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Confessions of a Speaker: 50+ Tips for Conference Organizers

by Grishma Jena

Play Conference Bingo to assess how diverse and inclusive a conference is! 

I’ve been attending conferences, meetups, and other events for more than a few years now. I moved to San Francisco for my job in 2017. Since then, I’ve tried to double down on the networking I did, primarily to take advantage of being in Silicon Valley — the hub of technological innovation.

In the current year (2019), I’ve attended 10 conferences as of June, all of them as a speaker or a workshop facilitator, so my views might not reflect on experiences I’ve had solely as an attendee. I should also add that I speak at conferences out of my own personal interest. I don’t work as a developer advocate or an evangelist, this is not a part of my job description nor am I affiliated with any conference or related service providers. I’d like to think this makes me more invested since I am giving my personal time and energy to participate.

Below you’ll find a list of my thoughts and pet-peeves, things I absolutely loved or wish were done differently. Most of my experiences belong to the Computer Science/Technology domain (since I usually give talks on Data Science, Machine Learning, Python) but I believe a lot of these apply to conferences in general. Let’s get to the list. Drumroll, please…

Joke comparing
				this long list of tips for conference organisers to a CVS receiptWarning: This is a very long list, almost likely longer than a CVS receipt
Source: Know Your Meme
 

Call for Proposals

Someone, somewhere decided that there should be a conference or an event in a particular place for a particular thing at a particular time. That someone could be you, your friends, your company, a nonprofit, etc. Great! You definitely want people speaking or facilitating workshops at your conference. For this, you need to spread awareness and send out a Call for Proposals (CFP).

  1. You can use Google forms, your conference website or a platform to manage the CFP and incoming proposals. Two of the most popular platforms I’ve seen are PaperCall and Sessionize. Preferably, the CFP should go live multiple months before the conference and should be open for at least a month, if not 2-3 months.
  2. The ideal CFP has basic details about your conference like dates, location, tracks, target audience, deadlines and social media handles. It should also explicitly state if accepted speakers are expected to bear their expenses. I often don’t bother applying to conferences if I’m not sure of their policy on this.
  3. In other words, please mention if your conference would cover travel and/or accommodations for the speakers or if they would receive a stipend/honorarium. I strongly believe that speakers should be fairly paid for their time and work. It is a huge investment of time, effort and money to travel to, and present at a conference. At the very least, offer to waive their ticket fees. I was horrified to learn that some conferences ask speakers to *pay* to speak.
  4. A few things that help in creating proposals:
    • Types of formats (keynote, talk, workshop) available and the duration for each. My proposal for a 1-hour workshop is very different than that for a 3-hour workshop.
    • A link to the schedules of previous years if the conference is recurring. Videos of the talks are even better as it helps speakers refine their content and understand if they are a good fit.
    • A sample proposal with the kind of abstract, outline, intended audience and content breakdown you would like. A lot of submissions get turned down because of insufficient content or lack of clarity, so having some references are helpful.
    • Your acceptance criteria and decision-making process to ensure transparency.
  5. Try not to have the submission deadline on a Friday night. People who wait till the last day (hour? moment?) to submit (definitely not me, stop staring at me!) are usually out and about and might miss the deadline. I personally prefer deadlines on holidays or late at night. Also, make sure to mention the timezone and an unambiguous time – midnight is confusing, 11:59 PM isn’t.
  6. Do you have a Code of Conduct (CoC)? If not, stop reading this and please work on creating one. It is vital to ensuring everyone has a good and safe experience.

Selecting Sessions and Speakers

After multiple rounds of review and endless nights, you and your team have finalized the selected sessions.

