The Art of Booth

I originally wrote this up as an internal blog post, but I think it may be useful for other people, too, so I’ve cleaned it up a bit and taken out most of the proprietary stuff, and added some explanations. I had never in my life done boothwork before this job, so I was surprised to find I had so many opinions, but if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it well.


I wanted to start a place where we could keep resources about how to be the best booth person you can be for Your Company, and what that means. 

Rules

  1. Be there for your shift. You have a calendar page that shows you when we expect you to be on-duty, and we need you there. If you have a conflicting meeting, let the booth manager know so we can get coverage.
  2. Be present. There are slow times when we all check our email, but if your laptop is open, you are more likely to seem unavailable to answer questions or chat with someone who comes up.

Guidelines

Saying hello

I like to wait until people slow down and make eye contact with either me or the booth. Then I say, “Hi, can I answer any questions for you?”. Usually you’ll get one of the following:

  • What is <your product>? A: You need a one-sentence answer here. A catchphrase. Way shorter than an elevator pitch. The great thing about a conference is that you have lots of chances for experimentation and iterative improvement.
  • How does that work? A: Again, super short. People are filtering at this point to see if you have any relevance to them.
  • Can you tell me more? A: Sure! What’s your job role? Tailoring the answer to the job role saves you a lot of time answering the wrong question, and also lets you practice understanding the personas that someone hopefully briefed you on.
  • Can I get a t-shirt? A: Sure! What size would you like? Saying that way avoids asking people what size they ARE. Also, t-shirts are the bane of my existence. Have some lovely socks.

Two men face away from the camera and toward a banner for LaunchDarkly. One is pointing to something on a demo screen

If you’re bored, and it’s slow, you can leave one person on the booth and the other person can go take a tour of other people’s booths and listen to their pitches. It’s remarkably educational. Just keep an eye on your partner and be sure to be back by the next scheduled rush. When you introduce yourself to another sponsor, make it clear that you’re not anyone worth pitching to, and if they want to scan you, you can ask that they mark you no-contact. Odds are, if you’re working a booth, you’re probably not buying software for your company – different roles.

Remember to make eye contact and talk to women. They are often overlooked or elbowed out in conference crowds, and they can be very influential in purchasing decisions. If someone shows up with several co-workers to show off the booth, remember to speak to all of them, not just the champion.

When someone comes up to say they’re a customer, or were a customer, thank them! They’re making the effort to say we make their lives enough better that they’ll stop and talk to us. You don’t have to scan them, but you can, or you can keep a tally sheet of who does this, just because it’s such a great feeling, and we should share it with other people at the company. I think a tally sheet might have a row for Company name, and columns for “Love the product” “Love the design” “Miss using you” “Changed my life”. Or maybe that’s too much.

HOWEVER, if they’re a current customer and they have a question – tell them they can write support, but also either scan them or make a note. There’s some reason they haven’t contacted support already – they didn’t know it was there, or they don’t know how to frame their question, or they think it’s their fault for not understanding something. If it’s something you can answer right away, like a UI question, answer it! Otherwise, make sure support knows how to find them.

Scanning

I try not to scan someone until they’ve made it past the first question and asked me a follow-up question. Number of leads is important, but it’s more important that they be leads with actual value. If it’s just someone who has no interest, why put them in the funnel?

Ask before you scan. It’s a bad experience to have your personal data taken without permission.

Scan everyone in a group, if they come together. You can never tell who the champion is going to be.

If you have any time at all, rate the lead on warmth or add any pertinent info. That can include where they’ve heard of us before (Edith’s podcast, Heidi’s talks, blogpost, etc) if they happen to offer it.

Make sure the scanner is charged overnight and at slow times.

If we have to use our phones as scanners, try not to leave it lying on the table. No one wants their phone stolen, especially since it probably has a bunch of proprietary information on it.

Clothes

I covered clothes for conferences in this post.

Setup

Your booth manager will take care of most of the initial setup, including making sure there’s a monitor. Double-check that the monitor and the computer don’t look grungy. A clean monitor makes us look better.

Until we have a computer that exists just to go to shows, the demo is usually run off the computer of someone working the booth. I suggest you open the following tabs:

  • LaunchDarkly-specific tabs, but it’s good to have an idea of what you want to pull up. Don’t have anything else in that window.

You’ll also have a bunch of stickers and material, which is covered in Stuff.

Nitpicky

  • Try not to set your food or Starbucks cups on the table. We are sometimes paying $10k for this dinky table, and putting other stuff on it diminishes our brand value. It’s fine to drink at the booth, but keep it to an unbranded bottle or keep it off the main table. Hopefully we provide enough breaks that you don’t need to eat at the table. It looks super untidy.
  • Try to keep the table and area around the booth tidy. It’s almost never enough space, and if we leave our backpacks on the floor, someone will trip on them.
  • If you are using your own adapter to connect to the booth video, please just order a new one. Eventually we will get enough, but I’ve already lost 3.
  • Dress for standing all day. There are usually chairs, but it’s not always engaging to be sitting down. Also, there’s a lot of walking and standing in line.

Stuff

NOTE: This is very LaunchDarkly-specific, but I’m leaving it in as an example of how to write about the things that you want to happen at your table.

We have sent you a bunch of stuff in the Pelikan cases that hold the booth supplies. Depending on how big the conference is, and how many we have going on, you’re going to have:

  • Main brochures. These go in the clear acrylic holder and a few of them can go in a stack on the table. It’s nice to have at least one upside down so you can point out the supported SDKs and marquee customers.
  • Accordion brochures. Set one of each color out, standing up and telescoped out. When people pick that one up, replace it from under the table. Do not attempt to stack these, it will just end up all over creation. If you have one of the little blocks with a gripper on it, you can put one in that, or you can use it for stickers.
  • T-shirts: None! T-shirts cost $12 each to print, and then they have to get shipped and size sorted, and they take up table room. I love our t-shirts, and I think they should go to everyone who makes an affirmative effort to get one, by visiting our trial or conference website.

  • Stickers! There are three types of stickers: 
    • Die-cut – these are the ones that are irregular shapes, like Toggle and the rocketship logo. Put out 10 or so at a time of each type, and either stack them neatly or fan them out.
    • Hexes – Put out one of each type abutting each other to show that they work together, and then have stacks of ~20 or so spaced out behind that display. Don’t try to stack stickers more than 20 high, they’ll just get knocked over all the time, but people need to be able to get their fingers around each one, so you can’t stack them up touching.
    • Minis – these are tiny 1-inch circles. It is impossible to get them stacked neatly, so I usually just have them in individual piles. NOTE: Each of the flags means something different and it is helpful for all of us, and for re-ordering if you keep the types separate as much as possible – don’t just sweep them all off the table at the end, put them back into individual baggies. The minis come in the following types:
      • Dark blue – regular LaunchDarkly. You will go through the most of these.
      • Rainbow – Gay/queer pride. If anyone asks, you can point out that the brown and black stripes represent queer people of color who are often left out of the story of queer politics.
      • Pink/white/blue – Trans pride. Leave them out, but never comment on anyone taking them. Some people think they look like they’re for little kids, some people have little kids who are trans. Who are we to say?
      • Pink/purple/blue – Bi pride. Bisexuals also have a pride flag. So do lesbians, but it’s not well-standardized yet.

