Some Perspectives on my experiences as a conference speaker

Dive into the debate on conference dynamics with my response to Troy Hunt's recent article, adding a seasoned presenter's perspective.

About a week ago, Troy Hunt published a blog post tited 10 Ways for a Conference to Upset Their Speakers . He penned the post after a interesting Twitter storm flared up from a simple tweet he pushed out a few weeks prior:

The reaction from his post was interesting to watch, especially on Facebook where many of the responses were restricted to viewable by just the responder’s friends. I found myself nodding in agreement at some things Troy said in his post as someone who also has a few conference presentations under my belt. However, there were a few things in his post that I differ on as well as the opinions of some of the folks who chimed in on no-so-public forums. I voiced my opinion and after a dialog on Twitter with some folks, I thought I’d share my thoughts here.

It helps to understand my perspective before reading my thoughts: I gave my first presentation to an audience at a local user group of 15 people in 2005 / 2006. My first conference presentation was to a room of a few hundred in Las Vegas in 2007. Since then I’ve had the privilege to speak to groups from 10 people up to thousands in the North America, Europe, Asia & Australia covering user groups, weekend code camps, SharePoint Evolutions, IT Unity Connect, Microsoft’s TechEd, SharePoint Conference, Build, their internal TechReady conference, SPTechCon, ngConf, AngularU, and VS Live 360 to name a few.

Before I run through this, I want to make a point that I strongly agree with the “to each their own” mindset. Keep in mind this is just my opinion and I’m not passing judgment on the feelings others have on this topic. I also approach this topic with a slightly different mindset than I saw others approaching it. First, not everyone is equal both in their experience as a conference presenter and just as importantly, the value someone places on speaking at a conference is different for each individual. In addition, I think it is conference organizers are entirely within their rights to do whatever they like… no one forces you to do this stuff.

So let’s get started… I’m going to borrow some of Troy’s points & add a few of my own. In the points below I want to go a bit further and propose a solution to some of these issues.

My Preconference Workshop from Ignite 2015

My Preconference Workshop from Ignite 2015

1. Forcing a Slide Template on People

I couldn’t agree with Troy more. One thing I absolutely can’t stand is when a conference tells me I have to use their template. More often than not it’s complete rubbish. A good presentation requires a lot of time to build the right story you are trying to tell. It’s also unlikely this is the first time you’ve presented on this topic so you already have slides that you want to reuse or update. Trying to work with someone else’s template is maddening. Forcing PowerPoint on someone when maybe they want to use Keynote, Google Slides or go completely unique and build a website for their talk… I don’t get the point.

Conferences typically generate revenue for the show from exhibitors & sponsors and some of the packages they sell include a mention in the slides. Sponsors pay for that exposure and that’s one of the things making the conference happen. There’s also something to be said for having consistent title slide for each presentation as well as a wrap-up slide.

So how about this, I don’t have any issues with a conference saying the following:

  • you must use a specific title slide with the session title, maybe session level & target audience and the speaker’s name
  • you must show the sponsor slide after the title slide
  • at the end, you must show this wrap-up slide that mentions evals, prizes, and special events at the show

But let me have 100% control over the meat of the presentation. Having a slide template that I can use if I want to is fine, but don’t force one on me.

2. Asking for Slides in Advance

I cannot stand this requirement from conferences. Sometimes organizers will even threaten to cancel your session if you don’t submit the slides ahead of time. I’ve been involved in shows where they want the slides 3 months before the talk… that’s absurd in the tech space… things change so frequently! Lately, I just throw something together and submit it just to check the box off, updating my slides the week, days or hours before the talk.

Why do they do this? Maybe it is so speakers show up unprepared or throw something together at the last minute. If you aren’t an experienced speaker, I understand this requirement that organizers have. But if you are an experienced speaker, you know the game and the requirements of the job. If you drop the ball and show up unprepared it should reflect your ability to participate in the event in the future.

To pile on, I’ve been involved in some conferences where a subject matter expert from the organizer’s company wants to review & watch you do dry runs of the presentation. Um… no thanks. If you invited me to speak at your conference or accepted my submission, you don’t need to babysit me. If there are specific points you want to be covered in the talk, we can cover that early on without a dry run.

