Monday, September 11, 2006

 

Ten Do's and Don'ts for Conference, Workshop, and Program Organizers

In honor of Michael Stephens and his fondness for Top Ten lists -- and apropos of the earlier discussion on honoraria -- I'd like to present a list of do's and dont's for conference, workshop, and program organizers. In no particular order, these stem from my own expereriences as a speaker.

Ten Do's and Don'ts for Conference, Workshop, and Program Organizers

1) DO get it in writing. If your association/conference/organization has a formal contract/letter of agreement, use it. If not, make your own. If this gives you pause, ask the presenter to send you a letter of agreement. Mail this out as soon as you and the speaker agree on the details.

In your contract or letter, include all pertinent information, such as:
2) DO sweat the small stuff. If your presenter is coming from out of state, who will pick her up at the airport? Or, should she take a cab? Will your organization reimburse her for cabs? Who will make and pay for the travel and lodging arrangements? Is there a luncheon/dinner/reception to which you can wrangle her an invitation? If not, do you have some time free to join her for dinner/lunch/breakfast? (This is a nice touch, especially when dealing with an out-of-state speaker who may not know anyone at your event.) Who will be responsible for reproducing handouts? Does your organization/association require a formal invoice or reimbursement form?

3) DON'T change your mind at the last minute. If you have contracted for a given workshop or presentation, refrain from asking your presenter to change topics or format; she's probably already prepared as per your original agreement.

4) DO respond to e-mail or phone calls in a timely fashion. Answer questions honestly. If you don't have an answer, give an estimate as to when you can get details from your boss/committee chair/program organizers.

5) DON'T be afraid to talk money. If you want to know what someone charges, ask. If you have a specific amount allocated for an honorarium, offer. If you have a policy of not compensating speakers, say so. If a presenter comes back with a number that is out of your budget, make a counteroffer. If you require a presenter to pay her own conference registration, make this clear up-front.

6) DO be specific as to what you're looking for. If you have a particular topic or focus in mind, say so. If you have a specific time slot to fill, let your speaker know. If you expect or intend to advertise to a certain type of audience (LIS students, public librarians), tell her at the outset.

7) DO keep your speaker updated as your knowledge about an event progresses. Do you have 20 people signed up? 50? 100? The size of an audience can make a difference in the tone and type of presentation. Finalize a venue? Pass the information on. Have similar programs or panels scheduled the same day? Let her know, so she can avoid duplicating their content.

8) DON'T leave a potential presenter hanging. Be sure to get back to every potential presenter you contact, even if the answer is no. If you bring a program proposal to a committee and it doesn't make the cut, or you find you can't afford a speaker's quoted fees, or your budget has been cut, tell her as soon as you find out. This allows her to clear her calendar and move on.

9) DON'T be afraid to ask for references. If you know a potential speaker only by her writing or a listing or a resume or a program description, but think you might be interested, ask for references from recent events. By the same token, be willing to be a reference for someone who's done a good job for you.

10) DO talk up a good speaker. Presenters get new gigs through word-of-mouth -- if someone does a great job for you, recommend her to others.

These are my tips -- what are yours?

Comments:
This is terrific. I'm trying to write a post that has tips for presenters. It may take me all week...
 
Thanks for starting this, Rachel. Several of the "road warriors" and I had a conversation about this topic and agreed a blog post would be useful...but never did one.
Your #2--the care and feeding of speakers--is one of my favs. I almost always speak out of Ohio, to groups I've not been involved with, and where I know no one.

Too often, I am left to my own devices with no contact with the invitor(s) until 10 minutes before the event--and then I have had to wander about looking for the contact, without knowing what s/he looks like. I don't always desire company for dinner or breakfast, but it's nice to be given the option.
The most pleasant events are those where the invitor remains in contact, asks if you want to be met at the airport, sends a picture so you know who to look for, arranges a meeting time, and offers companionship.
Now, perhaps you should do a parallel post on "Ten Do's and Dont's for Speakers!"
 
Alane - I think that Karen will beat me to it! :)
 
This probably goes on both lists -- for presenters and for organizers -- but make sure once you decide what you'd like a speaker to do, that you stick to it. I've been invited to a few conferences where there have been late in the game requests for "little stuff" that are actually not so little. Things like participating in a conference blog, or having handouts (I sometimes have them and sometimes don't, but if they're required I'll have to make some) seem like they might be little but can take time.

Additionally, I've had many conference organizers sign me up and then say "We'll need your PowerPoint presentation two weeks beforehand so we can load it on to the laptop/put it on the website." I try very hard to be flexible and gracious in these situations, but I often have to tell people that 1) I won't have the talk finished two weeks early and 2) I don't use PowerPoint and will be happy to host my talk myself, since I'm already doing that. Organizers have also nudged me to make my plane reservations months in advance of a conference so they can submit receipts. This is usually well in advance of when I would otherwise be making reservations. I guess how this would translate into advice is "If you have deadlines other than the date/time for the talk, please make that clear when you plan the other dates/times"

I would also second Alane. I have been at conferences in hotels on the side of highways where I knew no one and where I got in the night before for a talk the next day and have had to fend for myself, find food, etc. Not super fun, especially when you suspect there's a gang of happy librarians out for drinks someplace, you just don't know WHERE.
 
I would add something about communication (with the other members of the organizing committee) and continuity (in cases where conference organizers step down/have their term expire sometime before the presentation occurs).

