Setting Up A Conference: Part 3 - Speakers


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Mar 31, 2011 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Why did I insist on talking about sponsors before speakers? Because it was necessary.

First of all, having good sponsorship means that you may have the funds to finance travel and an honorarium for some well-known speakers who will help attract a good audience.

You may be blessed by having well-known, local speakers who would be happy to show up at your event and give a talk, or you could be lucky to have a speaker as accommodating as a friend of mine that took a five-hour bus ride from upstate New Hampshire to a conference, but a lot of speakers may need to have their travel expenses paid, and this (of course) involves money that typically comes from sponsorship.

Another reason for planning speakers after initial sponsorship planning is that you may have a really great speaker who works for one of your sponsors. Having a good position in the speaking schedule for that employee of the sponsor is a nice perk to give to the marketing department of that sponsor.

Typically in an event you may have several different types of sessions:


  • Keynote speeches
  • Track speeches
  • Sessions
  • Workshops
  • Birds-of-a-feather sessions



Keynotes typically try to address the entire audience of attendees. They are typically given at the beginning of the conference, each morning of a multiple day conference, before or after lunch, and (perhaps) at the very end of the conference (this type of keynote I call a “footnote”).

Keynotes ideally should be visionary, forward-looking, broad in scope and useful to the entire audience. This, of course, is very hard to do all the time, but in my opinion should be the goal. Keynotes should not (in my opinion) be a “product pitch”, although many keynotes may lay the path for discussing products afterwards. For example, a keynote may be discussing the problems that the industry in general has to address, where the speaker's product might try to solve some or all of those problems.

Track speeches

Once the keynotes are over, the audience may break up into “tracks” that have a more specific audience or specific problems, and this is the place that a series of talks (called session), perhaps with different approaches to solving the same issues, might be given. Each track might be started with a brief “track speech” that sets the problem and tone of the track.


The “meat” of the track, where solution presentations are typically given.


Here the session is not just someone standing at the front of the room talking, but the audience may be actively working on a program, solving a problem or working as a group.

Birds-of-a-feather (BoF) session

Here there are no real “leaders”. A group of people get together to discuss an issue of mutual interest


This is a special type of keynote, the closing of the day or the conference, where the speaker reflects back on what has been learned, and looks to the future as to how the industry might move and how the next conference should be better. This (of course) requires a real visionary, and someone who typically writes the talk while they are at the conference, finishing it as they walk up onto the stage.

How do I find these people?

One place you can look is your major sponsors. They have invested in your conference for some reason. Perhaps they feel they have a good handle on the issues and the answers. The other reason is that if they offer a good speaker, you can offer them a keynote, track speech or session as an enticement to participate and sponsor your conference. Does this mean that you should accept a “market pitch”? No, but some of these people have spent a considerable time in the industry and have unique insights onto some of the issues.

Your sponsors might also suggest speakers that do not work for them, but are knowledgeable and good speakers.

Next you can look to book authors, magazine authors, speakers from other conferences and good bloggers. These are people who not only demonstrate their knowledge of the subject, but they can put together the ideas and communicate them well. It is true that some of these people can write better than they can speak, but that is where asking about their speaking capabilities to others on your team will go a long way.

Finally, project leaders and developers, systems administrators and other technical people that seem to know what they are doing often make good presenters, but only when they are comfortable presenting. Here is where you may really want to use discretion, as some of these people may know their information very well, but are terrible presenters and/or may freeze up when they get on stage. A word or two to the project leader of a good developer might ascertain that the person “really can't speak”, and therefore should be avoided.

Another possible source of speakers are educators. After all, these are professional “communicators” and normally know how to present complex materials.

Finally, do not be afraid to use local people. “A prophet is never recognized in their own country” is often a very sad and true saying, but if you have someone in your own user group, school, or even your own event team, if they have the knowledge, the desire and the skill to present, then please consider using them.

All of these speakers mentioned so far could be considered “invited talks”. You know the person, or know of the person, in some way and you are asking them to speak. Another method is the “Call For Participation” (CFP).

The Call For Participation (CFP)

A time-honored way of attracting speakers, you put up a web page that lists the theme of the conference, speaks to the type of audience you expect and asks for a title, an abstract, and the speaker's biography so you can see if they have the expertise needed for the talk. There should also be a very visible deadline on having your reply to the CFP in the system.

