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My questions for event organizers

In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of speaking. As a result, I’ve drafted a set of questions I send to organizers, which help me figure out which events I’m able to participate in. It’s a great way of figuring out whether or not I’ll be a good fit for the lineup—and, like the start of any other client engagement, they help me understand how well the organizers and I might work together.

When I’ve mentioned my list of questions to some colleagues, they’ve asked if they could see ’em—so I thought I’d share them here. But before I dive in, a few quick caveats!

  1. I should note I’m not proposing that these questions are, like, THE Best Questions™; I’ve changed them significantly over the years, and will probably continue to tweak them.
  2. I’m also not suggesting you should copy and paste this into your own replies to conference organizers.

Basically, these are questions I’ve been revising over the past few years of speaking, and I’ve found they’re helpful to me: I thought I’d share them in case they spark ideas of what might be helpful to you.

Sound good? Great! With all that folderol out of the way, here’s my list:

If you don’t mind, I have a few standard questions I like to send to organizers. Whenever you have a moment:

  1. How do you plan to compensate your speakers?
  2. What kind of audience would I be speaking to? (Size, industry, etc.)
  3. What kind of talk would be most relevant? (“Big picture”, practical, etc.)
  4. Are you committed to building a diverse lineup of speakers?
  5. Does your event have a code of conduct?

These might be pretty clear. But as someone prone to fits of over-explanation and blathering on at length, I thought I’d step through each question, and say a bit more about why I ask it.

“How do you plan to compensate your speakers?”

This is a logistical question. But in the spirit of full disclosure, this is also the question that’s been revised the most.

Historically, I’ve liked being up front about my terms, and starting the list with something a little more direct. (Something like, “Do you have a budget for speaker’s fees? My standard fee for a hour-long presentation is $X, plus lodging for Y nights and travel.”) I felt like leading with terms immediately was helpful for me and the organizer; if their budget didn’t line up with my fee, for example, then we could save a few rounds of back-and-forth over email.

But recently, a colleague suggested this alternate take, which I really like: it lets me start the conversation around how the organizer thinks about compensation for all their speakers, not just me. And I think it’s a nice alternative to leading with my rate immediately; from that initial, more general question, we can start a discussion about my terms, and see how well it lines up with the event’s budget.

So since I like this approach, I’m trying this question out. But like I said, I revise these pretty constantly; it’s possible I’ll go back to my old question, or maybe try a different tack. And maybe a different tack will work better for you.

And of course, I don’t want to suggest that my terms aren’t open to negotiation. (They are!) And I don’t want to imply that I won’t speak for free under certain conditions. (I have!) But in general, I’ve found that mentioning my standard terms as soon as possible helps me be a bit more direct with organizers, and set the expectation that this is a professional engagement.

(Related: Jenn Lukas wrote an essay about how she calculates her speaking fee, as did Seb Lee-Delisle. Both articles are damned great.)

With terms out of the way, here are the next two questions:

“What kind of audience would I be speaking to? (Size, industry, etc)”

“What kind of talk would be most relevant? (“Big picture”, practical, etc.)”

These are also logistical questions, but of a different sort. This is where I’m trying to figure out what kind of talk the organizers would like me to give, and what the audience’s expectations might be. If I’ll be addressing a non-technical audience, a “hands-on” talk about implementing responsive design might not interest them; conversely, a broader talk might be out of place at a more code-focused conference.

On a slightly more personal note, these questions occasionally start some great conversations about the kind of event the organizers hope to create and, in doing so, the kind of audience they’d like to see at their event. And I love hearing those stories. If the organizers are passionate about the people, you can tell the event’s gonna be good.

And the last two questions, which I love:

“Are you committed to building a diverse lineup of speakers?”

“Does your event have a code of conduct?”

I love ending with these two questions. Lemme step through ’em in turn—here’s the first one:

“Are you committed to building a diverse lineup of speakers?”

To be clear: I’m not looking for organizers to respond with some sort of quota, that they expect to have X minorities and/or Y women on their lineup of Z speakers.

But I do want to hear that an organizer considers diversity an important issue. Events that represent more perspectives and backgrounds—not just in their audiences, but onstage as well—are more interesting by default. And those are the conferences I want to speak at.

And from there, I want to hear that they care deeply about the safety of their attendees, and have taken clear steps to protect them. That’s why this is my last question:

“Does your event have a code of conduct?”

I want to work with organizers who see building safer conferences as a worthy design challenge, and who have an enforced code of conduct. As Erin Kissane so beautifully put it,

[To define a code of conduct is] to express and nurture healthy community norms. In a small, limited way, it’s to offer sanctuary to the vulnerable: to stake out a space you can touch, put it under your protection, and make it a welcoming home for all who act with respect.

In other words, diversity and safety aren’t just important to me. They make for better, safer events—and as a result, they’re incredibly important to the welfare of our industry.

That’s why I ask these questions.

A note of thanks to Karen McGrane, Scott Jehl, Mat Marquis, and Sara Wachter-Boettcher for reviewing earlier drafts of this entry.

Also, Karen McGrane and Leslie Jensen-Inman both had excellent takes on this topic. (As they do with most topics.)