Paul Campbell

5 Tips To Reduce Conference Awkwardness

On the Giant Robots Podcast 2 weeks ago, I talked about some of the steps that we used at Úll to reduce awkwardness at the conference. Awkwardness is one of those things that differentiates events that feel “pro” from those that feel thrown together, but it’s more than that.

In my opinion, one of the primary responsibilities of a conference is to reduce the friction for attendee interactions and to maximise serendipity. Awkwardness kills this. There are ways of doing this by adding things to a conference, like a party in a bar, or helicopters, but there are things that every conference can do. These tips are especially relevant to new conference organisers, but I think that every conference could benefit from them.

In general, if there’s an awkward moment on stage, people will tend to be polite, and sit quietly while things are sorted out. This isn’t such a big deal, but what you’re losing during these awkward moments are opportunities for people to talk. Getting people to talk to each other is probably the single most valuable thing that a conference provides.

And so, here a few tips that will help de-awkwardify your event:

1. Know and share AV needs in advance

One of the pitfalls I that I try to avoid is the awkward moment when a speaker connects their laptop to the projector. This feeds into another tip about taking breaks between sessions, but it’s important to get the AV part of it right. I like to find out all my AV tech specs ahead of time, and share them with everyone who will be presenting, so at the very least, there’s no resolution surprises. If I’m going to have a super-bright projector in a darkened room, speakers know that even low-contrast slides will probably look good. If it’s going to be a weak projector in a daylight-lit room, I’m going to want to stress that slides should be high contrast. Will there be a Mac or a PC available? Will there be video input/output adapters?

I was impressed by the requirements in the So Coded Speaker Requirements Email that I received, well in advance of the conference.

Two bonus tips here: If I can afford it, I’ll always hire an external, pro AV company, which will provide automatic switching between holding slides and presenter slides, and they’ll offer things like extra reliable chunky clickers, microphone setup, and large presenter displays.

2. At the end of every session, bring up the lights and play some music

After AV setup awkwardness, this is probably the next most obvious pitfall. A movie doesn’t just end: the lights come up, there’s rolling credits and the music keeps playing. A theatre show doesn’t just end: the curtains close, the lights come up and the background music turns on.

These techniques work GREAT after a conference session.

If there’s an MC, I like to have them introduce the speaker before their session, but usually after a talk is finished, there’s not a whole lot to say, other than “Wow, wasn’t that great” and either introduce the next session or provide a PSA. The thing about PSAs is that there’s a much better place to provide them: on the screen.

After sessions at Úll, we brought the lights up, swapped out the speaker’s slides, and displayed the time of the next session.

This made for much less awkwardness. The speaker doesn’t have to share their applause with the MC. Since the lights are up, there’s music playing, and the next session time is showing, the audience knows that it’s ok to chat, that they’re not going to miss anything, and that they have enough time to go out for a smoke or answer a call of nature. Win for everyone.

3. Break after every session

Following on again from the above, this is another rule that I like to keep to. 5 minutes is enough, but some conferences, such as Nordic Ruby have a 30 minute break between every session.

Breaks allow breathing room between sessions. Time to digest the previous talk, but again, if we’re trying to maximise conversations, time to discuss what was presented. There are so many other good reasons for taking breaks. A few minutes to catch up on work without worrying about missing anything. Time to review and post to Twitter or write a blog post or just catch up on a few emails.

As a bonus to this, I tend to avoid Q&A. Q&A, in my experience, is interesting for the person asking the question, and for the person answering, while everyone else sits politely. There are notable exceptions to this, but on the whole, the risk of awkwardness at the expense of serendipity usually pushes me toward a no Q&A policy.

4. Use cabaret style seating

This isn’t available to everyone, but wherever I’ve seen this used, it’s been so much better than any other style of seating.

A conference isn’t a show, in the conventional sense. It’s not supposed to be a one-to-many experience, with lots of strangers all sharing an experience of a presentation.

There are a number of seating arrangements available when you’re decking out a meeting space: Theatre Style, Classroom Style and Cabaret Style (and, indeed Free Style, although you’ll have to request that specially!). Theatre Style squishes the most people in, and you see it every time you go to a movie theatre or indeed, to the theatre. Classroom style gives everyone a little desk to write things on, but it’s still rows of individual seats.

Then there’s cabaret style. Also known as “half-banquet” or “half-rounds” cabaret style uses round tables, where everyone sits at the table, but there are only chairs around half of the table, so everyone faces mostly front. I first came across this setup at JSConf EU in 2009, which was directly inspired by Chris Williams’s use at JSConf the same year. I’ve seen it used effectively a number of times since.

The great thing about cabaret style is that it sends a completely different message. With cabaret style, you both face the presentation and other attendees. Attendees can get up and move about without falling over themselves. Everyone has a desk to write on, but it doesn’t feel stuffy. If I can make it happen, it’s cabaret style every time.

5. Be prepared!

The fifth tip is just good old common sense, but I felt it important to say it anyway. Even if I’m planning on changing things up on the day, I like to know what I’m dealing with. As a conference organiser, people put a huge amount of faith in me to know what’s happening. With that responsibility, I like to be prepared. In general, I’ll meet with the venue on various occasions, and try to get to know all of the subtle details. If I have multiple venues, I try to get out and meet the people who will be in charge on the day. I rigorously research everyone who’s speaking at the event, and in general just knowing who’s responsible for all the details.

There’s something very awkward about a conference organiser who doesn’t know what’s going on. On the other hand, an organiser who’s in control and acting like there’s a plan (even if there’s not one!) puts folks at ease. And folks at ease will talk to each other.

Everyone has their own way of planning, and whether it be research, getting out and meeting people, doing a walk-through, rehearsal or just memorizing lines: Be Prepared.

Bonus: A lot of first-time conference organisers say that they got so caught up in the moment that they forgot to enjoy themselves during the event. My line is “I’d loved to have gone to Funconf”. That said, the doing was so rewarding, I had a completely unique experience. Your mileage may vary on this one, but it might be worth adding a to-do item to your list: At some point, look around, take a deep breath, and think to yourself: “I made this”.