When Nobody Shows Up To My Conference Talk

Update: Apparently this exploded briefly on Hacker News. Feel free to head over there for some commentary and poking fun at my $5 DigitalOcean hosting server crashing under the load of traffic.

Me speaking at WordCamp Atlanta 2019. I was the last talk of the last day. Only about a dozen people attended that talk.

You’ve spent weeks (or likely months) preparing for your conference talk. It took late nights and time sacrificed to get those slides or code examples JUST right. You want to make a good impression. You want to wow the crowd. You want to stand out – or at the very least be on par – with other talks (as the talks that came prior to yours or are happening at the same time at the multi-track conference).

A few minutes before you are about to speak, you get a little nervous and run through a mental checklist of things to do. But you can’t help but make an observation as you are being introduced…

…only a few seats were filled in a room that could have held a lot more. In fact, you think you could have given the talk in a large broom closet to not waste space.

If you give talks at conferences and meetups often enough, you’ll find that you won’t always fill up a room. You might have never come close to filling up a room. For some people this can way on them and add to (among other things) imposter syndrome.

Don’t let it. As a speaker, there are certain things within your control and things not in your control. Never let either category get you down, as I have attended talks from VERY experienced and VERY “pro level” speakers that have been (and find themselves experiencing again) the same boat.

Here’s a few things that might go through your mind:

  • Your time slot: Regardless of what some may say, I can tell you the day and time you speak often can have some impact on your audience. Typically if someone comments on a small turnout I bet they were either the last speaking on a particular day or the talk that follows lunch (depending on the conference). 80% I am right. While conference organizers should try to give enough time for attendances to return to sessions after lunch or social breaks, attendees ultimately control their own destinies. For WordCamps, unless you are a keynote speaker these time slots might yield fewer attendees on average.

    But in the end SOMEONE needs to fill that slot – and speaker organizers felt the best person might be you! You were likely thought to be a positive, high energy speaker that can put an end-cap to a great conference day.

    Regardless realize that not all speakers get equal share of attendees especially at certain times of the day (those attending at WordCamps in my experience tend to peak mid-morning through mid-afternoon with a dip after lunch).

  • Your subject material: The easiest conclusion to draw is that “my talk wasn’t interesting enough” or that you picked the wrong topic. This isn’t positive or accurate thinking. If that was actually the case you (all things being equal) wouldn’t be giving the talk at all. Have confidence in the fact that you have a passion about speaking about a subject and conference organizers felt that you and your message deserved to be heard.
  • Other things happening: Not just other speakers, but sometimes I’ve given talks when there happens to be giveaways from sponsors happening and that draws some people away. Again, nothing against you and not in your control.

And here are three things to keep in mind:

“Think in terms of who you can impact….The biggest positive impacts to the WordPress community I’ve found start at the smallest of scales.”

  • Quality And Not Quantity: Don’t think in terms of how many people see your talk, but how much impact you bring to those who did decide to show up. What would you rather have – a room full of 100 people that are physically there but mentally but wasn’t emotionally inspired or invested in what you said OR 20 people that had their professional or personal lives blown away but the material you presented (and maybe another few that will realize in a few months how much your talk effected their new way of doing or thinking about something)?

    Think in terms of who you can impact.

    The biggest positive impacts to the WordPress community I’ve found start at the smallest of scales.

  • You Got Your Message Out: If you are truly passionate about your message, take comfort that your subject was heard. Also realize that many WordCamps and conferences record talks and those are usually available to the public web, where many others can discover and view them. You’ll be able to use this as a stepping stone to further discussing the subject online and even for future conferences.
  • Better Discussions Happen In Smaller Groups: I’ve found the best questions and discussions during the Q&A time happen when the audience is smaller than average. The fewer number of people means the more potential for a more intimate setting for those in the audience to ask questions normally they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking (especially for talks related to personal and emotional subjects).

    To be frank, don’t let this be about just you. Instead think of the potential to reach out and connect to your audience.

But sure… positive thinking and logic can be great…

…but it’s hard to come to grips with the time, energy, and cost it took to present. What can you do moving forward?

  • Post-Talk Feedback: Wait a few days to get organic feedback from social media or others, and then ping the organizers to get any insight on WHY they picked your talk. This can positively reinforce why you were there in the first place. See if you can determine who came to your talk and ask them (1) why they came (2) what they found most interesting about your talk and (3) have they seen anyone else cover the material differently, perhaps additional ways for you to potentially cover the same material in the future?
  • Pre-Talk Checklist: Be aware of your target audience (remember most WordCamps are primarily based on the needs of the LOCAL community – so don’t assume a talk that worked and connected with many in Miami will be the same for Atlanta). Approach organizers far enough ahead in time to get their take so you can customize your talk and market yourself (see next point).
  • Market yourself: Use feedback and past experiences from previous talks to try to build up some momentum for your next talk. Tease your talk in public whenever you are given the all clear from the organizers. Organizers should be doing their part to make the potential audience know about your talk sure, but you are the best promotor of yourself.

