I’ve been giving presentations at big conferences and small events for years now, and the communication from an organizer before and during the event not just speaks to the quality of the event, but it sets the tone for the speakers who then carry that tone through to their presentations. Having experienced just about everything on the spectrum for how well (or not) an event can run, I’ve identified a series of things a conference organizer can do or say to help improve the overall quality of the event, for themselves, speakers and, of course, the audience. These may not all apply to your specific event, but perhaps they can still inspire you for future events.
Let’s focus on speakers first, as they are the crucial element of any such event.
Making it great for speakers
Be upfront about your budget
If you can afford to pay your speakers, even if it’s not much, say so up front. Nothing will create distrust towards you as one speaker finding out that another speaker was offered money when they weren’t, and if you’re able to pay only those that are “bold” enough to ask what you’re going to pay them, you’ve created an unequal-opportunity situation. If you can only afford to cover their travel and hotel costs, be clear about that — for plenty of speakers, that can be enough. If you don’t even cover travel and hotel, see about getting more or better sponsors so that you can; SXSW aside, it’s a speaker’s market — without your speakers, you have no event.
Smaller events are typically unpaid and cater to local audiences. The bigger your event, the higher the expectation you will offer payment or at least take care of accommodation and travel.
Provide A/V information ahead of time
Send speakers the essential information about the audio and video setup beforehand, but keep it simple. Let them know the resolution of the projector, and what kind of video connector they will need to plug into if they’re bringing their own laptop. Ask them if their presentation needs audio.
Offer at least two microphone solutions: a lavalier or lapel mic for those who wish to walk around the stage, and a handheld or lectern mic for those that don’t. Video-wise, try your hardest to provide a screen (or multiple) that are in front of the stage for the (walking) presenter to see. If possible, provide two: one for the current slide, and one for the next slide or the presenter display. You don’t want your speakers to turn around and face the screen behind them to read off something exact, like a quote. Or, worse, for them to walk back to their laptop.
Have a clicker available for speakers that don’t bring their own. I always carry my own, a Kensington Wireless Presenter (with Laser pointer), as I find it nice and compact and it does exactly what I need and no more, but there are other options. Have a set of spare batteries for it in case they run out.
Time and schedule keeping
It is important to keep an event running on schedule, but it is even more important that your speakers and your audience feel comfortable and at ease. A rushed, stressed schedule or attitude will reflect poorly on you, but also create a lot of distraction from the event. Having a daytime event end early enough for a session or two to run a little late is a great way for you as organizer to be relaxed about time and for your speakers not to worry about it either. This allows them to focus on giving the best performance they can, which is what you want.
If you can provide a clock in front of the stage for the presenter, great. If not, have someone (or yourself) in the front row give signals for e.g. 10 and 5 minutes remaining.
For sessions that have Q&A at the end, provide handheld microphones for audience members to pass around and use when they ask their questions. If it’s a big audience, provide several and have them dispersed via staff members or volunteers. A walk-up mic in an aisle can work, but it makes people feel more on the spot and it adds a (sometimes significant) barrier for those not sitting at the edge of a row.
If you’re paying your speakers, provide them with a check as soon as they are done with their presentation. If your speakers are international, figure out the best and easiest way to pay them beforehand, and make sure it is as frictionless an experience on their part to get paid.
For daytime (or multiple day) events, a speaker dinner is a great thing to organize. It lets them meet one another and hang out, and it offers opportunities for speakers to joke around with one another during their presentations, which is especially great for single-track events.
Ensuring high quality content
Make it inclusive
Always, always, always ask your speakers to check their presentation (slides and story) for offensive or potentially offensive jokes and material. We all make mistakes—myself included—and think something is acceptable when it’s not. Offer to screen your speakers’ slides and/or notes for content, but don’t make it mandatory for them to provide you with their slides beforehand.
On the event or conference website, include a prominent-enough policy statement about appropriate attendee and speaker behavior. GitHub’s 2011 CodeConf website had a nice, concise example of such a policy:
GitHub Inc. events are working conferences intended for networking and collaboration in the developer community. Attendees are expected to behave according to reasonable standards of decency and in accordance with the Golden Rule and any other nondenominational but basically rational thought process that a normal thinking person might apply to a given situation.
While at GitHub Inc. events or related social networking opportunities, attendees should not engage in discriminatory or offensive speech or actions regarding gender, sexuality, race, or religion. Speakers should be especially aware of these concerns — this includes sexual or racist images in slides.
GitHub, Inc. does not condone any statements by speakers contrary to these standards. GitHub, Inc. reserves the right to deny entrance to any individual for any reason.
And, like GitHub did (but I omitted it), include a contact reference for people to provide concerns, feedback or report inappropriate behaviors to.
Make it diverse
Don’t simply reach out to a bunch of speakers that come to mind and feel like you’re done if they all say yes. Pay attention to what kind of speaker lineup you’re creating. For smaller, local-oriented events, this can be less applicable. For a conference, an all-white, all-male lineup reveals not just an unconscious (or not) selection bias, but also that you haven’t given this part of the process any real thought. Your lineup sends a message to the audience and to the industry at large; make it a good one.
Geographical demographics play a role in finding people of color or different ethnicities, so it’s not necessarily as easy to find diverse speakers like that, but women represent about 51% of the population anywhere; a near or complete lack of women in your lineup (of a non-minute number of speakers) is as unacceptable as a presenter’s slide featuring a naked woman.
If you can, try and find a speaker to do a session that is tangential to the focus of your event, to provide more diverse perspectives and content. Industry events run the risk of helping encourage insular viewpoints by focusing too strenuously on industry topics, but we have much to learn from other industries, especially adjacent ones. A print designer can offer tremendous insight for web designers; an architect can offer great ideas for front-end developers, and so forth.
For the audience’s (and/or everyone’s) benefit
If your event is a daytime event, provide coffee at least twice during the day. As your audience will likely be seeing six to eight different talks in a daytime event, there’s going to be a lot to remember. Coffee helps for those that rely on it, which is most people. Water, soda and e.g. tea options are easy to get for non-coffee drinkers; if you can provide fruit juices, though, those can be a real hit.
If you’re providing snacks, provide both a healthy snack like fruit and nut bars or veggies with a dip, as well as the typical candy-style offerings. For lunch or dinner (for evening events) options, avoid red meat (takes more blood away from the brain to digest, causing the colloquial “food coma” effect), and ensure you have vegetarian and even a few vegan options.
This is just a quick overview of certain tips that can improve your event for everyone involved. If you’re an organizer and you’ve gone through the list finding each item to be obvious, all the better! If you have additional tips and suggestions, or had bad experiences you wish for others to avoid, please drop me a line. I will no doubt revise this list from time to time with more suggestions.