t or won’t), then your choice is either to live with their terms or to NOT speak at the conference!

What I (as a conference organizer) expect from a speaker is simpler than what Paul promises:

  1. Read all information from the organizer.
  2. Respond to all information requests from the organizer in a reasonable time.
  3. Show up.
  4. Prepare for and deliver a great talk in line with the original abstract.
  5. Don’t say or do things that violate the policies of the conference.
  6. Speak for your allotted time – no more and not (much) less.

Or, in short, do what you agreed to do. I would love for you to publicize your involvement with the conference and to be fully present at the conference (in attendance and engaged).  But I don’t expect it.  I would love to have your permission to record and release video under whatever policy I have but if you say no, that’s ok too.  I don’t have many frustrations with speakers but virtually all are covered by people just doing what they agreed to do in a timely manner.

In conclusion…

Very few conferences cover all of the “minimum expectations” in Paul’s list. If you want conferences to treat speakers better, treat them like a market – choose which to participate in based on your requirements. If this list is Paul’s list of minimum requirements to speak somewhere, that’s fine.  Treating it as a standard minimum requirement is imho a bad idea for conferences (who need more flexibility than is provided for here) and for speakers (who have different requirements).

It would be very useful to have a list of things like this as a standard “interface” for what is provided by a conference to speakers.  That would help both organizers and speakers to remember all the important things they should agree on.