Thomas Sundberg

September 13, 2015

Conference do’s and don’ts

Filed under: Public speaking — Tags: , , , — Thomas Sundberg @ 12:41

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I have done some conference presentations the last few years. It is interesting to compare conferences in retrospective. It is possible to notice some common mistakes as well as some really good things. It is, unfortunately, often easier to criticize instead of attributing good things.

Most conferences I attend have very engaged organizers. They don’t just do a job; they are passionate about it at the same time. It is great to be able to contribute in such environments!

Then there are some who just does a job and it is obvious that there is a difference.


Some points that I think are good to consider if you are a conference arranger.


Respond to speakers who submit something they want to contribute with. They have done research and found something interesting they want to share with the community. They have put in a lot of time and effort to prepare the subject. Not responding to a proposed session is a way to show disrespect.

I have experienced a few, some quite high profile, conferences where the organizers haven’t responded to say that you were not accepted. This is a fireproof way to end up on my personal shit list of organizers I don’t expect to work with in the future.

It should, however, be noted that most organizers show speakers more respect and respond. Sometimes accepting the offer, sometimes declining it.


Do not risk more than you can afford. I know of conference organizers that almost lost their farm, for real, when organizing a conference and wanting too much. It is probably not worth loosing your home for a two – three day event.

Printed program

My advice is to not print a program. There will be changes to your schedule. Your money can therefore be spent more wisely.

Spend the money on a good schedule online and make it easy to update with the changes that will occur. Some organizers makes an app available for downloading to the participants’ smart phones. If you create an app like that, make sure that you can change the content of the program easily. Otherwise it is just as bad as a printed program. Personally, I never install those apps myself. I always rely on the online program on the web.

A good network

The participants all have smart phones, tablets and computers. Add a paper in the conference goody bag with the WiFi details and url to the program.

Have large TVs with the program on strategic spots if possible. These monitors can also show a live stream of tweets from the conference.

Conference badge

Print the name on both sides. The badges will be twisted and with the same information on both sides, you will always be able to see the name of the other person no matter the rotation of the badge.

Have a separate color for the speakers. This will make them feel special and participants may easily recognize that this is someone to ask things of.

Include the wearers twitter handle on the badge. It is amazingly common that you are required add it yourself, even if the registration asked you for your twitter handle.


Have a fixed date when you have a go/no-go decision about workshops and tutorials that will cost money.

If there are enough participants, go ahead. If the minimum isn’t reached, do not be afraid to pull the plug and stop.

Do not book any travels before the go/no-go point. If there is a no-go, then you will not loose any money on accommodation and venue.


What can a conference arranger do to be a good host? There are many, small things that can be done and that will make the speakers feel welcome.


Say hi to the speakers as they arrive at the venue, or at least during the day.

This may sound like a unnecessary suggestion. But it turns out that some organisers fail on this point. I have spent ~four days in Prague and the organizers of the conference only communicated through e-mail. There were evening events every night with food and beer.
But I still don’t know who the arrangers where!

I realized the last day that I stayed at the same hotel as at least one other speaker whom I briefly knew. It was a bit late and the four days ended up being dreadfully boring.

The first or second edition of a great conference in Poland was similar, the arrangers where a bit shy and avoided speaking to the participants. I tried to ask them about something on one of the earliest editions and they shied away. They are much less shy these days and a pleasure to work with. It took some time and a couple of beers to get to know them.

Speakers dinner

The speakers usually enjoy meeting each other. A seasoned speaker is sometimes more interested in networking with other speakers than anything else.

Plan the dinner for the first conference day. Most speakers will have arrived and they will stay for the second day.

Avoid feeding the speaker too much alcohol. Most will be able to cope; some may not be able to. I have seen speakers extremely hungover doing a presentation and it was not a pretty sight.

