Sunday, 9 October 2016

Caring for conference speakers

I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at a number of international conferences. I've traveled to the USA, Canada, India, Estonia, England, Australia, and Denmark, as well as speaking at many events around New Zealand.

My experiences have been generally good. Yet there are many things about speaking at conferences that I feel could be improved. As a co-organiser of the upcoming WeTest conferences, I've spent some time this year reflecting on where the opportunities are to do things better.

The most obvious is paying to speak. I've had to pay my own airfares and accommodation on a few occasions, particularly as a new speaker. Where reimbursement for expenses has been offered it is usually paid after the event, which means that I still need to be financially able to cover these expenses in the short term.

But there are a host of smaller parts that form the overall experience of speaking at an event.

I may not know whether I'm supposed to have my presentation material on my own laptop, on a USB drive, or submitted somewhere in advance. What is the type of connection to the projector? Will there be a microphone? A lecturn? A stage?

I may not know how big my audience is going to be: 10, 100, or more? What type of layout will they be in: tables of 10, rows of chairs, or a staggered amphitheater? What type of people will I be speaking to: testers, test managers, or others who work in software?

I may not know what sort of environment I will face. Is it a conference where presenters simply present, or will there be a Q&A or open season afterwards? Is there a culture of debate, argument or challenge? If so, will I be supported by a facilitator?

All of these unknowns about what I've signed up for can cause anxiety. They also make it difficult for me to picture the audience and tailor my material accordingly.

Then there are the series of small challenges that happen during the experience itself. Arriving from a long haul flight in an unfamiliar country and finding my accommodation. Locating the conference venue and the room in which I'll present. Determining whether I'll be introduced by someone or will introduce myself. Deciding how to manage time keeping. And so on.

So, what are we doing differently for WeTest?

One of the main priorities for our organising committee is to care for our speakers. As many of the WeTest organisers are also regular conference speakers, we've worked hard to remove the worries that may surround accepting a speaking engagement. We know our speakers are putting a lot of work into preparing their presentations. We think that this should be their only concern.

We've arranged and paid for our speaker flights and accommodation in advance. With one exception where a speaker had specific airline requirements, none of our speakers have been asked to foot any of these costs upfront.

We've communicated with our speakers regularly. Since their selection in June we've:
  • agreed on benefits and expectations via a written speaker agreement,
  • offered them the opportunity to check their session and biographical details on the event website prior to our go-live, 
  • provided a mechanism for them to complete their complimentary registration, 
  • shared details of the venue, audio visual setup and event timing, 
  • prepared personal itineraries for travel, accommodation and any associated sponsorship commitments, and
  • sent them a copy of our attendee communication.

Over the past four months I hope that this information has removed a lot of anxiety that can be associated with presenting at an event. As an organising team we've tried to space out these messages, to offer regular opportunities for our speakers to ask questions and eliminate any unknowns.

The speaker itineraries that we've prepared run from arrival in the conference city. We have arranged and paid transport to meet all of our speakers at the airport. For international guests this means they don't have to worry about how to find their hotel or immediately locate New Zealand currency when they land.

And on the conference day itself, we have a dedicated person assigned specifically to our speakers. One of our organising committee will be walking our speakers from their accommodation to the venue, leading the speaker briefing, and be available throughout the event to deal with any questions or problems that arise.

I'm confident that our efforts to look after our speakers will result in fantastic material this year and in years to come. I want to continue to create a safe space for new presenters to step forward from the New Zealand testing community. And I want our WeTest events to be a must for international presenters on the software testing conference circuit.

On a broader note, I hope that our efforts help to change the expectations of speakers for other events. If every organiser aimed to provide a similar level of care, or speakers came to expect this, the experience of speaking at a conference could be consistently better than it is today.


  1. Hurray!! Except that I prefer to arrange my own flights, I'm fully in support of everything you've said here, and I hope your example -- and that of one or two other conferences (like The Romanian Testing Conference and the European Testing Conference)-- will inspire other conference organisers to do the same.

    1. Thanks Fiona.

      Certainly the flight arrangement option won't suit all. It was easier for us to prepay flights when they were arranged through a NZ travel agent. We will reimburse travel for those who arranged their own, but not until after the event. For people without means to make a loan to us, having the prepay option is essential, which is why we make that offer first.

  2. Good stuff, Katrina. You have more experience than me, but I have been thinking along similar lines for a while and there is little consistency across different events in terms of what we as presenters get to learn before we actually turn up. For example, I was surprised at STARWest last week that the track sessions were not facilitated, so no introduction and no assistance during Q&A - I wrongly assumed that such a big event would include a facilitator for each session. It wasn't a big deal, but again made me think along much the same lines as you have in this post.

    Kudos to you and your organizing committee for putting more thought into this and making the experience of speaking as comfortable as possible. Conferences would do well to remember that without the speakers, there's no conference so treating speakers well should be their highest priority.