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16 Jun 2013

Pat's Guide to Running Events

I’m lucky enough to attend quite a few conferences (mostly IT-focused), plus I’ve organised a handful as well (Trampoline and the occasional Rails Camp)… so it could be argued that I know a few things in this area. More accurately, it means I can get quite opinionated on the matter, which was quite clear this evening with a few ranting tweets.

Some friends (rightly) encouraged me to write something down in a longer form, so here we have my recommendations for running events generally, but with a focus on conferences.

Before I get stuck into my thoughts, I want to be clear: organising events is a tonne of hard work, is often thankless, and almost never financially rewarding. I have many friends who run events of all sizes, and this post is by no means an attack on them or other organisers of events I’ve attended. It requires no small amount of bravery and risk to put something together.

Single Track

I’m a big fan of single-track conferences – keep everyone together and focused on the same talks. This does reduce the number of speakers (and thus, ideas being shared on the big stage), but generally it leads to a better set of talks, as you’re selecting the absolute best available.

That said, this is not a deal-breaker – multi-track conferences can certainly work well, especially when the tracks have clear themes.

A tangent for those who are keen to give great talks, technical or otherwise: watch Ben Orenstein’s excellent RailsConf talk – and then watch it again when you’re starting to prepare for your next talk.

30 Minutes or Less

I’m pretty sure no talk needs more than 30 minutes. Keynotes are perhaps the one exception – but hey, if you’ve gone with a single track, there’s no keynotes – and I like the idea of all speakers being equal. And to keep the sessions focused, perhaps have a no-questions rule. Encourage attendees to chat to the speakers one-on-one instead.

Emphasise the Socialising

Don’t forget to add plenty of socialising time in-between talks. I know plenty of people attend events not for the talks but to meet people, to connect with their peers – so do what you can to encourage these opportunities. The excellent Nordic Ruby has a rule that there must be at least 30 minutes break between each session.

Curate Lightning Talks

Lightning talks can be a mixed bag – sometimes they’re great: I remember the final lightning talk at the third Trampoline Melbourne, where a high school business teacher taught us all how to beatbox Billy Jean; sometimes they’re awful: product pitches and advertising bullshit that can mar an otherwise excellent event.

These days I probably err towards having no lightning talks, but I’ve seen it done well and curated carefully, and perhaps that’s the best way to approach it. Anyone can put their hand up, but have someone whose job it is to pick a handful that stand out. The RubyConf Australia lightning talks were top notch, and I largely attribute this to the curation.

No Sponsor Talks

Whatever you do, don’t give away speaker slots to sponsors – every speaker should earn their spot on their own merits. Perhaps you can allow sponsors to recommend some speakers (if you handpick some of your talks), and then they can fork out extra to cover that person’s travel expenses, provided you think they should be part of your lineup.

Be Mindful and Seek Equality

It’s well documented that the technology industry is dominated by men, and that there are plenty of situations where women have been treated terribly. Having a clear anti-harrassment policy is a wise idea, as is making the extra effort to seek out women speakers and attendees (something the JSConf EU team do a stellar job at).

We certainly keep an eye on the male-to-female speaker ratio at Trampoline, and have encouraged women in particular to put their hand up to speak – though we also encourage plenty of men too. The later events have certainly been more balanced than earlier ones.

Parties

Most conference parties suck.

I wish it wasn’t the case, but so often, they’ll be held in some crowded bar with loud music. Whether the music’s good or not is beside the point – I don’t go to conferences for the music, I go to socialise. If I need to yell to have a conversation, the odds of me going home rise dramatically. There’s many in the technology industry who aren’t super adept at being social, and these kinds of environments just make it even harder to connect with other people.

The wise Ashe Dryden raised this point recently, and many chimed in with clear support for parties where there’s more of a focus on conversations.

Also: go easy with the alcohol. I attended one Ruby conference recently where there were trays of shots lined up at the official parties (yes, at loud bars) – a particular shame given the rest of the conference experience was excellent.

I know Rails Camp has garned a reputation in Australia of being quite a drunken affair. I think this is a little unfair – yes, sadly some people do get plastered, but the vast majority are pretty smart with their alcohol intake. Perhaps my issue’s more with the wider drinking culture than with the events/conferences scene.

Somewhat related: I love that Travis CI host meets at cafes instead of bars, running up a coffee tab (and I don’t even drink coffee!).

Start Later

I had the pleasure of hearing Alex Koppel speak at Railsberry earlier this year on the topic of sleep – something pretty critical for everyone, and yet often forgotten, especially when it comes to conference schedules.

