Quick advice for event organizers
Despite the regular prognostications of futurists over what is now a forty-year period — and, no doubt, the most cherished hopes of the vendors of telepresence systems — the physical, in-person, face-to-face gathering remains a primary mode of knowledge production and circulation in our culture. Whether it’s pitched as festival, conference, colloquium or (god help us) summit, the basic paradigm of flying a comparatively small group of people a long way so they can present to a relatively much larger group of people seems to retain a great deal of appeal and prestige.
Whether or not we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns on this way of doing things isn’t really my subject here, though it certainly would be interesting to discuss. What I want to get into is that while there’s an art to running such events well — and NB, it is not always about carefully-rehearsed timings, television-grade MCs, buttery transitions or the other appurtenances of high-production-value stagecraft — the elements of that art are by no means universally understood.
This becomes ever clearer, now that everybody wants to get into the act. With more, and more kinds of, organizations than ever before deciding that hosting a public or quasi-public event of some sort is somehow key to the accomplishment of their mission, the insight necessary to curate and manage such gatherings successfully feels to me like it’s getting a trifle thinner on the ground. Please accept, then, this little bit of advice, from someone who’s experienced it from both sides over the course of the twelve years I’ve been doing public speaking and organizing speaking events.
It’s simple, actually. If there is an art to successful event planning, that artfulness begins with the care you take for your presenters — and, in turn, that care begins with the invitation itself, with its very wording and the sincerity that can be discerned in it.
Lookit: I get several speaking invitations a week. Of course those who are interested in having me present have varying levels of capacity — and I do mean varying. Some are commercial enterprises that I expect to pay my full commercial fee, plus all the bells and whistles — business-class airfare; as many nights’ accommodation as I think necessary, at a similar standard; and all transfers, meals and incidentals. Other organizations are academic, non-profit or voluntary in nature, and they don’t have access to the kind of budget these things require, or anything like it. Because it is — let us never forget for a moment — an honor and a privilege to be asked to share your perspectives in this way, I do try my best to work something out with each and every one of them. With a little give and take, we’re generally able to come to some agreement. Not, certainly, all of the time, but enough to keep me on the road for a good part of the year.
However. I seem to be getting a class of requests lately that I’m afraid I have very little choice but to turn down, and it’s these that I want to warn you against should you be contemplating convening an event of your own. These are invitations for me to speak at an event — generally across an ocean, and many time-zones away — that don’t acknowledge the significant cost of that participation to me. Some of them only offer to pay for economy-class airfare, and one or at most two nights in a hotel, but no honorarium. Some don’t include any offer at all, but imply that I should cover my own travel and accommodation for the sheer privilege of doing so. I frankly don’t know what the point is of asking someone to present at an event if you’re only going to turn around and say to them, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have the budget to support your participation.” I mean, that’s not really much of an invitation, is it? You got in touch with me! You took the effort to reach out! Obviously you think it would be useful to you or your audience for me to be there — I’m sincerely flattered, but shouldn’t your request reflect the worth you place on this utility?
I feel like I shouldn’t have to spell this out in so many words, but evidently I do: your speakers aren’t just giving you the time it takes to present at your event, or even the time it takes to travel to and from that event. They’re giving you all of that, and however long it takes for them to prepare and to recover, and during this entire arc they will contend with some degree of disruption to their life rhythms. Everything under the span of this arc is time they cannot fully devote to personal projects, or paying client work, or the pleasures of home and the ones they love. Shouldn’t you offer them something that acknowledges and reflects this?
There are two points that deserve emphasis here:
– I reiterate that this “something” doesn’t have to consist of money, or indeed of anything that money buys. I myself have organized international events on a shoestring budget, and the very first thing I acknowledge to those I invite is that they are the event. However much excitement you may have stoked up as an organizer, however willing to be generous an audience may be, your presenters need to know that the whole proposition will stand or fall on the quality of their contributions, and that you understand this. So I express my gratitude to them for even considering the invitation, apologize that I’m not always able to offer the class of travel or accommodation they surely deserve — and promise them that if they’re nonetheless able to attend, I will do everything I humanly can to make their effort worthwhile. Like a citation, this acknowledgment costs you precisely nothing, but is a token that you are operating in good faith, and if offered sincerely generates a great deal of good will.
– By contrast, though, don’t — I mean really do not ever — say or imply to your speakers that their compensation is “the opportunity,” or getting to meet the other fabulous people who are going to be at your event. I would humbly suggest that this is not a way of approaching speakers that’s likely to produce the results you want. It’s presumptuous and self-important, in the first place, and who wants to be that? But what’s worse is that reliance on this gambit produces a speaker cohort whose core motivation is to network. If they’re only there to instrumentalize or operationalize their participation in your event — slinging out business cards like a dealer from Macau, parsing everyone they meet into A and B and C people — they’re not likely to be genuinely interested in you, your organization, your mission or your audience in and for themselves. You will have connived at douchery, and to what end?
Since the conference game seems to be all about the takeaway these days, here’s the takeaway: You don’t need to book your presenters into seven-star hotels and feed them exquisite meals for them to feel valued. In my experience, anyway, there’s by no means a linear relationship between the budget an event has available to it and its quality; I’ve been bored silly at a good number of the most opulently-appointed conferences, while the biggest I’ve spoken at have invariably been the worst.
By contrast, there are examples to aspire to, at every scale but that of the mega-event. The Webstock folks, for example — Tash Lampard, Mike Brown and their crew — they’re brilliant at this, inarguably setting the gold standard for making speakers feel special, in word and deed. Their enthusiasm comes from the heart and it is palpable in everything they do, from the very first letter gingerly inquiring as to your availability to the public big-upping of speakers they continue to conduct long after they’ve put you on the plane for home. Speak at Webstock once, and you want to speak there again, even though for most of their speakers it means something on the order of a grueling 24-hour trip each way. Similarly, the team responsible for Ideas City at the New Museum, Karen Wong, Richard Flood and Corinne Erni, does a fantastic job of letting presenters know their voices are valued…and it always becomes before the ask. (I hate that expression, by the way: “The ask.” If ever there was one, there’s a clue as to the profoundly transactional nature of our times.)
Anyway. The essence of all of this is that acknowledging the investment of time and effort people make when they present is one of the foundations on which a successful event is built — triply so if you expect your event to be part of an ongoing series. If you can’t do it materially — and let’s face it, sometimes you can’t — be utterly goddamn sure you’re doing it in every aspect of your personal deportment when you interact with them. It is, at least, a minimal courtesy I try to observe in inviting people to the things I put together, and I hope that in the future, when extending invitations to speakers you expect to come from far away to present from your stage, for the benefit of your organization and your community, you extend it to them as well. I believe from personal experience that they will note and appreciate it, and from the bottom of my heart that your event will be the better for it.