Latest Writing & Things of Interest

August 19, 2018

Supporting Speakers

a ladder leading up to a stage

I’ve given a lot of talks at conferences over the past 5 or so years. While I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at some well-run events, I’ve also run into poorly organized, unprofessional ones, too. While attendees rarely sense the problems of a disorganized event, there is one group of people that are massively impacted by that disorganization: speakers.

Speaking at an event is a huge undertaking—one that’s often thankless. A lot of event organizers think they’re doing speakers a favor by inviting them. In those cases, the first thing to go out the window is support for the speakers. Speakers are left to their own devices to figure out what’s required of them, where they need to be when, who their actually speaking to, and why they’re even there. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances that feels far too common.

That’s why I’ve been trying to focus on speaker support leading up to (and during and after) our annual series of events at Litmus Live. While we’ve always prided ourselves on helping speakers prep for the big day, we’ve been trying out some new things this year to see what else we can do to help folks out. After all, they’re the ones doing us a favor by agreeing to speak. They’re the ones that are taking hours, days, and weeks out of their lives to share their knowledge and experience with our attendees. The least we can do is make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

Here’s what we’ve been doing to support speakers this year.

Communication

The most important thing we do is try to communicate with speakers. This includes before, during, and after the events. Once invited to speak, people gain access to a few things:

  • A series of emails with important information
  • A private speaker Slack channel
  • A speaker wiki
  • Speaker video calls
  • Litmus staff to answer any questions

Our goal is to provide all of the information speakers need so that they have to worry about as few logistics as possible. This includes providing clear dates and deadlines for key deliverables, help with travel, booking hotel accommodations on their behalf, and a direct line to conference staff to help answer any questions they may have.

illustration of two friendly people talking

We’ve traditionally provided all of that information via email and a PDF speaker packet, but this year we thought we’d make things a bit more interactive by setting up a Slack group for all of the speakers. Our thinking is that it’d be a great way to provide real-time updates as we figure out logistics and it would give speakers a chance to get to know one another before they actually meet in person. Along with the general channel, we have event-specific channels for each city so that we can keep speakers updated without swamping everyone with info that might not apply to them.

Instead of the PDF speaker packet, we opted to go with a speaker wiki site that we can update on a rolling basis. We wanted to avoid the tedious process of updating, generating, and resending a PDF to everyone, so we built a simple Google Site to house all of the information for speakers. Although Google Sites is woefully outdated, it had the added benefit of letting us bypass our design or engineering teams for updates. I could definitely see us creating a better branded, better designed speaker site in the coming years.

We also run a series of speaker chats via Zoom which go through all of the information they need around the conference. It gives them an opportunity to ask questions and hear directly from us, and in the case that a speaker can’t make a call, we record each one and post it to the speaker wiki (along with the slides presented during the call).

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve made it clear to speakers that they can ask us any questions they need answered. They have a direct line to a few of us via email or Slack, and they even have Calendly links to schedule 1-on-1 calls for questions, advice, feedback, and even full practice runs of their talks.

Being on the receiving end of shitty conferences, we understand the importance of timely, clear communications and do everything we can to provide those to our speakers. We don’t always get it right, but goddamn do we try.

Resources

The heart of all of those communications is providing the resources speakers need to create successful presentations. This ranges from travel and hotel logistics, to tips on speaking and building slides, audience demographics, reference videos from years past, and even a list of equipment they’ll have access to while on stage.

Most of that information is available via the speaker wiki and during the speaker video calls. On the wiki, we have pages for each city’s deadlines, travel, and hotel logistics, as well as information about the conference itself. We also provide a bunch of curated links around building and delivering successful talks.

This last one has been invaluable, especially since we routinely have a lot of first-time speakers at our events. We go out of our way to invite newer practitioners to speak—people we know from the wider email marketing community but might not be big names. A lot of them have questions or need additional inspiration or education around talking, and these resources help provide that education.

