You’re at a new conference, but the faces look the same.
The speakers all are familiar. The names? Few surprises. You’re seeing the conference circuit at work.
Hedging Their Bet
This isn’t some conspiracy. What you’re seeing is simple: it’s a hedge. Conference organizers like people who have given talks before.
The quality gulf between your first talk and your second talk is unnervingly large. You learn how to talk to a group of people. You discover how to stand on a stage. You micromanage an internal monologue while delivering an external monologue. During your first talk, the dumbest things — plugging your laptop in, drinking water, even breathing — are things to worry about, things that could cause a stumble.
They dissipate some by your second talk. By reaching your second talk, you’re suddenly Accomplished: you have made it through at least one talk without dying or collapsing into a small ball of tears and embarrassment.
People who do this process over and over again are Very Accomplished. They’re a known quantity. Someone who can Get Things Done, at least on stage.
Watching a bad talk at a conference can waste thirty minutes of your time. That’s irritating. On a conference level, though, you’re wasting thirty minutes of two hundred people’s time. That’s intimidating.
So they hedge. Organizers ask people who have done this before, and they hope to avoid disaster.
The Conference Circuit is a weird thing to be on. I flew around 200,000 miles last year to primarily give talks at conferences. It’s exhausting, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s also really surreal sometimes.
People look up to you. Often, literally: you’re on a stage, towering over tidy rows of folding chairs. Typically, metaphorically: you’re the expert, you’re flown in, you go to special speakers dinners. It’s hard to not feel some feeling of superiority.
This isn’t necessarily bad when it comes to your talk. It’s helpful to feel like you have some special power over these people because holy fuck they’re all looking at me why did I think I ever deserved to be up here in the first place holy bajeezus I should just duck behind this podium and maybe I can disappear in poof of nervousness. Anything that makes you feel confident in the face of this insecurity is a good thing.
The real trick is dropping the schtick after the talk. More often than not, the attendees know more than you do, and the speakers just happen to have some additional experiences in the small realm of their talk. Many times, people on The Conference Circuit can’t drop the schtick: I’ve heard of plenty who only show for their talk session and ditch the rest of the conference like some conference prima donna. If that was a thing that existed, I mean.
Most speakers aren’t magical; they’re just prepared (and some not even that). It’s not cause for some special elevated status.
Small and focused
So how do we address this problem of stale speakers? It’s a problem that won’t ever go away, but good conferences can help combat the tide.
Stories. Focus on stories rather than ideas. For one, ideas are harder to capture for first-time speakers: they’re typically abstract concepts that are difficult to communicate unless you’ve thought about it a lot. But if you’re just telling a story of a problem you’ve solved in your career, you’re just regurgitating experiences. It’s easier to deliver, and reduces the risk of a new speaker bombing on-stage.
Hidden bonus: stories are typically far more captivating to listen to for an audience.
Discussions. For smaller conferences, breaking into groups of less than 50, ideally seated informally, can really change an experience. Have someone talk about their experiences for twenty minutes, and then have an informal discussion around the room for the next forty. In this format, the discussions are usually more fascinating than the talk, as each person contributing to the discussion can share their own experiences in that domain.
Good moderation, of course, is crucial here.
Shorter talks. Speaking for twenty minutes is a wildly different experience than trying to fill an entire hour. Almost no technically-minded talk can keep a room full of people engaged for a full hour. Shorter, targeted talks get people focused on very specific problems, and they’re simply more exciting.
These suggestions won’t work for every conference, though. Larger conferences can’t break up into small, intimate sessions. Abstract talks — which are just as important — don’t lend themselves to stories as easily. Still, facilitating these types of interactions can really make your conference stand out.
There are a lot of great speakers out there. A lot of them haven’t discovered it yet, though. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to seeing our favorite speakers at conferences, but I’d love to discover even more new faces, too.