Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Worst Conference Evaluation Form (and thoughts on volunteer speakers)

A colleague who agreed to volunteer his time to serve on a panel at a conference noted that the evaluation form for attendees had these 2 questions:

1. Speaker(s) who did not measure up: (names of all conference speakers listed to make selection)
2. Then note, speaker(s) who impressed you the most: (line to write in names)

Isn't that rotten? I really do believe conference organizers sometimes take their job so routinely that there is little consideration to the amount of time (and grief) it may take to be a volunteer presenter at a conference.

A few thoughts:

1. If the assumption is that more than one speaker isn't going to measure up, then that's action to take BEFORE you ask them to participate. Check out the skills of who you ask first. Don't make the audience find out for you.

2. Remember that speakers who agree to speak on controversial topics (to make YOUR conference and topic way more interesting) can get audience backlash because attendees don't like the message - even if the speaker is really good. That's human nature. The more appropriate questions are: a) did the speaker know their topic; b) were they able to communicate the information; and c) could they answer questions. It's really easy to be the speaker giving the popular position. The ones you should REALLY appreciate are the ones willing to take the hits for giving the opposing/unpopular side.

3. Don't take your volunteer presenter for granted just because they agreed to present without pay. A small gift or even a thank you note is better than absolutely nothing. If they're also attending the conference, consider discounting or waiving the fee they paid. And if there is gift, maybe put thought into it, or select something generally useful (like an Amazon gift certificate or ask their office what they like) versus pulling something from a cabinet with your name on it. Many volunteer speakers already have plenty of items with other organization or event names on it.

4. More speaker gift thoughts: Whoever is in charge of deciding the speaker gift should maybe randomly poll a few people to get ideas. For example, a) I don't drink and weirdly get bottles of wine routinely as gifts or in my room (maybe people think I NEED a drink?); b) If you give a gift that is way too big to put in carry-on luggage, you should immediately offer to ship it FOR the speaker. Otherwise it may get left in the hotel room; c) Recent speaker gifts I really liked - Bose headphones, a Kindle, a small gift bag (with inexpensive items) clearly tailored to me (e.g., a note pad with my breed of dog on it, notecards with my name on it, a People magazine, trail mix, inexpensive gift card); d) Before you imprint your event logo on the speaker gift, ask yourself if the gift might be much nicer, and more used, without the imprint.

5. Speakers who are peers of the attendees are likely doing YOU a favor. They aren't there to build a separate business and their ego is probably already intact - they are there to HELP the attendees. That doesn't mean they are also volunteering to welcome the Twitter attendees to type throughout their entire presentation about everything from their hair, to their outfit, to any other catty remark that comes to mind and gets posted to their followers and posted on the web. Criticizing content is one thing, but conference organizers are going to bear the burden in the future on the willingness of volunteers to give their time when social media bullies can make it personal. In my opinion, adult attendees should behave like respectful adults towards speakers (using any tool), and we'll need to figure out how to remind them of that (somehow!)

Love your volunteer speakers. They'll help make your program a success (and save you money).

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