    1. I can’t say this enough about the decision-making process: ensure a diverse lineup! Have a good mix of novice and seasoned speakers – give a chance to newbies, you might be surprised! Don’t have manels i.e. panels with only men. Stop making excuses for not finding underrepresented speakers like women, persons of color, non-binary, etc. Take a look at this conference diversity distribution calculator designed by Aanand and see how representative your conference is. Also, diversity isn’t limited to just ethnicity and gender but also extends to social and intellectual realms. Would you want panelists that agree with each other or those that have differing views and can discuss the pros and cons for issues?
    2. Some conferences don’t allow a speaker to present more than once, while some prefer all their speakers give at least two talks. If you selected more than one talk by the same speaker, get in touch with them and see if they have a preference or are willing to do both. It is quite possible that the speaker would have to create a talk from scratch and might prefer to modify and use an existing one. If your speaker agrees to multiple talks, ensure that they are comfortable with the timings. I personally prefer doing only one talk/workshop a day. I once did two workshops on two consecutive days and was really tired by the end of it.
    3. I can’t recall the number of times I have applied to conferences and never heard back. I visit the conference website only to find out that they announced speakers long back and didn’t bother informing me. Speaker applicants deserve a courtesy email for the hours (perhaps, days) they spent drafting proposals for your conference. In an ideal world, I’d receive a timeline for when they expect to finish their decision-making and send out acceptances and rejections, the way All Things Open did.

Keep speaker applicants informed of the CFP status and thank them for applying. 

  1. Send out the decisions as soon as possible! Multiple conferences happen at similar times, so sending out acceptances early increases the likelihood of your speakers accepting your conference over another. At minimum, do this a few months in advance, especially if the speakers are from out-of-town. It takes time to plan the journey and make reservations. It’s also a good idea to let those waitlisted know of the decision and give them a date by which they can expect a final answer.
  2. You get bonus points if you are able to give feedback to the applicants! I understand it’s time-consuming but it’s very appreciated and speakers are grateful to the few conferences that give them constructive criticism on which they can improve. Applying to conferences endlessly and receiving a spate of rejections can hurt morale and engulf one in self-doubt. A thank-you email (with some feedback or a discount ticket) is a nice way to express your gratitude and motivate the speakers to try for other opportunities.

Speaker Management and Arrangements

  1. If you are booking travel and accommodation for the speakers, start the process early to help them to figure out their schedules. If you will be reimbursing them, let them know the reimbursement limits and conditions and ask them for their preferred mode of payment. If your budget allows, consider reimbursing them for travel to/from airport to as that is an expense that can really add up.
  2. Don’t assume that everyone can afford to spend first and be reimbursed (much) later. Not everyone owns a credit card, not everyone has spare money lying around. You may say that they can reach out to you if they need help. Why not proactively tell them to not be shy/uncomfortable/embarrassed if this is the case and reassure them that you will do all you can to help? Better still, if you have the capacity, why not reimburse them right after the expenditure and before the conference?
  3. You’ve decided to pay a stipend or an honorarium to your speakers. I applaud you for respecting your speakers’ time! However, don’t assume that everyone can accept the payment. Off the top of my head, I can think of three categories:
    • Speakers representing their employers i.e. those giving a company-sponsored talk. Usually, this is a part of their job and therefore, they can’t receive compensation from you.
    • Non-immigrants. Yes, every speaker who isn’t a citizen or doesn’t have an immigrant visa cannot accept your stipend. Discuss this unique situation with your speakers and ask them for the best way to handle this. You might be able to reimburse their expense receipts or donate the stipend to a charity of their choice in their name.
    • International speakers. They might need a specific visa type to be able to speak and accept the payment. Read this horror story of Rachel, who was deported at the UK border when she was visiting to speak at a conference.
  4. It’s always nice to ask speakers if they need any additional equipment or facilities for their session. I frequently conduct workshops and like having a whiteboard to draw on to explain concepts. I’ve also seen a lot of speakers with newer Macbook models that don’t own USB-C converters and don’t find them available for their talk. Speakers are often busy creating material and preparing for the session, so they may forget to mention such requirements.
  5. Additionally, ask the speakers if there’s any material they would like to share with the attendees before the conference. This could be slides of their talk, a glossary of important terms used in the talk or pre-requisites for a workshop. Look at this amazing booklet that Codeland creates every year.