The thing with all of this stuff that we send along to the conference is that it costs money. The stickers cost up to 50 cents apiece. So if we don’t give it out, we want to make sure that it survives to the next show. If we toss everything back into the case, and the case gets treated in the way of all luggage, we’re going to waste a lot of money on stickers and brochures that end up damaged and unusable. So I know you are so ready to get out of there once the show is over, but please make an effort to stow things safely.

tl;dr

This may seem like overthinking, but the money, time, and opportunity cost that a booth represents is pretty immense, so it’s worth it to think through what you want to have happen before you get there. Talk to your peers about what has worked for them. Walk the show floor and see what seems like a good idea. I have a whole album of pictures that I share with my design and marketing team so we keep up with what’s current and trending. If you don’t do that, you end up with a booth design that makes people strangely nostalgic for grunge music and clove cigarettes and AOL CDs, and that’s not the goal.

Mostly, though, you’re here at a booth because you have an awesome product that can actually improve people’s day, and if they want to hear about it, you want to tell them, and honestly, that feels pretty great. Go, do good work, and hide your coffee cups!

White woman with pink hair and bright lipstick.

“Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” —Rachel Zoe

I look like this:

White woman with pink hair and teal-framed glasses looking at the camera.

Unless I’m about to give a talk or just gave one, in which case I look more like this:

White woman with pink hair and bright lipstick.

As you can see from the tweet above, a lot of people agree with me that dress codes are frequently to remind people they don’t have power, or they have less power. The pushback against sexist school dress codes is an aspect of that — maybe we shouldn’t police girls because of what they wear, maybe we should teach boys that they should keep their assumptions about what they’re entitled to to themselves. Similarly, a great thing about working in tech, especially in startups, is that they seldom have very rigid codes. That is part of why there’s a statistical lump of genderqueer-presenting people in tech, because there’s not really a reason to haul someone in front of HR for dress code violations… if there is a dress code. Or HR.

Some dress codes are practical. Cover your hair and beard with a net if you work with food. Don’t wear loose clothing around rotating machinery.

Some are arbitrary. I don’t think leggings are pants, but I am An Old, and will own that. The color of your hair does not impede your ability to execute emergency deplaning procedures*. Your facial piercings don’t actually make you a worse childcare provider.

But the hard ones, the intractable dress codes, are the ones about professionalism. You know women who dye their hair so they don’t look “unprofessionally old”. You know people who are discriminated against in some way because they’re fat. You know people who struggle to pay for the clothes that are part of their work uniform, but because they’re sales professionals, their “work uniform” is Brooks Brothers.

I’m having a discussion at work right now about clothes, because they matter. I don’t think it’s ok to impose arbitrary rules on people who don’t see customers, but I do think that professionalism in any office means that you don’t smell bad, I can’t see any of your swimsuit parts, and none of your clothing constitutes a threat to other humans. I do think it’s ok, and even important, to dress in a way that makes other people take you seriously if you’re talking to customers.

For example, my company is based in Oakland. This is like being based in San Francisco, but with fewer microclimates. Rolling up to work in a company hoodie, jeans, a t-shirt from your last company, and a pair of Tevas is A-OK. But the further east you go, the more formal everyone’s business wear gets. Jeans turn into chinos somewhere around the Mississippi, and then into actualfacts slacks. T-shirts become button-down plaid, and then long-sleeve with ties. Hoodies to sweaters to blazers. And I’m using dude-presenting clothes as an example, because they are so much less complex than women’s clothes. And then, and then, you jump the pond. I showed up for an onsite in France, and pretty much every single male developer – the developers, was wearing an ironed shirt and a fine-gauge wool or cashmere long-sleeve sweater.

Because I travel so much, I see this over and over again, and I’m uniquely sensitized to it. Also, it’s a class thing. Never let anyone tell you America doesn’t have class issues. We do, we just managed to get really bad at talking about them or naming them. So, for instance, someone raised upper-middle class on the east coast will never think about the fact that they pack button-down shirts for a trip to New York, because that’s their native language. They learned to tie a necktie in junior high.

Someone who wasn’t raised that way is likely to pack the same thing they wear to a conference on the west coast, and that will end up being the wrong formality register. And the thing is, people won’t say anything about the fact that to them, you look like a scruffy nerfherder who couldn’t Enterprise your way out of a paper bag. They may not even realize they’re thinking that. But they will feel, subtly, that your company may not be Ready For The Big Leagues.

So what can we do about this? Well, I’m pushing for all employees who do customer-facing work to have a couple different branded options, like a sweater. That will make me feel happier when I go back to Europe and can leave my hoodie in my travel bag.

Dressing for Conferences

For you? If you’re going to a conference, find a crowd shot of the people at that conference last year, and dress to fit that. There’s a wrinkle to that, because every conference/programming language has its own particular flavor, but you’ll get pretty close. For example, here are crowd shots from O’Reilly Software Architecture and O’Reilly Velocity. Both were in New York City. If you look closely, you’ll see that the people at Velocity are dressed down a bit more, because it’s more for the DevOps people, and Software Architecture is more for their bosses. It’s a subtle difference, but it exists.

Buttondowns, more formal T-shirts, some button-downs

For comparison, here are pictures from the London version and the San Jose version

And for even more complexity, femme women will usually, but not always, dress one degree more formally than the male and butch-identifying people at a conference. So you end up with speaker pictures like this:

Two women in black dresses, one man wearing a short-sleeve shirt and jeans

They all look appropriate for the stage, but the women have their phones offstage somewhere (Unless Ines’ dress is more magical than I think), and he has his in his front pocket. I have a whole thing about gendered dressing, which I won’t go into, because this post is long enough, but you should be aware of it when you’re deciding what to wear.

I’m not picking on O’Reilly, they just keep all their pictures in an easy-to-find place.

In conclusion

If someone tells you that your hair, your body, or your style is a problem for them, that’s on them. If they say it’s a problem for the company you work for, try to figure out if it’s a health and safety issue, a customer-facing issue, or a power play.

Personally, I decided a while ago that if someone didn’t want to hire me because of my pink hair, they also would not like my swearing, my public queerness, or my twitter feed, and we would all be happier if I didn’t work there. But that’s a position of enormous privilege, and I know it.

If you feel like you need to say something to a co-worker about their clothes, style, or god forbid, hair, before you open your mouth, ask yourself if this is about your discomfort or an actual business problem. **

*  At this point in culture, airline cabin crew are caught in a terrible intersection of class-policing and trying to have authority in the moment they need it over panicking people, and it’s complicated, but a huge number of cabin crew have admired my hair and sighed wistfully over being able to choose a “non-natural color”.

**  If you are mentoring someone entering the industry, you get a little more leeway to point out the norms of the particular office you’re in, IF you’re their mentor. Someone has to tell the interns that Teva sandals may be ok, but not if they’re stinky.

Speaker’s Hierarchy of Needs

I’ve been thinking about what I need to be a happy speaker, and what I expect, and what I hope for, and it seems to me like it’s a a hierarchy of needs, like Maslow.

This is absolutely not intended to “call out” any organizer or make anyone feel bad. The vast majority of my experiences as a conference speaker are positive.

Needs

Here are the things that I really need from organizers to make this collaboration work.

Before

  • Code of Conduct. I need you to tell me what it is, and what your enforcement method is. If I tell you I’m worried about something particular, I need you to take me seriously, because as a speaker, I have a different kind of risk profile than an attendee.
  • Conference date on every possible page, email, and communication you send me. No, more. Your conference is a pivot point of your year, for you. For me, it is a thing I am excited to be at, but I need to be sure I got my schedule right.
  • Which airport I should be planning on coming in to. This is especially vital if you are in an area that has more than one. DFW or Dallas-Love? BWI or Reagan? Midway or O Hare? LHR or ANY OTHER OPTION?
  • If there are before-or-after the conference date activities, let me now about them as soon as I accept, before I book my tickets. I hate it when I miss out on the beach day/speaker dinner/rainforest walk/tour because you told me about it after I made my plans.
  • What format do you want my slides in, what is your video input, and what kind of audio are we going to be working with?
  • How long is the actual talk slot, especially if there are breaks that could throw off the calculation?

