Conference organiser’s handbook
With the venue found you can start to plan the conference content.
One general warning beforehand: everybody has an opinion on the conference content. Although it makes sense to listen to as many people as possible in the early stages of planning, at a certain point you should stop listening and make your own decisions. Every conference needs a sort of content concept, and the core organisers have the privilege of creating it.
First you have to decide on the conference topic(s). That’s usually quite easy: most of the time you’ll have a fairly good idea of the topic(s) you want to see treated before you start organising.
Once you’ve decided on a topic, speaker names will start to pop into your head by themselves. That’s fine; make an ordered list, ask others for suggestions in the early stages of planning, and pretty soon you’ll have about ten to twenty-five names.
Your conference needs a few well-known speakers in order to validate itself. If a potential attendee looks at the speaker list and recognises no names, he’ll be less likely to buy a ticket. So well-known speakers are your most important asset when it comes to selling tickets.
Nonetheless, you should not invite only well-known speakers. I encourage you to take a risk and invite people who aren’t so well-known yet; some local talents from your country and some talents from other countries.
At Fronteers we usually reserve two or three slots for what I call “gambles;” speakers I’ve never seen before myself and who might not have that much speaking experience. So far it has worked fine.
If we as conference organisers don’t invite new speakers we’ll end up with a monoculture where there are only fifty to sixty speakers who speak at every single conference there is. That gets boring after while.
Besides, local speakers save you money. You don’t have to pay for their flight, and maybe not even for their hotel.
Make a speaker’s list that contains about 50% more names than the number of slots you have available. Once the time comes to invite speakers, you’ll go through this list top to bottom and stop inviting speakers as soon as all your slots are filled.
Don’t throw away the list once you’re done. On average, one speaker in fifteen will cancel his engagement about one month before the conference. At that moment you should take up the list again and invite the next speaker.
This is the generic schedule for one conference day. It assumes a one-track conference with 60-minute slots. We’ll get back to a two-track conference later.
The seventh session is optional: nobody will protest if you have only six sessions per day.
The first session, and sometimes the last one, are keynote sessions.
Session 4 is the full-belly shift because the audience is slow just after lunch.
Session 1 on day 2 is the graveyard shift because so many attendees (and speakers) are hung over from the party last night and may not turn up.
Feel free to modify this schedule somewhat, but not too much. It has been battle-tested at many a conference, and it makes sense, both to speakers and to attendees.
The schedule assumes a 60-minute slot for your speakers. This is about the maximum, and it’s common at conferences with many experienced speakers. Still, it’s quite possible to make the slots shorter: anything down to 30 minutes will do. Be very clear to your speakers about the allotted time; some will politely refuse to take shorter slots, while others will cheerfully agree.
Deciding on the slot length is a tricky process that involves the level of your speakers, the number of speakers you can afford to fly in, and sundry factors such as the amount of time you need for breaks, lunches, or special features such as sponsor presentations or lotteries or whatever.
The advantage of longer sessions is that the speaker has ample time to make a few points and doesn’t feel rushed. That implies, however, that the speakers has enough points to make. The danger of longer sessions is that the speaker has enough material for 30 or 40 minutes, but not for 60. He’ll pad his presentation with not-really-interesting stuff, and will bore the attendees.
In general experienced speakers are quite able to estimate the amount of time they need, but beginning speakers aren’t. Therefore it makes sense to give experienced speakers whatever they ask for, and restrict beginners to 30-45 minutes.
In general, don’t go below 30 minutes, since this will feel rushed to both speakers and attendees. Commercial business/marketing conferences often give out shorter slots, but they’re not really a role model for your technical conference, and you shouldn’t pay attention to them.
The first speaker of the day is the keynote speaker, which always should be the best-known speaker you have available.
The purpose of a keynote is to draw attendees to the conference early, especially on day 2, when they’re hung over and would prefer to stay in bed a little longer. They won’t turn out for an unknown speaker, but will for a well-known speaker they’ve always wanted to see live in the flesh.
The closing keynote has a similar purpose: it entices attendees to stay to the last, and ideally sends them off with their heads buzzing thanks to that last superlative presentation. A good final presentation will overshadow earlier, lesser ones in the minds of the attendees.
The storytellers may do the same, but they’re even better when they can spin a yarn and keep the audience entertained with plenty of jokes. In general, the difference between storytellers and fact-finders can be measured by the number of audience laughs.
Storytellers are always experienced speakers (though not all experienced speakers are storytellers). A beginning speaker is too nervous to trust his storytelling: he’ll want to stick to the facts and teach the audience something. That’s perfectly fine: some will make the jump to storyteller later.
