All the people are walking around, the lamps are uplighting your speaker and everyone smiles. People are networking, you get good feedback and pre-orders for the next event. Congrats! Oh, no, sorry, we are not there yet. A conference is a product and to successfully launch that to the market you need to go through the steps.
Why you should believe me? Throughout my last 12 years I organized or co-organized around 12+ conferences (TEDx, IT Arena to name a few).
This article was created for the conference hustlers – people, who do believe that with the help of bringing everyone together and sharing knowledge they make world better. At least I do.
Here I will focus on HOW TO do the conference content right – it will be based on my experience so there might be several “right” points. However, I will not touch the logistics, PR, marketing, and all other physical org staff here. Sorry.
So, each conference content part consists of:
- Audience and context understanding
- Speakers lineup
- Speakers` speech preps and dry runs
- Conference lineup
Audience and context understanding
The conference is a product. Each product has its target audience and context in which this product operates in. For example the conference on crypto 10 years ago would have been a non-sense as people did not know what a bitcoin is. So the context would have been wrong and there is no context-topic fit. And if you have organized the conference on the back ache for normal teenagers aged 15–17 – then probably there is no topic-audience fit.
So, what to do?
Try to be problem-driven – what do you want to reach? If you are doing the company s conference for the clients – do you want to sell something? To educate them on something or to get feedback? The goal defines the means. At the same time if you are IT Arena`s Product Track – what is the goal?
Our goal was and is to acquire the top-notch speakers in Product Management to become the best version of a Product Tank and to give people, who want to lead their product teams successfully, right knowledge.
Also, you should analyze the audience: who will be your primarily persona? For whom do you create this conference? What is crucial to understand are those people newbies or experts, are they located in the same or different region.
For example, for TEDx University we understood that the main persona will be an active student who wants to be inspired and network with the like-minded people. It is too broad, I know, but the goal is to inspire and ignite.
For Lviv IT Arena Product Track part we understood that our primary persona will be a newbie or seasoned Product Manager who wants to make their work better and needs. real cases, examples and inspiration. Also, we understood that there will be people who are related to the product management – business analysts, project managers, developers, who want to understand the product more and work better. These are our secondary persona.
Why we need this? We understand our audience`s needs and we then form the lineup for the conference and select topics. Also, we give this info to our speakers so they can prepare the speeches better. In addition, we evaluate speakers` speeches dry runs based on this info.
This is a huge thing because every year the context is changing and the world is inspired by many things. The previous and this year was all about the COVID and remote (for the product it means new strategies and working remotely). Also, there is always a huge demand on the topics aka strategy, analytics and team management – so we usually include this into the conference. This is the context we analyze and define for the speakers.
Speakers lineup creation
Unfortunately, lots of the conference organizers and attendees think that the cool speaker (with a cool company name for example) is the main thing to have. But as my observation shows – yes, this is good when there are cool company names, but usually those companies` representatives cannot talk about the cases freely and those are under NDA. I saw that speakers from non-super-puper-on-the-tech-crunch-companies are usually super interesting with tons of experience and we need to find those.
So, basically each speakers` lineup:
- Must have at least one headliner with a good name and/or awesome company logo
- Should have speakers with not that popular companies` names but with awesome cases
- Nice to have both
The creation of the speakers` lineup requires several things:
- speaker pipeline creation
- speaker`s recruiting
- speakers` topics
Speakers | pipeline creation
You need to know whom you will invite and this is like looking for your co-worker. You do this by:
- looking at the professional sources (other conferences, blogs etc). For IT Arena we look for TechCrunch, MTP, Product Festival and far more. We follow some speakers` blogs or we heard of them somewhere
- Asking others to recommends (I have my own pool of people to ask about the speakers to recommend)
- Ask previous conference`s speakers for the recommendation
- Lookup in the internet
As a result you will probably have your own CRM or at least aka-crm in excel/Gdocs. You create the list with the status, contact person, etc. And then do the recruitment.
Speakers | recruitment
Ok, this is the hardest part because we have been working with really busy people. So busy that you can agree upon their talk for the next year but now this one. This is like hiring the A-employee to your company – you need to inspire them, show the value etc. The difference is only that usually you don`t have a budget to pay them, but you pitch other things. And for each speaker those things will differ. In the end you want both to get the most of the conference – you cannot spoil it.
