Why we insist on rehearsing talks before every conference.

[Note: I have used the feminine gender throughout this post for consistency, and ease of comprehension. Use of the feminine gender does not attribute the analyses and findings to women speakers.]

I run HasGeek, an initiative for building communities around emerging technologies and application of technology for solving business and societal problems.

The HasGeek team organizes conferences once every two months at least — sometimes even two conferences in a month! The number of people attending these conferences ranges anywhere between 200 to 1,500. Since our last conference, the number of individuals watching talks on live stream is steadily picking up. These metrics and the goal of building communities influence how we curate content at our conferences.

Content is the heart and soul of all our conferences. It is the core around which participants, speakers, sponsors, other stakeholders, and eventually the community, coalesce.

In the last six years, our strongest learnings about content and community have been:

  1. Technology communities congregate around issues which affect them most in everyday practice. Content at conferences must address real-life problems. For e.g., we transformed our annual JavaScript conference — JSFoo — from being a conference about exposure to JavaScript to a conference where speakers and participants discuss issues such as performance and speed. These issues influence web development and how we write and organize code. This impacts the extent to which the community relates to the issues and concerns and therefore the growth or diminishing of a community.
  2. Participants relate to a community when insights from talks touch the core of the problems and challenges they face everyday. When a talk presents a strong insight, participants relate not only to the insight, but to everyone else around them who are dealing with similar challenges. This, in turn, helps the community to develop ownership of the space / group around which they have gathered. This, in turn, helps in growth and perpetuation of the community.
  3. Content has to be relevant, and sometimes even ahead of its times, at every edition of a conference. This is important to grasp trends, and glean patterns and anti-patterns from application of a technology to different domains and use cases.

Since content is the lifeblood of our conferences, we have regularly iterated on how we curate content at our conferences. Over time, we have established an editorial process which we continue to improvise with every conference, and editors (who are different persons) for different events.

In this post, I will explain why we insist on speakers rehearsing their talks prior to the conference.

We host rehearsals at HasGeek about two-three weeks before a conference. The conference editor(s), the editorial team from HasGeek and one external mentor are always present during every rehearsal. We have had speakers from the same edition come in groups and give feedback to their peers while rehearsing their talks. Sometimes, we also put together a mock audience which also provides feedback during the rehearsal. For outstation speakers, we host rehearsals on Hangouts or Skype.

During rehearsals, the selected speaker is expected present his/her talk as if they were speaking on stage.

  1. We time the talk to ensure that the content fits the exact time allotted.
  2. We review the overall flow of the content, the structure of talk and the takeaway for the audience.
  3. We provide suggestions on the visual appearance of the slides since the background colours and contrast affect readability of the text for the audience.
  4. We also point out where the content can be substantiated with visuals so that the audience follows the talk through and through.

This feedback is provided from an editorial perspective as well as from the audience’s perspective.

The question is why rehearse? Here is what we have found in the last 1.5 years on how rehearsals help:

  1. Rehearsals compel speakers to think early on about the structure of their talk and the takeaway for the audience, rather than postpone the mental exercise to the nth hour. This reduces a great deal of mental overload, especially when speakers also have demanding day jobs and personal lives besides preparing to speak at a conference.
  2. Between submitting the abstract and outline of the talk to finally drafting the slides, the speaker goes through several mental iterations in determining what is the exact focus of the talk and how the content should be structured. Public feedback during rehearsals is like peer review. Comments from peers help the speaker to understand the core of her talk, and sharpen it such that it is presented in a concise manner. The structure of the talk is like the foundation for the building. If the foundation is weak, the building — in this case the audience’s attention — will collapse.
  3. The speaker is often closely involved with the content she produces on her slides. Therefore, she may assume background knowledge from the audience on certain concepts. During the public feedback, we inform the speaker about the nature of the audience, their background knowledge (also depending on technological advancements and new developments). For talks on new frameworks and languages, we prime speakers on how to structure the material such that the audience gets a quick yet solid introduction to the language / framework, and by the end of the talk, the audience feels motivated to explore more.
  4. At times, the rehearsal comes as a jolt to the speaker, in a good way. Most of us are attached to the knowledge we have and the content we produce from this knowledge. We therefore want to share more of what we have when less is a virtue. We end up cramming too much in the limited time allotted to us. This is a recipe for losing the audience’s attention. External feedback is valuable to help the speaker distance from her knowledge and prune the content from the point of view of crisp delivery and audience engagement.
  5. Rehearsals help in building the speaker’s confidence, especially when she is a first-time speaker.
  6. For seasoned speakers, rehearsals is great for practice.
  7. Whether first-time or seasoned, speakers feel motivated to rehearse with friends and colleagues after rehearsing with us. It is not for any reason that they say practice makes one perfect!
  8. Finally, we have prevented subtle violations of the code of conduct during the rehearsal stage. We point out to the speaker why a statement may seem offensive to a particular gender, community or creed when for the speaker it is a harmless reference / remark. This sensitivity is critical for any process of community building.

Overall, our experience with rehearsals is that they help speakers tremendously. In some cases, especially where the verbal delivery and confidence have to be improved, we insist on two-three rounds of rehearsals. In other cases, we ask for slides to be revised based on the feedback during the rehearsal. We review revised slides and ensure that the structure looks tight and palatable. We have witnessed instances of complete turnarounds in delivery and content from the time of rehearsing to actually speaking on stage.

Rehearsals also help the editorial team in HasGeek and the conference editors to foolproof selection of talks, and organize the schedule in a logical order. Therefore, we have made rehearsals mandatory for all speakers.

I’d like to acknowledge the spirit and willingness with which most of our speakers participate in rehearsals. Many are keen on continuous feedback and improvement. Precise delivery of content is important not only to engage the audience, but to help the audience to grasp the learnings. Talks are one of the key sources of hallway conversations and building of networks and relationships. I believe every speaker and committed member of a community owes this to their audience.