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Conference Organizing Resources

I'd like to create a list of potential speakers for conference organizers. It seems useful, but fraught with problems. What do you think?

I've seen quite a few people create similar lists that are focused at conference organizers in their communities, so you're not alone here.

Speaker lists can be a helpful tool in communities that are just now approaching the idea of diversifying their conference lineup. When a community hasn't highlighted the work of marginalized people before, it can be difficult to identify who those people in the community might be.

Unfortunately, it can also become a problem. For one, the people who end up on such lists find themselves receiving a lot of requests to speak, so naturally turn down quite a number of opportunities that could go to someone else. Organizers begin to believe that every marginalized person they invite will say no, causing resentment on their part. When someone points out that their event isn't very diverse, it's not unusual to hear organizers say "every person we asked turned us down or canceled!", effectively blaming the very people they're attempting to attract to their event. This attitude isn't going to make marginalized people feel comfortable speaking or attending the event.

Additionally, when organizers begin relying on these lists, we see the same handful of people speaking every time, which isn't helping solve the problem of representation. We should be striving to see lots of new speakers or less-"famous" speakers have opportunities at our events. It's a sociological fact that people tend to know more people like them than not; it's hard work to actively work to correct this. Because organizers can come to rely on these lists (which are quickly dated), they're less likely to do the work that they should be doing to broaden their network: getting to know more people different from themselves, creating initiatives to identify and highlight the important work that's being done in their community by people from all backgrounds.

The community becoming more inclusive and empathetic toward people they haven't otherwise given a chance to - intentionally or otherwise - is the goal. As a conference organizer myself, I know how difficult this can be, but remember that you aren't working on this alone. Reach out to the community and tell them you want to know who the unsung heroes are. Whose blog posts have helped you think about something in a brand new way? Who is doing important documentation work? Who is making a monumental effort to coordinate a re-write of a popular library?

Additional Resources

Due to the attention So you want to put on a diverse, inclusive conference received, I held a series of google hangouts with other conference organizers to talk about what they've been doing to increase diversity and where they need help. These round-table discussions provided valuable information and ideas that would work well at any conference.

Thank you to the organizers of the following conferences and organizations for participating in the Hangouts. Apologies if I missed your organization, please let me know so I can add it!

A little context: What is Diversity?

I've noticed in quite a few discussions that have been happening online that when people say "diversity", they mean it to be synonymous with women. While women are the largest group in our general population that aren't well represented in our tech communities, they aren't the only group. It's important that we understand the various marginalized groups and the issues and barriers they face trying to participate in our spaces. I would suggest taking the time to understand these groups, both through online research, as well as talking to people in our community who fall within these groups. Educating ourselves to the difficulties others face helps us empathize and provide an atmosphere of acceptance, belonging, and comfort to everyone.

Note: this is not an exhaustive list, but some of the more common examples. If I have missed anything or pointed to a resource that doesn't provide adequate information, please let me know so I can change it.

Thank you to Cori for this awesome list.

  • race and ethnicity
  • nationality, country/region of origin - country of personal or familial origin
  • citizenship status - immigrant/documentation status
  • language - people whose first language is not English (or the otherwise dominant language of the region), people who communicate through sign language, people who communicate through assistive devices or software 
  • physical appearance - height, weight, shape, hereditary disfigurement/injury, mod/surgical history, cultural "beauty" spectrum
  • chronic disease - diabetes, cancer, Crohn's, epilepsy, migraines, allergies
  • mental illness or disorder - schizophrenia, depression, eating disorder, addiction, bipolar disorder
  • developmental/neurological delay - retardation/cognitive impairment, dyslexia, ADHD, speech impediment, brain injuries
  • physical disability - impaired mobility, sight-/hearing-/sensory-impaired
  • veteran/military status
  • experience with violent conflict - refugee/asylum seeker
  • personal violence/trauma survivor - child soldiers, abuse survivors, former cult members
  • biological age - both actual and perceived/assumed
  • dependent status - you are or you have: children/elderly/immobilized
  • parental status - you are or you have: biological/adopted/foster children, guardianship
  • relationship status - single/partnered/married/divorced/multiple partnered
  • economic status - current and former
  • access to healthcare
  • access to travel/mobility
  • access to education
  • access to technology - includes type of technology, bandwidth, screen size, availability/ownership
  • professional experience level
  • education levellevel of formal education completed, whether or not a person has graduated from college/university, self-taught

General Thoughts

Ask for help and constructive criticism

Many people don't know where to start when it comes to increasing diversity. This is especially the case for first time conference organizers or people who fall within the majority demographic (white, abled, straight or straight passingcisgender men who speak english as their first language and grew up with technlogy or have been programming for a long time). The vast majority of people understand this and there are tons of people that are willing to give you suggestions or even pitch in to help. Asking on twitter is a great way to get public discussion and many people will offer you resources. Use them, educate yourself, and make sure you thank the people that took the time to help.