Conference Schedule and Tickets

  1. Before publishing the schedule, crosscheck with speakers if all of their information including the timing, the title and the content looks right. Request the speakers for a picture if you want to include it. Definitely don’t do a quick Google search and post an unflattering, low-resolution image. Some speakers might also not be comfortable having their picture on the website, so it’s better to take their permission.
  2. Try to publish the schedule more than a month in advance. As an attendee, I’m not signing up for your conference till I know the exact schedule, unless you have a proven track-record of being amazing and relevant.
  3. Don’t start your conference super early. Especially if it’s a weekend or if it’s a tech conference where your attendees don’t usually start functioning before 9 or 10 a.m. Just don’t be THAT conference.
  4. Clearly outline the types of tickets available. It’s always considerate to have discounted tickets for students and those who are in-between jobs. I have seen some conferences offer reduced rates if the individual is paying on their own instead of their company sponsoring them. If you do have financial assistance available, mention this explicitly!
  5. A recent trend I’ve seen is having a specific type of ticket available where buyers can either directly donate to the conference or buy a portion of the ticket for someone who might not be able to afford it otherwise. I really love this idea of paying it forward and wish more conferences would do it!
  6. Make sure to have a field in the registration form where the attendees can list any needs they have, including special meals. Try your best to accommodate for those or at the very least, let them know if you can’t.

Online Interaction and Engagement

  1. Facilitate a platform where attendees can interact before the conference. You could create an app specifically for the conference or you could use an existing platform like Slack. Yes, I realize Slack IPO’d today. No, I’m not associated with them.
  2. Introduce your speakers to each other before the conference, especially if they are from the same city or will be taking the same flight. I like to interact with my flight co-passengers so we can share the (often expensive!) cab ride to the venue. This is especially helpful if your location doesn’t have rideshare options like Lyft Line or Uber Pool. Yes I’m looking at you, Detroit.
  3. Create awareness on social media about your conference and the talks. Devise unique hashtags for the conference. Did you know you can use camel-case (#LikeThis) to make your hashtags accessible? This makes your tweets friendly for screen readers and frankly, most people.
  4. If you want your speakers to promptly promote your conference within their networks, give them sample tweets they can copy-paste and use. You can also include special discounts for friends of speakers in here.
  5. Share important information about the location with your speakers and attendees. I always appreciate knowing about the weather, things to sightsee, nearby restaurants, and whether the hotel has an airport shuttle.

Conference Amenities

  1. Want to ensure your conference keeps its reputation of being inclusive? Have gender-neutral bathrooms. If your venue doesn’t have those, you can place placards outside all the bathrooms and indicate that they are gender-neutral. Shout-out to Self.conference for doing this! It was there I found out that those who identify as trans stop eating and drinking for hours during conferences because they don’t know the bathroom situation — so heartbreaking! Facilitate gender-neutral bathrooms; it’s one of those things that require little effort but have a huge, lasting impact.
  2. A few conferences I attended recently allow attendees’ to indicate their preferred pronouns. This can be done using stickers or pins or be written in the name tag itself. Absolutely love this idea, more conferences should do it!
  3. The intensity at conferences can often make one tired or overwhelmed. Arrange for dedicated quiet spaces where attendees can take a breather, recharge themselves or catch up on work.
  4. Want to make your conference even more inclusive? Consider providing supportive amenities like:
    • Accessible entrance and seating.
    • Wellness room or Lactation room.
    • Child care.
    • Live captioning.
    • ASL interpreters.

    One of the most inclusive conferences I attended was GETConf – take a look at the accessibility features they provided. Another really good resource for organizers and speakers on how to make presentations accessible is this guide by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

  5. Be mindful of religious holidays or special days around your conference and see if you can make any arrangements for attendees observing those.
  6. Some conferences I attended had the option of wearing a different lanyard, pin, or badge based on whether one was okay being photographed, requested permission before being photographed, or refused to be photographed. I found that to be a very cool concept!
  7. A wonderful approach to conference badges or name tags is to have all relevant information in there. This can include the conference schedule, WiFi credentials, social media accounts, CoC and contact info for organizers. An excellent example of this is PyCon CZ. Another simple improvement is to have the attendee’s name on both sides of the tag. Whatever you do, please don’t use those sticky name tags. They always get stuck to my hair within the first hour and then I’m left yanking it out of my hair. 😖
  8. Provide handheld or stand mics. Body mics might seem like a good option but they are kind of sexist. They cannot be attached to you if you are wearing a dress (and don’t have a belt or pocket).

Conference Meals

I have so many strong opinions on this — it deserved a separate section. Attendees and speakers have invested their time and money for your conference; the least you can do is serve healthy, balanced meals that cater to their requirements.