During

    Everyone will be happier if I get a chance to test my A/V some time other than at the start of my talk.
    If there are more than 10 people in the room, I want amplification.
    If there are any changes to schedules, I’d appreciate it if you made sure I got that message.

After

  • Honestly, there’s not a lot of follow-up that counts as essential. Unless something goes wrong in a Code of Conduct sense.

Wants

Some stuff that makes me more effective or happy:

Before

  • I love those emails that tell me about things that you know about your area or venue. Yes, please tell me about the usual weather, which door of the conference center, and how close I am to local areas of interest. Write the Docs was the first place I saw this, and it’s just great.
  • I’m also excited about reminders that list my schedule, especially extras like interviews or speaker table time. I star those. Extra special bonus points to conferences that send me calendar invites! Sometimes timezones are hard, ok?
  • Give me a speaker liaison and a meeting time. I don’t need this, but it’s lovely to get a tour of the venue, the speaker’s lounge, the backstage, and to have someone I can go to if I need help with something.
  • If you know anything about the audience at your conference, sharing it with me will let me tune my talk more accurately. It doesn’t have to be full demographics, but “78% of last year’s attendees listed Java as their primary language” means that I won’t talk about Python garbage collection jokes.

During

  • A speaker’s lounge is not required, but it is lovely to have. I use it to drop my bag, hang out with other speakers, practice, swap A/V adapters, and grab food because I didn’t get lunch because I was answering questions for attendees. DevOpsDays PDX had a livestream of the mainstage talk in a corner of the speaker lounge, and I loved it.
  • Real-time transcription. It’s useful for me because I know that more people can catch all the things I’m saying, it’s useful for attendees who have language, comprehension, or attention difficulties, and it’s sometimes possible to use it as the transcription on the video. Everyone wins. I’m a huge fan of White Coat Captioning, because they appear to have a cadre of transcriptionists who have pre-loaded technology vocab packs and so are very accurate.
  • Please put water on the podium. I’m sure there are people in the world who remember to keep their personal bottle filled at all times and to take it on stage, but I’m not one of them.
  • I like a room captain or MC to do introductions. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker not to have one, but it’s less awkward, especially for new speakers. An experienced speaker will have tricks to gather attention and get people to settle down and listen, but that’s actually a different skill than delivering a prepared talk.
  • Backup laptop. My slides fail very seldom, but when they do, it’s nice to be able to just borrow a laptop.
  • Adapters and slide clickers. I have my own, but not everyone does, and even if you do, sometimes they get lost or broken, so the conference should have a few to loan out.
  • A/V tech. This is a big request, but at conferences that can afford it, it’s kinda lovely to have someone to make sure the mic, slides, and confidence monitor are all working right.
  • Confidence monitor – that’s something that I can see when looking straight ahead that shows me what is being projected behind me. Many speakers have the presentation on behind them, and what’s on the laptop in front of them is their notes. For talks, especially lightning talks that are given from a different computer, a confidence monitor means I’m not twisting around to check which slide I’m on now.
  • The purpose of a conference after-party, I think, is to let people talk to each other. TURN THE MUSIC DOWN AND THE LIGHTS UP. Most of us are not here to show off our sick dance moves, but to connect with other professionals. Every 10 decibels means that I am thinking about bailing an hour early because I have to be able to keep talking, and yelling all night makes that hard.

After

  • I appreciate it when a conference emails me that my video is up, and here’s the link.
  • I also like and try to fill out the surveys after a conference. I think it’s useful to send speakers both the general attendee survey and a specialized speaker survey.
  • Go ahead and tell me about the CfP dates for next year. If it’s a low-volume list, I’ll stay on it. I will not stay on your slack. I probably didn’t join your slack. I only have so much RAM.
  • If you have collected feedback about my performance, go ahead and share it with me — after you’ve filtered it. I couldn’t do anything about the air conditioning in the room, and you don’t want the abiding taste of your convention to be abusive comments about my speaking. Constructive negative comments are fine, but don’t just pass through the comments page without looking at it.

Desires

Dreams, wishes, and improbably expensive ideas:

Before

  • Get me from the airport. DevOpsDays Chicago and The Lead Developer do this, and it’s such an amazing luxury to not have to think about that part of my trip, and try to figure out which Hilton I’m supposed to be going to, etc.
  • Book me a room with the speaker block, even if my company is paying for it. Being with the other speakers is a huge value for me at your conference, and as a bonus, you know where we are, and it’s not across town in the middle of a transit strike.
  • Send the speaker gift by mail ahead of time so I don’t have to pack it. ChefConf did this, and it was great, because I am frequently traveling in a way that makes the 4 cubic inches taken by a mug significant.

During

  • Make sure I have food tailored to my dietary needs available in the speaker lounge. Especially if we spoke before lunch or dinner, it’s likely we spent a lot of the meal interacting with attendees and not getting in line, and this is especially crucial if a speaker needs a specialized meal.
  • I don’t know what to call this — concierge service? When I showed up to The Lead Developer Austin with no voice, the organizers got me a whole assembly of throat drops, soothing tea, painkillers, etc, and had it taken to my room. That meant that I didn’t have to figure out how to get to a pharmacy or think about what I needed. Honestly, it was so sweet I cried. Hopefully, a speaker won’t need this, but if you have given them a liaison they can trust, and empowered that person to spend a bit of money, it can make a huge difference. It could be anything from “Today is my birthday” (DevOpsDays Hartford bought me cupcakes!) to “I have a tummy bug” (Immodium, don’t leave home without it).
  • Do an audience count for me. There’s no way for me to do it when I’m speaking, but I am not so good at estimating, and it’s useful for me to know for my job what percentage of the attendees were at my talk.

After

  • Caption/transcribe the video
  • Get the video up really fast. Next Day Video does this really well, and ConFreaks has gotten notably faster and also has live videographers who handle pacers (me) better than static setups.
  • Do roll-up posts on the talks and on the conference as a whole so we have something to link to.

Self-Actualization?

I’ve been thinking about what conference self-actualization would me, by Maslow’s standards and my own, and I think it’s about feeling so confident in the underpinnings of the event that I don’t have to think about them, just like most of you are probably not worried about shelter or caloric sufficiency. Being able to trust a conference is running well means that I can concentrate on higher order things like delivering value and sparking discussions.

My part

This is a long (really long) list of things that conferences should/could provide to speakers, but conference speaking is a contract of mutual benefit. Here is a list of what I think conference speakers should commit to providing to do:

  • Be on time. There is nothing, nothing more nervewracking for an organizer than not knowing that a speaker will be there at the right time. I don’t care if you have jetlag, if you have to speak in pajamas, whatever. Be at the venue an hour before your talk, make sure you check in, show up at your room as soon as is feasible.
  • Fail noisily. If for any reason you are not going to be able to give your complete talk, on time, tell the organizers as soon as possible. I know you’re ashamed, but they are in a worse spot, so suck it up.
  • Prepare. I do often tweak my talk to incorporate things that happen earlier in the conference, but it is super unprofessional to joke about how you just slapped a talk together on the flight over. Think of it this way — assume everyone in the room earns $60/hr (it makes the math easy). Now multiply that by the minutes the talk is scheduled for and the number of people in the room. That is what your talk is worth in human-hour-dollars.
  • Participate. A large part of the value of conference speaking is that you get to attend conferences. If you are only showing up for the part of one day that your talk is in and blowing off the rest of the conference, you’re missing a lot of the value, and so is the conference. I get so many great conversations in the hallway track/lunch line. Sometimes (May, June, September), you’ll get scheduling collisions and these things happen, but I promise you that I will try to go to the majority of the conference, be available for people to talk to, and generally help the organizers out.
  • Promote. As I serve on more conference committees, I see how important it is for speakers to reach out and involve their communities. Think of a conference as the middle of a very extensive venn diagram. Speakers bring in parts of their community, which makes the conference as a whole richer.
  • Bonus: I have been speaking long enough that I have a set of talks that I could give on no notice. I usually let an organizer know quietly that if they have a schedule disaster, I can cover. I try very hard not to make this about me, but about their need to juggle a lot of balls and how I can offer to catch something.