There’s sessions all day, then dinners and parties all night – and then you get up bright and early the next day to do it all again. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want conference organisers to become strict parents, but if you have an official party going past midnight, and then talks starting around 9am in the morning, that might leave just enough time for the recommended 8 hours of sleep. And that’s provided you’re not far away from either the conference or party venues, and the conference is providing you a tasty breakfast.

I’d much rather kick things off in the late morning, let people enjoy their evenings, get a proper rest, take it easy in the mornings, and be awake and focused for all the sessions. Indeed, the next event I run (don’t ask me what it is, I don’t know yet) will begin with brunch, a meal that Melbourne excels at.

Seriously: Melbourne’s breakfasts are the best in the world.

Superb Food & Drink or Nothing

And when it comes to meals, do try to provide excellent food and drink at your event (for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks). You’ve got a great opportunity to keep attendees and speakers all in the same place, all socialising and sharing ideas – but if the food’s bad, people will wander off searching for other options. Of course, this will happen to some extent anyway, but good food is noticed and welcomed.

Good coffee too – there’s always a big cheer for the baristas when conference organisers are closing events.

If you can’t afford these things, that’s okay and completely understandable – but instead of providing limited or average options, give people lists of excellent cafes and restaurants nearby. Or perhaps line up a sponsor whose funds will be directed towards food and drink – and be sure to mention this before meals as well.

We generally haven’t bothered with meals at Trampolines – but at the most recent Sydney event, Caroline and Steve organised simple yet excellent catering, and everyone stuck around, had a great meal and could continue conversations without being caught up in the logistics of finding their own food.

Superb Wifi or Nothing

Good conference internet is hard. I can count the events I’ve been to with close-to-faultless wifi on one hand. You need to decide whether it’s critical for your event, but again, don’t be half-arsed about it: put the effort in or drop it completely.

If you aren’t going to bother with internet (or even if you are), a lovely touch is to go out of your way to organise data-capable SIMs for foreign attendees – and make sure they can be used for tethering. I’ve seen some conferences provide 3G/4G dongles to speakers – which is great – but making that offer to all attendees (even if you charge for it) would be brilliant.

For those in Australia looking to have first class internet access available at their event, I recommend speaking to Donal (once of NodeCity) at Podomere, who knows his networking devices and IP traffic back to front. (I did help him out at a few events – but I was just the dumb labour putting access points in place, he’s got all the smarts).

Superb Schwag or Nothing

Your schwag is almost certainly shit. We don’t need more pens, stickers, flyers, magazines, canvas bags, key-rings and stress balls. They’ll almost always end up being thrown out and ignored – which means they’re a waste of time, money, and materials – all limited resources! Stupidity on so many levels!

I can think of only one conference I’ve been to that had schwag worth keeping – Paul & Eamo’s Funconf. Though to be fair, that event was special on so many levels, and calling what we were given ‘schwag’ is demeaning.

As for the rest – occasionally there’s useful things in the mix, but the goal should be no schwag at all. Sponsors may request it, but be polite yet firm and point out that they’ll get much better returns putting their money towards your food or coffee. You could also look at giving people the choice to donate money to worthy causes instead of creating mindless rubbish.

T-shirts

Perhaps I’m wrong to treat t-shirts separately to the rest of the schwag… much of the same applies, though my rules are slightly different: if you can put together an excellent design and offer it in both mens and womens sizes, and perhaps make it optional (those who really want it can pay for it), then consider it.

But seriously: if it’s not a design that someone who doesn’t go to the event and has no interest in the focus of the event wouldn’t consider wearing, I’d opt for no t-shirt. Don’t bother with sponsor logos either.

Badges

Again, almost schwag, but not quite, as badges can be extremely useful for the duration of the event – as helpful reminders of peoples’ names, as a reference for conference schedules, and even as proof of entry for parties.

But almost always, they’ll be thrown out once the conference is over. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal, except they’re mostly plastic and cords, neither which ever get re-used.

Again, the talented Paul Campbell wins points here for providing simple badges on cardboard, with a ribbon to secure it around your neck. Another option is biodegradable plastic badge holders – but keeping things simple is likely the best option.

Over to you

If you disagree with any of this, there’s a comment box below, let me know – or hassle me on Twitter. There’s a decent chance I’ll amend this post over time as more ideas form in my head, but this should provide plenty to consider right now.

Comments

10 responses to this article

16 Aug 2013
Brandt Krueger said:

Slow clap…

Always huge to get an attendee perspective. Mine comes from the back of the room. Both are different from that of the planner.

Also, anyone that can get the words “Billie Jean”, “mar”, “err”, and “bullshit” in the same section gets extra credit in my book.

16 Jun 2013
Mark Ratjens said:

Well done, Pat, on crystallising these ideas. Hopefully, conference organisers will refer to this post for some time to come. My only divergence is that I’m OK with multiple tracks, mainly because I like options when each has its own theme, assuming each track has quality and integrity in its own right.

