How to Program a Conference

I’ve put together two conferences now, Interaction08 and now Device Design Day, as well as observing several years worth of Adaptive Path’s assembling of UX Week and MX. I also attend roughly half a dozen conferences a year. My credentials established, here’s my advice for putting together a conference lineup of speakers.

Don’t have a theme. Unless your conference is extremely targeted and you are planning to work with the speakers to shape their talks, don’t pick an arbitrary theme for your conference, e.g. “Connecting Us Together” or “Exploring New Worlds.” Not only are these sorts of mushy themes useless and ripe for parody, but they almost never work. The best conferences are where the speakers talk about topics they are passionate about without worrying how their talk is going to fit into the conference theme. Let the theme emerge from the talks, don’t force the talks to fit into some arbitrary theme.

Define a target audience. Who are the ideal people (or ideal mix of people) you want to attract and be engaged with this program? Pick your speakers with those people (and their wants and needs) in mind. Not slavishly—give them a few surprises—but they’re the ones paying and spending their valuable time to attend. Make it worth their while.

Overall speaker lineup. If I can see most of your speakers together at another conference, your speakers aren’t a differentiator. Variety is key. Don’t program the same people I can see at ten other conferences this year.

Big and small names. You’ll want a mix of big names—people who will pay for themselves by increased ticket sales—balanced with people we might have never heard of but who have new things to say, or a unique perspective on a familiar topic. The people who aren’t big names take a lot longer to find, but you want people to leave the conference saying, “I’d never heard X talk before, but it was fascinating.” The problem with Big Names is that because they speak so often, they use the same material, often for years. People who aren’t big names tend to have fresher material (which, admittedly, has its own set of problems because it’s less tested).

Avoid Keynote-itis. How many keynotes does a conference need? Not many. If you are doing more than one at the beginning of the day and one at the end, you’re overloading the schedule with Big Names. One could argue that every conference could get by with two keynotes: an opener and a closer.

Gender balance. Enough has been written about this lately, so let me just say: strive for it amongst your speakers. It might not happen for a variety of reasons, but it’s worth doing.

Ethnicity balance. This is probably the next big push. And the same applies as for gender: it might not happen, but spend the extra effort to find people who aren’t white men to speak. It’s going to make your conference better. Why? Because it could expose your audience to a different perspective, and that’s one reason people go to conferences in the first place. (The other is to have their own views validated.)

Breaks. Never put more than three speaking slots in a row without a break. After that, the audience can’t take it. We need time to digest what we’ve heard before hearing more.

Post-lunch. The post-lunch speaking spot is deadly. Be sure to put someone lively there. Or a workshop or activity to wake people up.

Talk durations. There seems to be three durations that work well for talks: 40 minutes, 20 minutes, and 10 minutes. You can get an awful lot of information and interest out of ten minutes; witness the TED talks. It’s a great length for a single story and one strong point. Twenty minutes is enough to have a strong main point with several examples. Forty minutes is enough to do a complex topic with multiple stories and examples. Seldom have I seen talks that go on for more than an hour that are worth listening to for that long. Mixing up your talk times is good too. A long talk mixed with a short talk can provide variety—provided you don’t do it too much.

Topic variety. While you don’t want to dictate what speakers talk about, choose your speakers so that the topics they are likely to cover will vary both in subject matter and perspective. Audiences want a mix of the inspirational (make me feel better/more important/smarter) and practical (give me information I can use). Find speakers who will play to one or the other, then mix. An all-practical conference will eventually seem like a slog; an all-inspirational conference will seem frivolous.

Have backup speakers. I guarantee that it is very unlikely all the people you want to speak will be able to, particularly when trying to land some Big Names. Have others who might speak in mind. Certainly go after your Dream Team, but unless you’re TED or another high-profile conference, don’t expect to get all of them.

Speaker quality. Do due diligence on your speakers before you select them. Can they speak well? Are they really the right person to speak to your audience? Do they have enough credibility in the field to speak on this topic? What will your audience think of them?

Always pay your speakers. Always pay your speakers’ travel. Always give your speakers free conference admission. It’s amazing how many conferences want speakers to provide their services for free. Now of course, for non-profits, new conferences, educational institutions, and other special cases, this can be waived, but as a conference organizer you need to realize that people are coming to hear the speakers: they are your draw, your talent, your selling point. Treat them as such.

So there you have it: my thoughts on planning conference programs. Now go make us some great conferences to attend!

2 thoughts on “How to Program a Conference

  1. Dan, you nailed it, totally. I love your focus on the programming. When it comes to conferences content is about 2/3s the experience.
    The other 2/3s is split between logistics, environment & networking.
    Networking: people are there to meet people. This is equally true of attendees & speakers. That is to say that attendees want opportunities to meet each other & speakers. Try to avoid speakers who come for their talk & leave. Give ample time for networking & create events that encourage networking: games, music & free alcohol go a long way.
    Environment: nothing stifles a conference more than a stifling setting. Hotels suck (on so many levels). If a conference is in a hotel it prob means the organizers are lazy at best.
    Logistics: from food to hotels to water to a/V to WiFi. These details will ring a conference with negativity distracting people from that amazing conte t you worked so hard to program.
    I’ll just add, don’t do stupid social network shit. The stream is too complex to control & manage w/o tremendous effort. Have people managing existing streams, but don’t create new ones & don’t over emphasize on the existing ones to the point that they overshadow your real programming.
    Last thing: young conferences & NFP organizations should capture all content on video & make avail publicly for free.
    – dave

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