Thursday, June 07, 2012

speaking at speakerconf

Speaking at speakerconf is nothing like speaking at a traditional conference. It took us a few years to tweak our ideas around presentations - and this blog post is about what we've come to consider 'the speakerconf way' (with respect to speaking)

There are no abstracts or pre-announced talks. From the beginning Josh and I have believed that we want people to be able to speak about whatever is most interesting to them. Too many times in my career I have had a talk accepted to a conference, and by the time the conference comes around I'm on to something new. I honor my commitment and give a talk on the accepted abstract, but I always feel a bit guilty for presenting information that's already somewhat dated. speakerconf completely avoids this issue by neither requesting nor accepting abstracts. In fact, many presenters prepare a few different presentations and just-in-time choose whichever presentation they believe will be better received.

Prepare only 10 minutes of content. speakerconf began with 20 minute time-slots exclusively. Over the following few years we toyed with 5, 15, & 30 minute talks. In general, the 5 minute talks turned out very well, the 15 minute talks turned out well most of the time, and the 30 minute talks always seemed to stretch far too long. Each year Dave Thomas recommended that we give each presenter 10 minutes. We finally made the 10 minutes of content rule change in 2011 and have never looked back. 10 minute talks are perfect for speakerconf. If people are into a topic then the questions end up stretching the session out to 30 (deeply engaged) minutes, if people aren't into a topic then you're off stage before people get bored. Since we've made this rule change, people have been generally happy with the presentations as a whole, and we've yet to have a presenter give a presentation that wasn't enjoyed by the majority of the audience.

Presentations go on as long as they have to. John Hughes inspired this one. Like I mentioned in the last paragraph, we give everyone 10 minutes for content, but let the audience drive the actual length of the presentation with their questions. The speakerconf audiences are inquisitive, so we still need to put an upper bound of 30 minutes on a talk. Still, most talks manage to create plenty of deep discussion in their 30 minute windows.

Presentations first, unstructured conversation second. A few years ago we switched things up by splitting up the presentations, and it didn't work well - people couldn't get back in the mood for presentations. Now, each day starts with presentations that spark ideas and then goes to unstructured conversation about those ideas.

Alumni speak first. Originally, we allowed speakers to request their speaking slots. In the 2nd year Matt Deiters requested and spoke in the 2nd speaking spot, and quickly regretted it. Speaking at speakerconf requires a bit of calibration. The audience at speakerconf isn't like the vast majority of conferences, and you do need to alter your presentation style a bit - go faster, take out filler or elementary slides, expect frequent interruptions. After a few days of speakerconf it's easy to fall in the groove; however, Matt didn't get that luxury. Based on his suggestion, each speakerconf since then has scheduled all alumni ahead of new-comer presentations.

Dynamic speaking order. Each speakerconf does have a suggested schedule; however, we also offer the opportunity to 'get next' at any time. At speakerconf Rome 2011, Francesco Cesarini noticed that his presentation would go very well if it followed Scott Farquhar's. Unbeknownst to the presenters and organizers, some people end up presenting on very similar ideas. Once the audience gets into a subject, it makes sense to allow presentations with complementary ideas topics to be grouped together. Therefore, at speakerconf any presenter that believes their presentation will nicely expand on the current presentation can simply let the organizers know that they've 'got next' and they'll be moved into the next speaking time-slot.

Everyone speaks. For the first few years we had attendees and presenters; however, we found that there were a few issues with non-speaking audience members. First of all, when you speak everyone knows a bit about who you are and what you do; conversely, the non-speaking attendees were always a mystery. Additionally, speaking audience members always participated significantly more, as they had given people a topic to approach them about. Lastly, we often had non-speaking attendees who the other speakers actually wanted to hear from. In the end it just didn't make sense to invite very talented people who were only participating in the open discussions. Now, and in the future, there are no attendees, if you attend speakerconf, you present.

The speakerconf way is very nimble. We don't know what people are going to talk about, how long they're going to talk, or when they're going to give their presentation. In fact, the only thing we do know is that you are eventually going to speak about something. Obviously this isn't something that every conference could adopt, but we've found that it greatly enriches the speakerconf experience. The speakerconf way provides a quick exit for anyone who's idea isn't going over quite as smoothly as they'd anticipated, but, more importantly, it allows the good presentations to reach their full potential.
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