Help, I need somebody!

I may have mentioned that I have an executive function disorder. That is the category AD(H)D falls into. What that means for me is that it is often a lot of work for me to make decisions and organize tasks. All of the traits that make me an excellent systems thinker, like holistic views, consideration of concepts outside the standard solution, and interrelationships are present all the time.

Most people, when they go to book a hotel room, get on a site like Travelocity that triages by price and distance, and they just pick something. What I do is do that, and then think about how much it would take to get Lyft to and from where I need to be and if that’s a savings worth staying further away, and is there anything else I need to visit while I’m there, and is it in my 3 loyalty networks, and does it have late-night room service, and is it close to someplace that I can get groceries, and does it have a fridge, or a microwave? Is it in the loose budget my company asks for? Is there a reason that it’s more expensive, such as holidays or major events? How does that compare to the per diem for federal employees, which is what I use as my heuristic for judging which cities are just annoyingly expensive?

I think all those things pretty much every time. And I think in that scope for almost everything. I used to think that loyalty programs like airline mile memberships and hotel points were for a) optimizers b) rich people c) frequent travelers. I’m really only a member of c), but it turns out that they’re also great for d) people who need to reduce computational complexity.

I went to 44 events this year, I think (accurate year-end roundup later). Are you exhausted thinking about that level of planning? I was. And then I was facing down 3 weeks in Europe and I complained to my boss and he told me that a personal assistant was an allowable business expense.

I’m working with a lovely woman named Carly, from an organization called Aim2Assist, and it is making my life so much better. Suddenly, I understand why executives get executive assistants and why it matters to their productivity. Because I can delegate.

How does it work?

Yes, I have signed over a great deal of personal information to this person. There’s no way around it. The way I did it was to share LastPass entries for all my frequent flyer/hotel/credit card information. I can revoke those at any time, and keep them updated. This is much easier with a company credit card, because the company has the ability to get recourse if something goes wrong (which I don’t suspect will happen, but they have more money than I do).

Then I gave her a rough set of parameters to work with. I prefer to fly Delta. Window seats. No AirB&B if we can help it. Hotel rooms in the $150-$250 range if possible. I’ll take care of my own transportation on-site. We also did a chat where I talked about things I just liked in general, and what it means when I travel for work. (14 hours days a norm)

So, for the Europe trip, I booked my inbound and outbound flights, and then sent Carly that information and the dates of the conferences and meetings in London, Bordeaux, and Marseille. Those were my fixed points. I told her that I wanted to spend some time in Bath (which was magical), and that I preferred the train to flying in Europe. She sent back an itinerary for my approval. For all my London stays, I was in one hotel, which was nice and consistent and I just had to learn one route to and from the Tube. Because I wanted to do walking in Bath, she booked me a hotel in the historic parts that was lovely and gracious and still less expensive than staying in London. In Bordeaux, she found this ridiculously lovely off-season glamping/chateau experience.

King-size bed in a rustic wood and canvas room.

It was in Bordeaux that I was desperately grateful to have her. I had gotten pickpocketed in the half hour I spent in the Paris Metro, so I only had my backup card, which was an American Express. It’s not the card of preference in Europe, if you were wondering. Instead of me trying to argue with taxi drivers about what kind of payment they’d take, she booked me a car and driver. And when the train I was booked on told her that they weren’t going to stop in Marseille due to flooding, she rebooked me onto a flight so I would get there in time.

When I got home and there were all the usual annoyances of travel, like my hotel nights were not properly credited and I needed a refund for the cancelled train ticket, I could hand those off to her instead of trying to deal with it myself.

None of this was impossible for me to do. She’s not a travel agent with access to their mystical systems. She’s a human who gets paid to make things happen for me, another human. And it’s such a blessing to me. Her decision matrix is much smaller than mine. I’ve told her my preferences, she optimizes for them, but she doesn’t end up deep in the weeds of what’s professional and what’s self-indulgence. I don’t want to walk more than half a mile to get to a conference venue, she accounts for that and doesn’t wonder if it’s worth an extra $20/night to save 10 minutes, etc etc.

NOTE: if you are a frequent traveler and no one has given you a company credit card, raise hell. If you WANT to put it all on your personal miles card, that’s fine, but you are traveling for company business, and they are going to pay eventually, so make sure they pay now. This is especially true for people who are young, have low credit limits, or have shitty credit. I can drop 10k on a month of travel bookings, easily. I do not have a personal credit card with a 10k limit, nor do I want one. Companies should not make private wealth a prerequisite to career advancement.

What can you ask for?

LaunchDarkly is paying for this service, because it’s cheaper to pay her rate than to pay my “rate” for me to do this, only less well. Those hours I don’t spend on travel booking I spend on watching conference talks or reading articles or writing blog posts. It’s better value for money.

Because my employer is doing this, I try to keep my requests to work-related things, mostly travel. I would also feel ok asking Carly to file my expenses (if our system wasn’t so stupid-easy), or send confirmations or other things that related to traveling and speaking.

If I were paying her myself, I could also ask her to book medical appointments, send birthday presents, order flowers, get someone in to clean up my lawn. We have apps for a lot of this now, but it still takes time and effort to do, and time and effort is exactly what I don’t have to spare right now.

If you ever watched The West Wing and admired Mrs. Landingham as a highly-competent person who enables Jed Bartlett to be Bartlett, that’s like the highest expression of getting help to delegate executive function to. Few of us can have a secretary, but many of us could possibly spend a day’s wages to save that time and thought for something else.

But what if?

I think the scariest thing for most of us is having our identity stolen. Going through a proper organization is going to buffer against that. I wouldn’t hire someone random off Craigslist to do that, even though they’d probably be fine. I like having someone who is accountable. Also, let’s be real, our identity is scattered across a dozen databases on the dark web already.

What if your assistant screws up? Well, so far my assistant’s track record of screwing up is far below my own record. I am the queen of being really bad at booking flights that cross midnight and realizing belatedly I’ll arrive on the wrong day. Inevitably it will happen, but when it does, I’ll have someone to help me figure that shit out.

In conclusion

Yes, it’s totally worth the money to get an assistant if you have a life like mine. I was feeling guilty about being “lazy” when I felt overwhelmed about booking my own travel, until a friend pointed out that for me, it’s an accommodation, and for everyone, it’s an efficiency.

It is a build vs. buy proposition.

I could work hard to make this work in my own system, or I could pay money and save opportunity cost to get a better end product.

On a jet plane…

I’ve been in Europe for the better part of three weeks now, and I’ll be going home Saturday. As you can imagine, I thought long and hard about everything I brought with me. I never want to take more luggage than I can comfortably manage on my own, up and down subway stairs.

This is a long post, so if you’re not interested in travel-nerdery, go ahead and skip it.

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Lady Conference Speaker: 14 Travel Tips

I was talking to a fellow ladyish conference speaker, and I reeled off a list of my travel tips as they pertain to people who are working for small/nimble enough companies that you don’t have to book through The Corporate Site.