Feedback

It’s hard to build a talk and know whether or not it’s actually any good. Without rehearsing in front of others or asking for direct feedback, you’re out in the wilderness without a map. We make it clear that we can provide that map.

A few of us involved in the conferences have given a lot of talks and learned a ton of lessons in the process. We try to harness that knowledge and pass it on to speakers.

At any time, speakers can shoot us a PowerPoint or Keynote for review, an outline or doc on their talk, or schedule 1-on-1 calls to go over things and get feedback. We try our hardest to provide realistic, constructive feedback for sessions. Whether that’s recommendations on tone, visuals, structure, or delivery, we give practical advice on improving talks to provide as much value as possible for attendees.

After the event, we collect feedback from attendees for each session, which we then provide to speakers. While attendee feedback is always a mixed bag, it’s usually helpful for more inexperienced speakers to improve their skills.

Easing Nerves

Even the most experienced speakers can suffer from stage fright. During the whole process leading up to the conferences, we do what we can to ease any nerves. Our resources, speaker calls, and feedback all have a focus on encouraging speakers and putting them at ease.

illustration of a person meditating peacefully

On the day of the event, we talk to speakers and get them prepped ahead of their session to make sure they’re comfortable. We’ve filled up water bottles, run for snacks, and even given full-fledged pep talks ahead of speakers walking up on stage. We figure it’s the least conference organizers can do.

During the Sessions

When it comes to the actual sessions, we make sure that there are at least two staff members in attendance to help speakers out. We help them get mic’d up, make sure their slides are ready to go on-stage, show them how the clicker works, introduce them, and applaud them, thank them, and help them off when they’re done.

We stay close by in case anything goes wrong during a session, too, with one of us in the front row throughout. We’re ready to hop up on stage and help troubleshoot mic problems, clicker issues, and any slide screwups (I’m looking at you, Google Slides).

I’ve spoken at events where someone tells me which room to go to, then leaves it up to me to figure out how to get my slides running or get mic’d up. I’ve been left alone throughout workshops, without even a hello from conference organizers. I know how terrible it feels when you’re trying to get pumped up to stand in front of strangers and teach them, and make sure our speakers don’t experience anything close to it.

What else can we do?

The jury’s still out on whether or not all of this actually works. The Slack group hasn’t been as active as I would have expected and the speaker wiki is a bit janky since we opted to use Google Sites. And I’ve sent a few too many emails with typos or incorrect information (and just as many apology and correction emails), but the feedback from speakers has been extremely positive.

Not everyone has the resources of Apple or TED, who have entire teams to help coach speakers and design slides, but I firmly believe that every conference can put in more effort to help support speakers. After all, an event’s nothing without speakers talking to attendees. They’re the ones doing the hard work (although I’ll be the first to agree that planning a conference is exhausting). We should all go out of our way to make it as easy as possible to do the one thing most people dread: speak in public.


Do you speak at conferences or help organize them? What have you learned from the process? What do you think conference organizers can do better? Email me and let me know.

August 18, 2018

Link: I'm retiring.

This is very sad, but understandable news. Charlotte has always been one of the most authentic, necessary voices within the web community, so I’m terribly sad to see her retire from the industry. That being said, I get it (as much as I can). I see a lot of what she sees online, and it wears me down, too. I’m in an incredibly privileged position and it still gets to me. So I can’t imagine being in her position and dealing with everything she’s had going on.

Here’s to a new, better life, Charlotte. Hope it treats you well. You will be missed.

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August 18, 2018

Link: Email at Stack Overflow

Friend and fellow email geek Ted Goas recently sent me a link to what he’s been working on at Stack Overflow: A foundation for a design system to handle all of their email campaigns. Very cool to see out in the wild, with lots of good reasoning on Ted’s part behind the decisions in the docs.

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August 15, 2018

Link: The Easiest Way to Keep Your Web Apps Accessible

Another article for the LogRocket blog is up, this time going into how text is the best way to create accessible web apps. Currently near the top of the front page of Hacker News, which is pretty cool. Could do without all the bullshit HN comments, though.

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