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Programming Your User Conference Mina Benothman

At Heavybit, we’ve trained more than 200 speakers to offer tactical talks to our founders and community. But there’s a difference between a short meetup presentation and planning a half or full-day conference. With our DevGuild conferences, we want to capture major questions around a specific theme, aim for a narrative flow, and achieve the right balance of information and entertainment. What does this all mean in practice as an organizer? Here’s what we’ve learned over the years:

ARE WE ACTUALLY DOING THIS

Define Specific Event Objectives & Budget: Determining an ideal attendee count and offering a hand-wavy suggestion about marketing is not a good enough reason to do a user conference.

Large events are expensive and represent hundreds of hours of effort. Make your user conf count. If you’ve quantified platform adoption metrics, press launch metrics, or you’ve secured a good number of customer briefings during your event, carry on. Otherwise, consider the efficiency of all your marketing channels before jumping into an event that’s splashy and time sensitive.

Most companies set targets for visibility/share-of-conversation, a specific number of well-qualified leads onsite, and they use an event for user education or customer conversion. Don’t pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to talk to the same audience you’ve already captured. Know your objectives and have an idea of how you’ll achieve them.

LOGISTICS AND PLANNING

  • Choose a Selection Committee: If possible, choose a collection of domain experts to help you build a list of potential speakers. In an ideal world, your event objectives and theirs align. With a committee, you get a chance to leverage more than your own network for intros, you gain collective promotional power, and in many cases, a committee will help you program the sessions they’re most passionate about. Choose people with clout to help you design the right conference.
  • Create Rules & Vet them with the Committee: Do you plan on allowing pay-to-play speakers? Are product demos acceptable? Will you be announcing breaking news or will this conference be for evergreen tactical how-tos? Determine what rules will most resonate with your desired audience and get committee buy-in. One reason TED X has managed to follow the TED conference model is that the 10 Commandments of TED are universally touted.
  • Choose Topics: Work with your committee to determine the subtopics under the main theme of the event. Think about the narrative flow of the day. In some cases, an entire conference is based on a pre-existing pipeline or process. If you were planning a CI/CD conference, it doesn’t make sense to place a talk on testing in production before a design talk. Think about how all the talks might fit together in a logical progression, map them out, and then find experts to speak against them. Choose topics first to ensure you’re not just building a smattering of vanity presentations. The worst thing you can do is waste your customer and users’ time.
  • Build a List of Speakers Mapped to Topics: Think about celebrity, entertainment value, expertise, energy level etc. As a rule, the highest-energy speakers should start and end the day. This sets the tone and sparks better conversation.
  • Write Compelling Subtopic Abstracts: Write a strong lead and the problem statement that you want speakers to solve. You’ll include this in your initial outreach and as placeholder copy on the website until you’ve got a final presentation abstract. If your speaker targets are passionate domain experts, at the very least, they’ll offer feedback on what topics you’re missing and help you craft a better program narrative. Treat your outreach the same way you’d treat a pitch by writing in reverse pyramid style and injecting your lead with common tenets of newsworthiness.
  • Documentation: Explore the best way to document and share information with your committee and speakers. We use Google Docs so that changes can be tracked and disseminated instantaneously but we’ve also used Github Repositories to publish guides to the public. You’ll want to document everything, whether it’s an email template or dry-run calls, not only as reference but also to make planning your next conference a lot easier.

SPEAKER OUTREACH

  • First Speakers: Getting warm intros to celebrity speakers first is good for two reasons. First, your audience members are more likely to recognize the speakers and buy tickets before the agenda is finalized. Second, a notable confirmed speaker is social proof to subsequent speaker outreach. Lean on your investors, partners and board for warm intros. Then identify the gaps in coverage on your topics and target additional experts.
  • Schedule a Topic & Outline Discussion: This allows you to know the rough topic and outline, explain audience expectations, and explain your conduct policy. If a speaker isn’t capable of putting much into a presentation, you may want to consider offering them a panel slot.
  • Send Speaker Guidelines: We offer speaker guidelines to every presenter (even for smaller events) to ensure they understand what they’re meant to accomplish with the audience. They also have a good idea of materials deadlines and the time commitment involved in building a presentation.
  • Schedule a Dry Run: This helps clear away the cruft of repetition across speakers, lets you time the dry run, and allows you to get a feel for the tone and energy a speaker will set. If you do this well in advance of the actual date, it also lets you mix up your lineup to avoid audience fatigue and anticipate the length of breaks.
  • Set Materials Deadlines: We ask for presentation slides at least a week ahead of the conference date and build a master slide deck. We also back up this slide deck in the cloud. Being able to run through the master deck ahead of the event will ensure there are fewer chances for a technical mishap.