There have been a couple times where I've made arrangements with groups to speak, only to have my contact person change in the interim. Even in cases where everything was in writing, things got mighty confusing when the new committee chair didn't have any of the info left by the previous person. In one case, they didn't even know that I'd been invited. Awkward.
 
I'd add:

Ask your speaker about dietary restrictions or preferences. I am a no meat, healthy carb, low fat and high fiber kind of guy, and pasta, meat sauce and processed flour dinner rolls on the lunch buffet make for a bad day!
 
WOW! Awesome! Let me add a few from experience...

Do not only worry about how the speaker will get to the end, but also how the speaker will get home. Will the speaker need to stay over the night following in order to catch a flight, train, etc.?

Do ask the speaker how to pronounce his/her name and for information to be used in the introduction. Don't assume that what you've found online is accurate (or that you've compiled it accurately).

Do tell the speaker how the room will be setup, if possible, ahead of time. Will the speaker, for example, be able to run his/her own PowerPoint slides or will someone else have to do it for them?
 
I was conference co-chair for NJLA for 2 years and you are right on when you say you need to sweat the small stuff. The small stuff can make or break a session.

YOu have a great list, let me add one or two that are also important:

Make sure that the room is at a comfortable temperature -- nothing worse than having chattering teeth or being too warm when you are trying to concentrate and be your best in front of a crowd.

Ask beforehand what type of lighting the speaker prefers.

Make sure that there is cold water easily within reach for the speaker.

Oh, and I totally agree on the food thing being important. Whenever a speaker presents at PPL I make sure to let them know that they can order whatever suits them from our cafe if what is in the buffet is not to their preference.
 
I've been organising a conference for almost 2 years now (we are now 3 months away). We have 3 keynote speakers, one local, one interstate, and one international. I've been thinking about the small stuff constantly, including all of the 10 points you listed. It has bee time consuming, in terms of metally keep track of things, but I am hoping that all the preparation will mean that we have a great conference in December. :)

Other tips:

Speaker selection: we started with a list of topics we were interested in covering, then the entire committee submitted names. I created a chart to rank them by 'popularity', location, cost, and key topics. This was a democratic and easy way of creating a list of potential keynotes and alternates.

Do ensure to rank alternates: in case speakers aren't available or the topic doesn't fit.

Make your invitation comprehensive so everything's upfront: we included information about the conference themes, expected audience, what we would reimburse, a suggested topic, and a preferred response date in one page.

Working with assistants: if you are inviting a high flyer, there is a good chance you'll be speaking to their assistant more often than to the speaker. So it is very important to let them know when you're just checking in or when you need to get extra information from the speaker.

Provide contact info: all speakers will have mobile phone contacts, hotel pickup if requested, etc.

Take care of all speakers, not just the keynotes: we have a few first-time presenters at our conference. We are working to ensure that we support them in any way we can.

Jessamyn - I've got a spot on our AV form for people who want to bring their own laptops, sing, dance, or play music so I am hoping that covers everything! (And yes, we do have a singing-dancing presentation...)

Food: this goes for everyone, including delegates. As someone with a severe nut allergy, I am fastidious about food.
 
AND conference organizers should figure out some way to purchase plane tickets or reimburse speakers up front with the idea that if the speaker backs out, they have to pay it back. I just had an $80 finace charge on my credit card because of the plane tickets I'm carrying right now. :-(
 
I'm just re-reading this in preparation for sharing it with a group I'm involved with.

First in my original comment, the one sentence should have been "Do not only worry about how the speaker will get to the event, but also how the speaker will get home."

And let me add one other thought. At the event, designate someone to alert the speaker when time is running out. Depending on the flow of the event, the speaker may lose track of time, so having someone who will give the speaker "the high sign" when time is running out can be a great idea (and very much appreciated).
 
Great points in the original post and in the comments. I've done both the speaking and the organizing and have a few thoughts to add.

1. About the size of the room--if you're the organizer and you know the room will be too large or too small (which sometimes can't be helped), let the speaker know in advance.

2. Please, please review what's in the program with the speaker. You might not have changed it, but that doesn't mean it didn't change. I've arrived only to find that what the organizer told me I was speaking about bears no resemblance to the printed prgram.

3. Both organizers and speakers should bring up formality. That is, how serious and formal is this supposed to be? Of course, the audience wants to learn something. But should they be laughing too?

4. You, the organizing contact, are not alone. You didn't plan the whole conference. So, if you think a particular person or group would be a nice fit for a meal with your speaker, suggest it. For example, I don't do well having a meal with a stranger (really, for those who know me, I'm quite a shy person). So, when I'm the organizer I get together a small group for dinner and offer our company to the speaker. Works out nicely whether the speaker is interested or not. And you can truthfully say "it's ok if you just want to rest, I'll have company anyway."

5. As the organizer, try to anticipate other things the speaker might be interested in at the conference. You know more about it than the speaker does.

6. Keep the introductions short, please. And that's me from the audience--not as a speaker or organizer.

7. If you give a little gift (and I always do--or the association does), please keep in mind that the speaker is traveling after this. I don't want to take a huge gift basket on a plane. I travel lightly for a reason.

8. Though the organizer should have to change things, speakers, please understand that most library conferences are planned entirely by volunteers. If something does change, either figure out how to be flexible or think of a gracious way to adapt. When I did find that the program described something totally different from what I had prepared, I asked the audience to vote "what you came for, but I didn't prepare for" or "what I prepared for, but you didn't know about". They voted for the "unprepared" talk, but I didn't have to fake that I wasn't prepared. I let everyone know.

9. Have fun. It really is fun both to speak at and to organize conferences.
 
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