I have been very fortunate to address librarians nationally and internationally as a speaker. I love sharing my ideas, experiences, and things I’ve learned and meeting other librarians. I have gotten research ideas, column ideas, and made friends through my travels. I have visited places I’d always wanted to visit. I am not nearly as prolific as some library speakers and my productivity dropped precipitously in 2009 when I had my son, but I still get great pleasure out of sharing knowledge and contributing to the profession.
I’ve had many wonderful experiences as a speaker in terms of how I was treated by conference organizers. We tend to focus so much on the negative that I wanted to highlight some of the amazingly warm and considerate experiences I’ve had where people extended themselves to make me feel welcome. In Puerto Rico, I was taken around the country, taken on hikes, and taken to dinner by some amazingly kind librarians. In New Zealand, with my son tagging along, my family was invited to dinner at the house of one of the librarians who brought out toys for Reed and gave him two books (that we still read and treasure). There was an amazing Haka to kick off the conference and at the end of my keynote, the whole audience SANG to me! In Hawaii, I was given a beautiful lei after each of my talks and the conference organizers took my family out to breakfast. In Iceland, I came to my hotel room to find a giant basket of yummies from the conference organizers.
Those definitely stand out as the most wonderful acts of kindness I have experienced as a speaker. I keep those people and experiences in my heart and would speak again for any of those organizations without hesitation. There were also many other conference experiences where I was treated with consideration by the conference organizers and received a speaker’s gift, was invited out for a meal, got a thank-you card, or received some other recognition of their gratitude for my giving my time to their organization.
Then there are the not-so-nice experiences. Like when I was dropped off at my motel after giving a half-day workshop only to find that there was nowhere to eat within walking distance and I had to eat my dinner from a vending machine. Or the countless state/provincial library conferences I’ve attended (that are not my own) where I ate lonely meals by myself because no one considered the fact that I wouldn’t know anyone (and, FYI, not all speakers are extroverts). Or the ones where I was told at the last minute that the technology I was using won’t work because they never provided me with any information, leaving me to stress needlessly in the minutes before I gave my presentation.
Conference speakers are likely spending a significant amount of time creating content and traveling to be at your conference. Whether you pay them or not, there are certain common courtesies you should extend to speakers who are not a part of your organization:
1. Give the speaker all of the relevant background on the conference – let them know who will be there (what sorts of positions, from what types of libraries, etc.), what the organization does, and anything else that will give the speaker a sense of how to tailor their presentation.
2. Let the speaker know how long they will have to speak – this seems obvious, but I once was told I had an hour and a half to present and take questions and designed my talk around that. Five minutes before I was to start my keynote, I was told that they were going to take 20 minutes or so to do introductions. I took it in stride because I’m an instruction librarian and this happens to us all the time, but it was no less insensitive.
3. Ask the speaker about their technological needs/preferences and any limitations on your side – Some presenters are really particular about using their computer or have to play videos or show stuff from the Internet. Ask them about their needs and preferences beforehand. And let them know about any limitations on your side: if you need them to use your computer, if they have to use PowerPoint, etc. I often make PDFs of my Keynote presentations so that if I can’t use my own computer, I can just use the PDF version (the conversion from Keynote to PowerPoint is not always smooth). One time, I was told 15 minutes before my presentation that I had to use the organizers’ computer and have my presentation in PPT format because they were using some fancy recording software. I was completely flummoxed and stressed and, in my hasty conversion of my slides, the formatting got screwed up. If the computer is not going to be at the podium, provide the speaker with a clicker. The speaker should not have to worry about any of this just before they speak – it’s your job as the organizer to smooth the way for them. The incomparable Jenica Rogers wrote about this issue as well.
4. Invite them out for a meal – they may or may not want to go, especially if they’ve had a long flight, but extending the invitation shows a level of consideration for their needs and the fact that they traveled all this way to be with you.