An array of bags and the things they contained, including laptop, cords, stickers, portable keyboard, medicine, neck pillow.

Last year’s conference travel assortment. I’ve upgraded my bag since then.

  1. Remember that your time is usually more valuable than the amount you can save by optimizing flights. Before you spend 4 hours trying to save $100 and adding a 3 hour layover to your flight, consider your hourly rate.
  2. Pick an airline you can deal with, stop looking at others. I use Delta because I live in a Delta hub.
  3. Pick 2 hotels chains with a variety of price point options. I use Hilton and Marriott, but Quality or Best Western or anything similar will work.
  4. Be reasonable about your expenses, but not chintzy. This is not human travel, it is business travel. The value of business travel is that you arrive in a place capable of interacting with humans.
  5. Pack what you need for each day in a roll so you don’t have to spend any brain resources when you get there.
  6. Where you are going, they sell most things. You can solve a lot if you have underpants and a bra and a company t-shirt.
  7. You’re probably not going outside as much as you would as a human traveller. You don’t need an umbrella, or sunscreen. Travel the world, visit exotic conference centers.
  8. Bring a hoodie, because of the patriarchal thermostat hegemony.
  9. Upgrading to Comfort+ is pretty cheap for the amount of unfrazzling it earns you.
  10. You will always look sharper than the dudes, by virtue of your awesome haircut, ride on that.
  11. But if you don’t feel confident, mascara+lipstick is pretty much all people actually use to read “professional lady makeup”.
  12. Assemble a small travel kit of meds – most of us on the road a lot have a “sinuses are the devil” section and a “let’s not talk about my digestion” section.
  13. There are a lot of things you can solve by money that you couldn’t easily fix when you were traveling on your own, such as: Too Much Walking, Lost Luggage, Forgot Charger, Missed Flight, etc. Don’t be rude about using company resources to fix personal problems, but ask my boss how many cities he’s bought a Macbook charger in. It’s better to have it than to not be useful.
  14. Your average mid-range hotel and above (Not Super 8, yes Garden Court) has a wide variety of forgotten chargers you can borrow. Also they will bring you for a small fee or free a bunch of useful forgotten or unluggable items, like toothbrushes, razors, and full size humidifiers.

This is not human travel, it is business travel. The value of business travel is that you arrive in a place capable of interacting with humans.

There are a lot of other tips I have, but those seem like the most salient. Just keep in mind that you are worth shipping across the country carefully because you are a precious and hard-to-replace part of the company, and they want you to arrive undamaged, functional, and able to do good work.

Bonus tip: Pick a type of tourist attraction you like to see and look for it in cities you go to, if you have time. I’m fond of botanical gardens.

Spiky green glass sculptures that echo the shapes of desert plants.

Glass and biology at the Phoenix Botanical Gardens

 

Lady Conference Speaker Talk Wrap-Up

I was talking to Bridget Kromhout about her wrap-up process, and she inspired me to a) do a better job publishing my talk information right after I give it, b) talk about my end-of-talk process.

So, you have pitched a talk, gotten it accepted, written it, gotten on stage and given it, and answered any questions. You are about to come down off the adrenaline high and start second-guessing what it is you said. It is totally normal not to be able to remember exactly what came out of your mouth. Depending on how nervous a speaker you are, you may not have formed any particular memories, because we are terrible at forming coherent memories when we’re scared.

The slot after your talk, or the evening after, or the flight home, you want to publish your talk wrap-up. I think the ideal wrap-up consists of the following elements:

  • Your slides
  • Twitter reactions
  • Follow-up answers
  • Research sources/bibliography/image sources
  • Video

I do almost all my slides in Google Slides, with Slides Carnival. I do a new set for each talk, since I’ll end up adjusting length and emphasis for each conference. Immediately after I give the talk, I tweet out the public link to them. My slides also have extensive speaker notes.

The next few steps are much easier if you use Storify, an app that plugs into your browser. When I am researching a talk and have a reasonable belief that I’ll be using a page as reference, I click the Storify button to add it to my potential elements. I can also use it to capture tweets that will be relevant. After my talk, I’ll open Storify and look for tweets about the talk, whether with my Twitter handle, the conference hashtag, or the talk hashtag. I drag all the relevant tweets into the story about this talk at this conference, organize them, and then add the link to the slides at the top and the reference elements at the bottom. Then I click publish. I can always go back and edit that Storify to add the video when and if it’s ready.

In WordPress, Medium, LinkedIn, and several other platforms, you can embed Storify stories as part of the post, to raise the visibility and make sure it’s part of your platform as well as Storify’s.

Keep an eye out on your email. Conference organizers are quite likely to ask for your slides so they can sync them to video or publish them on the conference site.


There are a couple places that I want to improve my process — I have seen webpages that have two columns – one for the text of the talk and one for the slide. I feel like that would improve my web presentation and make it more accessible, but I have yet to find the WordPress/CSS magic to make it happen. Everyone I know who does it has hacked their own, and I want a turnkey solution.

I also want to start dedicating some money to getting talks professionally transcribed. What I write out and what I actually deliver are similar, but not identical, and again, I want to improve access for people who can’t or don’t want to watch video.


Here’s an example of one of my talk writeups: http://www.heidiwaterhouse.com/2017/05/26/the-death-of-data-signal-2017-edition/

Lady Speaker Small Talk

Sometimes, I think the hardest part of going to conferences is the unstructured time – lunches and happy hours and sponsored parties. That’s the time I remember I’m surrounded by 2,445 total strangers. And I’m supposed to be networking with them. If I think too much about this, I end up at “what do I even do with my face?”

The goal is not really “networking” in whatever negative way you’re thinking of. The goal is finding interesting people and showing them that they have neat things going on.

It turns out that conferences are full of people who are alone or nearly alone. If you came as part of a team, or you are working the conference, the social stuff is different, but if you are alone, here are some things I do.

Look odd

I have fuschia hair that I wear in a variety of short, eye-catching ways. Since I’m almost six feet tall, I’m really easy to find in a crowd. You don’t have to make quite so striking a personal style statement, but it’s useful to have people able to find you because you’re wearing a tophat, or orange sneakers, or all safety orange, or whatever it is you decide on. Your conference friends, the people you have met at other conferences, will recognize it. Strangers will see you on stage and note the thing about you so they can find you to ask questions later. And if you make it something less permanent than hair color, you can not wear it and totally blend into the crowd.

Make a friend in the registration line

Odds are, you’ll be standing here a few minutes. This is a great time to turn to the person next to you and ask them their name, and what they’re here to see, and what they’re looking forward to going to. Not, like, all at once. Then you sound like a teacher asking about a book report, but as conversational starters. Is this your first year here? If you’ve been before, is there some local food I can’t miss? For the rest of the conference, you’ll probably be able to spot that one person you met early on and give them a friendly nod. And if you’re very lucky, the name on their badge will be readable.

Sidenote: The minute I get any standard-length lanyard, I tie a knot in the back of it so that it hangs higher on my body. Now people looking for my name don’t have to track their eyes past my cleavage. This is a habit I picked up several years ago, and I think that having your name as close as is comfortable and feasible to your face is a win.

Go to other people’s talks

It’s super tempting to hide in your hotel room frantically preparing for your talk. I’ve been there. But I also know that a large part of the value exchange in this conference is that it consts money to attend and I’m not paying anything. So I try to go to a talk in as many slots as possible. I might take the slot before my talk off, and sometimes, depending on how drained I am, the slot after. But mostly I really want to go to people’s talks. It may seem odd, since I don’t have power over any servers, I code in no languages, and I only nominally work in teams, but I still get a lot of value out of conference talks. The technical ones help me keep a finger on the technology zeitgeist. The people-oriented ones always teach me something, because being a consultant is both managing up and sideways.

