Conferences, Speakers & Presentations

There has been alot of chatter in the PHP community lately about conferences, speakers and specifically the fact that many speakers at conferences seem to be doing last-minute preparations for their presentations instead of being professional and ready well in advance.

Most recently this came out because a number of speakers for ConFoo (A PHP/Python/Ruby/Java conference in Montreal) were tweeting about working on their slides the days/nights before their talks. Some people starting taking offense at this and calling it unprofessional

First of all, I want to point out a simple fact that while yes, a SELECT FEW presenters are the types that only start making slides the night before a talk. The majority of people (myself included) who are presenting, have made our slides at least weeks in advance (if not earlier). However, we continue to tweak them up until the minute we present. We want them to be perfect, and so we keep reviewing them and modifying them. In fact, I’ve been known to change my slidedeck in response to other discussions happening at the conference, or due to information that was passed on in the Keynote.

In those rare other cases, those speakers are ones that know their topic intimately and are simply planning on having a conversation about the topic with the attendees. In those cases, the slides are less important in the first place.

But let’s put that aside for a moment, because I want to focus on something actually completely different.

The mention of the word: “unprofessional”. Speakers at PHP conferences are, by definition, unprofessional. The PHP ‘conference circuit’ if you will, is one that has grown up in a different manner than other conference circuits that I’ve been familiarized with in the past (Java, Adobe, ‘Web’, etc).

In most of these other areas, the speakers are PAID to attend. Some of the speakers in fact make their living (or a good portion of it) via being paid to present at conferences. They will get a significant payment for being there, as well as expenses being covered.

On the flip side, in the PHP conference circuit, every speaker there, in fact, is PAYING for the right to attend that conference and be a part of it. (Or, if they are lucky, their companies are covering their expenses) Sure, most of the conferences do their best to offset the expenses that the speakers will accumulate, but that’s it. The standard package involves a free conference pass, a night or two hotel per presentation, and airfare being covered. (Though some conferences, like OSCon, cover much less).

There are still so many expenses that a speaker will have. Transportation from airport to conference venue. Parking at their home airport. Meals that are not otherwise provided (usually only lunch is). Extraneous flight expenses (checked bags, etc).

All of this is being paid by the speaker (or their company) for the privilege of speaking at the conference. This is a net negative, not even breaking even, let alone being a paid speaker who would be taking their position as a ‘professional’, being paid to do a job. Heck, let’s not even take into account the direct loss of productivity that the companies take by allowing the speakers to attend (though other great benefits are gained by doing so)

In the end, my point is this. I feel that given the nature of all of these conferences. That the organizers and attendees need to understand the situation and treat the speakers not as a ‘professional speaker that they paid good money to see’. But as what they really are. Far more akin to an Open Source Developer, who is donating their time for the better good and education of the masses.

That is until at least, the situation overall changes. Where conference organizers are able to pay a respectable payment/stipend for the amount of time actually spent by a speaker in preparation and execution of a session. Also where attendees are willing to pay a conference fee that accordingly will cover those speaker payments. It would not be nearly so inexpensive as conferences now are.

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9 Responses to Conferences, Speakers & Presentations

  1. skoop says:

    hear, hear

    I’ve seen at least one such a tweet and even though I realize that as you explain we are unprofessional speakers, we can still behave as professional speakers. However, calling someone that speaks at conferences (especially established speakers that have been around for a while) unprofessional shows an extreme lack of respect for the people involved. The people that spend a lot of their time digging into new (open source?) technologies and then spending a lot of their time working on preparing to share the information. Not just the tweaking but also the preparing of a talk. Whether or not you do that weeks in advance or in the last few days before the conference. As long as you are ready the moment you get in front of the crowd and do a good job presenting the topic, it does not matter when you’ve actually done the preparations for it.

    And then there’s practical limitations. For instance the talk Felix and I did at ConFoo: Felix and I live quite a distance apart, and with us both having a full time job and dedicating time to the PHP community, we are not really able to just jump in the car for a couple of nights or a weekend of preparing before we fly out. However, since we’re both at the conference (and both there a couple of days before) we can easily dedicate some time there to prepare. And again: We were done with the preparations before our talk started and personally I was quite satisfied with the result. Of course there’s some possible improvements, but it was only the first time we did the talk in the first place. And the main message of the talk was gotten across pretty well, not just from my feeling about how it went but also from the feedback we received afterwards.

    Calling people unprofessional (even when they are not paid to do something) when people are actually doing a great job is a clear show of disrespect. I am quite disappointed by people who do that.

  2. rogercollins says:

    I have to *respectfully* disagree with you, skoop. Eli was respecting and defending all speakers. He was also respecting the English language. You are not a professional at something unless you are getting paid to do it.

  3. jabbaugh says:

    Eli,
    Thanks for writing about this. I have wondered what the working relationship was for the speakers since I started attending PHP Arch conferences a few year back. I didn’t realize being a speaker involved so little money. As a conference participant I thank you and others like you for making the effort. It is appreciated.

    I have attended three PHPArch conferences (works and PHPTek) and have always gained a huge amount of knowledge from them. They always help highlight areas that I need to grow in as well as making me rethink how I work as a developer. I have personally seen two of your presentations (knight rider, and hacked website) and I have thought both were great.