You have two or three blocks of two sessions each. In general, make sure the two sessions in a block have a different topic, and that only one of them has an abtruse topic that only part of the audience will like.
If you speak at your own conference you take the second slot on day 1. Keynoting at your own conference would be presumptuous, but you want to be done with your session as soon as possible because you need to go back to your organising role. Hence the second slot.
Should you do a one-track or two-track conference? Many beginning organisers (myself included) start with a two-track show because it allows for more variation. Still, this may be a trap and I encourage you to study the one-track concept carefully before taking a decision.
Right now I’m a moderate supporter of the one-track schedule because the arguments of the one-track crew make sense. I’d love to compare them to the arguments of the two-track defenders, but you’ll find few of them. In fact, many experienced speakers and organisers will defend the one-track schedule to death.
The most important advantage of the one-track concept is that every attendee will see the same show, which facilitates small talk between strangers at the party. Besides, it gives the entire conference a sense of unity. We’re all in this together because we all soaked up the same content.
Besides, at every two-track conference every attendee will have to make at least one tough choice because they would like to be in both sessions at once.
If you do a two-track show, it’s likely you’ll assign one topic to one track and another to the other. Having a design track and a development track is pretty common.
Finally, two-track conferences cost more money because you have to fly in more speakers and rent an extra auditorium. The total number of tickets will likely not go up because it’s customary to have at least one keynote session for all attendees. Thus you’re still bound by the capacity of the largest auditorium.
All in all I advise beginning organisers to go for a one-track conference.
If you go for two tracks after all, you should simply double the schedule I showed earlier and make sure sessions 2 through 6 have two speakers, one in each auditorium. It’s customary to have at least one session per day for all attendees, though, and usually this is the opening keynote; sometimes the closing keynote; sometimes both.
Panels are really, really hard to do well, and although they may seem to be a fun way of filling up another session without flying in another speaker, I advise against them for beginning organisers (or for experienced organisers, for that matter).
The usual panel session runs like this: the moderator asks a question, one panelist answers at some length, and the other panelists nod wisely and agree with every word the first speaker said. If this goes on for more than two or three questions in a row the audience will fall asleep irretrievably because the panel is bloody boring.
Furthermore, moderating panels is a wholly separate discipline, and most people can’t do it, even though they may be experienced speakers. Don’t ask a random speaker to moderate your panel: he’ll likely make a mess of it.
In some ways, the skillset of a good moderator is the total opposite of that of a good speaker. A panel moderator must turn off his ego for the duration and mainly occupy himself with the overall flow and not with content. He should not speak for more than 20 seconds in a row because the session is not about him. He should not have an opinion himself, and should not attempt to answer any questions. He should solicit feedback from the audience and cut off audience members that ask long-winded questions, as well as panelists that give long-winded replies.
The best panel is one in which two panelists disagree passionately yet politely about an important topic. This is not as easy as it sounds: there is usually a broad agreement among speakers and attendees about all important topics, and the differences will be found in the details. Unfortunately a panel is not the best format to delve into details because there is too little time. Besides, most of the audience won’t be able to follow them.
All in all I advise against a panel. The format just doesn’t work.
A tradition is starting to emerge where a few workshops will be organised on the day before the conference. This is generally a good idea if you can pull it off. Remember, though, that workshops will make the conference more labour-intensive because you have to find a venue, arrange catering, and sell tickets for the workshops, too. Of course that’s not so bad if you have a venue that can also accomodate workshops and a flexible ticket sales system, but it’s still some extra work.
If it’s your very first conference I advise you not to do workshops. You first have to obtain some organising experience.
Bruce Lawson added some notes about how to deal with recordings as a speaker.
Recording the sessions on video is becoming a custom, and a very good one. Every single session that’s out there as a video increases the knowledge of the web community as a whole, and in the end that is the goal of your conference, too.
Always ask your speakers for permission to record their sessions. I know of none who’ll refuse outright, but there are some that will want to repeat their presentation elsewhere and will ask you to release the recording only after their next conference. Do as they ask.
Don’t worry about ticket sales. You might think that people won’t come to your conference if they can view the sessions online afterwards, but in general it turns out that those people for whom this is a serious argument are very unlikely to come to your conference in the first place.
Besides, actual live interaction with the speakers and other attendees is only possible for actual visitors, and most avid conference-goers don’t want to miss that aspect even if the sessions will be available for free later.
With the content taken care of you have succesfully handled the big topics. Still, a good conference becomes great if you manage all the details of caring for speakers and attendees.