The easiest way to get feedback on your efforts is to publically state what you've tried and ask for contructive criticism. Be transparent and truthful. I've seen many conferences write blog posts about what they've done to address the issue of the lack of diversity and the positive or negative results that they ended up with. This is important for a few reasons: it signals that this is important to you and that you are open to more ideas as well as letting people within marginalized groups know that you are considering their needs and the reality of their situations.

Get more people involved

Conferences are hard work. The more people you have to spread the burden over, the easier and less stressful it will be. I highly suggest getting a diverse group of people to help you plan your conference. Ideally your organizing group and volunteers should be as diverse as the community you hope to create. This isn't always possible and it's easier to grow this with each subsequent conference, but keep this in mind as you are putting together your committee.

“Half of our organizers are women, a quarter identify as queer, I'm hispanic. We are very diverse and that shows in the decisions we make.”

Formal Policies

Before opening any of your conference materials up to the public, have your formal policies in place. This helps frame the way you drive the conference organizing and as well as how you speak with potential speakers, sponsors, and attendees.

All of these policies should be easily accessible: add it to the footer of the conference site as well as the footer of any emails you send out under the conference's name. It should be obvious and visible.

Code of Conduct/Anti-Harassment Policy

A code of conduct and/or anti-harassment policy clearly states what behavior is unacceptable and the actions that will be taken if someone acts inappropriately at your event. It reassures attendees that their safety and comfort is important to you and that you will take seriously any incidents reported. Your event staff should be well-versed in your policy and your attendees should know who to go to in the event of an incident.

Code of Conduct 101 + FAQ

Recently many speakers and attendees have been notifying conferences that they will not be attending conferences that don't have an explicit Code of Conduct.

The Python Foundation officially requires a code of conduct as a condition of supporting a conference.

The Ada Initiative wrote an awesome article about why you should ban 'Booth Babes' and how to do it without telling women how to dress.

The GeekFeminism Wiki has a great page on Anti-Harassment Policies, which includes templates to copy and modify for your needs. You can also find examples of Codes of Conduct.

Many conference organizers will remind attendees of their code of conduct during their opening remarks and will point out the staff to contact should an incident occur.

Make a point to educate your staff, volunteers, sponsors, speakers, and attendees about various forms of harassment, exclusion, and abuse. Being marginalized doesn't mean you are incapable of contributing to the marginalization of others. Remember that diversity is about more than gender and more than male vs female.

Diversity Statement

A diversity statement serves to publicly state that you welcome and encourage diversity in your community and sets the standard for how community members should approach each other with empathy and understanding.

I particularly like Dreamwidth's Diversity Statement and YOW!'s Diversity Policy.

CFP Process and Talks

Having a formal CFP and making your process public is an important step to welcoming new people into attending and speaking at your conference, especially marginalized groups that may feel that many conference lineups and communities are insider's clubs that they haven't been invited into. 

“Most of the CFPs that came in were from white men. This is a problem, we need to address that. We can’t do anything about the problem if we aren’t getting anyone in the door.”

Decide what your proposal process looks like

  • Your group of proposal reviewers should be as diverse as the community you wish to create at your conference. Ask colleagues and friends of all backgrounds, ability levels, etc to help you review propsals. The nice part about this task is that your reviewers do not have to be local. Make it apparent the kinds of talks you are looking for and why having a diverse lineup is important to you and your conference. Offer to take a percentage off their ticket price for helping you out.
  • Anonymize and remove gendered pronouns from abstracts/bios before handing the data over to your proposal review committee. Someone who is outside of your proposal reviewing committee should be assigned this task.
  • Announce your CFP as early as possible to allow potential speakers time to plan vacation from work, budget for costs, and make arrangements for things like child care and travel.
  • Use gender-neutral language in your CFP - Aside from removing gendered pronouns, remove words that may have gendered connotations like "rockstar" and "ninja". Unless you are only looking for well-established top level speakers, also remove words like "expert" as it's been shown that many people in marginalized groups (as well as people with impostor syndrome) have a hard time identifying themselves as experts and this may act as a deterrent to submit.
    “Women have a hard time feeling like they are expert enough. Use language that encourages all people, get away from statements like “are you a rockstar? Do you eat/sleep/breathe technology? We want you!”"
  • Decide if you will have any curated content. Will all talk submissions go into the main proposal pool or will you hand pick some to immediately go onto the schedule? How will you be intentional about the diversity of those you select?
  • Be transparent. Announce your open CFP by writing a blog post about the process you are using and why it's important to you that you see more diversity in your speaker lineup and attendees. 

