Speaker Wanted: Improved Communications between Speakers and User Group Leaders

Monday, February 03 2014

I’ve been giving technical presentations ever since Mike Levy conned me into one back in the early 2000.  I got into speaking more heavily around 2005.  I don’t recall when now, but things really kicked off when I did a “tour” of Michigan hitting user groups in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Flint.  Since then I’ve been lucky enough to speak at user groups and conferences all over the heartland of the US, and even conferences overseas.

Also during these early years I was helping Nino Benvenuti and James Avery run the Cincinnati .NET Users Group.  One of my roles in the group was to help coordinate speakers for the group: trying to rope people in to speak, dealing with INETA, coordinating dates, etc.  Then there were the Cincinnati/Dayton (sorry Jim) Code Camps where I helped arrange speakers for a one day event.

All this to say, I’ve been on both sides of the equation: A speaker looking for places to speak, and as a user group leader or event organizer working with speakers.  I’ve been on the side of having to tell folks their talk wasn’t accepted and, many times, I’ve been the one receiving the “Dear Speaker” email telling me that I wasn’t selected.  This post was triggered by a request that Shawn Wildermuth posted to the SPEAK .NET forums in which he requested that user group leaders requesting speaker provide as much information as possible.  Some of the comments by Shawn and others (Jeff and Dave Methvin) from that thread are included here, along with my own thoughts on how the communication between speaker and organizer could be improved.  I can’t say I’ve always done these things (on either side), but when I have they have been very helpful.


As a Speaker

If you are a speaker looking for a user group to speak at you’ll find that the more open you are, and the more communication you have with the meeting organizers the better your life is going to be.

When you send an unsolicited email to a user group leader to request to come speak at their group make sure you:

  • Properly introduce yourself and provide a link to your LinkedIn, Twitter, and/or blog.  This helps the user group leader see how you are and if you know any of the same people.
  • Indicate if you have spoken at other user groups or conferences and provide links.  If you haven’t spoken anywhere then don’t hide that fact.  Be up front.  I know several user groups that would be happy to have a first time speaker.  CINNUG did grok talks for this purpose.  These were 10-15 minute talks so that new speakers could start small.
  • Do some research on when the meetings are and offer dates that you don’t see on the calendar that fit your schedule.  Provide exact dates, don’t say “your March meeting”. 
  • If you notice the group has a consistent meeting pattern then don’t assume it can be changed just for you.  If at all possible try to arrange for their normal night.  When normal meeting nights get moved you’re bound to get less attendance because it’s off schedule (this probably isn’t true if your last name is Skeet, Hanselman or Guthrie).  Some groups move their meetings a lot, so it is no big deal to them.  Others are dead consistent all the time.  The times I’ve worked out with a group for a meeting to be moved for one reason or another I’ve always assumed that less people will come to see it.
  • Provide one or more talks you are prepared to give.  You can provide full abstracts or simply start off with broad topics until you find out if the group is interested.  Either way, BEFORE you supply your abstracts read this: http://frazzleddad.blogspot.com/2009/10/writing-good-session-abstract.html.
  • Make sure to indicate the city or region you live in.  This helps the user group leader know where you’ll be coming from.  A lesson I learned many years ago was to not book out of town speakers in November, January or February.  Weather was too unpredictable.

If you get a user group leader interested in having you in, continue the conversation and provide even more information:

  • Once you have travel arrangements made make sure to share them with the group leaders.  Ask about travel distances or bad traffic around the meeting times.  For example, I’d suggest if you are coming in to speak at CINNUG and you are arriving at the local airport (CVG) you should try to schedule your flight to arrive before 3:30-4:00 PM.  Anything after that and you’ll tack on an extra 20-25 minutes in traffic to reach the meeting.
  • Give the leaders your phone number that they can reach you at during your travels.
  • Make sure you get the contact information of the leaders so that if something happens you can tell them immediately.
  • Make sure they have everything they need to help promote your talk.  Ensure you send your full abstract and bios at least 2 months out if all possible.  Some groups will post upcoming meetings well in advance, or include them in newsletters.  You want as much time as possible for people to know your topic is coming up so that they can plan for it if it interests them.
  • If you see the group promoting your talk via twitter or their website, retweet and link to it (you should be promoting it anyway).
  • Send an email about a week out from the event to verify that everything is still good and see if there are any last minute details you need to know.  See the list of things suggested below for a user group leader to share with speakers and if they haven’t offered this stuff up, ask about it.
  • If you plan on recording yourself at the meeting (either for yourself or other reasons) make sure the user group leader is aware of that and approves it.

