Monday, December 1, 2014

Getting great speakers for a conference

Over the years, I've done my fair share on organising conferences. Some of the conferences we call seminars in Finland, but that is just a name one-track conference. I've been the chairman, participated in quite many program committees and content advisory boards and organised smaller sessions to learn from all the great people I feel I want to learn. I'm not done, far from it. But at this point, I feel I have something to say from experience of organising conferences on how to get great speakers.

Let me first summarise my lessons:

  1. Many of the best talks (to me) are case studies / experience reports that consultants cannot deliver, and practitioners have less incentives to propose their talk into conferences. Consultants and wannabe-consultants are more likely to reply to CFPs. There's less women in traveling consultants, so if you want more women, you need to get out of the consultant sector too. 
  2. Invited talks can be targeted for inviting anyone, not just the same-old-faces that did well last time. If you walk around and talk to people, you will find great stories that deserve to be told. Some people think great conferences are about great names though, and great names usually need to be invited as they don't need to reply CFP to fill their calendars.  
  3. People in general appear to like being invited (recognised), been given feedback to build their talk in collaboration and not wasting their effort into suggesting talks that end up discarded. 
  4. Mix of CFP as in Call for PROPOSALS (starts a discussion, isn't yet a fully formed presentation) and invitations would be my recipe of choice to build great conference. 
  5. Paying for travel for speakers is a good practice. Paying for speaking would be a good practice too.  Organising work on the side in the surrounding community is a good practice too. Worst practice is not to tell if you pay for any of it at point of sending out a CFP. 

CFPs, inviting to participate on CFP and the uncertainty

A lot of conferences send out a call for proposals / papers / presentations - a CFP. A CFP is an open invitation for anyone to suggest what they would talk about. In organising a conference, we often seek to share the CFP for various groups, even encourage individuals to respond to the CFP without commitment of accepting their talk. Sometimes we just post it in the traditional channels and see what comes out.

Most of replies to CFPs are people who are selling something. They are usually selling their tool or their time as consultant / trainer. And then there's some people who just really want to share the good stuff they've done that others could learn from.

Many of CFPs are calls for presentations, meaning that your talk is supposed to be ready when you're submitting it. There's a significant amount of work to get a talk to that point and many (good) people get rejected for not having done enough prior to submitting. Some CFPs are calls for proposals, ideas of what a particular person could talk about, and with those the process of becoming accepted tends to include a lot more discussion and collaboration. You would usually be asked for a phone number and expect people to call you to talk about your idea(s). The distance from saying you might want to to talk to having a print-ready description can be significant. This form of asking for proposals is more on the side of asking who would have and which stories, hoping people would volunteer the information on themselves or their friends. It's also a lot more work for whoever is organising the conference talks.

There's very few CFP's that I've responded to, while there's a lot of conferences both in Finland and abroad that I've done a talk in. The longer I'm around, the less likely I seem to be to respond to a CFP.  It's not that I would not want to talk in the conference. I just don't want to prepare a unique talk with a lot of effort into it (and I need to do this before submitting) without possibility to discuss with the organisers on their expectations either lowering my effort as my topic isn't interesting in relation to other suggestions or increasing my likelihood of the effort being used for value - delivering the talk.

Recently I've responded to a few CFP's as I'm turning into a consultant again. One because there was a bet with a colleague - that I lost, happily. And two others because I wanted to get in touch with people in that particular geographic area thinking about future work opportunities. One because a friend wanted to co-talk. And there's one CFP that I've responded to without realising it was a CFP and not an invitation - a conference I will not contribute to again. Being clear on the uncertainty of speaking slot is a good practice.

You can also invite people to participate on CFP and that alone works a lot better than just sending out a CFP hoping people would catch it. You might have to ask many times, and at least I feel a lot of personal pressure on the fact that no matter how much I emphasise that I can't guarantee the selection as there's a different group doing them, I feel bad when people I've personally appealed to submit will not end up accepted.

There's a limited number of speaking slots anyway. We just look to fill them with best possible contents. Best possible may have many criteria defining it. Good value for listeners may not require a public open call for presentations at all. Like most commercial conferences don't, they just rely on groups of people giving advice on who to invite.