3. Limiting Where I Can / Can’t Use My Content

Sometimes an organizer will say you can’t present at another conference in the same region around the same time as their event or that you can’t reuse the session you presented. I can understand this… I was involved in one show that had been on the schedule for a while when another one popped up just a few weeks away on the same topic. Now you have someone competing for your attendees. Events are expensive and have a lot of sunk costs with a lot of risks. I get it… they are protecting their investment. From the attendee’s point of view, if they see the same speaker & content at two shows, with all things being equal, why not just decide on the price?

I don’t think I should be blocked from speaking anywhere or using my content, but speakers should be treated as team players with the event. As a speaker you should keep that in mind… don’t throw your host under the bus, you have just as much of a responsibility to make the show a success.

To the point of saying when I can or can’t use my session… if you pay me to come speak at your show, then you have that right as it can be seen as work for hire. Otherwise, it’s my content and I’ll do what I want with it.

Channel9 Interview at Ignite 2015

Channel9 Interview at Ignite 2015

4. Reusing My Content Without Permission

After what I just said this might sound like a double standard, however, I don’t see it that way. Sometimes an individual will take my slides & demos, strip my name from the talk and present it as their own content without attribution. Let me be as blunt as I can: that’s a punk move. I worked hard on the presentation for someone to just lift it as their own. That’s lazy, unethical and shows quite a bit about that person.

I’ve presented at a few large shows put on by one company. After that event (which I’ve never been paid to present and rarely had my travel costs covered), they’ve taken my content for a European / Asian / Australian delivery of the same event using the same content. Sometimes they offer me to speak, but don’t cover my travel. Other times I’ve been contacted by one of their employees tell me I need to help them get ramped up so they can present it.

Uh… sorry? How is this my responsibility? Are you going to rip off my hard work as your own? Tell you what: open a purchase order so I can bill you for my time and then I’ll answer the call/email. I’m not going to help you rip me off.

5. Substandard Presentation Rooms

There’s nothing worse than walking into a room to present and being met with one or more of the following:

  • crappy projector with a washed out bulb so you can’t see some stuff on the screen
  • small or strange resolutions
  • being told to use the conference’s laptop
  • “shotgun” rooms where the room is deeper / longer than it is wide with one screen (good luck seen the code from the back buddy)
  • cramped presentation area (ie: a podium with hardly enough room for a laptop, much less the power & video connectors or your notes… what, did I forget my suit & tie for the board meeting?)

Everyone should be able to easily see the content & hear you. Attendees should be comfortable, not cramped or feel trapped in the case they need to leave mid-session and have room to take notes/work.

A crappy room & room tech can kill the effectiveness of a presentation. The challenge is so many conferences are at hotels with their own old hardware. I can’t tell you how rare it is to walk into a room where you get to plug into the projector with HDMI & have to scale the resolution down from the highest 16:9 awesome resolution. More often than not we’re fighting with 1024x768 and a VGA connection with a washed out projector.

The crappy room experience and tech don’t reflect on the conference from the attendee’s point of view, it reflects poorly on the speaker because that’s who is in front of the attendees. Plus it makes it harder for me to deliver a good experience which in turn helps the conference.

Breakout session at Ignite 2015

Breakout session at Ignite 2015

This was not a typical room… this was an awesome room to present in!

6. Not Covering T&E is a Debateable

I’m going to star this one by reiterating something I said above: not all conferences & speakers are equal. I don’t mean one person deserves to get their travel paid while another doesn’t. I mean that one speaker may value the show differently than another and be ok with paying their own travel. Honestly, this is one item that I see fellow presenters get bent out of shape over and treat is a blanket rule. It’s not common to see a conference cover your travel & expenses to speak at their event. Some do offer to cover everything, some to an extent and others don’t at all.

For me, I ask a few questions on this topic:

  • “What’s the benefit of the event to the organizer?”
  • “What’s the benefit of the event to me as the speaker?”
  • “What’s the demand of the event (time & money) on me as the speaker?”
  • “Where is the event?”

