Conference Organizer Tip #1: Advisors
More and more conference organizers reach out to me for advice. My advice is not applicable to all types of events, but hopefully it will help to make the task easier and achieve better results. In the following series, I will explain how we manage to organize an internationally recognized conference (ConFoo) run by a tiny group of volunteers. Two part-time organizers and a few advisors, to be exact.
Tip #1: Advisors
The purpose of advisors is to select better content for the conference. No matter how skilled we are, we are limited by our experience and points of view. Other people will bring a touch of variety and new expertise to the table. We have been operating in a bubble for many years, and received feedback that our content was getting repetitive, for example.
We also wanted the process to be as transparent and fair as possible. Having community members question our process helps refine it and make it more just. This is encouraging for speakers since they know that people with different backgrounds and opinions looked at their proposals. More about this in an upcoming post about the selection process.
Finally, having an increasing number of proposals made it increasingly difficult to take the time to evaluate each one. We didn’t want to take 6 months to choose the talks or skim through the titles for buzzwords. We wanted to give every proposal the attention it deserves. Just for perspective, we went from over 500 proposals last year to nearly 800 this year. With 16 advisors to help us, we picked 160 amazing talks.
Our advisors included speakers, due to their experience with the subjects but also because they attend a lot of conferences. This makes them knowledgeable about what presentations work best and possibly familiar with many proposals.
We also invited community leaders and active community members. They follow the trends, meet a lot of people and are generally involved in various projects. If they host presentations, they are likely also have seen many speakers and their skills. The two advisor types complement each other very well.
To incorrectly set expectations may result in disappointment. Before you list tasks, make sure you describe the conference, its goals and its values. A good preparation is important before you reach out to advisors.
A clear list of tasks enables everybody to know exactly what they are signing up for. More on this further down.
Be honest about the expected time that advisors may have to put in. In our case, we estimated 5 hours per week, which was more or less an accurate prediction. It’s better to have somebody say “no” than setting false expectations and ruin a relationship.
Advisors must be qualified in their domain to pick useful topics and be pleasant to work with. Choose advisors according to the level of the content that you want to provide and to the atmosphere that you want to create. When somebody is not a team player, it quickly generates frustration. Although a good communicator can mend bridges.
List the mutual advantages that each party gets. Our advantages for advisors include: the power to build a track, visibility for the technology, reinforcing a personal brand and a free ticket for ConFoo. Notice that there is no money involved, as we believe that it will suck the fun out of the process.
Finally, responsibilities and accountability must be very clear. What will happen if there aren’t enough proposals to make a viable track? What happens if somebody decides to withdraw late in the process? These problems came up numerous times and were unpleasant to deal with. Signing a paper to express commitment will be our solution for next year, because people don’t always mean what they say. Not a contract with liabilities and such, but an agreement. That means that the rules must be very clear before we begin the race, so that people don’t feel forced to do something unexpected.
Our task list consisted of three items. First advisors need to search for speakers to get enough proposals for a viable track. Give a hand and share advice. Also, have a contingency plan. In our case, we would rather not have a track than make it too small or of low quality, as it would have the effect of disappointing the audience and make things harder next year. We started posting about the upcoming call for papers 3 weeks before the opening, to give the news a chance to propagate in the networks, so that people stay alert or even begin preparing proposals.
Next, they need to perform the selection to create a balanced track that fits with the overall conference content. That involves reading the proposals, discussing with other advisors and come up with a selection. Next year, we hope to devise a system for writing official selection reasons rather than mixed user comments. It was a titanesque task before advisors, but now that we no longer need to spend time on writing processes and collaboration tools, it looks promising. This will be great news to speakers.
Finally, advisors need to promote the conference. Ticket sales pay for the speakers’ expenses, such as a flight, a stay at the hotel, breakfast, hot lunch, coffee (2600 cups last year), etc. We consider it to be part of the mutual advantages with advisors. They have extensive networks and a few words here and there require little effort. We don’t expect any number of sales, just a hand in promotion.
The timeline for the tasks must be set in advance. Advisors are already busy and need to schedule for this extra work. Also, this avoids unexpected deadlines that are impossible to meet.
We used doodle.com to pick the best day of the week for work sessions. These were scheduled through the call for papers and selection, for a total of 7 meetings. At my office, each week, we started with pizza, drinks and a few off-topic conversations to get in the mood. Then, we would read the proposals that were submitted so far, write comments and discuss with the team. It was a mix of quiet work and conversations. Some advisors were not in Montreal and so joined us on IRC. We used Skype too, but next year we will centralize everything on IRC.
At any time, an advisor could send questions and top-n lists on the advisor mailing list for discussion. Since some of these discussions were not relevant to all advisors because they were unfamiliar with the technology, we are considering a sub-list for some tracks so that people feel more at ease with multiple exchanges. I was personally responsible for sending weekly reminders, advice, raising warning flags and celebrating successes.
I was always available to answer the phone with advice, to answer questions or even just to chat. It is important to have an open channel of communication at all times. The inclusion of advisors was a priority for me. I hope that they can say that they felt welcome, respected and empowered. Any mistakes that we made in the process, we will correct.
That’s it for now!
Enjoy this advice and add more in the comments. If you provide any examples of what not to do, please don’t mention events and names to avoid making organizers feel bad, even if it’s a commercial event. You can just e-mail them privately.
Some of the following posts will cover the public call for papers and the selection process.