Flower, Puri Saraswati, Ubud, Bali

In my last post, I linked to many blogs and websites which discussed how to present, both technically and tips on stage presence, etc. However, that’s only half the battle – how do you approach conference organisers, and what are they actually looking for? How should you prepare your pitch, and make sure your presentation is warmly received?

I have interviewed Web Directions organiser, and friend, Maxine Sherrin. Here’s what Maxine had to say, as a web conference organiser.

Hi Maxine, thanks for being able to answer a few questions for me. Can I start with; How do you go about choosing speakers for Web Directions North and South? Is it the traditional Call for Papers or asking around who’d be great, or attending other conferences perhaps?

John and I keep our ears to the ground in the industry right throughout the year. I’ve got a pretty broad collection of blogs I skim every day and I probably find reference to a person or an idea at least once a week that I add to a listing of “things to follow up later when we get serious”. I’d love to swan around the world attending conferences and scouting for talent, but sadly I normally just have to confine myself to watching things like TED Talks online.

While we’d never do anything as formal as a “Call for Papers”, I love it when people approach me with an idea. I just wish they would do so before the program is finalised 🙂

Seriously though, over the coming 12 months we want to get a lot more community involvement in this process. Without moving completely into Barcamp territory, ever since Mark Pesce’s closing keynote this year, we have been tossing around ideas for how you could produce “The Crowd Sourced Conference”.

So, what makes you typically notice the speakers who you invite?

Two things:

1. Do something interesting and successful on the web
2. Tell me about it

If you then strike me as being articulate and thoughtful on top of that, then you’re in with a very good shot.

Now, of course, the above does beg the question of what “interesting” is. That really does come down to the editorial judgement of John and myself, as influenced by what we hear back from the the concerns community we live in here in Australia. Gosh, I’m starting to sound like John Howard here…..

I’d love to see more Australian web folk find the time to document what they have been working on, and thinking about on their blogs (says she with no blog :). I think there’s a lot of interesting work that gets done, but no one hears about it outside the small circle of people who worked on the project.

In your opinion, what is the most important element for a speaker to get right, in order to be remembered (such as humour, stage presence, technical knowledge, etc)?

Tell the story that only you can tell and it’s almost impossible to go wrong. People love walking away with specific anecdotes they can share with others back at work, and apply to their own challenges. So, get up there and tell us “I worked on Project X. We faced this challenge. All our initial research lead us to come up with Solution Y. But then we realised XYZ because of ABC. So, ultimately we came up with the elegance of Solution Z.” Hearing this presentation at a conference is the best, and sometimes the only, way of learning about these kinds of solutions.

Let me emphasise this point by outlining the corollary of the above. Spend an absolute bare minimum of time explaining generalities or going on about how exciting your area of interest is. Or don’t do it at all. People get (rightly) irritated when they are patronised with a whole bunch of statistics and general comments about how great a particular technology is, or how big a certain sector is.

Stage presence and humour, if they come naturally to you, will be the icing on the cake, but whenever I see a bad presentation anywhere, it’s almost always because the speaker is just regurgitating a whole bunch of stuff that everyone in the room already knows.

There was some widely spread debate last year about how web conferences in particular, still have a heavy male bias in the speaker line ups. Is this something you’re concerned about, or not?

I think the fact that we have always been concerned enough about this to try to right the balance as best we can has more than a little to do with the fact that our events really don’t have the same blokey/nerdy atmosphere that they might otherwise have. We don’t exercise Equal Opportunity or a quota system in any sort of rigid fashion.

However, we do keep a slightly more assiduous eye open for women doing interesting things on the web. By and large men won’t be backward in speaking and writing about and publicising their work (not that there is anything wrong with that!), you just have to put in a bit of extra work and you’ll find women doing interesting things as well. This pays off in that better atmosphere I refer to above.

So, if you could give one piece of advice for conference speakers in the making, what would it be?

Do something cool and rock solid in the next 6 months and tell me about it 🙂

Any plans you’re willing to reveal about the next conference?

I don’t feel like any themes have emerged as yet content-wise. The biggest thing I am going to hint at now is that idea of participation by the community I speak of above. We’re in the business of providing content of the highest possible quality that people can take back to their workplaces and start implementing straight away.

We’re very different to events like Barcamp because I actually believe a lot of our attendees find that kind of atmosphere and pressure to contribute and participate on the spot a little bit intimidating. However, I do think there is some sort of hybrid event you can create that will harness the energy and expertise of those who do want to contribute and participate while not intimidating those who prefer to be spectators for now.

I hope these points that Maxine have raised are useful, and look forward to seeing more people attending conferences as speakers in the future. Please let me know how it goes for you.

Image: Flower, Puri Saraswati, Ubud, Bali.

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