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Conference Organizer Tip #1: Advisors

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 22 December 2012.
Planet PHP

More and more conference organizers reach out to me for advice. My advice is not applicable to all types of events, but hopefully it will help to make the task easier and achieve better results. In the following series, I will explain how we manage to organize an internationally recognized conference (ConFoo) run by a tiny group of volunteers. Two part-time organizers and a few advisors, to be exact.

Tip #1: Advisors


The purpose of advisors is to select better content for the conference. No matter how skilled we are, we are limited by our experience and points of view. Other people will bring a touch of variety and new expertise to the table. We have been operating in a bubble for many years, and received feedback that our content was getting repetitive, for example.

We also wanted the process to be as transparent and fair as possible. Having community members question our process helps refine it and make it more just. This is encouraging for speakers since they know that people with different backgrounds and opinions looked at their proposals. More about this in an upcoming post about the selection process.

Finally, having an increasing number of proposals made it increasingly difficult to take the time to evaluate each one. We didn't want to take 6 months to choose the talks or skim through the titles for buzzwords. We wanted to give every proposal the attention it deserves. Just for perspective, we went from over 500 proposals last year to nearly 800 this year. With 16 advisors to help us, we picked 160 amazing talks.

Choosing Advisors

Our advisors included speakers, due to their experience with the subjects but also because they attend a lot of conferences. This makes them knowledgeable about what presentations work best and possibly familiar with many proposals.

We also invited community leaders and active community members. They follow the trends, meet a lot of people and are generally involved in various projects. If they host presentations, they are likely also have seen many speakers and their skills. The two advisor types complement each other very well.

We selected multiple advisors for each theme: JavaScript, Ruby, PHP, etc. This allows for them to challenge each other to get the best results. It also helps motivation because people don't sit in their own silo: they can discuss the proposals and share their top-n lists.

Setting Expectations

To incorrectly set expectations may result in disappointment. Before you list tasks, make sure you describe the conference, its goals and its values. A good preparation is important before you reach out to advisors.

A clear list of tasks enables everybody to know exactly what they are signing up for. More on this further down.

Be honest about the expected time that advisors may have to put in. In our case, we estimated 5 hours per week, which was more or less an accurate prediction. It's better to have somebody say aonoa than setting false expectations and ruin a relationship.

Advisors must be qualified in their domain to pick useful topics and be pleasant to work with. Choose advisors according to the level of the content that you want to provide and to the atmosphere that you want to create. When somebody is not a team player, it quickly generates frustration. Although a good communicator can mend bridges.

List the mutual advantages that each party gets. Our advantages for advisors include: the power to build a track, visibility for the technology, reinforcing a personal brand and a free ticket for ConFoo. Notice that there is no money involved, as we believe that it will suck the fun out of the process.

Finally, responsibilities and accountability must be very clear. What will happen if there aren't enough proposals to make a viable track? What happens if somebody decides to withdraw late in the process? These problems came up numerous times and were unpleasant to deal with. Signing a paper to express commitment will be our solution for next year, because people don't always mean what they say. Not a contract with liabilities and such, but an agreement. That means that the rules must be very clear before we begin the race, so that people don't feel forced to do something unexpected.


Our task list consisted of three items. First a

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