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11 Mistakes Conferences Keep Making

  • Milan, Italy
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mood

I was talking yesterday with a few friends who were software conference organizers. They were asking about my opinion of the conferences I've recently attended. Basically, they were interested to know what I would suggest for improvement. So, I decided to summarize it in a list of the most typical mistakes all conferences keep making and give them some ideas. Remember, I'm judging from a speaker's position. The most serious mistakes and pieces of advice are at the bottom.

Mi gran noche (2015) by Álex de la Iglesia
Mi gran noche (2015) by Álex de la Iglesia

Too formal. Very often all I'm getting from event organizers is a formal email that my presentation was accepted and then some travel details: "your hotel is here, don't miss this speaker's dinner." That's it. I don't know who is behind the conference, what this event is for, etc. At that speaker's dinner (if I don't miss it) some details are cleared up. At some conferences, they even communicate with me via some online form and I have to answer there through login/logout. This is rather annoying and turns me off. It would be much better to feel that there is a team with real people, who want to see me as a speaker. I would be way more dedicated and motivated.

Short breaks. Breaks between presentations that are too short give listeners an impression that each particular presentation is not as important as the event as a whole. This really de-motivates me as a speaker. I want to feel valuable. I came to the conference to be heard. I think my speech is the most important and I don't want people to jump quickly out of the room, just to have enough time to drink coffee and run to the next presentation. 30 minutes between talks is a comfortable time—enough to forget the previous talk and focus on the next one. Also, four talks per day is an absolute maximum for a serious listener.

No moderator. There must be someone on the stage who presents the speaker and asks questions if the room is quiet. All academic conferences have that. I don't understand why most industry events don't do the same. A speaker must feel comfortable on the stage. Being there alone doesn't help at all. Also, the moderator will promote me to better engage with the audience.

Boring website. The higher the level of the conference, the more modern and beautiful their website has to be. It's not only your but also my face. I'm not only attending your event, but also associating my name with it. I will share your website on my Twitter, my Facebook, my blog, etc. That's why I really want it to look cool. Some conferences don't care about that and this attitude seriously demotivates me as a speaker.

Cheap venue. This means literally what it says—the place is too cheap and, because of that, bad. The impression of such a place ruins the entire conference. Don't fool yourself, if it's cheap—it's bad. Into this category I would also place venues that are not designed to be conference hosts, like cinemas or offices. They will also be cheaper than proper venues, but you will get what you pay for.

No introduction. I believe it's a job of conference organizers to promote me as a speaker in front of the audience. Not only on the stage, but also online, via Twitter, Facebook, etc. Most conferences don't do that at all. I come to the stage completely unannounced with almost zero interest from the room. They simply don't know who I am and why I'm here. The conference must promote us, the speakers, very pro-actively.

Slow WiFi. It's just very annoying.

No networking. Conference organizers know all speakers who are attending and most of the listeners. They are at the center of this networking event, but they almost never use that position effectively. They should help me network while I'm there by introducing me to those who I may be interested in. This won't be hard at all for them. Just tell me "hey, let me introduce you to this guy who is working and speaking about something similar to you." Just make 5-10 such short intros and I will busy talking to these guys for the whole day. Instead, in most conferences, speakers arrive, speak, drink their coffee and leave. That's sad.

No video. Most conferences don't record videos and it's a terrible mistake. They probably think that their events are more important then us, their speakers. It's not true. I'm speaking in front of 50 people, video recording it on my iPhone, publishing it in my YouTube channel and getting 500 views in the first week. So, who is more important, your event which was able to attract just 50 people or my YouTube channel that attracted 500? Thus, I would strongly recommend paying a lot of attention to video recording and its quality. Preferably, you should record from two cameras (the speaker and the room) and do video editing afterwards. It's expensive, but very important.

Bad Equipment. I mean sound, light, projectors, screens, microphones, etc. It's very annoying to see how speakers and the audience suffer from all that technical problems.

Too small. It's very difficult to present when there is less than 100 people in the room. According to my experience, only one out of 10-15 people is actually listening and understanding. It's an average number. Of course, it depends on the subject, but not too much. This means that if there are 30 people in the room, only a few of them are my active listeners. It's very difficult to present to just a few people. You simply can't afford to lose their attention, even for a second. With a hundred people, the situation becomes more manageable. There are 8-12 people who are actively listening. Even if I lose a few of them, it's not a big deal. The best size of the room is 250 people. That's the ideal audience for a technical talk.

Too big. A very big audience (over 500 people in the room) causes another problem—I completely lose any contact with my listeners. I don't see their eyes any more. I can't see their reaction, I don't understand whether they follow me or not. I'm not a technical speaker any more, but a rock singer. All I can do is turn my presentation into a show and play with their emotions, not their brains. This is actually what most keynote speakers are usually doing.

Too many tracks. Honestly, I think that the very idea of having multiple tracks is very bad. I want the entire conference to attend my talk. I don't want to lose anyone. Moreover, I don't want to compete with some clown (no offense to clowns) just because he is speaking at the same time. It's a very demotivating competition, since I can't do anything to win. I want to feel that I'm speaking here because there is some value in my information. I want to know that I'm the chosen one. And I want to feel that conference attendees feel the same. A perfect conference must have one track, a room for 250-300 listeners, and a very well selected list of speakers. I believe that most conferences are shooting themselves in the foot trying to please the audience by inviting too many speakers. Instead, do your homework right—select the best speakers and don't make listeners walk from track to track cursing you for the mediocre speeches. Choosing speakers is your job! Don't delegate it to your audience.


Did I forget anything? Please, post below in the comments!