Inviting people is caring, do your homework

I've been invited to an advisory board of a Finnish conference every year since 2001 - that is quite many conferences. That particular conference is commercial, very popular and has had great contents built in collaboration with the commercial organiser asking from candidate participants what they feel they would like to hear about and asking professionals like myself what people should hear about, and putting those two together in a balanced mix. I take special pride in going to these meetings with a list of people who have never spoken before, with a variety of topics and knowledge of who could deliver what in an up-to-date manner.

To be able to do that, I sit in bars after Agile Finland / Software Testing Finland meetups and talk to people about stuff they are into. I make notes of who the people are and what I would want to hear more of. I'm always scouting. I use scouting for great presentations as an icebreaker discussion topic, asking what would be the thing you should talk about, helping people to discover what it would be. At first I did that to hear the stories told myself, nowadays I do it also just for the fun of it. It's a form of call for presentations, with a personal touch. And it works brilliantly.

I feel some of the comments in twitter about getting speakers are assuming that inviting means you invite people who have talked before. I invite people I've never seen do public talks based on how they speak in a bar. If content is good, I can help them fine-tune their content and deliver better. I've helped many people, and would volunteer for that again and again. That's how we get the best stories.

People I scout for are usually people without the consultant incentive to talk. They like being recognised for their great stories and experiences - they deserve to be recognised. And when invited, they work hard on doing well with their presentations.

Compensation issues

The last bit I wanted to share is that a lot of conferences still fail to make it clear on what is their principle on compensation. I'm sure you can get great local speakers, even some consultant without paying their travel and accommodation. Local speakers might be just what you need for your conference to be great - local pride of accomplishments. But if you are seeking to get people who might travel to come to your conference, it would be a good practice to pay for the travel + stay and state that in advance without a separate question on that.

I also believe we should start paying the speakers for their time in delivering presentations. Some communities pay for time directly as speaking fee, some pay by organising a commercial training on the side of the conference. The latter is very hard to do for many people for the same timeframe. Some conferences are built to have paid workshops on the side and allowing a workshop on the side significantly sweetens the pot for the presenter.

Time in a conference is time away from other paid work. There needs to be something in it. Marketing yourself could be it. Traveling to new places on someone else's expense could be it. Meeting people in new communities could be it. Or it could just be another form of work you do, if you would choose to set up conferences like commercial organisations you anyway compete with - sometimes unfairly, lowering prices by avoiding the speaker payments.

For example, why would I want to pay to speak at e.g. EuroSTAR? I have little interest to do that. But a usual track session there does not cover my travel and most definitely does not cover the missed income from time away from work. Being big and important means there's many suggestions in numbers, but quality might not be good, with way too many consultants / tools salesmen with a sales agenda. There's real gems in the masses, really great consultant / tools people talks too. But the ones that will not be listed could - I claim would - be even better. I base my opinions on being in program committee in 2013.


Not all conferences are the same. It helps if you think through the slots of the conference you're organising and create visibility to your expectations before CFP or invites. There's a lot of people who will volunteer to speak either by responding to CFP or by responding to an invitation. You'll never fit them all. You need to choose somehow. Choose by knowing the people, personally talking to them about the depth of their experience. Choose ones that excite you. Listen to a video of them talking. Ask around on experiences of them talking. Take risks on some of the slots if it fits your conference profile.

If you want gender diversity, budget the speaking slots for gender diversity and be prepared to create a balance of CFP responses and direct invites. If you seek for cognitive variety, you again would need a mix of CFP responses and well-researched invites. Only people who feel they belong to your conferences community will respond to a CFP. If you want cognitive variety, you would have to reach out of the usual suspects circle, and only invites would do that.

There's good in CFPs. They are a great way of announcing people with topics where people want to present so much that they are willing to do the work without knowing they get the value in delivery. The value for them may be to learn how to frame a talk so that it gets accepted. Or they may be fishing with the same talk in various conferences. Maybe they want to be at your conference and free entry is what they're after. Personally, I would not want to do the same talk for two major conferences. But that is probably just me. But at least you know that people submitting when asked would want to be there.