- Better presentations
- Small details
Conferences have my attention again, for the first time in a couple of years, having recently presented at two conferences and attended a third in June 2022. This makes me wonder what I expect from conferences, based on speaker and organiser experience, and what conferences can provide.
These days, we can expect the following from all conferences:
- Accessible venue, e.g. for wheelchairs and walkers, with seating between talks
- Minimum speaker line up diversity: not all male, not all white
- Code of Conduct (that the organisers actually enforce)
- Travel expenses paid
- Accommodation provided
- Speaker fees for keynotes and workshops
Having worked on a conference organising committee, I know that it requires a lot of effort, and some risk, to get the kind of budget this requires, even for the smallest kind of conference with 200-300 attendees. Communities that don’t have a capacity to achieve this can stick to the zero-budget meet-up model, for up to 100 attendees, which requires at least an organisation to donate a venue, and a company to spend some of their marketing or recruitment budget on refreshments.
Some conferences do better than the minimum, for one or more categories. I don’t know if I can reasonably expect the following from all conferences, but they do exist:
- Better diversity: even gender balance, multiple minorities represented
- At least one first-time speaker, and coaching for them
- Speaker fees for all speakers
- Childcare options
- Live transcripts or sign language for hearing-impaired attendees
What else might we expect from conferences?
Conferences enter a grey area when they make exceptions, doing for one or two speakers what they do not do for all speakers. While conferences may intend to increase inclusion, by assisting those who need it, they risk the opposite. The phrase, ‘we do not normally cover travel expenses’ hurts your conference’s diversity (and reputation) more than it helps your budget. Conversely, abandoning a pay to speak policy improves diversity and inclusion for less effort than the alternatives.
Only paying speaker fees to some speakers makes the same kind of exception, and ultimately has the same issues. Even if you cover expenses, not everyone can afford to spend time on unpaid work to prepare a presentation and attend a conference.
No longer acceptable
I can happy report some good news, compared to when I first presented at a conference, fifteen years ago. Conference organisers today probably all now understand that they can expect social media to call them out for any of the following.
- Only white male speakers
- Travel expenses not covered (pay to speak)
- Accommodation not provided, or shared accommodation
- No code of conduct
Speakers probably have more leverage at this end too: refusing a conference presentation acceptance or invitation sends a stronger signal than deciding not to respond to a call for papers.
Thanks to Richard Bradshaw for inspiration from his speaker rider, and to Marit van Dijk and Els for their contributions.