5. Give them all of the information they need about travel logistics and reimbursement – There shouldn’t be any guesswork on the part of the speaker. I once showed up at the conference hotel where the organizer was supposed to have made me a hotel reservation only to find that I didn’t have one. I had to frantically call them and get it sorted out, spending an hour sitting in the lobby fretting. Turns out they’d made the reservation, but in their own name, and I was supposed to have psychically known that. I once had to argue about my honorarium with an organizer 10 minutes before my keynote. She said that I’d agreed to accept $x for my keynote and that it included my travel reimbursement. Luckily I had the emails to prove that she’d agreed to $x + travel expenses, because $x didn’t even cover my travel expenses! The kicker with that one was that I’d more than halved my keynote speaking fees because I had a soft spot for the consortium (I’d used my first dial-up internet through them back in the day).
All that brings up another point –
6. Give them your cell number or the number of someone who can help them if something comes up – shit happens. Flights get delayed or canceled. Hotel reservations may not exist. Speakers get sick. The speaker might need to contact you and they should not have to do that via email.
7. Tell them about the area – if a person is coming from out of town, they more than likely aren’t familiar with the area in which they’re staying. Tell them about local restaurants you like, attractions they might be interested in, hotel amenities, etc. Yes, we live in the age of Yelp and Google Maps, but it’s still nice to get personal recommendations. And if you have a car and they don’t, see if there’s anything they need. I recently had to walk through a really sketchy neighborhood early in the morning to get to a drug store to buy decongestants. It would have been really nice if someone could have just picked them up for me (or warned me about what I’d have to walk through to get there!).
8. Give them a gift – it doesn’t have to be much – some chocolates, a pen, some stationery, even just a thank-you card. Spending $10 on a speaker will make them feel significantly more appreciated than if you do nothing and it’s such a small effort. I periodically am asked to speak to LIS school students in the Portland cohort of Emporia University. They always give me a little tchotchke, and though it’s not much, it illustrates the fact that they have thought of me and appreciate my time. They also always send me a thank-you card signed by all the students in the class. That means even more. Even at a large-scale conference like Internet Librarian, speakers were given a speaker’s gift to show their appreciation .
9. Make them feel welcome – not all speakers are extroverts. I’m not at all, and going to a place where I don’t know anyone can be intimidating. A good organizer should introduce the speaker to people and make sure they have folks to talk to.
A lot of these things are small things that take just a little effort or a tiny bit of money, but what they do is say to the speaker “I appreciate you and your effort.” You notice I didn’t put “pay them” here, though I do believe that speakers should be paid as what we do provides value. There are all sorts of reasons to accept or not to accept money for a talk (some may have to do with the policies of the institution where you work) and I think it’s up to each person to do that calculus on their own. Whether you are paid or not, most of these things are still common courtesies worth following. They don’t always scale up at a massive conference, but they’re worth keeping in mind.
I don’t think people who treat speakers badly or indifferently are doing so out of malice. I think it has more to do with a lack of consideration and empathy, but the impact on the speaker is the same. I once spent at least 18 hours preparing for a keynote presentation, missing time with my family to do so. I missed work and had to take three flights to get there and back from a conference I had no connection to. I was not invited out for a meal. I was not given basic information I needed to give a solid presentation and had to stress about tech before the talk instead of eating lunch. I was not given a gift or thank-you card of any kind nor any recognition other than “thanks, have a good flight.” I felt used. I felt angry. And I felt stupid for saying yes in the first place. When I have experiences like that, I honestly feel like I never want to speak at another conference again. But then I remember the wonderful experiences I’ve had. The trouble is that you rarely know which kind of experience you’re going to have before you say yes.
Speakers are the lifeblood of any conference. Without them, what do you have? If they are investing their time in traveling and providing content for your conference, the least you can do is treat them with consideration. This summer, I’m doing a preconference workshop for the Association of Christian Librarians, a group I presented for back in 2008. I remember the organizers and attendees being so gracious and easy to work with last time that I was happy to do it again. If you treat your speakers badly, eventually word will spread about it. The library community isn’t as big as you think and a lot of people who give talks around the country know and talk to each other.
But don’t do it just because of that. Do it because you appreciate your speakers.
If you’re interested in reading other librarian speakers’ perspectives, check out this 2007 Cites and Insights article by Walt Crawford that summarizes posts from a number of blogs with advice for both conference speakers and organizers.