Approach individuals and ask them to submit a talk to your conference

  • Do your research! Watch videos from other conferences, ask people who their favorite conference speakers were over the past year and whose opinions in the industry they value. 
  • Personally invite these people to submit a talk. Tell them them where you got their name and why you think they'd be a good fit at your conference. 
    “Proactively, individually asking people increased our participation by about 50%.”
    • Send an email or a tweet with an action direct at them. "We would really love to get a proposal from you." or "We loved your talk at X and were hoping you'd submit something to our conference as well."
  • Do a Google Hangout (or similar) and invite people to attend and ask you questions. Offer information about your conference: what you are looking for in speakers and talks, your favorite talks from previous years of your conference, what kind of topics you would like to see presented, and explain your proposal review process.
  • Approach local colleges/universities and user groups. Not only is this a great way to create more interest in your conference, but it's an important step in growing your local community. 
  • Approach online groups like DevChix, PyLadies, SYSTERS, RailsBridge, Women Who Code, Speak Up! Mentors, and CallBackWomenThese groups can put your CFP in front of thousands of people that are looking for opportunities to speak.
  • Approach groups in your region that teach marginalized groups how to program, like Black Girls Code, Girl Develop It!, and CodeEd. Teachers and mentors of these groups make excellent speakers.
  • Attend meetups and talk about your event. Ask the organizers to mention your CFP is open and offer to answer any questions about the event, the kind of talks you are looking for, or the CFP process
  • Ask on twitter. Additionally, a number of people have put together lists of diverse speakers on twitter, like Estelle, Carina, Jen,  and RailsBridge.
  • Ask those that are submitting proposals to tweet about it.
  • Find lists of diverse speakers. Some people have started creating lists of speakers that they recommend for conferences that feel lost with where to start. Matt and Catherine provide pretty long lists to get you started.
  • Allow site visitors to suggest speakers/friends for your conference. If a site visitor thinks they know someone that might be a good fit for your conference, make it easy for them to share that data.
  • Give an incentive for submitting a talk. RealtimeConf offered a heavy discount to women who pledged to submit a talk.
  • Go to related events in your region around the time that your CFP is open - even if they are only tangentially related. 

    "We hold a Barcamp before our conference and we use that to invite people to submit CFPs because of their talk, even if our CFP is already closed."

Provide resources on your CFP page

JSConf EU has a great CFP page and Nordic Ruby wrote a helpful blog post introducing their CFP that serve as a perfect examples for many of the below suggestions.

  • a list of past talks with links to videos, as well as a list of potential topic areas to give an idea of the kind of talks you are looking for.
  • describe the way you process propsals. How many people review them? Is it an anonymized process? Do you take into account whether someone has spoken before or spoken at your conference specifically? 
  • response date - by what date should they hear whether their talk has been accepted?
  • what do you provide accepted speakers? A free ticket to the conference? Is there a special speaker's dinner? Do you cover their travel and/or lodging? If not, do you have scholarship money available to help cover their costs that they can ask for in their propsal submission?  These are especially important for people who may not otherwise be able to afford to attend your conference. For many, not knowing these details may keep them from even submitting a proposal (and considering the demographics that have less financial flexibiity are the ones you want to be attracting, this is important!).
  • what resources do you provide for first-time conference speakers? Are you willing to mentor a potential speaker for an hour? To help them hone a seed of an idea into an amazing talk? Additionally, provide links to organizations that will help new speakers like Speak Up! Mentors.

Provide feedback

  • if someone submits a great proposal but it doesnt fit for your conference, recommend it for another conference. Make the introduction to the conference organizer for them via email or over twitter. 

"The last day of the conference is open [free/anyone can attend, as well as unscheduled], so they can speak the last day. It encourages them to apply for the CFP the next year."

"After a certain point in the day when talks are over, we open up the hacker lounge and allow anyone to attend for free. People are also welcome to attend the happy hour which is open until at least 10pm."