16 Jun 2013
Aleksandar Simic said:

Good write up. I agree with most of it.

Regarding the badges, having them on a sticker that you can print on a regular printer, also works.

16 Jun 2013
Philip Arndt said:

Thanks for bringing this up, Pat!

I firmly agree with many of your points and one that particularly resonated with me was that I’m getting really, really over loud music.. I’ve lost my voice too many times already. When I’m trying to meet new people and catch up with friends it really just gets in the way.
To briefly touch on the alcohol issue: when the music is loud people drink even faster which, when it’s flowing for free, can lead to far less worthwhile ‘conversations’ and if this is followed by another day of conference.. hungover attendees.

I do believe that lightning talks are pretty valuable if you’re new to speaking and want to give it a go or when there is something valuable to add that doesn’t take 30 minutes. This comes with the caveat that the time should absolutely not be used as a sales pitch, as you say. Maybe disallowing slideshows for lightning talks would be beneficial?

16 Jun 2013
pat said:

Thanks for the feedback Mark, Aleksander, Phil.

Mark, I could relent on the single/multi-track issue – I certainly don’t care about it as much as most of the rest of this list.

Phil: great point about lightning talks being a way for those new to speaking. Perhaps this could be taken into account with the curation process, or at the very least, just have a strict no-sales-pitches rule.

16 Jun 2013
Paul Annesley said:

That’s a whole lot of good points.
A lot of it sounds like common sense, but is so often unheeded.
Posted to HN in the hope that more events around the world learn something: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5891108

16 Jun 2013
Michael McBain said:

A recent ‘Meetup’ event was definitely spoiled for me by the venue [a crowded bar] and by one speaker’s obnoxious Open Source proselytising, as bad as any corporate spiel. And I use Open Source software on a daily basis!

16 Jun 2013
Duncan Bayne said:

Re. doing it right: for the first time in my memory, the beer at a local meetup was sponsored … and we ran out. It may seem like a small thing, but now I have that company’s name etched into my mind along with the tragedy of Running Out Of Beer. Perhaps it’s just my subconscious but the running out outweighs the generosity in my memory …

Re. schwag … I actually find a fair amount of it is useful. Back in my MS days, I would only change shoulder-bags when I went to TechEd. Many (most?) of my t-shirts are schwag of one sort or another, and I’ll happily keep and use whatever pens, stationery etc. I’m given. But: as you say, it’d better be good stuff. I got a free water bottle at a conference two years ago. I still remember the name of the company on the bottle, because it turned out to be cheap crap that came open in my bag, soaking my kit.

Re. food: have you noticed that at many conferences, the kosher & vegan food is set out separately on a small table? With no massive queues leading to massive vats of disgusting reheated slop? And that being Jewish or vegan for the day is usually just a no-expense-added checkbox on the registration form? Just sayin’ ;)

17 Jun 2013
Andrew Grimm said:

Sorry for the epic comment, but I don’t have the time to write my own blog post.

Regarding single track: I find your suggestion interesting, but I’m afraid of what it may lead to. I notice that most two track conferences have a “big hall” track that attracts high-profile speakers and mainstream topics, while the small hall track attracts the opposite. If going single track eliminates the latter, that’d lead to less diversity, and less creativity. Also, I often find “main hall” talks are often “How to use technology X that everyone but you are using”, which I find very alienating.

Regarding “no questions” – I often find Q&A useful, and I suspect one-on-one may be dominated by a few people, unlike Q&A.

Agree 100% about loud music. I feel alienated and discriminated against when there’s loud music.

My problem with RailsCamp and drinking isn’t that people get drunk, but they spend their time drinking rather than more positive activities.

At RubyKaigi 2011, the organizers had an “anti-bocchi” board to ensure people didn’t eat alone. I took advantage of it to find Japanese people to have lunch with.

Regarding wifi: maybe just say that there’s wifi in designated hacking rooms, but not in conference halls.

I think there’s a place for stickers and t-shirts. I’ve had people at RubyKaigi ask me about my Tasmania Railscamp t-shirt, which is a good way of starting a conversation about Australian events. (People also find the capybara T-shirt very cute, but that’s usually non-programmers commenting when I wear it in public)

21 Jun 2013
AJ Kandy said:

On the T-shirt note, I would add: Commission some really memorable artwork that would make people want to wear it, not condemn it to the “freebie t-shirts for housepainting” pile; and don’t skimp on T-shirt quality. American Apparel 50/50 blend super soft tees are the cashmere sweater of T-shirts; try to find something of equal quality. Nothing (literally) grates attendees more than cheap, stiff, and scratchy fabric.

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