I always livetweet the talks I go to, but that’s for a different post. Mostly what I want out of going to other people’s talks is an understanding of a technology or application of technology, and to have attended the same conference as other people. At a multi-track conference, it’s easy to go to different conferences in the same venue, depending on your interests, but if you go to talks, you’ll always be able to ask what other people went to, what they thought, and then respond with what you learned or wanted to argue about from the talk you watched. “What talk did you get the most out of today” is a lovely, neutral question and sparks a lot of conversation.

Remember the theory of paradoxical popularity, or charismatic loneliness

I’m sure there is an actual psychological term for this, but lazy googling did not find it. Did you know that the prettiest girl in a high school gets asked on fewer dates than an average-looking girl? Did you know a lot of people that you think of as important, or influential, or famous, eat conference dinners alone? 

That may be by choice — there’s a lot of people energy involved in giving a talk and then doing the networking afterwards, so if a person wants to eat alone, let them. But I’ve noticed that people I think of as amazing sparkling wonderful stars in this context are eating alone. I think we are all valuing their time as too precious for us, and not even asking, a kind of low-level excessive politeness. I’m not saying you should ask more than once, but it’s probably ok to say, “Hey, I really admire what you’re doing, I’d like to talk about it more, do you have someone sitting with you at lunch?”

Talk to the sponsors

These people are sitting at the vendor booths, handing out swag and trying to get a badge scan off you beacuse someone is juding them on this back home. If you do want something on their table, walk up, make eye contact, and ask for it, don’t just grab. If they’re busy talking to someone, spend a minute or two listening to the pitch. You may not be a person in the market to buy things now, but it never hurts to treat the people who make conferences happen well.

The same goes for organizers. They seldom get to see the conference, because they’re making it happen. The have worked months on this, and whether they’re paid or unpaid, they are on constant alert for Something Going Wrong. It’s really stressful! So if your organizer stops and asks you how it’s going, or if you have what you need, remember to say thank you before you start in with a complaint.

Pacman

I got this one from Eric Holscher at Write the Docs. We tend to naturally form a circle when we’re standing around talking about a topic.  It takes a special kind of courage to approach a ring of backs. Instead, as you’re standing in the ring, open up space between you and a neighbor to leave room for a new person to slip in and add to the conversation. You’ll be surprised by how much difference this little bit of body language makes in making your informal conversations more interesting and varied.

Volunteer

The best way to love a conference is to be part of it. Not every conference offers this opportunity, but if you can volunteer, you should consider it. Having a set role makes it easy to interact with people. “Here’s your badge and your t-shirt. Have a great conference!”. You’ll also get to know other volunteers and organizers, as there’s almost always a backstage that attendees don’t see. This is where I have had some pretty amazing conversations over the years.

Stickers

I have a gallon bag of stickers that I carry from conference to conference. People take some, I collect some from tables and people and vendors. The stickers come with stories and then I can re-tell the stories at the next conference. Much like doing a jigsaw puzzle, sorting through a pile of stickers encourages people to stand around and have an idle conversation without feeling tense or anxious. I’m sure if everyone did it, it wouldn’t be novel, but even if you have one type of sticker, from your employer or personal brand, it’s still something to talk about and enjoy together.

On the topic of business cards

Spend money on business cards. I know it seems like an antiquity in the age of tap-contact-swaps, but there’s something about the tactile delight of a good business card that makes people comment on them and remember you. Mine are especially bright, with a plasticky finish. The back of the cards more-or-less matches the color of my hair, which serves as a good mnemonic. I get mine from Moo, which means I can have the fronts different designs — I’ve used this to put 5 or 6 witty tech writer slogans on the front, and I happen to know that people will pin them to cube walls because they’re funny, bright decoration. There is no higher state of winning than having your business hard pinned to a cube wall. In contrast, printing yourself or using a cheap printing service means you’re handing out something that feels disposable, so people do dispose of it.

If you have to hand out your company cards, that’s what you’ve got, but consider if there’s some other personal branding that would feel natural and satisfying to you. At my last conference, I gave away tiny (1/4 inch) hedgehog stickers for people to put on their badges as an indicator that they’d met me. Spontaneous fan club! Or something.

Done talking now

One of the hardest things I had to learn was how to end a conversation gracefully. I almost always start by thanking someone for their time/insight/advice. Then I say something like:

  • I’m off to the next talk! Catch you later.
  • I need to make a call.
  • I’m meeting someone in a few.
  • I’ve gotta go do a thing.

I know – a thing? But it works. 

    In summary

    If you think of conference conversations as purely utilitarian, they will be difficult and dry. Instead, think of them as a way to learn a new and interesting thing from everyone. Good luck out there!

    Lady Conference Speaker: Slides

    Once you get a conference talk selected, you’ll want to put together the talk. There are speakers who can give entire talks without any visual aids, but most of the rest of us count on having some pictures to look at and prompt us. There are entire books written on slides – I liked Presentation Zen and Slide:ology. I can’t replicate everything all the books have to say, but I can tell you what I’ve found useful.

    As you make more presentations, you’ll find your own style and voice. Be sure to watch what other speakers are doing and borrow the best of what you see. Some people do very rapid slides, and will have as many as 90 slides in a 25 minute presentation. Some people like to linger on a few key images. Some people use words, and some people avoid them entirely. You’re going to find your voice, but in the meantime, here are some things that would have helped me to know when I started out.

    Tools

    Slide software falls into two categories: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) or visual design, and compiled, or coded design. The first category is things like PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides. The second category is more like building an HTML page, where you specify elements in Markdown or another language. These are RevealJS, RemarkJS, Deckset, GitPitch, and others.

    I only use the first kind of slide software, but people who use coded design tools appreciate the reliability and customizing options of writing their own slides from scratch. My preferred tool is Google Slides because I can work across all the platforms I write on, I can easily send the link to an organizer, and I don’t have to worry about compatibility. In the last year, Google Slides fixed two major problems I had – you can now present offline, and you can use a Bluetooth presentation remote to advance your slides.

    You’re going to want to get a presentation remote. They can be had for about $20, but you can get a really nice one for about $50. It depends on how much you want to invest in your speaking future. Practice using it  to understand the range and direction that you can get away with. Having a remote means that you can get out from behind the podium and it gives you something to do with at least one of your hands.

    I travel with and present from an iPad, which is more convenient for me than a full-sized laptop. I got an HDMI adapter, and that is a pretty standard expectation at this point. If a conference is using something other than HDMI, they’ll probably let you know. My entire presentation kit fits in the tiny hand-size case for my presentation remote (clicker).

    Standard elements

    I have some elements that appear on all of my slides:

    • Twitter handle
    • Talk name
    • Conference
    • Hashtag

    That may be more information than most people need, but I have a reason for all of them.

    I think the Twitter handle is most important. Very few people will remember the introduction slide well enough for them to accurately quote you 20 slides later when you say something they want to talk about. Putting it on all or almost all your slides means that if a picture gets taken, people can come find you if they want more information.

    The talk name also helps people identify a picture of the slide, and sometimes it helps me remember which talk I’m in, since I sometimes re-use images. It’s especially helpful for times that I have changed the name of the talk.

    Including the conference name is something I do because I re-work my slides for each conference. I don’t entirely rewrite them, but I do add and subtract slides to change the audience, the time, the technology emphasis. Adding the conference name also shows the conference and the attendees that I am thinking about them specifically. I also save each presentation separately, for my records on how talks historically evolve.