Talks and Pre-Conference Workshops/Training

  • give beginners low-pressure opportunities to speak in front of people through lightning talks, micro-talks, pecha kecha, birds of a feather/barcamp-style sessions, etc
  • provide free or low cost beginner level pre-conference training to encourage participation from beginners or people unsure of their skill level. Invite a group like RailsBridge, who provides free workshops for women to help them learn the basics of Rails. 
    "I've seen conferences that offered scholarships for women that included one-on-one mentorship and an invitation to the RailsBridge event."
  • Include beginner-level material. Dedicate a portion of your content to beginners, whether a full/partial track.

Marketing, Ticket Sales, and Registration

  • the conference website should showcase the diversity at your previous conferences. Note: choosing stock photography or otherwise misrepresenting your conference by including pictures of people that were not actually in attendance or were not conference attendees is called Tokenism and is offensive. Don't do this.
  • ask last year's speakers to tweet or blog about their experience at your conference.
  • help people afford to attend your conference.
    "I've never been able to afford our conference, so I have always attended based on our volunteer scholarship."
  • offer shirts in both men's and women's cuts as well as a wide range of sizes for both. Provide a sizing chart from the shirt manufacturer. Have the shirt ready with the attendee's name tag or in their swag bag to avoid anxiety around publically stating tshirt sizes.
  • if you are providing any meals or snacks, provide food options for those with special diets and allergies. Offer a choice for diet/allergies with an "other" option they can fill in. If you are unsure if the food you are providing works for your attendee(s), email them and verify before you put your food order in. If you cannot accomodate them, offer to refund the portion of their ticket that covers their meals so they can purchase their own food.
  • if you are not providing meals or snacks, create a list of restaurants close to the venue that provide vegetarian/vegan/kosher/gluten-free, etc options
  • ask if the attendee how you can make their attending any easier. Offer checkboxes for options like:
    • need access to handicap parking
    • need verification that conference venue and any other official conference parties, etc are accessible for people with physical disabilities (seating, ramps, elevators, bathrooms, etc). 
    • need a sign language or foreign language interpreter (if you don't provide them, give information on services in the area)
    • need access to other devices for sight or hearing impairment (assistive devices like wireless headphones for the sound system where they can control the volume, printed materials for presentations instead of reading off a projected screen, digital materials for presentations for use with screen readers, etc)
    • need childcare (or provide references for reputable services in the venue vicinity). Many conferences have had great success offering childcare for their attendees, whether offering it on-site or having a local daycare to drop children off at.

Parties and other social events

  • provide options that are not alcohol/bar-centered. Offer space that is safe and quiet enough for attendees to socialize at a reasonable volume. Many hotels have meeting rooms that are cheaper in the evenings or lobby areas that can be used by hotel guests for free. Ideas: board games, movie/tv show watching, hack room, karaoke, video games, museums.
  • during drinking events, venue or conference staff should be monitoring attendees to make sure no one is overserved or is put into an otherwise dangerous situation. Offer a limited number of drink tickets to attendees instead of an open bar to encourage responsible drinking. Alternatively, limit the open bar to a shorter period of time, like 1.5hrs.

Increasing Repeat Attendance

The first couple years you start implementing these processes are definitely the most effort intensive and it should get gradually easier from there. A big part of it is making sure you encouraging repeat attendance year to year.

Ask around about people's first experiences at conferences and what made them good or bad. I love this comment by Angie 'webchick' Byron and this blog post by Wendy.

  • Create a community! The most powerful thing we do by putting on conferences is growing the community. When you have a community around your conference, you're more likely to get repeat attendance.
    • Go out of your way to get to know as many attendees as possible, especially if they are new to the community or your conference. Be approachable and available for people to come up and talk do you during the conference as much as possible. People want to feel like they belong: there's no easier way to do this than to make it known that they belong there :)
    • Encourage attendees to include people around them whenever possible. At Steel City Ruby they asked people to never talk in closed circles, but in broken ones so anyone felt like they could walk up and participate without interrupting.
    • Madison Ruby offered reservations for large parties (of 8-15 people) for a handful of restaurants in the area that attendees could sign up for each day. This helped people meet people they may not have otherwise and helped people get in and out of restaurants quicker.
    • Promote the use of the conference hashtag before and after the event to help people get to know other attendees before attending and to connect with people they met after the conference. 
  • Send out a post-event survey. Anonymity is very important here, attendees should feel that they can be 100% truthful with you. Keep your survey short (about 5 questions if possible) and offer as many multiple choice answers as possible. Be sure to ask what their favorite and least favorite parts were, and what you can do to insure they'll be attending next year.