PANELISTS

  • Close the First Panelist: As mentioned earlier, starting with a celebrity panelist not only boosts the caliber of your conference, it also helps you attract and sell spots on the panel to other speakers. Celebrity panelists are also more likely to have already spoken on the subject matter so scheduling a topic call with them will make writing an abstract, setting the talking points, and outlining questions for the moderator easier.
  • Subsequent Panelists: Panels are more work upfront on questions from the organizer and moderator, but they’re a great way to get a variety of voices on a specific topic. As the organizer, consider the panel group dynamic to ensure they’re at a similar point in their careers. For Heavybit, we aim to bring in panelists who understand the messiness of tactical execution alongside the big picture thinking required of great leaders. Keep in mind that a VP at a 10-person Series Seed company might be the equivalent of a senior manager at a 20,000-person publicly traded company. Above all else, panelists should understand similar challenges.
  • Offer Draft Questions Well Ahead of The Event: This is particularly important for high-profile speakers and those at publicly traded companies. No legal team or corporate communications team will sign off on your post-conference videos, blog posts, and photos if they feel there’s the potential for negative repercussions with shareholders. Draft questions help panelists form thoughtful answers.
  • Schedule a Discussion w/ All Panelists & Moderator: This is a good opportunity to not only introduce your panelists and get them comfortable with each other, but to also tease out the most interesting examples and anecdotes in order to avoid repetition. Understanding different points of view will also give your moderator an angle to keep the conversation interesting.

PREPPING MODERATORS

  • The Ideal Moderator: Unlike the Emcee, the Moderator should be someone who is strong on facilitation and has a deep understanding on the subject matter. Though a lot of the same tips hold true, a moderator is just as much a part of the conversation as the panelists are. In many cases, their job is harder. A deep understanding of the subject matter is important because the moderator needs to be able to translate and paraphrase the panelists’ talks on the spot and in a short amount of time.
  • Referee: The worst moderators let one person talk for an entire panel rather than teasing out diverse points-of-view. A moderator needs to shut down monologues and call people out on their bullshit to ensure the audience receives the best possible information across multiple panelists.
  • Understand the Audience: Make sure your moderator knows who to expect in the audience. You don’t want them explaining simple concepts to a room full of experts or using elevated language to an audience that isn’t as advanced. You also want them to understand the stage of an audience’s company or career. If you’re a scrappy little startup, you shouldn’t be encouraged to cargo cult Facebook’s marketing org and spend today.

SET THE AGENDA & PREP THE EMCEE

  • Set the Final Agenda: Every conference, especially full-day ones, needs breaks. If your conference includes a mix of presentations and panels, you’re going to want to avoid putting them after each other or build in breaks to allow for major set changes. If your conference doesn’t include Q&A from the audience, provide time for everyone to discuss, mingle, and ask questions. Breaks should be long enough to account for any delays to the program but short enough to get people to want to sit back down in their seats. Have your most energetic speakers talk after breaks to set things back in motion.
  • Calendar, Location, Exact Speaking Time w/ Buffer: If you’ve got speakers traveling in, make sure you know when they’re coming in and schedule their talk accordingly. Let them know what the agenda is but ask them to show up at least an hour early and stay past their allotted speaking time in case of delays in the program. This, along with the location and a point of contact, should all be included in a calendar invite that is sent in advance. Don’t forget to remind speakers as the date draws closer.
  • Co-Draft the Script: A great emcee performance begins with a great emcee script. The emcee not only has to entertain, keep time, and maintain the plot, they will also need to set the tone, introduce the speakers, and make calls to action. In the end, it’s your event, not the emcee’s. Write an outline of what needs to be said, using single words or short phrases as a reminder of important topics. This will give the emcee structure as well as flexibility to be more responsive to the audience and speakers.
  • Schedule a Technical Run Through: There will be a lot of moving parts and it will be the emcee’s responsibility to stay grounded, which includes understanding the behind-the-scenes production. How many transitions will there be? What kind of equipment will the speakers be using and how much time do they need to set-up? If the emcee knows there will be a 2 minute transition between the speakers, they can take this opportunity to engage with the audience and keep the energy high. If the emcee is aware that a speaker has gone over time, they will know that the lost time will need to be made up elsewhere.
  • Offer Emcee Tips: An emcee is part storyteller, part technician, and part ring-master and you may find that your emcee is one or a combination of two so offer them these tips on how they can be all three.

WEEK OF EVENT

  • Offer How-to-Dress for Camera in the Cal Invite: We ask our speakers to wear clothing that can carry the microphone receiver but that will depend on the equipment you use. Nonetheless, as a general rule of thumb, speakers should dress comfortably for mobility. Busy prints and accessories should be avoided because not only can they distract your audience, they may also interfere with your audio and video equipment.
  • Assign an Onsite Handler: Someone should be available to greet speakers, offer them their speaker packet, and run them back to the AV booth. This person should have a schedule of when speakers will arrive and can also hand off panelists to their moderators in the green room. They’ll also tell the showrunner whether someone is running late. If that’s the case, the showrunner can amend breaks and confer with the emcee.
  • Collect Cell Numbers: The day before an event you should collect every speaker’s cell number and have the onsite handler text them and let them know when they’re expected to arrive and to contact the handler specifically if they’re running late.
  • Offer Stage Blocking + How to Use the Clicker: There’s nothing worse than having a speaker get up on stage and ask “how do I use this?” “can you hear me?” or stand in the shadows out of frame. It may seem trivial but familiarity with the stage and the AV equipment will put both you and your speakers at ease during the event.

This may all seem overwhelming but as long as you follow this guide and build a dedicated, supportive, and communicative event-organizing team, you can pull it off. It may not be perfect the first time around but breathe, document everything, take the time to reflect, and apply those lessons to your next conference. Interested in seeing how we execute our events? Join our mailing list to receive updates about our Speaker Series and check out the videos from our most recent DevGuild: Enterprise-Ready Products.

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