Once the meeting rolls around you can keep the conversation up by:

  • Sending an email, text or tweet to the user group leaders when you start your travels.  This helps them judge roughly when you’ll be arriving.
  • If you run into any problems while traveling immediately let the group leaders know if at all possible. 
  • If you want to get honest feedback for the talk ask the user group leader to take notes during your session on their thoughts.  They may not be comfortable with this, so you can also ask if they could recommend someone at the meeting that could do so.  If you ask for honest feedback, be ready to get it.  Don’t get defensive if you hear bad things.  Take it in and try to get to the root of why the criticism was given.
  • Show up ahead of time. If you can help it don’t arrive 10 minutes before your talk.  Try at least 45 minutes or at a time that is helpful to the group leader.  This make the user group leader’s life easier (less panic) and it gives you time to see the venue, test your connections, etc.

Finally, after the event make sure you:

  • Follow up with the user group leader to provide them links to your resources and materials if possible.  If you want them to link to your site for that just give them the links.  If you are okay with them posting the materials to their sites, indicate that as well.
  • Follow up on your blog or through other means on any questions you received during the session or via twitter afterwards. 
  • Send a thank you to the user group leader.  They hosted your talk and provided you a “podium” to talk from, that deserves a thank you. 


As a User Group Leader

If you are a user group leader or speaker coordinator there are a lot of things you could to help improve the communication with the speakers.  Some of what follows are simply ideas, some are things I’ve done in the past and some are communications I received that just stood out.

If you are requesting a speaker to come to your group, either through a personal invitation, or posting to a webpage or forum, please include as much information as you can:

  • Dates and location of the meeting.  Don’t just say, we have openings in Feb, March and April.  This will require the speaker to go find your website and try to deduce if your meetings are actually consistently held on the same nights each month.  In fact, even if you do hold them consistently on the third Tuesday of every month, include the dates anyway.  If you can be flexible on when dates are, indicate that as well.
  • Is there any travel expenses compensation available?  Many times speakers are donating their time to not only come up with the content, but also traveling out of pocket.  In some cases they are even taking vacation time, or seriously juggling their schedules in order to speak.  This can get expensive quite quickly.  If your group doesn’t provide expenses that’s fine, in fact when I was helping run CINNUG I could count on one hand the number of times we actually paid for someone’s full expenses to come out to speak (and I don’t need any fingers either).  Just be up front about it.  Also, note that there are groups out there that can help, like the INETA speaker’s bureau, as well as local sponsors and industry companies who believe deeply in Community (like Red Gate, Telerik and more).  These groups can help get you money or offset costs to bring in speakers, or even help find speakers who don’t need the help.
  • Include the average length of session you want a speaker to give, or perhaps include an agenda of one of your normal meetings.  This tells the speaker how much material they need to have.  Some groups do 60 minutes, some do 90 minutes.  At CINNUG we do the announcements (5-10 mins), followed by the main presentation (60-80 mins), then we eat Pizza and have a social time (20-30 mins).  Finally, we wrap up the meeting with an open discussion or grok talk (20-30 mins).
  • Include the average number of attendees you normally get.  This is a sticky one because I’ve heard people say, “but no one will come speak if there are only 5 people”.  True, that low of a turn out might not get someone to drive six hours one way to come speak, but there are other ways around this.  We live in a virtual world and with Skype, Lync, WebEx or <pick your teleconference software of choice> you can still have someone speak to the group no matter how small, all from the comfort of their own home.  Also, make sure that you indicate if the numbers dip during the timeframe (like summer or winter) when the speaker is coming.
  • Include the web address for your group or event.  This helps speakers see how else might have spoken at the group and what the topics have been (you are posting that information, right?).

After you get a speaker on board and you agree on the topic you’d be amazed at how helpful some information can be to a speaker from out of town.  Here are a few things you can include after you have gotten the conversation going:

  • The most important thing is for you to provide contact information, including a phone number, for any of the user group leaders.  This is especially important if the speaker is traveling in and doesn’t know their way around, or gets into trouble during the trip.  You want to know if they will be late or have to cancel at the last minute.
  • Get the physical address of the location to the speaker.  Look up the address on Google and Bing and see if the address actually shows up in the correct spot so that the speaker doesn’t have issues finding it. If these sites do show it incorrectly get the Latitude and Longitude coordinates and includes those along with the address.  Most people’s phones and GPS will get them there easily enough.
  • Provide the business or venue name as well.  A lot of speakers are consultants and many places that sponsor user groups are also consulting companies.  I’ve never seen any issues from this, but it’s nice to know if you’re going to be speaking at a competitors facilities.
  • Let the speaker know if the meeting location is not available until a certain time and if this is a location that they work if they arrive early or are coming in from out of town.  The wonderful folks at MAX Technical Training who have hosted the CINNUG group for years have always had their door open if a speaker arrived a few hours early and needed a place to camp out until the meeting.  There’s also a Panera right down the road.
  • Tell them what the general make up of the group is.  For example, if you have a ton of members in the financial services you can mention that, or if your group is heavily weighted to people just getting started.  This helps the speaker tailor their message and ensure their content is on target.
  • Let them know what hardware and speaking set up they can expect at the venue.  Good speakers will be prepared for the normal things like HDMI cables, VGA adapters, etc., but every little bit can help.  You could even send them a picture of the room you normally meet in.
  • If they are coming in from out of town give them an idea of the best place to stay, or more importantly, what areas of town that they should NOT stay in.  It also doesn’t hurt to throw in some ideas of things do do while they are in the area.  I’ve made a stop at one user group meeting during the outbound part of a family vacation.  The user group leader did a great job giving me ideas for what my wife and son could do while I was at the meeting and something we could go see the following day before we left town.
  • Let them know about any special parking arrangements, or just what the parking is like to begin with.  Especially if your group location doesn’t have its own parking this can be very important.
  • Let them know if the venue has any specific security procedures or policies.  I’ve heard of a speaker who arrived at a meeting to speak only to find out they weren’t allowed in.  The location had some policies that didn’t allow foreign nationals in due to some of the work they did on the premises.
  • Tell them what kind of food, if anything, is provided and when.  Some groups do food before the sessions, and some do it after or even in the middle.  If a speaker is traveling in and you don’t do food until after the meeting at 8:00 PM they may want to catch a quick snack or eat beforehand.  Likewise, if a group of folks generally go out to a local pub or restaurant afterwards let the speaker know about that as well, including how late most people stay around. 
  • Mention if anyone recently spoke on a similar topic.  For example, if the speaker is talking about some feature of Platform X you might mention that two months prior another speaker did an introduction to Platform X and mentioned (or didn’t) this feature. 
  • If you are going to stream or record the meeting in any way, make sure the speaker accepts this up front.  Some speakers just don’t want to be recorded and some even have legal agreements saying that they can’t be recorded giving specific materials. 


Once the speaker has arrived for the meeting make them feel as comfortable and welcome as you can.  For example you could:

  • Make sure they have water to drink during their presentation.
  • Make sure they get connected to the projector and don’t have need of anything before their session starts.
  • Tell them about “That guy|lady” in the group.  Almost every group has one.  This is someone who consistently derails presentations, asks questions that only they care about or simply can’t let a presenter complete their material without interjecting something.  You don’t have to point them out by, just make sure the speaker is aware they are there.  Experienced speakers will handle these folks on their own, but be ready to jump in to help.   You may even need to be ready head them off by asking a follow up question that puts the presentation back on track, or mention that the speaker might be available afterwards to talk about more detailed scenarios. 
  • Introduce the speaker with more than “so, Bob here came to speak to us.  Go for it.”.  If possible get a bio from the speaker and come up with at least two or three sentences to say in the way of announcing them.  Do this regardless of if you think the speaker is really well known or not.  This helps for three reasons.  One: the audience now knows who they are listening to.  Two: the speaker feels appreciated and welcome.  Three: you can tell the speaker you are doing this and they don’t have to go through their ego slides and can cut straight to the material.
  • Work out a signal with the speaker for when their time was getting close to being up.  When I was a user group leader my signal was standing in the back of the room in the doorway to the hall.  This was a quiet reminder that time was coming to an end. 
  • Make sure that some user group leader or a representative is in the room for the entire meeting.  I’ve heard of user group leaders leaving a meeting to make a call, etc., and the projector goes out or some other issue occurs that doesn’t get resolved until the user group leader returned.  Especially to new speakers this can be really, really stressful not to mention everyone’s time waiting for the issue to be resolved.


Finally, if you really want to help a speaker out and be a group that has speakers referring others to come speak at you might think about:

  • Take notes and comments about the presentation and share them with the speaker afterwards.  Be honest and supply constructive criticism.  Do this only if you are comfortable doing so and always ask if they want you to.
  • Make sure that the speaker’s name and topic are on your website promoting their upcoming talk and then post them in a past meetings  section for at least several months, if not a year or more.  This helps the speaker find additional groups to speak at since they can provide pointers to your group site as a type of “reference”.  It’s your call on if you actually supply a reference for a speaker or not, but it is extremely helpful for speakers to have this information still out there as they submit to other groups and to conferences.
  • Follow up with any comments you heard from the group, or ask for the speaker’s support materials to post a link to on your group site.   
  • Tell them how many attendees where there in total.  Speakers track this for many reasons.
  • Ask them if there was any ideas on what you could do better for other speakers.
  • Send them a thank you.  This doesn’t have to be a physical or actual gift.  The fact that you took time to thank them for coming says a lot.


What kinds of things can you think of that I didn’t include?


Tuesday, February 04 2014 9:59 AM Jeff Fritz said:

Along the lines of your point about food: Discuss what food is provided, as some speakers have dietary restrictions and you don't want to leave them high-and-dry

Tuesday, February 04 2014 10:31 AM Michael Wood said:

Excellent point Jeff.

Also, as part of the hardware/venue descriptions group leaders should say if Internet is available to the speaker and if that internet is WiFi or direct cable.

Tuesday, February 04 2014 4:46 PM Joe Wirtley said:

Excellent post. Except of course, you meant the Dayton/Cincinnati Code Camp.