Did we miss anything? 

I would love for this to be a living document to serve as a lasting, relevant resource for conference organizers. If I missed something or you have other ideas, please let me know so I can add them!

Further Reading

Running a conference - especially if you're new to conference organizing - is hard work. The most nerve-wracking part is making sure you have enough attendees to cover costs. But what if you could make it easier for more people to attend while selling more tickets?

This conversation was started thanks to a tweet by Matt Wheeler and kind of exploded from there.

The ideas here are mix-and-match firestarters for your conference. You know your fellow organizers and attendees better than anyone, so use what would work best for you. Keep in mind that some of these items may add more overhead time-wise to organizing, but they will help your conference be more inclusive and accessible (and potentially more profitable!).

(Note: These suggestions specifically relate to cost and focus on helping attendees afford to attend. I recognize there are a wealth of other reasons people may be unable to attend a conference, perhaps a topic for a future post :} )

Make attendees aware of low-cost options

Most conferences dedicate a page on their website to lodging, transportation, and food options. You can easily expand what you offer there to include:

  • Hostels, motels, airbnb, couch surfing, or other low-cost lodging in the area
  • For hotels that provide shuttles from the airport/hotel/to the venue, include any associated costs
  • Link to a google group or similar place to allow people to setup room or ride shares with other attendees. This can also connect local people who are willing to allow someone to stay at their home or are willing to pick people up from the airport.
  • Public Transit options, including costs and whether they can be paid in cash or if tickets/tokens are required
  • Shuttle and taxi information, along with average cost from the airport to the venue area
    • Bonus points: offer conference-paid shuttles going from the airport to the venue area
  • If you aren't providing meals, create a list of low-cost restaurants (or link to a specific yelp search for the area), grocery stores, or bodegas in the area. (Beyond those with budget constraints, your attendees with dietary restrictions will be happy for this list!)
  • If you aren't providing childcare, provide a list of reputable and trustworthy childcare facilities in the venue area
  • Provide information on how an attendee can talk their boss/company into covering their ticket + travel. Webstock has an excellent example of this.

Attendees

Every conference has attendees that won't have an issue with the cost of a conference ticket, travel, lodging, or other expenses. These attendees may be willing to help others if you give them the opportunity.

  • Allow people to pay more for their ticket. Add a "chip in!" option during ticket checkout. This can be especially successful during Early Bird Ticket time when they can pay more to help someone else, while still paying less than the full ticket price.
  • Allow people to purchase an additional partial or full ticket to help another person attend. Create a "Scholarship Sponsor" sponsor level to add these people to and be sure to thank them during the conference.
  • Allow people to pay an additional 50-100% for their ticket to attend the speakers/sponsors dinner.
  • Create a ticket price tier. (To avoid a feeling of hierarchy within the attendees, do not advertise the ticket tier on the attendee badges.)
    • volunteers get in free, or at a discounted rate
    • students (with a valid school ID) get a discounted rate. Couple this with approaching local colleges and universities (your best bet is to find an instructor/professor in the appropriate program) about letting their student know about your conference and the discount they'd receive.
    • self-employed individuals get a discounted rate (I'm not sure how you'd validate this?)
  • First-time attendees get a discounted ticket if purchased with a full-price ticket.
  • Host a fundraiser to raise money for your scholarship fund.

Speakers

  • Announce your CFP as early as possible to allow people to start looking around for airline tickets, taking time off of working, arranging childcare, etc. If you pay for any speaker expenses or have a scholarship fund, announce it at the same time so those who wouldn't otherwise be able to speak/attend can get that information.
  • If you are paying for your speakers' travel, lodging, and/or other expenses, give them the option to donate those costs into your scholarship fund.
  • Alternatively, allow them to donate those funds toward the purchase of a ticket, which the conference will give away in their name.

Sponsors

  • Approach organizations and businesses that can benefit from getting more people into the community, such as online educational programs, web hosts, or other services that are useful to users of all ability levels to donate to your scholarship fund.
  • Denote that within each sponsorship (at any level), 10% of the cost goes towards your scholarship fund.
  • Give local restaurants sponsor credit for giving attendees a discount on meals purchased at their restaurant when they present their conference badge.

Spread the love

Sometime during your conference, announce how much you were able to raise in your scholarship fund and how many people (without pointing out said people) you were able to help attend. Encourage other conference organizers to talk to you about how you ran your scholarship fund and offer to donate a portion of your leftover scholarship funds (if there are any) to theirs in exchange for a Scholarship level sponsorship.

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