  1. Did you accommodate the special meals requests? Did you? Why not? You are forgiven if the attendee requested that the meal either be grown on Mars or be coated in pure 24-karat gold foil. Otherwise, you have no excuse. Meals are my biggest pet-peeve and you’ll shortly know why.
  2. If your budget allows, consider providing breakfast. It might be a new place for attendees and they might not have time to eat before the conference. As a speaker, I always appreciate a hot, hearty breakfast that put me in a good, confident mood for my presentation. An alternative is to request the hotel to include a breakfast buffet as part of the stay for speakers/attendees.
  3. I personally don’t drink tea or coffee but I know it is a lifeline for many who can’t get through the day otherwise. Consider investing in a beverage section for the duration of the conference.
  4. I’m a vegetarian. I’ve been to innumerable conferences where vegetarians and vegans were an absolute after-thought. I’m usually greeted by salad, potatoes and big pieces of boiled, bland vegetables. That’s it. I try to hide my disappointment and think the conference probably didn’t have enough budget for food. A few of my real-life horror stories:
    • I see five different varieties of meat. Okay, why do non-vegetarians have so many options? I see 10 different types of gourmet desserts. Okay, I don’t think this was a budget issue…
    • I have learned my lesson and don’t look forward to the meals or eat properly. If I’m extremely hungry, I pounce on the desserts which just makes me feel worse later. 😓 Otherwise, I get a large cheese pizza (because veggie pizzas aren’t available everywhere) which I preserve and eat till the conference ends, which could be a couple of days later. Cold pizza tastes horrible, and hotel rooms often don’t provide a microwave. But they do give a hair dryer which I use to heat my pizza and eat it for multiple meals. I’m not ashamed, someone else should be. 😐
    • Sometimes I have french fries (the only vegetarian thing readily available) for dinner during conferences and sleep. Yes, it’s not enough and super unhealthy and I hate it but at least I don’t sleep on an empty stomach. Why don’t I get food delivered or go to a restaurant, you ask? A lot of restaurants close early, are far, or don’t have vegetarian options. This is especially the case for conferences that go on till the evening and are located in remote areas.
    • I’ve been to events organized by the biggest, most reputable names in the field. At one, non-vegetarians had three meat burger options with salad. For vegetarians and vegan,s it was just the salad box, as if someone forgot to put a burger inside. Come to think of it, vegans probably have it worse…
  5. It’s not difficult to serve falafel or tofu or veggie meat; it’s 2019 and there are endless options available. Take note of and make distinctions among different food restrictions. Vegetarians are often clubbed with vegans and both are served burgers without bread and cheese, which is effectively just salad greens! The message we vegetarians, vegans and those with other restrictions get is: We are not valued. Nobody cares about us. The conference would rather have us starve and have non-vegetarians be well-fed. I can’t even begin to describe the effect it has on my productivity, my mood and my overall conference experience, as an attendee and a speaker. My focus then remains on leaving the conference ASAP and foraging for food I can eat. I find it difficult to hear conferences waxing eloquent about “Diversity and Inclusion” and take them seriously when they can’t account for the diversity in diets. I take these incidents to heart and this will definitely factor in when I apply for or (not) accept to speak at these conferences.
  6. Order extra vegetarian food. ALWAYS. Those that can eat meat, can and will always eat vegetarian food too. But, those with food restrictions can’t eat everything, right?
  7. Some conferences allow those with special diets to take the food first (like Write/Speak/Code) or have separate sections/boxed meals/dishes reserved specially for them (like PyTennessee). This is a good way to make them feel inclusive and cared for.
  8. If you aren’t able to cater to their special needs, let them know. Even better, publish all the menus for meals at the conference well in advance. This allows attendees to be mentally prepared for what to expect and those that don’t like the meals or don’t have enough options can bring food beforehand or make other arrangements. I’m guessing the menus are decided in advance anyway, so I doubt making this information public requires a lot of effort.
  9. Reserve a portion of the meal for speakers. They are often busy engaging with attendees after their sessions and might not be able to get to the food in time. I once spent more than three hours standing and talking non-stop for a workshop at a pretty big conference. I did not get lunch because I was answering attendees’ questions and all the food was taken in those 20-25 minutes.
  10. On a related note, explicitly mention the time till which the food would be available. Let the attendees know if all the food has been consumed or if mealtime is over.
  11. Encourage your caterers to be environment-friendly by using reusable utensils i.e. ditch disposable, plastic items in favor of silverware, cloth napkins, ceramic plates, etc.

