This is the fourth post in my series on running a tech conference. In today’s post, we’ll talk about how to find speakers for your event.
- Getting Started: Goals and Vision
- Choosing a Venue
- Budget and Sponsors
- Finding Speakers
- Event Logistics & Timeline
- Promotion of your Event
- The Day Of!
- Post Event
The Benefits of Speaking
Speaking at an event should be as valuable for the speakers as it is for the audience and the organizers. There are many reasons that someone might speak, and it’s important to understand people’s motivations in order to get them excited about presenting.
Presenting at a conference is a great way to meet lots of new people. In fact, a very well known presenter once told me that she liked speaking at events because it made it easier for her to meet all of the interesting people at a conference. After her talk, she would always get approached by people working on all sorts of fascinating things.
Open Source Involvement
At technology events, speakers often highlight open source projects that they’re working on. Presenting at a conference is an excellent way to find new contributors and users.
Raising Your Profile
Being on stage at a conference raises the profile of the presenter and establishes him/her as a thought leader on a particular topic. For example, there are several independent consultants who have MongoDB experience that they’ve shared at our conferences and events. These consultants have established themselves as experts on MongoDB through their speaking engagements, and I suspect many have gained business as a result.
Finding engineering talent is hard, so a great way to recruit is to talk about the awesome technology that you are using. After a talk, many of the presenters at our events make a short pitch about careers at their company: “If you found this talk interesting and want to work on similar projects, we are hiring and I’d love to talk to you about open positions.” To further encourage this we also try to have a designated space at the event – usually a cork board – where people can post that they are hiring.
Talking about the underlying technology of your app is also a great way to passively market your app. For startups or developer-focused companies in particular, speaking at technical conferences is a great way to get new people to try their products.
Opening a Call for Proposals (CFP)
The first step in finding speakers is to open a call for proposals, or CFP, where anyone can submit a talk. As soon as you’ve confirmed your date and venue, you should start accepting proposals. Many conferences use a simple Google docs form to collect submissions.
I encourage you to get everyone who wants to present to submit a proposal. Having the speaker put their thoughts in writing is important for ensuring that they take the speaking opportunity seriously. A well organized and thought-out proposal is a strong indicator that the presenter is organized and will be well-prepared for their talk.
In the CFP, gather the following informtion:
- Talk title
- Talk description
- Bullet points or outline of presentation topics included — the more detail that you can get from the presenter, the better.
- Speaker bio
- Speaker contact info (note: collect speaker mobile numbers. It is insanely useful to have them the day of the conference, so you might as well collect them up front.)
- Speaker references: See if the proposer has experience speaking at other events. Video or slides from past talks can be especially helpful in selecting speakers.
- Audience level: Find out if the talk will be appropriate for non-technical people, advanced technical professionals, developers, operations staff, management, or some other category.
Your CFP should tell the applicants what you are looking for. Give detailed guidelines on what you want the proposals to address and the types of talks that you are looking for. For an example of a well organized CFP with great guidelines, check out the OSCON CFP.
Once you’ve opened the CFP, you should be proactive in promoting it and soliciting submissions. Don’t sit back and wait for submissions to roll in! Get the word out about the CFP and seek out the best speakers for your event.
Announce Your CFP
As I mentioned above, you should open your CFP as soon as you’ve confirmed a date and venue. Opening the CFP early has an added benefit: It’s an opportunity to get the word out about your event. Announce that the CFP is open to local meetups, in LinkedIn and Facebook groups, and on Twitter using the relevant hashtags. If you have a mailing list, do a dedicated mailing encouraging people to save the date for the event and consider submitting a talk.
Seek out the Best Speakers
In addition to encouraging people to submit talks through social media, you should go out and find people that you think would be awesome presenters, and get them to submit. In my experience, most people are flattered when they are asked to speak at an event, and rarely turn down the opportunity.
When inviting speakers, always make sure that they go through the same process of submitting a talk as the rest of the community. This ensures that you have all the information that you need from all proposers, and that your invited speakers are taking the event as seriously as the rest of the submitters.
There are many ways to find speakers. Look on Lanyrd for people who have presented recently at similar conferences. Search SlideShare, Scribd, and SpeakerDeck for the best presentations on related topics. Research or attend conferences and see who is presenting. Follow relevant hashtags on Twitter to see who is leading the conversation. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people on Twitter or any of the social networks that you are searching and ask people to speak! The worst thing that can happen is that they say no.
Picking the Topics and Creating an Agenda
Once you’ve gathered proposals, it’s time to select the speakers.
It’s good practice to have a group of people reviewing, with each member looking at the talks independently. At 10gen, we usually start by going through all the talks and assigning a simple “yes” “no” or “maybe.” In the first pass we identify the obvious “yeses” and “nos.” (Tip: When you decline a speaker, give them a discounted or free pass to the event to thank them for putting themselves out there.)
We then look at the remaining submissions. In many cases, we go back to the speakers and ask them for more details on their presentation topic to see if it will complement the rest of the talks on the agenda.
The hardest part of creating the schedule is addressing people at all levels. This is why I am a strong proponent of having multiple tracks at a conference, so that you can always have more than one option at any given time.
For our largest events with several tracks, we use color-coded post it notes with the presentation names on them (one color for core topics delivered by 10gen staff, another color for production users, another color for partners, and so on). We make a grid with the time slots on a white board, and arrange the post-its until the agenda is complete. The process can be complex as we try to group certain categories of sessions together and maintain basics and advanced sessions in each time slot.
The MongoSF 2012 schedule in progress.
Remember: The Talks are the Most Important Part
Ultimately, the presentations at your event are the most important part! If the content is excellent, no one will remember that the coffee sucked or that the wifi went down or that they had to hand-write their name tags. Keep your priorities straight, and spend most of your efforts on getting the right set of presenters and talks for your event.