    The hashtag is less essential, but I like to have it available so people can use it and I can unify my talks around it.

    I like to put all these elements in one place so that I can change them easily – in this example, it runs along the bottom of all the slides in this presentation.


    I also have fairly extensive speaker notes for all of my presentations – not because I read them, but because it makes the slides more useful whet they are distributed without video. That’s a personal preference, but remember that everything in the speaker notes will be visible if you distribute the deck, so you may want to be careful about what you say.

    Images

    Don’t steal other people’s intellectual property.

    Can I say it more clearly than that? Don’t use pictures without permission.

    Conference talks are absolutely your intellectual property, and you’d be rightfully irritated if someone was on the conference circuit slavishly copying your talks, so don’t do it to photographers and visual artists.

    Luckily, it’s actually pretty easy to be a responsible person about this when you assemble a presentation. Images come from three legitimate sources:

    • Pictures you took yourself
    • Pictures that you paid for (Getty, stock photo providers)
    • Pictures that are licensed for re-use that you handle properly

    Taking your own pictures is sometimes fun, and you can do a lot of interesting things with just your camera phone. With reasonable lighting, you can get snapshots that will look OK at conference screen size.

    Buying the rights to pictures is expensive, but if you work for or are representing a large organization, they may already have a license that you can use. You can also find some relatively low-cost stock photograph suppliers, but if you’re a 60-slides kind of speaker, it’s still a lot of money.

    The thing I do most often is use images that are licensed for re-use, and make sure I attribute them properly, either on the slide itself or at the end of the presentation.  I mostly use the advanced Google image search. In fact, if you are in Google Slides and you say you want to insert an image and then search for it, you will get a search tuned for images that are licensed “Commercial Reuse with Modification”. Knock yourself out, just remember to attribute them properly. I have other ways to search for licensed-for-reuse images in the Resources section.

    Code examples

    Not all technical talks have code. I promise that’s allowed, and I have never had code in one of my talks and yet they still let me up on stage and give me a mic.

    If you do use code in a talk, here are some tips you might find useful:

    • Make the font bigger. No bigger than that. Are the characters the size of your head? Maybe big enough.
    • Use syntax highlighting. It reduces cognitive load at lets people focus on what you’re trying to say.
    • If you’re talking about a particular section, make it bright and the other parts a bit greyed out. Or leave them out all together. After all, you’re not going to teach anyone to code from a stage, you’re just showing them that a thing is possible. They’ll look it up later.
    • Murphy’s Law loves a livecoder. Although some people are virtuousic typists, lots of us get clumsy when we’re nervous. Instead of livecoding, consider taking a series of screenshots and stepping through them as slides. That way the wifi is not an issue, the remote servers are not an issue, and you reduce several variables.

    Videos, sound, and other weird things

    It may work. From my observation, your odds are 50/50 of getting a video with sound to work with the A/V system, especially if you surprise the technician. Do you really want to unclip your mic and hold it up to your laptop speakers awkwardly? I didn’t think so.

    The medium most likely to work in a presentation is an animated gif, which is nice as far as it goes, but you need to make sure it doesn’t just…run…continously….behind you, because dang, those things are hypnotic. I have made this mistake myself, but nothing is as hypnotic as the slide I saw that was just a video of a massive domino layout, with spirals and collapsing towers, and…. yeah. It was a great illustration of the point, which was about how nothing works perfectly, but then we were all watching the looping dominoes, looking for the parts where the connections failed. Great illustration, but it completely distracted the entire audience. It’s possible to set gifs to only loop once or twice, and I strongly recommend you do that for your presentations.

    Other weird things that sometimes work and sometimes just make the speaker more nervous or the audience less attentive:

    • Selfies with the audience
    • Physical humor
    • Open coffee mugs, beer steins, or anything that can dump itself on your laptop
    • Asking for audience response if you haven’t prepared them.

    Resources

    My new favorite resource for slide templates: Slides Carnival

    A good roundup of CC0 and public domain image sites: WPTavern image resources

    And of course, almost everything on Wikipedia has a reuse license, and if you go to the image page, you can get different sizes and a handy little attribution slug.

    Museums, such as The British Museum and libraries, such as The New York Public Library are also working very hard to digitize and publish their collections.

    A large WWII cargo ship about to slide down the dock

    It’s easy to find pictures you can use, such as this great launch photo of a Liberty Ship.

     To sum up

    There is no one Right Way to create presentation slides. It’s very dependent on personality and topic. I once saw a great talk that had hand-drawn slides, and one that had 8-bit art. It worked for those speakers and pulled the talk together in a memorable way. But the way you do it will come to be your style, so feel free to experiment while you’re learning. Just don’t stop learning!

    Remember that slides are not the whole presentation – your topic and delivery are a huge part of it, too. Provide essential information on every slide. Do your best to be ethical in your use of intellectual property. Be careful of things that may fail and fluster you on stage. Go have fun!

    Lady Speaker CFP Submissions

    The way one becomes a Lady Speaker is by speaking. That’s pretty obvious. But how to do you get someone to give you a stage and a microphone and an audience? That’s what this post will partially cover. Specifically, how do you submit a talk proposal?

    Find decent conferences

    There are lots of places you can find conferences. My three main sources are the @callbackwomen twitter account, the Technically Speaking newsletter, and Papercall.io. I also hear about conferences just generally on twitter.

    Conference proposals are some amount of time before the conference, it depends on a bunch of variables. For example, the CfP (Call for Proposals) for LISA 17 just went out (mid-January), and the conference is the start of November. 3-6 months is a more typical window.

    In addition to finding out what conferences are soliciting speakers, you need to find out if it’s a conference you want to speak at. My criteria are:

    • Has a good Code of Conduct
    • Has not mishandled a Code of Conduct violation in the last 3 years, that I know of
    • Understands I am providing value and deserve value in return
    • Is not promoting scary values

    Let’s unpack those.

    Good Code of Conduct

    There have been a lot of things written on Codes of Conduct, and I don’t want to rehash years of debate. I heavily favor codes of conduct that are derived from the Geek Feminism model, but almost anything will work as long as it bans specific bad behavior, does not require (but allows) legal intervention, does not make victims do confrontation, and has actionable and specific enforcement clauses. Basically, my ideal code of conduct allows someone to make a private complaint to the conference and the conference will listen to the victim about how they want it handled, but also have a plan for dealing with a known set of bad behaviors.

    Did you heckle a speaker? The conference will give you a warning once, then kick you out. That sort of thing. Having a set of unacceptable actions means that you don’t get people saying “I just said she would be even hotter wearing only a lanyard! It was a compliment! How is that not “being excellent to each other?”. Almost everyone has had corporate harassment training at some point, so people do actually know what they are and aren’t allowed to do in professional settings.

    Mishandling CoC violations

    Before you apply to a conference, google them. See if there is any recent uproar about them having a known-predatory speaker and not doing anything, or if they made a panel on women in technology out of all men, or if people of color are warning each other away from the conference. Sometimes you will find out that a conference screwed up and then fixed it, like Nodevember did this year by disinviting a speaker. But if they screwed up and didn’t fix it or didn’t apologize, it’s probably not a safe conference, no matter what the CoC says.

    Value exchange

    The first year I did conference speaking, I did it on my own dime. The second year, I got paid a couple times, but nothing like what I needed to cover expenses. The third year (this year), I only applied to conferences that said they covered speaker expenses. I had sufficient videos and experience that I was not an unknown quantity, and also, I could not afford to speak the way I wanted on my own money.