From my experience, and what I saw is working for us there were such factors as:
- smooth experience of work
- Deep understanding of the conference and context and that`s why we gave speakers good background
- Help with the presentation preparation and they felt that everything is real
In the end after long communication and emails (often times with speakers` PAs) you get their YES and move further.
PS: you get a lot of NOs as well. And you leave them for the next year)
Speakers | topics
There is one thing which I as organizer should deliver early from the speaker – the topic. We need to have it sexy and announce for the conference while speakers are preparing. That is why, knowing the context and our persona we form the topic. It can be slightly changed in the future but this is an essence (the catching one) what speakers will be talking about.
NB! The topic itself is super crucial for the speakers with experience but no sounding company.
Speakers` speech preps and dry runs
Ok, right now the meat. Your meat as a conference organizer especially in the online era. Speakers` content. I love this part not only because I think about the audience and my product as a conference, but also as a speech prep company co-founder.
I saw two ways of the conference organization:
- let them do their speech and it can be good
- Let us see their speech and help them prepare
I am not a control freak but I genuinely believe that my product on a conference are the speeches of our speakers and it is I who can influence those. That is why for the Product Track of IT Arena or for the TEDx conferences we are doing the speech preps (at TEDx this is super bog thing).
How to prepare a speech?
You can read more in some of my posts. I know this as a conference organizer and as a speaker. But in short, every speech needs to have:
- Audience – know for whom this speech is
- Goal (speaker`s goal) – know why they deliver the speech and what the audience should know, feel and do after the audience
- Main idea – what they are talking about? Usually this is the speech topic
- Structure – the audience should follow the speech easily
- Good content. – cases, cases and cases, Or theory + cases.
Usually, we have at least three meetings with the speaker: one for the persona and context discussion, second for the speech draft (can be remote) and third for the dry run. If you miss any of the meetings you might miss the problems and non-prepared speaker. Usually the first two meetings might take around 15 min. And the last one 45–60 min. (Depending on the length of the time slot for the speech or the speech itself. Done.
Dry run is the last speech training and it is super crucial to see the final presentation and designs. BTW today you don`t need slides – you can make your screen as slide as did Job from Remote (IT Arena Product Track 2021 speaker). Also, during the dry run (we previously did it in-person and on-stage so that speaker could “feel” the atmosphere. This year at IT Arena we did the guidelines how to put the light, angle of the camera etc. But this is up to speaker.
One of the deliverables of the conference is its schedule. When I organized TEDx for the first time I learned that you need not only to take awesome speakers and connect them chaotically, but to put one after another considering:
- day theme (for IT Arena we had “product management practices” day and “personal management” day)
- Speaker`s energy (you cannot put all the energetic speakers at the beginning and then all others. It is mostly in “waves” – high/middle/high/middle energy
- Topics – as some topics are well connected and others don`t. Also the headline speaker should (IMHO) open the conference with the most in-point topic. This year for IT Arena it was a remote work
- Timezones (for the online). We had speakers from Australia, US and Europe. Those are totally different timezones and you need to make it comfortable.
- Yes. Finally you get this. A schedule which might not be perfect but you tried)
Your speakers might be awesome but speaking separately you will miss a “glue” – the tone of the conference. You will jump from one another without any line. To make everything work you need a moderator who will be your “glue” and will set the tone, ask questions and will work as a host. Good moderation is a key. I will write another post on it, but IMHO a good moderator should:
- know the speakers and their story
- Know their speeches (if a moderator is not from the sphere – then s/he can ask organizers or talk previously to the speakers)
- Have a good English level and humor level
- Be energetic and empathetic to glue the conference
- Moderators should know how to lead and ask questions. Usually those are people whose questions and replicas will be cut off, but those are people who are, like Oprah, will set the conference.
So, I can talk more about the conference organization but those are the main things you should pay attention to. I strongly believe the good conference is not organized in one day and requires a lot of preparation. So may the force be with you and I will be happy to answer your questions and read your best practices!
Hope this helps.