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The Responsibility of a Conference Speaker to the Conference

I speak at conferences and events. Though it’s hectic, nerve racking and may very well shorten my life, I enjoy it. It’s still a little early into my speaking career, but it’s something that I hope will develop into a bigger part of my life and a portion of my income. I’ve been able to speak at South by Southwest Interactive, Blog World & New Media Expo, Social Media Business Forum and more.

As I attend more and more of these events, I’ve come to a personal understanding of what my responsibility is to the conference as a conference speaker. In other words: once they’ve selected me to speak, what should I do? I’ve talked at length about this with my good friend Wayne Sutton, who co-organized the first Social Media Business Forum in October and my conversations with him helped to spur this post.

Note that this is just my personal philosophy. I’m not taking shots at anyone. I’m not judging anyone. I’m just sharing my way of doing things. Take it as you will. This philosophy specifically applies if a conference is paying me to speak or, at least, paying for my expenses, which is something I’m generally requiring now. But, even if they aren’t paying my expenses, I still try to adhere to this as much as I can.

The Basics: Be Prepared, Give a Good Presentation and Meet Deadlines

Obviously, you want to be prepared and to give a good presentation. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. Structure your talk however you are comfortable, develop simple slides that support the main points you’ll discuss and, if applicable, spend time talking with and getting to know your panelists or any people that you will be sharing the stage with. Practice until you feel relatively confident. You’ll figure this out after you’ve spoken a few times and it’ll get better with experience. We all have to find our comfort level as individuals.

The conference almost certainly has information they need from you and, hopefully, they communicate this is a timely fashion. Meet these requirements in full and on time. Bios, descriptions, titles, head shots, slide decks, whatever. You expect them to treat you in a professional manner (even though they may or may not always deliver), so give them the same amount of respect. Plus, meeting deadlines allows them to better promote you and your talk.

I Have a Hand in the Success of Every Event I Speak At

Let’s get a little deeper. This is my overriding principle: it’s a small hand, but I believe that when an event selects me as a speaker – I have an impact on whether or not that event is considered a success. All by myself, I cannot make the conference a success – nor can I make it a failure. But, I can add a little momentum one way or the other. I can help or I can hurt and I strive to give the conference the good kind of momentum, to reward those that place their faith in me. I’m not perfect, I’ll make mistakes, I’ll give bad presentations. But, I do what I can to limit that, to learn and to get better with each engagement.

Brandon Eley and Patrick O'Keefe
Brandon Eley and me
Copyright © Sean O’Keefe

This success doesn’t just happen at the event, but before and after. Through the planning and preparation described above, but also in promotion. Though conference organizers should never feel they have an automatic entitlement to the speaker’s audience, readership, etc., I do make it a point to mention where I’m speaking and to promote the conference right along with it.

What can I do to help the conference? What can they do to help me? What can we do to help each other?

This isn’t an idea of charity – simply an understanding that we must all help each other. Speakers need venues, venues need speakers and both need audiences, attention and money to survive. I want people to come to see me speak, I want people to attend the conference – I want the conference to have me back next year. If the conference didn’t pay me this year, I want them to want to pay me next year. It all goes hand in hand. The idea is that success begets success and we’ll all share in it. And if someone doesn’t share, you don’t necessarily have to work with them again.

Attend the Conference and Be Available – Not Just When I’m Speaking

If a conference is paying for your expenses, you have no business missing half of the conference to hang around the hotel pool or something like that – unless it’s cool with the conference organizer. Otherwise, I think it’s showing a lack of respect for the conference organizer, a person who has invested in you for their event.

The key to this being OK is always the conference organizer knowing. There are plenty of speakers who fly in, speak, and fly back out. There are people who have been at 50 conferences this month and want to take a day with their family that is traveling with them. That’s all cool. I’m not telling anyone how to spend their time. I’m just saying that the expectations need to be communicated. If the organizers don’t know you’re not going to be there, that is not a good look and it leads to let down.

Back on point, I try to attend as much of the conference as I can. Usually, I attend the whole thing – from start to finish. I attend some sessions, I walk the trade show if there is one, I sit down with my laptop, I hang out in the halls. I talk to people, I say hi to people I already know and meet new people. When it comes time to do my session, I’m on time or early and I hang around and talk with people afterward, unless I am somehow scheduled for something else. I make a point to try to talk with everyone who wants to talk and I know I am not alone in this.

When I say talk, I mean just talk. I know there are some people who want to take too much of your time, who try to use attendance at a speaking engagement as a means of getting free consulting time. Buying a conference pass doesn’t entitle you to oodles of one on one time with the speaker. But, if you can, as a speaker, you should make the time to talk with everyone who wants to talk with you. It doesn’t have to be long, but do what you can. The idea is to leave a lasting impression and to stand out from the crowd. Making one on one connections is one way you do that because all it takes is a couple of people raving about you for the conference organizer to know they made the right choice.

And when you do that, it’s a win-win-win. The attendee wins, so the conference wins (so the sponsors win), so you win. Or that’s my theory.

13 responses

  1. Twitted by theRab

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  2. Nice break down Patrick. I think your points above and beyond the “be prepared and give a good presentation” are spot on. Being available at the conference is the whole point to me. That is when real business gets done and real insights get shared. And when a speaker genuinely takes a vested interest in an event I put on, it is truly heartwarming. When this happens it can be an incredible value add to an event.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Jason. Great to hear!


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  5. Patrick, thanks for the link and mentions. As you stated it’s something we have discussed in the pass. As a conference organizer I think your post should be sent as a requirement to any speaker for upcoming conferences :)

    But to each is on and good luck at upcoming speaking events.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Wayne. I appreciate it.


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  8. I also spoke at few conferences and I must say that I was nervous every time. No matter how good was I prepared, how long was I learning my paper or how many people were present at my speech. This was just something I couldn’t avoid.

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  10. Jenna Avatar

    I’m speaking on a panel at a tech conference tomorrow for the first time. I’m nervous. But thanks to your tips I am starting to feel good.

    1. Glad they were helpful, Jenna. Best of luck.

  11. Great points, Patrick. How we, as speakers, interact with the conference staff and attendees matters a lot. I have only spoken at a few conferences, but many non-profit and professional organizations and the same guidelines apply.

    I use the conversations before the meeting or session as a great time to get to know a bit more about the individual attendees. I can tailor my comments from these insights and sometimes reference specific people or a situation they described in my presentation. And, after the session, there is often time to dig in more deeply to follow-up questions.

    It is indeed a win-win-win. And fun too!

    1. Thanks Kathleen. That sounds like a great way to approach a presentation.

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