How Not to Treat Speakers at Conferences Tito Blog

How Not to Treat Guest Speakers at Your Conferences


As I write this, I’m just off the stage after finishing a guest speaking slot at a conference that I enjoyed. I felt welcomed, had space, knew where I was needed and when. However, I haven’t always been lucky enough to have an average experience as a guest speaker.

This post isn’t meant to target any organiser or event in particular. It’s also not being written out of my need for catharsis. Rather, I wanted to share the bits that get left out. Those being little changes from my experience that could make all the difference to the greater speaker experience.

Don’t Leave out Specifics About Your Guest Speaker’s Talk

Have you told your guest speakers how long their talk is expected to be? Have you told them there’ll be a Q&A session? If the answer to either of those is “no”, then please do that now, or as early as humanly possible.

Some organisers are guilty of thinking that their conference is well-known enough for those who are applying to speak to know the format. Others are guilty of general oversight around this information.

I’ve often found myself hastily deleting slides the night before a talk for which I’d been preparing for several weeks. That situation makes for a potentially rushed and lower quality talk. It can also mean that your speaker will be less willing to return to future events.

Don’t Ignore Murphy’s Law When It Comes to Slides

PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides are the unholy trinity of the conference world. To avoid unnecessary rummaging and rumbling, specify the display size and software that you intend on using.

The speakers don’t necessarily need to make their slides in your preferred software, but they at least then get a chance to preview what they’ve put together in those clients so that things don’t explode on event day.

If you’re really committed, ask speakers to have their slides to hand on a USB key. You can also use a shared Dropbox folder or similar to host them in case there’s a lost laptop/rogue volunteer/disaster situation.

Don’t Forget to Give the MC a TL;DR About Each Guest Speaker

If your speaker has to do a mini interview at the start of their talk, that’s stressful. It takes their structured introduction from them, and leaves their company name and own name liable to mispronunciation. That’s before we even get started on pronouns. All of that can make the speaker, MC, and audience feel unnecessary awkwardness.  

It’s best to have a pre-prepared bio that shouldn’t take longer than a couple of seconds. Give that to your MC (if you have one) ahead of time.

Don’t Leave Them Alone After You’ve Given Them a Badge

I’ve seen a turnstile of “Hi” -> *hands over badge* -> “Bye, you’re on your own now!” at too many conferences. At a bare minimum, tell your speaker where they can sit down to go over their slides, or where they can find the nearest cup of coffee.

The very best hosts tell their speakers where the others are hanging out, and even introduce them to a team member or another speaker who they can get to know in the build up. That calms the nerves, instead of adding the pressure of having to be hyper-social by introducing yourself to everyone before you’ve even spoken.

Don’t All Jump on Them At Once

This might seem like a contradiction of the point before it, but just as leaving your speaker to wander the halls of your conference unguided is bad, so too is having too many people for them to turn to.

Have one person deal with speaker management. If you’re running your conference by yourself, great! Should you have a volunteer to help you, either delegate the management of all the speakers to them, or split the responsibilities, and have one batch of speakers per volunteer. If you force your speakers to have 10 go-to people, they either won’t tell you when something’s wrong, or they’ll tell the wrong person.

Don’t Forget About the Guest Speakers’ Room

This seems pretty straight forward, but I’ve been in greenrooms that had very Harry-Potter-under-the stairs-vibes. Now, that’s not to say I’m expecting something as lofty and opulent as the Hogwarts prefects’ bathrooms every time I arrive at an event.

A room with some natural light, enough chairs for speakers, a desk or two and some power outlets is more than enough. Another issue that I’ve seen is, more often than not, those rooms are acres away from where the rest of the attendees are.

Speakers, as is the case with your attendees, are also at your conference to meet new people, and not just the select 20 or so people on your line-up. Give speakers the option to mingle, and a walk to their stage that’s at least shorter than their morning commute.

Don’t Just Give Flexibility to Keynote Speakers

People who aren’t necessarily “big names” have children, appointments, deadlines, flights, and responsibilities too. If you’re going to offer some wiggle room around speaking slots for your headliners, have that flexibility for everyone on your agenda. Even if someone is more experienced, or you expect them to draw more of a crowd, that doesn’t make their needs any more or less worthy than anyone else’s.

Everything that comes with preparing a conference has nuance. What works for me will certainly not work for every speaker. However, what I’ve tried to convey here is that there are some rules of thumb that, if organisers consider them, can achieve the two things that are universal desires of speakers: less stress, and more of a chance to feel welcome and comfortable. And, as luck would have it, these little changes can help the organisers get those benefits too.

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