The Twelve (or so) Step Program for Conference Speakers and Organisers

There’s been a lot of talk the last few days about Office 2.0, a conference that brought gender inequality in technology to a new low. Fifty three speakers and one woman was the original unpleasant statistic, and a few people got very cross about it. Rightly so.

But who is at fault? The organisers? The women? No one? Everyone? Someone else?

If the women think that it’s the organiser’s fault for not looking for more women, then we risk becoming passive, quietly waiting our turn. If the organisers think it’s women’s fault for not putting themselves forward, then they risk being lazy, and waiting for women to turn up on their doorstep. It becomes a tragedy of the commons, everyone blaming everyone else and no one doing a damn thing about it.

So, what do we do? I personally believe that the answer lies with all of us. We are ultimately responsible for our own lives, and our own experiences. As a woman, I am responsible for my own attendance at conferences, for submitting papers, and for assessing the invitations that I get. No one put me on some secret Speakers List – indeed if you look at all the lists of women speakers that have been drawn up these last few days, you’ll see I’m not on any of them. Instead, I went through a process of figuring out how to get to speak at conferences, and although I’m still learning, I think it might be helpful to share some of that knowledge here.

I also want to give organisers a heads up, but I’ll do that below. You people are also responsible for your own experience but you also, at the conference at least, help shape ours. You have a responsibility to pull your fingers out of your collective ass and start trying harder.

So… on with the program.

How To Become A Conference Speaker
1. Identify your interests. What subjects are you interested in? What are you passionate about? What do you do at work? What do you want to do at work? Where does your experience lie? If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you are going to find it hard to crack the conference problem. You need to be focused – there are a lot of conferences out there, and you need to pick the ones that you will benefit from most.

2. Identify the conferences. This is easier said than done. I’ve yet to see a comprehensive conference calendar, and I’ve missed plenty of good conference action because I missed an announcement. So search Upcoming and the blogs and any other event-based site you can find. List out your conferences, look at when they are, how much they cost, who’s speaking, what the topics are, and then make a shortlist of ones that interest you most. Note: This is an ongoing process, because new conferences get announced all the time.

3. Pick which conferences you really want to go to. If any are work related, ask your boss if she or he will send you. You may think ‘They’ll never go for this’ but you won’t know unless you ask, and you might get a nice surprise.

4. If you can’t persuade your boss to send you, book off some holiday and go yourself. This is career development, and the investment will be worth it. You will learn new stuff, meet new people and have new ideas. How can that not be worth it?

5. Identify and become a part of the conferences communities. Conferences don’t happen in a vacuum, and you will do well to join the mailing lists associated with the subjects you are interested. You should also engage with bloggers writing about your subjects, and any wikis, forums, etc. that are relevant. Some conferences will even have social networking tools associated with the event, so use those too. Also join wikis like The Speaker’s Wiki. Get yourself out there.

6. If you blog, then write about the conferences you are going to, tell the world you are open to meeting up with people, and then follow through on any invitations you get. If you don’t have a blog, get one and do the above.

7. At the conference, participate. Talk to other attendees, the organiser, the speakers, everyone you can. You’re not there to observe, you’re there to take part and you can guarantee that no organiser is going to notice you if you just sit in the corner and watch. Make sure you mingle with everyone – don’t just hang out with your friends or other women. Go talk to strangers!

8. Ask questions. Speaking is a skill you may have to work hard to acquire. For some it comes naturally, for most it does not. But almost everyone is terrified by the thought of potential public humiliation and I know more people whose stomachs get churned up before speaking than who don’t. One way to ease yourself through this pain barrier is to make yourself ask questions from the floor – personally I find it harder to ask questions than to be a speaker, but maybe that’s just me.

9. When you’ve been to a few conferences and are familiar with the way that they work, start looking for ones that you want to speak at. If they have a call for papers then submit one. If not, then contact the organiser and say you’d like to take part as a speaker. Make sure you are clear about what you bring to the conference: What experience do you have? What projects have you been working on? What are you unique successes? Where does your wisdom lie? Don’t give them a huge long biography or CV, just a succinct summary of your experience and some ideas of how you could fit into the conference schedule. The idea is not to drown them in information but to show them how you make their conference better, and make them want to get in touch with you to find out more.

