What I Learned From Posting a Survey of Conference Speakers

Last week I spoke at ConfConf, a conference for conference organisers. I had been asked to speak about what speakers want, as a somewhat frequent speaker at technical conferences.

I wasn’t really comfortable in making it 40 minutes about what I and my friends thought. At this point I’m not representative, and neither are many of my friends who also speak. Many of us consider speaking and workshop leading as part of our businesses, part of our professional work. That makes us quite different to someone who perhaps speaks once or twice a year, at conferences that have grown from a community they are active in. To try and gain wider insight I put a survey online, and I am so glad that I did. Over 200 people completed the survey, 168 completed it fully. They ranged from people who have spoken at a single conference up to 100 conferences in the last 12 months.

Key Discoveries

Most people were hugely positive about their experiences as speakers. The survey was full of stories of helpful organisers going the extra mile to help out speakers.

The things people loved most were free or inexpensive for organisers to do

I’ve been asked on a number of occasions by friends who are organising conferences what sort of gifts they should give speakers, or do they need to do a flashy speaker dinner. I’ve always said no, gifts are completely optional and if you do them, something small and thoughtful is best. Speaker dinners are a great way to meet other speakers — especially if you are new to speaking — and also for organisers to check in with speakers, however they definitely don’t need to be expensive. If anything the environment, somewhere not too noisy, and holding the dinner not too late are the important things.

This was the general agreement in the survey, people were thrilled to receive practical items such as an umbrella as rain was forecast, sim cards and travel tickets. Successful speaker dinners were those where people got to meet and chat with other speakers — the actual content of the meal was rarely mentioned other than a note about food preferences and allergies being taken care of.

Standout experiences were most often due to small thoughtful gestures and good organisation. Spend time and thought rather than money and it is noticed and appreciated!

Focus energy on your newest speakers

The people who most need your help are the newest and least experienced of your speakers. If you invite someone like me to your conference, as long as I have the setup I was told I would have and the hotel isn’t completely awful (basic is fine, filthy or insecure is not) then I’ll show up and do my thing. I’m used to travel, used to being in cities where I don’t speak the language, I’m not really out of my comfort zone doing this. In addition if you speak at a lot of conferences you get into a position where you really do have “friends in every city”. I usually have friends attending or speaking at the conference, and if not help is often only a tweet away! That’s probably going to be the case for many of your experienced speakers who do this as part of their job.

For new speakers, this may be an experience where they are out of their comfort zone on many levels. Even before they give their talk, they may be far less used to travel and everything that goes with it. They may also not want to “make a fuss”, and talk to you about a problem with their hotel or travel. These are the people you should be making most efforts for, rather than worrying about your big names.

Paying travel and Expenses is a Diversity and Safety Issue

The previous point really leads onto this. We all want to encourage more diverse line-ups at our conferences, however commitment to diversity cannot end there. If you want to encourage a truly diverse line-up, then you are going to be bringing in speakers who are not only from different genders or ethnicities but hopefully also from different backgrounds. Not all of those people are going to:

  • own a credit card
  • be able to give your conference a loan by paying for travel up front and expensing it
  • be used to travel
  • have friends at the event
  • have spare cash to fund safe cab rides, rebook travel, or bail on a dodgy hotel
  • have the confidence to tell you this stuff, especially if they are just thrilled to have been asked to speak at all

The shocking thing about my survey is that there was more than one response that detailed a time in which that person had been put into an unsafe situation, because they did not have money to pay for a cab back from a conference organised event to their hotel.

This was something I had never imagined would come up. I’d expected the negatives in the survey to be dodgy A/V, lack of wifi and the occasional hotel horror story. Not stories of assault and of seriously unpleasant situations. I’m still personally processing how to deal with that, and the fact that I was unaware that this was happening to people, perhaps has happened to people at events I’ve been at. I never stand on stage and shake, but when I read one of these quotes to the ConfConf audience I really felt like I was trembling from head to foot. As I said at the event, I would rather I was never offered a speaker gift again and instead organisers made sure that the personal safety of each and every speaker was taken care of as they get to and while they are at your event. Make sure everyone has food they can eat and safe travel to and from any events. This should be the priority long before money is spent on speaker dinners, gifts or anything else.

Sharing the data

When I put the survey online I said I would share the data more widely than just the conference. I have started to do this with a website that I pretty much built while on a variety of plane journeys. I’ve now got half of the quotes and data online. To be completely honest when I put the survey online I thought I might get 50 responses at most so there were a lot of open ended questions. If anyone is good at wrangling that sort of data and wants to help, I’d be very grateful! I think there are a lot of interesting things to draw out — I’ve not even touched the information about CFPs and so on. However if not I will continue to add quotes as I have time. I’ve initially concentrated on the more positive statements and kudos (as these are easier to post without spending time anonymising data).

I think this site is potentially as useful to speakers as it is to organisers. You can see the sort of things that can happen, and what people expect. Use that as a basis if you feel you are not being treated fairly by an event.

Take a look at the Publicly Speaking site, you will find my slides from ConfConf there or you can see those directly on SlideShare.


Originally published at rachelandrew.co.uk on May 27, 2016.

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