After that you may want to target project and local user group announcement mailing lists to see if there is any interest in speaking at your conference.

When should you invite the speakers?

As soon as possible. Many good speakers are booked nine months or a year ahead of time, and even if they are not booked for that day or that week, they may be limiting their travel due to work or family reasons. Believe it or not some of these speakers have to do real work, and they actually like seeing their family from time to time. Therefore, “first come, first served”. Other people plan trips and vacations.

Please do NOT schedule a speaker before you have a venue and funding, and please do NOT think that you can change the date at the last minute and expect the speakers will be able to do the same. Please do NOT think it is fine to tie up a speaker's schedule, then cancel the conference at the last minute. Please do NOT ask a speaker to speak at your conference, then not say anything to them for nine months and expect that they will still be coming. A communication every month moving the speaker ever closer to the conference with travel arrangements and information about the conference will let the speaker know that the conference is still being planned and that you have not fallen off the face of the earth. For a speaker, conference organizer silence means “death”.

How much will it cost?

This is hard to say, and depends on both the speaker and the event. If the speaker is attending on behalf of their company, the company may pay all expenses and honorarium. If the speaker is a self-employer, but sees the conference as a way of advertising or gaining more business, they may pay all of their own expenses.

However, in the Free Software space a lot of the developers are people who may not work for a FOSS company, or if they do the reason you want them to come has nothing to do with that company, and therefore they may not only receive no travel funding from their employer, but have to take vacation time to attend your conference. Here travel funds and a small “honorarium” is often appreciated.

Having someone fly a long distance in coach would be considered equal to water-boarding these days. There are some people who are used to it, but other speakers would be less than happy with that situation. On the other hand, if your location has some sights worthwhile seeing, a couple of extra days in that location allows some of the “kinks” to be ironed out.

Some non-profit or educational events are often understood to be low-budget. Here an honorarium is not necessarily expected. On the other hand a recent event offered a sum of money and said that it would cover “expenses and honorarium”. If you traveled inexpensively, you would have some money left over to cover lost work. If you liked to travel lavishly, you had a bit more money to do that.

I like speaking to college age (and near-college-age) students, and from time to time I have found myself in a college-sponsored hotel, dorm or fraternity house. All I required was something that was reasonably quiet and reasonably clean (with “reasonable” being tempered by college-age enthusiasm).

Other times I have stayed in the homes of conference organizers who are already friends of mine, although normally staying in the conference hotel gives me better access to the conference and greater freedom for both me and my friends to do what we need to do.

Do not expect that all of your speakers will “hang around” the entire conference. Some do, but most will either want to “see the sights” or return home.

How to treat speakers.

It is suggested that you have a speaker room, with electricity and either wired or (working) wireless ETHERNET. Some type of liquid refreshment (water, tea and coffee is fine) and access to some type of food is also useful. Good speakers will often leave the room to “mingle” with the attendees, but it is nice to have the room in case the speaker HAS to finish their talk or make a telephone call.

Ask travel preferences

Does your speaker have any preferences for food, any allergies, sleeping needs, medical issues they want you to know about, etc.?

Some speakers are fairly demanding, others are relatively easy to please.

Pick them up at the airport and return them to the airport

I have traveled enough that it is not a big thing for me to go from the airport to the hotel, particularly if there are good instructions telling me how to get there, but it is always nice to see smiling faces, complete with a “TUX” penguin or event T-shirt as I leave the baggage counter.

Small conference teams may not have the staff to do this, but there are services that will hold up a sign with the speaker's name on it, and take the speaker to their hotel. It is nice.

Full speaker schedule

Try to provide your speakers with a full schedule, even if it is only an email version. Put on that schedule their time of arrival, the hotel address, if someone is picking them up, any pre-conference events (receptions etc.), what time they should be at the main event, any post-conference activities, what time they should be ready to leave for the airport and other scheduled events.


Invite your speakers early, make sure that you have a good, concise presentation of your conference and its needs for that speaker. Make clear the dates, venue and whether or not you are willing to cover reasonable travel expenses and honorarium. If you are non-profit, state that too. Ask for confirmation as soon as possible, and give all the contact information you can to the potential speaker.

Treat your speakers well, and ask them for comments and recommendations for the next year. Often your speakers will give you good quotes and recommendations for the next round of speakers.

Next: The really exhausting part

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