10. Be prepared to be turned down. It happens to everyone all the time. It may bruise your ego but it’s going to happen and you may as well get used to it. Don’t let it stop you from continuing to push yourself forward as a speaker, and don’t get a chip on your shoulder about it.

11. Improve your public speaking skills. If you’re not a natural (and you may not find that out until it’s too late if you do no prep), then you are going to have to work hard to becomes a good speaker. Most people in the tech industry – male and female – do not do this. They make no effort to learn how to present, and consequently they bore the pants off their audience. Yes, some of them keep getting invited back because they did something that everyone’s interested in, but if you didn’t just float your start-up or invent AI, then you’re going to have to make sure you are damn compelling when you get up on that stage. So be prepared!

12a. Knock their socks off, and keep knocking them off. Be interesting. If there’s one thing that will keep getting you invited back, it’s being interesting.

12b. GOTO 1.

Note for Conference Organisers
This doesn’t let you off the hook. If you aren’t more inclusive, you can expect to get the kind of flack that Ismael is getting over Office 2.0. If you don’t want to get hassled, then I suggest that you too follow a few tips.

1. Organise your conferences in advance. Don’t try and throw something together at the last minute, because people have lives and the best speakers aren’t necessarily going to drop everything just for you.

2. Look at the other conferences in your field. Who’s speaking? How many males? How many females? How many people from out of town? Or abroad?

3. Look at who’s blogging about your subject. Use Technorati or Icerocket, and spend significant time finding you who’s saying what to whom.

4. Look at your list of potential speakers. Are they all friends? If so, then you might want to hold a private party instead. Are they all men? If so, then you might want to put a bit more effort into finding some women, unless you want your balls handed to you on a plate. Does the gender balance reflect that of the industry? If so, well done.

5. Ask around. Dig a little. Find people who are new to you. Start to compile a list of subjects and possible speakers, and see how well you can balance new, familiar, male, female.

6. Talk to the community. They know people, y’know. Announce a call for papers, but be specific about what you want. I can promise you that ’email me if you want to speak’ is going to result in a whole world of pain for you – far better to have a formalised submission process asking for things like abstracts to make sure that you collect the necessary data.

7. If you have some names of speakers that you just don’t know, try having a conference call with them to try and get a feel for how they’ll be onstage. It’s very easy to see cross people off your list just because you’ve never heard of them, but try to actually investigate first. After all, you don’t know everybody.

8. For panels, consider mixing up some established speakers and some first-time speakers. Panel discussions are really good places for first-time speakers to cut their teeth, but make sure you have an experienced moderator to make sure everyone gets a say.

9. If you have a newbie who has some really good business experience to share, but no speaking experience, try setting up an onstage interview instead of giving them a keynote. But make sure you find a presenter who is good at interviewing (maybe a journalist?), as the only thing worse than one bad speaker on stage is two bad speakers on stage.

10. Stand up to your sponsors. Yes, we all know big names draw crowds. But not everyone on your schedule has to be famous and if your sponsors are pushing for more big names, you should push back. Some of the people on the conference circuit give new talks every time… some just trot out the same old same old every time. Ditch them, no matter how famous they are.

11. Have an expenses fund. Not all good speakers work for big companies willing to cover their costs. Be prepared to help out those who are self-funded, even if you only pay travel and a cheap hotel.

12a. Never stop putting the effort in. Your job is to put on a good conference with varied voices, and if you stop trying to find new speakers, and stop trying to ensure a healthy gender balance, then you’re failing. There is such a thing as ‘bad publicity’ after all – it’s when people say ‘sod you, I’m not coming to your crappy sexist conference’.

12b. GOTO 1.

Right… those are my thoughts off the top of my head. Any more tips for speakers and organisers?

UPDATE: For the record, I did get an invitation to Office 2.0 from Ross Mayfield (after this, but probably unconnected as I’ve worked with Ross in the past). I can’t go, because I have a prior engagement.

Comments are closed.