I’m new to being a speaker. It’s exciting and a little surreal. I’ve had so many good, nay great, experiences that I’m hesitant to mention the negative experiences. Because, really - there haven’t been many at all. Perhaps more often, I’ve just wished that things were... better. And they can be! So, in the spirit of constructive criticism, I’d like to talk about the things that I, as a speaker who is also a member of a minority group within my field, would like to see on conference websites, Call For Proposal(CFP) landing pages and CFP forms. I think it’s important to remember that not only are you creating these spaces to request speaker proposals, but that these spaces are communicating information about your event that may make a potential speaker feel welcome or it may make them decide not to submit anything at all. I’m telling you this, because it has happened to me. I have heard about a CFP, gone to the conference website and decided not to submit - for a variety of reasons I have gotten the distinct feeling that that conference did not want the type of person I am at their event. I am sure that I am not the only one to have experienced this.
To be clear, this post is directed at conference organizers. I know your job is hard, but I believe that including the below information, asking the below questions and taking the below actions will help you create a better experience for everyone involved.
My first point doesn’t really fall into a category but please, organizers, have a CFP landing page.
I’ve come across some conferences that don’t have a CFP landing pages and I have to say clicking a link looking for more information and being thrown directly onto a google form page is a little disorientating and awkward. Speakers will likely need to refer to your website repeatedly during their submission process to look for information that is not on the form. If you put the information that speakers are likely looking for on your CFP landing page, it really helps smooth the information gathering and submission process. Remember that speakers are busy people too. Helping your potential speakers helps your conference by improving the quality of submissions as well as the number of submissions. It also makes your potential speakers feel welcome while showing your conference is well organized and thought out. If you cannot create a landing page for some technical reason (baby wombats demanding cuddles, perhaps?) than at the very least set your site up so that the form opens in a new tab. It makes it a lot easier to search your site for missing information.
Not sure what information to put on your landing page? I have a wishlist!
Dates - Organizers, I know you’ve put a lot of planning into your event, but your speakers do too. They need to make sure they have no conflicting plans and block those dates off. They also need to know when to book hotels, flights and cat sitters.
Location - This is especially important if your conference changes location each year. Speakers need to know where the event is to calculate travel time and to know if they are even able to attend. They may have the date clear, but not enough time between events to reasonably manage travel from one place to another. No one can be in New York on Tuesday and in Tokyo on Wednesday. Well, maybe Dr Who.
CFP Closing Date/Time WITH Timezone - I'm not going to sugar coat this - speakers are busy people. While I don't want to wait until the last minute to submit my talk - my other commitments may force me to. Let your potential speakers know when your deadline is clearly - so they don't miss it.
CFP Response Date - It takes a lot of work to put together a good proposal. Do right by the people who are offering their time (often unpaid) to help make your conference a success by telling them when you'll get back to them. Make sure that this date is far enough in advance of the event so the speakers who haven’t booked travel/accommodation can still do so at a reasonable price.
What You Want - Knowing whether a conference is looking for is Immensely helpful. Are you looking for technical talks? War stories? Social commentary? Are you looking for talks about these things from a particular standpoint? Application security, for example, is going to look different from a developer's point of view than from a pen tester's point of view. If you are specifically looking for minority points of view, say that too.
What You Don’t Want - Would you prefer experience over a fresh view? Say so. Tell potential speakers what you already know you don't want. It saves everyone’s time. You don't have to look at proposals you already know you won't accept and the speakers can focus their time on proposals you -do- want to see.
Expected Audience - Who is your audience? Even a new conference should know who they are aiming their conference at; students, new professionals, experienced professionals, educators, adults, children, nonprofit, for-profit. Sharing who you expect to come to your conference helps your potential speakers know what level they should be writing their talk to. A talk about internet security is going to look vastly different when aimed at teenagers versus when created for corporate security boffins.
Session Length/s - Your potential speakers are going to structure their talks differently depending on how much time they have to fill. Also, knowing if their time slot needs to allow for a 10 minute Q&A period helps to avoid a speaker needing to rush through material to get their talk out 10 minutes faster than they had planned. Also, if you’re offering a selection of session lengths, tell your speakers that too as they may have talks that would be better suited to other session lengths.
Session Types - Along with session lengths, tell your speakers the type of session you’re looking for; lightning talks, lectures, poster presentations, tutorials, demonstrations, audience participation, expert panels - topics can be explored in vastly different ways depending on the type of session in which it is being explored. This will also tie into your expected audience as different audiences are going to absorb information differently, or not at all, dependent on the session type. Letting your potential speakers in on what you’re looking for allows them to better accommodate your vision.
Topic Wishlist - Are there topics relevant to your conference that you have never had a proposal for but would really like to? Providing a topic wishlist will help in your quest to see those talks. It will also help new or first time speakers who may not have considered submitting a proposal see that they have something to say that you want to hear about!
Code of Conduct - This is something you should have. Seriously. If you don't have one - please consider why that is and how it is negatively impacting your conference diversity. It is, I promise. I know speakers who will not consider talking at conferences that don't have them. By not having one, you are missing out on some great speakers while sending a message (intentionally or not) that you don't care about diversity, respect or safety within your conference. Have a code of conduct, talk about it and tell speakers you think it’s important.
Are You Recording Sessions - Being up front about recording intentions and where/how you will be sharing videos/audio prevents miscommunication. Some speakers dislike being filmed and may request not to be. Certainly, I know I am more likely to consent to being filmed or recorded if I know in advance it is happening, rather than being surprised by it on the day.
Facilities Provided / Room Layout for Each Room - Telling your speakers what equipment allows them to create their talk with their environment in mind. For example: if your space has no display/projector, there is not much point in a speaker creating slides. If each of your rooms have a full presentation suit including presentation clicker, then speakers know to make slides but that they can leave their own clicker at home.
Childcare Information - Providing childcare for your speakers and attendees is easier, and cheaper, than you think! If you don't currently provide it, consider doing so. Here's a really excellent article about how can be done! Either way - tell your speakers (and attendees) if you are/aren't.
Benefits Extended to Speakers - Do your speakers get complimentary event tickets? If so, is it just for the day they’re speaking or the whole conference? Do you provide mentoring? Is there a speaker lounge? Somewhere for speakers to test their set up before their talk? Do you cover travel or accommodation? Do you monetarily compensate your speakers? Some conferences don’t have the budget to provide these things, however I’d like to point out that speaking at conferences is time consuming, stressful and expensive. Not all speakers have companies who foot their speaking bill. Travel, accommodation and food all add up. If you can afford it, compensate your speakers. It shows that you value their contributions. You do right? I mean, who would come to a conference with no speakers?
Funding Information - Some conferences can’t afford to cover the cost of travel and accommodation for all speakers but are able to do so for those in who would be unable to attend otherwise. If you have this type of funding, don’t wait for someone to ask - say so clearly and tell your potentials speakers what the application process is. This can improve speaker diversity as often speakers from less privileged backgrounds struggle to finance speaking appearances. Also, it is better to be up front if you are unable to provide such funding. A speaker who would be unable to attend without help may chose not to submit to conferences that do not have funding to support them.
Selection Process - Be clear about how proposals are selected. This shows your speakers that not only are they all being evaluated by the same standards, but it shows that you have thought through this process and aren’t flying by the seat of your trousers. It also holds you accountable and allows you to provide clear feedback should it be asked for.
Method to Contact Organizers - Provide potential speakers with a way to contact you if they have further questions. This could be an email address or IRC server/room information. Both options would be great so long as they are being checked regularly.
In Part Two, I will focus on some examples of what I think are really important questions culled from some great CFPs, and why they should be more common.