    I really don’t care if the speaker has created the presentation the night before or if they have it completely tied together. One of my favorite presentations was when Terry Chay first did his “The Internet is an Ogre” at PHPWorks in Atlanta. At the time the presentation was titled “Artful Architecture” or something like that. I remember him freaking out the day of the presentation while trying to pull it all together. The insights that he had into building large websites still influence me today. Yea, the profanity laced spech might not be thought of as “professional” to some, but I would argue that working as a professional web developer does include “a lot of blood, sweat, and swear.”

  4. skoop says:

    rogercollins: ok, perhaps I was a bit unclear, my apologies. What I meant was that even though we’re perhaps not professionals, we can still behave like those (meaning coming prepared, speak clearly etc). I was not saying Eli was not correct in his assessment that we are not actually professional speakers in the official english meaning of the word.

    Even when someone is not a professional in the official meaning of the word, calling someone unprofessional can pretty much be seen as an insult. Especially in the context of this situation.

    • Eli says:

      And just to clarify a little more on skoop’s behalf. Skoop was not saying that *I* was insulting people with the ‘unprofessional’ remark. But that others were.

  5. Ivo Jansch says:

    I was one of those people commenting on it. I didn’t use the word unprofessional though, see my original tweet: http://twitter.com/ijansch/status/10281941823

    If it’s just tweaking and finetuning and adjusting to the audience or conversations, great, nothing against that. However, I’ve been in too many talks where the speaker sounded unrehearsed, ran 20 minutes short, 10 minutes over, had nothing but bullet points in powerpoints ‘if you select no theme this is what you get layout’, had no structure.. All of these are ok if for the right reason, but if it’s lack of preparation, then I’m inclined to take the speaker less seriously.

    Is it a minority? Of course it’s a minority, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t allowed to complain about it.

    Even though many php conferences do not pay salaries, they do pay a lot of money to get people over. And people pay money to see them. Whether it’s 30 euro for a usergroup conference or 300 euro for a large conference, speakers should come prepared.

    Final thought: it’s also about perception. There’s more ‘finishing my slides’ tweets during conferences than ‘creating/preparing slides’ before conferences. Is this just coincidence? Or does ‘finishing my slides’ during a conference have a cool factor?

    • Eli says:

      So Ivo, the concepts of ‘unrehearsed speakers, speakers running short/long, speakers with subpar slidedecks, speakers with only bullet points, and overall bad speakers’ …

      Are potentially valid points. But that’s a completely different topic from “Last minute slides”.

      Then again, perhaps it’s not so different. Because in the end, it’s still the case speakers at conferences are more akin to OS developers, and you get what you get, versus professional speakers whose livelihood depends upon executing a top notch presentation (and who may in fact not get paid if they don’t do a decent job).

      I do understand your point of “conferences do pay a lot of money to get speakers” But honestly, and respectfully, that’s a straw man. It’s still the case that it’s just offsetting costs. I’ve regularly submitted expense reports to my companies that are equal, or for more money, than the conference itself put out.

      Plus I’m shocked always when I hear about how many speakers are taking vacation time to be there and present and paying for all extra expenses themselves, because their companies wouldn’t pay for them to go.

      You are right though, that doesn’t change the fact that conference attendees paid good money to be there. But that’s exactly my point. Conference attendees to PHP/OpenSource conferences need to realize what they are paying for. jabbaugh’s post above perfectly reflects that. If the attendees assume they are coming to see ‘professional speakers’, they are mistaken.

      At the same time, conference organizers should take note of this as well. If they want their conference to have a more professional tone, then similar changes might need made.

      Now, it’s a catch-22 there. As I’ve pointed out to people in the past. Conferences who offer significant stipends (Web 2.0 conference comes to mind), start to run into other issues. Primarily that currently we don’t have people in the PHP community who are ‘professional speakers’. Which means awkwardness gets created when a company is allowing an employee to attend, and the employee, essentially, double-dips by also taking a large stipend.

      (The solution is for the employee to take unpaid leave to attend the conference, or have an amazingly awesome/flexible boss, but that’s another story)

      To wrap up though, you mention perception. I do agree that much of it is perception and I think it may be skewed.

      You see, I do see a number of ‘creating my slides’ tweets before a conference. But take 40 speakers, have them all tweet that in a 3 month period before a conference, and it’s barely noticeable. On the other hand, have just 5 speakers tweet about it in the day or two before the conference, when everyone is following the hash tag/etc, and suddenly it’s very visible.

      Plus, as you point it, I think there is some ‘cool’ factor to tweeting about working on your slides while at a conference. It’s simply something related to the conference that you can tweet about. Often as a “sitting in the lobby working on my slides” as a way to let people know where you are if they want to join you, etc. And to me, it’s a way to actually show that I *am* caring about my presentation and putting as much effort into it as I can.

      Anyway, thanks for the reply!

  6. ripsup says:

    I presented at 2 Higher Education Web conferences and we didn’t even get free admission, there was only a small discount. Luckily the Uni picked up everything else but I think a lot of the tech type conferences don’t pay their speakers to be there.

    • Eli says:

      The ‘open source’ type conferences certainly don’t (PHP, Python, OSCon, etc). However I know from experience & discussions with others. That the less open source variety of conferences do in fact pay for speakers to be there.

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