Informal event

An informal event the day before the conference is nice. Don’t over do it. Most speakers I know are easygoing people. A pub, a couple of beers and some food are enough. But be prepared for speakers that would prefer something without alcohol; we are not on vacation, we are working.

Again, it is all about networking.

A speakers room

An area or room where the speakers can prepare and just meditate is very nice. Verify the WiFi in that room. I have experienced conferences where the speaker’s room was in a radio shadow. No WiFi at all. That was very unfortunate for those that needed the connectivity.

This is where some speakers will retreat to have lunch. Or do last minute preparations. Or do work that for some reason can’t wait.

Speakers not able to present

Things happen; speakers get sick, flights are delayed or canceled. Be honest with what happened and ask for help.

Ask another speaker to do a session. Most have at least one spare presentation they can do with a few hours’ heads up.


What should you think about during the execution of a conference?


Plan for a break between each session that is long enough to move the audience, 10 – 15 minutes are often enough.

Plan for two longer breaks each day, lunch excluded. The breaks are often a great time for the attendees to network.


Serve lunch a few (say 15 – 20) minutes before the last session is supposed to end. Sponsors, speakers and other people working will be able to get food before the attendees. This will make their life better.

Allow at least an hour for lunch. This is another time when networking occurs.

Overhead projectors

All speakers will have their own computer. Expect all kinds and then some. Be prepared to handle:

  • VGA
  • HDMI
  • Display port
  • Other, yet unknown ways to connect to the projector


Be prepared to handle sound. Or inform in advance that it is not possible to play any recordings.


Do your best to make sure that the network is good. Do not trust the venue when they say that it is fast. Be prepared to do panic adjustments. More routers may solve the problem. But don’t start with buying all routers in town; get them around lunchtime the first day if there is a problem.

You can’t load test the network on your own. It takes a couple of hundred participants to have enough devices to create problems.

A speaker network

Have a network dedicated for speakers. Some speaker may rely on the network to do their presentation or examples. I have seen speaker use Google slides.

I have done remote pair programming sessions on conferences. It was announced before hand and the networks always worked well. I have used a wired network a few times just to be on the safe side.

Parallelize the reception

There are some hundred persons showing up in half an hour or so when the conference starts. Try to have some kind of queuing system setup. If possible, handle 5 – 10 persons in parallel.

If it is possible, have a special queue for the speakers. This is sometimes overkill. It all depends.


What can you as an arranger do to make the presentations as good as possible?

Session lengths

Be clear about the length for each session.

  • 30 minutes
  • 35 minutes
  • 45 minutes – the most common length
  • 90 minutes

Room setup

Verify that the requested room setup is possible. I have made presentations in rooms setup for workshops. I have seen workshop being done in rooms prepared for presentations.

Be prepared to re-arrange the chairs and tables if needed. There are lots of participants who can help with moving things around. Don’t be shy!


Place water so it is easily available for the speaker presenting a session. Talking with a dry throat is horrible and sometimes not even possible.


How should you think about the sound system the speakers will use during the presentations?


Do not expect your average speaker to be able to handle a microphone. Most developers hate hearing their own voice and will move a handheld microphone away so far so they don’t hear themselves in the PA. Unfortunately, nobody else will hear them either.


Give them a headset. When setup, it is setup and won’t be changed by someone not wanting to hear themself in the PA. A headset works a lot better than a handheld microphone.

Microphone for questions

Have a handheld microphone for questions or have speakers to repeat the question before answering it.


Most technical speakers are extremely stupid in front of an audience. Have someone who knows how to operate the overhead projector in the room for each session. The same person should also know how to operate the speaker system. Most speakers are nervous and don’t need more cognitive load just before they are on.


Do you have more tips you want to share? Please comment below.


I would like to thank Malin Ekholm, Johan Helmfrid and Adrian Bolboaca for proof reading.

I would also like to thank all the good conference arrangers who have made many presentations an enjoyable experience. Lastly, I would like to thank all the arrangers who have made mistakes that inspired me to write this.


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