I’m not going to single out conferences but not all events are created equal. Each speaker has to ask why they are presenting at the conference. The reasons for each show might be different. I don’t mind paying for some of my travel if it means I get to be in an appealing location… maybe even bringing my family along to make a vacation out of it. In another instance, I knew I’d have to pay my own way, but the op to be associated with this specific conference as a speaker & present to that audience was well worth it for me.

Speakers need to consider the perspective of the organizer. I get the opinion that if you’re presenting at the conference, they should pay your travel. I feel that way for any conferences I’m invited to speak at. But if I was an organizer and knew I wouldn’t have a problem finding great speakers, why should I incur the extra cost when I could use that money on better give-aways or a party for attendees (granted, many times that falls flat). “Fine… Andrew turned down the op to speak, I’ll just go ask someone else.” I don’t blame them a bit.

This one irritates me to see how some other speakers react, demanding certain treatment as a speaker. Stay grounded folks… many times it’s an honor to present and none of us are that important. Remember, while you paid for your travel, someone paid for their travel AND for the conference ticket to come see you & others present.

6. Not Allowing me to Arrange my own [Travel]

Please don’t make me work with an agent. Let me book my own flights on my preferred airline. Give me a budget and let me book my own travel. If I want to spend a bit extra to not fly early in the morning, late at night or upgrade my seat, that’s my choice. Or, maybe I’d rather take a train from one city to the next instead of fly… we are all adults and can figure it out on our own.

Just like Troy referenced in his post, sometimes travel issues come up while you’re en route and it’s a royal pain to have a guy in the middle who booked it trying to fix it for you.

7. Not Treating Conferences as a Mutually-Beneficial Relationship

This is a theme across a few of the points I mentioned above. Conferences have multiple parties involved from the organizers, sponsors, exhibitors, speakers and attendees. When asked to present at a conference, use their slides or whatever, just ask yourself “what’s in it for X”? Why are you speaking?

Some conferences will pay you to speak… some pay for breakout sessions, some pay for workshops, some pay a flat fee, some pay for your hotel and some pay for your flights. Won’t pay for anything. Ask yourself “what will I get out of this?” Maybe you’re a consultant who’s looking for clients. Maybe you have a product or service to sell. Maybe presenting at a conference is fun. Maybe you love the location and this is a way you can call it a business expense. Regardless, your answer may be different from my answer. What you want out of speaking at a conference may be very different from what I want. Neither one of us is wrong… you just have to evaluate each opportunity independently.

Final Thoughts…

The last time I checked, I’ve either applied to speak at a conference or been invited to speak. Either way, no one said, “you have to speak here.” It’s your decision… and I find it quite amusing when people complain about their own decisions.

At the same time, conferences need to also recognize speakers are not cattle or simply free help. They are a key supplier for the product you’re offering.

Blanket rules don’t work for everyone. Experienced presenters should be treated as such while someone without the speaking resume/background may need to follow other rules like submitting slides ahead of time or reviewing their session with someone prior to delivery. At the same time, you have to start somewhere & to get your break if you conference speaking to be part of your resume. Without the experience, you may have some restrictions placed on you. When learning to drive, the “learner’s permit” license I had for the first year said I couldn’t drive at night nor could I drive without another licensed adult in the front seat with me. But as an adult, those restrictions are in place because I am an experienced driver.

Someone in 2007 gave me an op to present at a big conference. I jumped at the chance and followed their rules. Over the years of presenting countless of sessions to thousands of attendees with good evaluations, I’ve built a reputation. It’s no different than a job: your resume has very little to show for it when you go to your first post-education job interview. But 10-20 years later, it’s a different story. A 22-year-old coming out of university is different than someone who has 15 years of experience in the field. The benefits, responsibility & expectations on the two people are very different.

Andrew Connell
Developer & Chief Course Artisan, Voitanos LLC. | Microsoft MVP
Written by Andrew Connell

Andrew Connell is a web & cloud developer with a focus on Microsoft Azure & Microsoft 365. He’s received Microsoft’s MVP award every year since 2005 and has helped thousands of developers through the various courses he’s authored & taught. Andrew’s the founder of Voitanos and is dedicated to helping you be the best Microsoft 365 web & cloud developer. He lives with his wife & two kids in Florida.

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