    I wrote about this more in Don’t ask me to work for free, a reprise. But basically, a conference’s value derives from speakers. A speaker invests extremely heavily in researching, writing, and rehearsing a talk, and then in lost work time to give it and attend the conference. Conferences shouldn’t charge a speaker to attend. If it’s at all feasible, conferences should at least cover travel and lodging. I apply to a few conferences that charge speakers, but they also heavily subsidize anyone who doesn’t have an employer. The only thing more insulting than a conference charging me for giving away my intellectual property is a conference offering me a DISCOUNT on the registration fees. That tells me they know I’m providing value, but it’s not worth THAT MUCH.

    Value match

    I don’t attend conferences that I think are problematic because of their values. I don’t go to Grace Hopper because they make a lot of money off women but don’t really do a lot to nurture women’s work, especially women of color. I don’t attend conferences that are about exploiting labor. I wouldn’t, for instance, attend a conference focused on defeating ad-blockers. Your values are your own, but I’ll tell you from experience that if you show up at a conference where you are already angry at the premise, the experience you have will be stressful.

    Promise them something useful

    I’ve been on talk selection committees, so I have a fair idea of how it goes. The first thing that happens is there is an elimination of the obviously not-useful talks. These are usually vendor-tools talks, talks that are not the right technology, or talks that are described by a single sentence and a speaker bio that says, “You know I’m awesome!”.

    What I want to see is a novel idea (it doesn’t have to be brand new), that will serve my conference attendees, and let them walk away thinking something new or interesting or making a connection they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Your CfP needs to have a value-proposition. A lot of the submission forms now explicitly ask for that, which makes it easier.

    I also want to know that you understand who the target audience of my conference is. If you’re submitting to a security conference, a Password-Keeper 101 talk is not going to be relevant. If you’re submitting something that seems odd in the context of the audience, you’ll need to justify it. For example, I’m a technical writer who speaks at a lot of developer/coder/devops conferences. What do I know about that? I have to explain that to even make it past the first level.

    Once all the easy choices are made, the selection committee will get down to the rest of the talks — they would like to accept almost all of these, but time and space are remarkably fixed, so instead they talk about whether you have experience, whether this group of proposals covers the same idea, and if so which is the best one. They weigh the advantanges of fresh voices agains known winners, and the disadvantages of anxious speakers against same-old-same-old. And yeah, they talk about money, and whether they should select someone local or someone who has to be paid to come in. People advocate for speakers they know, or recuse themselves from deciding on speakers they know. Hopefully, someone looks at the overall balance of the speakers and tries to make sure it isn’t like this.

    This list of speakers is a little worrisome

    I’m not trying to shame this one conference, but hopefully conference runners are trying to find a speaker lineup that looks more like this:

    © Katura Jensen 2016

    Assembled @theleaddev speakers.
    Photo: © Katura Jensen 2016

    If you want to be a speaker at a conference, it’s going to take hard work from you to pitch, write, and deliver a talk. And it’s going to take good luck, because there are a lot more talks than slots. And it’s going to help quite a lot if the talk selection committee isn’t using some pre-established vision of what a conference speaker looks like.

    Make hard choices

    If you get accepted to a conference, that is SO GREAT.

    When I get an acceptance email, before I write back and confirm, I double-check (or ask the first time) about what the plan is for speaker expenses and fees. Like I said, I don’t have an enterprise behind me, so I try not to donate my time for free very often.

    If they can’t pay you, and you can’t afford it, you have to decline.

    If you have already accepted something else in that slot, you have to decline.

    If it’s across your kid’s birthday party, you better negotiate to bring home a really amazing souvenier.

    Sometimes, even when everything seems like it will be great, you get hurt and have to write the conference organizer at the last minute and say you can’t come (Sorry, @seagl!)

    The key is to tell the conference what is going on as soon as humanly possible. Because the thing they’re going to do is pull up the next speaker who was regretfully turned down and ask them if they can fill in. The longer you delay because you feel bad about saying no, the less time you’re giving the next person to be able to say yes.

    There’s also some stuff in here about making sure you have some time to work and see your family and eat food that you make yourself, but that’s Lady Conference Speaker 301, and I’m still at 201 myself.

    Deliver

    I could write pages and pages on how to write and deliver a talk, but the important things are these:

    • Show up prepared and practiced
    • Respect the work of the audience and organizers
    • Stick to your time limit
    • Work the hallway track

    Prepared and practiced

    This is not a term paper. You can’t write it the night before. You need to have said this thing out loud in front of an audience at least twice. Once so you can figure out what you’re trying to actually say, and once for timing. I usually practice my talks 5 times for a new talk, and 1-2 times if it’s a talk I’ve given before and revised. You are commanding the attention of, say, 50 people. For a technical audience, let’s say that they are worth $50/hr. You need to respect that for this moment, this half hour, you are worth AT LEAST $1250 in attention. How much work would you have to do to feel prepared to earn $2500/hr? Do that much prep work.

    Respect the work of audience and organizers

    It’s hard to sit in a conference chair all day and learn things. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. Even on days I’m not speaking, when I’m through with conference sessions, my brain is full, my legs ache, and I just want to take a nap. The audience is paying attention to you, even if they are also thinking about how what you’re saying relates to their job, and worrying about their accumulating email. The audience deserves your respect.

    The organizers, whew. If you’ve never organized an event with hundreds of people, I’m telling you, it’s eye-opening. There’s all this trivia to deal with, everything from making sure the t-shirts arrive, to making sure people don’t get in without badges, to taking care of speakers who are having technical problems. Someone has to make sure the catering sets up right, while simultaneously reminding everyone of the code of conduct and answering the hotel’s question about when the tables can be set up. Odds are, the organizers won’t get to hear your talk, because they won’t get to hear anyone’s talk. They’re too busy making it happen for us. Do what you can to make their lives easier by communicating with them clearly and succinctly.

    Stick to your time limit

    It is a jerk move to exceed your time limit. The audience needs those 5-15 minutes to get to the next talk, possibly with a bio-break on the way. The next speaker wants to get in and set up and make sure the mic is ok. The organizers are praying the schedule doesn’t go awry in one of their rooms.

    I know myself well enough to know that my talks inflate when I get in front of an audience. There’s just something that happens when I have people reacting that makes me go longer. So I always time my talks to run 5 minutes short of the limit, and I assign someone to wave frantically at me at 10 and 5 minutes before the limit. Some people talk faster in front of an audience, but an audience will always forgive you for going 5 minutes short, but not 5 minutes long.

    Work the hallway track

    After you give a talk, a funny thing will happen. For the rest of the conference, people will recognize you. They’ll stop you in the hall and say they liked your talk. Don’t argue with them, although that is the natural instinct of many of us who were raised to be “modest” and “not brag”. Just say, “thank you” if you’re on your way to something else.

    If you have time, you will make this person’s day by stopping to talk with them about your content.

    • How will it apply to your work?
    • Was there anything especially meaningful?
    • Do you wish I had included something further? I did lots of research that didn’t make it into the talk.
    • What would you want added if you could hear this again?

    These questions are a combination of engaging them in talking about their reaction, and figuring out how you can do it even better the next time.

    Also, when people give me compliments on my talk, I tally them up at the end of the day and email the tally to myself, because sometimes I need to open that kind of email. “22 people stopped me to compliment my talk today” has a way of kicking Imposter Syndrome in the ass.

    NOTE: At no point are you required to talk to someone who is being insulting, argumentative, or creepy. Giving a talk is not the same as giving up your right to ignore people.

    In conclusion

    I believe in you. You are going to go out there and make us proud! And you’re going to do it by talking about things that you want to understand, or want other people to understand. I hope you can find a good mentor in your community, but if you can’t, reach out and find one online. Some conferences even offer explicit new-speaker mentoring, which is great!