Conference Activities

  1. Organize a social event as part of the conference for all attendees. It’s a great way to meet everyone in a relaxed and informal setting.
    • Have multiple alcoholic and non-alcoholic options if it’s a happy hour. There will probably be people who either don’t drink alcohol or soda or both. Perhaps you can serve fruit juice or mocktails?
    • If the social event is at an outside venue, take into consideration accessibility needs of attendees. A lot of bars and restaurants have eliminated plastic straws and outright refuse to give plastic ones to those in need.
    • If the social event is around mealtime, provide food. Otherwise, let the attendees know in advance that no food would be served and they should make alternative arrangements.
  2. If you plan on hosting a special event for speakers the day before the conference, try to wrap it up by early evening. Speakers often like to spend the night before the conference prepping and making sure their presentation is in place.
  3. Speakers may have elements in their talks that can be emotionally triggering for certain attendees. I’ve seen a handful of speakers give trigger warnings but not all do. As an organizer, you will make the experience so much better for all if you let the attendees know of potential triggers before the talk.
  4. Allocate frequent breaks in between sessions. This allows attendees to relax and network and gives speakers enough time to connect their device to the projector. You can also provide refreshments during breaks or throughout the conference for attendees to nibble on.
  5. Advocate (and practice if possible!) self-care repeatedly. Conferences are usually hectic and fast-paced and attendees can have FOMO (fear of missing out) which might lead to burnout. Let them know it’s okay to miss a few talks to prioritize their health. Attendees will be much better at absorbing the content if they are rejuvenated – quality over quantity!
  6. Use your conference to support job seekers. Some of your attendees might be looking for jobs, others might be looking for candidates for their teams. Think about introducing the two groups or holding a small career fair.
  7. Take lots of pictures during the sessions and encourage the audience to do the same. This is helpful for building a portfolio for your conference and for your speakers. right after the end of pretty much every talk I have given, I recollect that I did not take any pictures and check Twitter in the hope that someone took a picture and tagged me. Yes, this explains why I don’t have an amazing picture of me speaking as the cover image for this article.
  8. Post pictures and recorded videos (if any) from the conference to social media or a repository like Google Drive. Share the links with attendees and speakers and invite them to add their personal images too.
  9. Ask for feedback by sending out a feedback form. How will you know what worked and what didn’t unless you ask the attendees? Some conferences give incentives to fill them out by giving raffle prizes or access to images and videos on completion.
  10. Record your experience and that of your team’s as soon as possible so you don’t miss any details. You can refer to them for next year’s conference or pass them onto the new organizing committee.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you pulled off an amazing and successful conference! Kudos to you and your supportive team! Please catch up on all things you missed in the past few months like sleep, family time, work, emails, and more sleep. What must it feel like, apart from exhilarating? I imagine it feels a little like you finished watching a show you were super invested in and now you don’t know what to fill the void with. 😜

On behalf of speakers and attendees, I thank you for all the hard work that you’ve put in and will continue to towards making your conference a wonderful, positive, inclusive, and enriching experience for all! It is definitely no mean feat and we all acknowledge the sacrifices you’ve made in the process.

Thank you for reading this extremely long article! I hope this helps you. Don’t be shy to let me know if it did — I spent an entire day writing this up, I wouldn’t mind some external validation. 😅 If you have any suggestions you want me to add to this list or any kind of feedback, feel free to comment below or to contact me! I am hoping to expand this list and who knows, maybe one day I’ll change the title to 100+ tips for conference organizers. 😄

Bonus: Conference Bingo!

Always thought it would be cool to use my surname if I ever invent a theorem or law of some sorts. So, I’ll call this the #JenaGenesis, because, why not? Generate your own unique copy here to play Conference Bingo and see how many boxes your conference ticks.

 

Play Conference Bingo to see how well a conference fares