I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately around the way tech conference speakers are treated, for better or worse. It’s a conversation we should have on a regular basis. This industry places such an emphasis on professional events (which I love) and we need to be intentional about how those spaces are built in order to make them as safe, accessible, and beneficial to everyone as we can. As I’m sure you can imagine, there are lots of takes on this conversation that I’m on board with and… a number of them that I think are trash.
One of those trash takes is that conference attendees should forego the hallway track to attend talks. For anyone who isn’t aware, “the hallway track” is what happens when folks decide to skip a session or two at a conference and chat in the hallway (or anywhere else) instead. The argument here is essentially that the stress of having to deliver to a sparsely-filled room could drive some people away from speaking altogether. If that sounds like you, I’d like to offer some tough love.
If the fear of having a small audience keeps you from speaking, you’re not ready to speak.
Believe me, I know what it’s like to spend months developing an idea, crafting a narrative (or writing curriculum), pulling it into a presentation that makes sense, and honing the delivery until it feels like you could roll through the material in your sleep. It is rough to end up giving the fruits of all that to a smaller audience than you expected. Maybe it feels like you’ve wasted your time, like you could’ve used it to build something better, something that would benefit you more.
Let’s take my meetup group, Detroit Speakers in Tech, as an example. For the majority of our monthly meetups, I prepare a workshop ahead of time. Some, especially in the beginning, have been based on parts of the Global Diversity CFP Day curriculum. Most of our sessions, though, are created and delivered by me (sometimes accompanied by my wonderful co-leader Novella).
Not all of the topics we choose to pursue land. We run a free meetup and most folks who say they’ll attend don’t show up. It’s frustrating! We’re working on ways to try to get more accurate RSVPs (largely because our sponsor provides dinner and we hate to waste good food) but, even in this scenario, we do not begrudge the people who choose not to come and listen to us. Folks have lives and we won’t always be their priority.
The assertion that conference speakers deserve automatic praise and attention is self-centered and deeply flawed.
Speakers (and content creators of all kinds) enrich our professional lives. We can all learn so much from them, be inspired by them, possibly even connect with them on a personal level. The knowledge, skill, and experience they share has incredible value. But none of that means that we, as a community, owe those speakers anything.
Dealing with outright rejection is part of the deal when you start submitting your work, be it pitching a startup or responding to a call for proposals. Sometimes your proposal won’t be chosen at all, sometimes people will leave in the middle of your talk, and sometimes you’ll have a little, bitty audience.
On the surface, it’s completely reasonable to assume that people who attend conferences would naturally spend quite a lot of time watching conference talks. Why else would they spend hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars to be there..?
Lots of folks are primarily there to meet people. This is a 100% valid reason to go to a conference! Maybe all they care about is growing their network. Maybe they’re hustling for a new job and want to talk to as many recruiters as they can. Maybe they feel like they could benefit from having friends that truly understand their career but don’t know where else to go to meet them.
Especially for people living in less urban areas, it may be difficult to find or access in-person meetups. Having the option to congregate at a professional event with a high concentration of potential colleagues and friends can spark connections that wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to thrive. The hallway track is one avenue for nurturing those new relationships.
Others may want or even need to relax a bit and give themselves a chance to absorb everything they’re learning. We can only retain so much information at one time. Even if an attendee wants to attend a talk every session, chances are they’ll eventually get overloaded. It’s a ton of different topics being thrown at folks all at once. Who could blame them for running off to take a nap or check out the pool?
After a few hours without rest, I start to see diminishing returns on attending conference talks. It takes more and more to keep me alert and engaged as the day wears on. This typically isn’t because I’m disinterested in the topics being discussed, but simply because my brain is tired.
Attendees sometimes need to step away from the huge groups of people to cut down on anxiety. I admit that this isn’t something I experience. I’ve observed, though, that sometimes the whole ordeal is a bit too much and folks have to take time for themselves in order to reset. This is why we have quiet rooms!
As a speaker, you may find yourself needing this kind of space as well. Many conferences will offer a “speaker lounge” or similar private area for speakers to write, chat, snack, and whatever else you need to do to prepare.
Not everyone is able to completely disconnect from their daily responsibilities while attending a conference. Some folks will have to work or respond to calls. Others will want to try out something awesome they heard about in their last session. Unless I’m taking a workshop or speaking that day, I try not to bring my laptop with me to conference venues. I’m always so tempted to jump into every cool new thing I see other developers getting excited about!
Occasionally, a fascinating talk or tool piques my interest enough that I’ll find a cozy spot to tinker while talks are happening. Conference time belongs to me and not to any of my 1,001 other commitments.
Attendees are not there to stroke speakers’ egos. They’re going to attend whatever talks interest them, which may be influenced by a particular speaker’s relative fame, the time of day, or what they had for breakfast that morning. Regardless of who or how many show up, it’s on you to provide deeply useful insights and deliver as thoughtful and entertaining a presentation as you can.
Once you put something you’ve made out into the world, it’s no longer about you.
If I buy a book you’ve written, it’s up to me whether I read it or use it to line my birdcage. If I start a tutorial you put up on your blog, I’m under no obligation to finish it. If I show up at a conference, sit down in your room, and decide I don’t want to stay for your talk after all at any point, there is no reason for me not to quickly and quietly remove myself.
As attendees and as organizers, there’s so much we can do to show our appreciation for the time and effort speakers put into their presentations. The expectation of that appreciation (above and beyond compensation) and even going so far as to try to determine the forms it can take, though, crosses a line. No one should be shamed into attending a talk they’re not interested in, sitting somewhere that makes them uncomfortable, staying in a room past the point when it’s no longer useful to them, or foregoing the numerous benefits of the hallway track.
As speakers, we have to understand that not everyone is going to like our talks. Not everyone will be interested in our topics. Our presentations may not be what they expect. They might even get up and leave in the middle. It’s possible that only a few will show up at all. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that! There is still value in what you have to say and you can still have an impact on the folks that do attend. Choose the conferences you speak at carefully and try not to let the quality of your experience hinge on your audience.
Honestly, the point here is that I hope folks feel empowered to mold their conference experience into whatever they damn well please. As long as you’re not infringing on anyone else’s rights and following the conference’s code of conduct (because it definitely has one, right?), then you should feel free to do whatever you think is going to accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourself.
If this has rubbed you the wrong way, if you're feeling a little defensive, I'd love to talk about it. I'd love to help you get to a place where you're able to bring as much energy to an intimate 8-person lecture as you would to an 800-person keynote speech. My DMs are always open and the Speakers in Tech community is here, in part, to have exactly these kinds of conversations.