I won’t lie, often times we tend to judge ourselves as speakers based on how many ears are in the room just like how many judge a blog post by how many page views it gets. “Standing room only” and “sold out” are phrases we want to hear about our talks. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but realize that:

  • Certain things are not in our control.
  • Realize the opportunities you have – about getting a message out and connecting with people.
  • Use this as an opportunity for yourself for the future.
  • Above all – don’t let this add a single brick to thinking poorly of yourself. Imposter syndrome doesn’t suit you.

I’m David Bisset, and if you ever want to talk about your talk with me… i’m all 👂🏻.

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Happiness Bars For WordCamp US 2018

Got some GREAT response from this post on Twitter made on November 20th (see above). So i’m posting some information here (and anyone can reach out to me on Twitter or email me directly).

What Are Happiness Bars?

They are Hersey chocolate bars wrapped in a custom made label, a play on the term ‘Happiness Bar’ which you find at most WordCamps (except this one is an actual bar – candy bar). They started at WordCamp Miami a number of years ago, and the wrapper was made open source so any WordCamp can use them.

What varieties are there?

Usually whatever we can get at Sam’s Club – standard chocolate (no nuts, due to potential allergies), dark chocolate and white chocolate. But if someone wants some vegan or other variety and can point us in the right direction we would love the support to make this a more diverse thing.

Why Give These Out At WordCamp US?

I think – after drama and stress this year in and out of the WordPress community – we need to spread a little more happiness. Especially to volunteers, contributors, testers, and to the youth. But we all deserve it.

What costs are involved?

Approximately $150 for the candy bars and $150 for the printing of the labels. Labor (putting the labels on) and transport/shipping will be handled by me, so there’s no cost there!

How Are These Distributed?

In the past this has been done a bit guerrilla style, so not to distract from sponsors or the event itself. Usually they are personally handed to sponsors, given to official volunteers to place in the Happiness Bar or other tables, attendees (especially youths). This is usually done on Friday and Saturday (the main days) of the conference.

What Do I Get If I Sponsor?

Short answer is that the labels are already designed, so we won’t likely be able to print logos or anything like that on the labels. However we will make sure to mention sponsorships on Twitter, blog posts, and when we hand them out. Would also consider offering small stickers as we hand the bars randomly if you can get that to me by the Thursday before the event. Open to ideas as long as it doesn’t interfere with the sponsorship system at the conference itself, and it doesn’t attract unneeded attention.

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Conference Speakers: How To Get Better Questions From Your Audience

When you invest time into a talk – whether you are giving it a big tech conference, a small meetup, or even at an online event – you want to make sure the audience understands what you presented. So you make yourself available for questions. But many times I’ve seen first hand speakers a little frustrated with the lack of quality questions, audience participation, or getting any feedback at all.

There are a number of factors involved here, but wanted to relate some tips that have personally helped me get better audience participation and questions from my talks and meetups (along with observing some favorite speakers of mine do at least some of these things in their presentations). To keep things brief, I’m focusing on only five things.

Tip One: Ask Positive Questions More Often Then Negative Ones

Scenario: Suppose you are at a WordCamp and you are trying to determine in the beginning of your talk if people have ever used WordPress. For many the first natural question might be “how hasn’t used WordPress before?”. Seems fine. But that requires someone to admit not doing something by raising their hand, and putting them on the spot (at least in their mind) or in a defensive mode (“I don’t want to admit that”). I’ve gotten better quality results by asking a more positive-aimed question and seeing who DOESN’T raise their hand (“Who here has any experience with WordPress?”). You would think the act of not raising their hand would give a same “putting me on the spot” but in many cases this seems to put people less in a defensive mode. Try it, and see what kind of results you get.

Tip Two: Be Clear When And How You Are Taking Questions

It’s always a good idea at the beginning of your talk to state when and how you’ll be taking questions. I’ve often seen speakers get sidetracked or distracted by someone attempting to ask a question in the middle of their presentation. You don’t see this often in larger conferences, but more often in smaller settings. I’ve seen this at WordCamps frequently enough.

Stating up front how and when you take questions gives the audience a better chance to prepare their thoughts while keeping your presentation “on track”, at least in your mind. If you decide to take questions at the end of your talk (or during pre-defined periods during the talk), it might give audience members some brief additional time to form their questions better in their head (or better yet, their question might be answered by just listening to the rest of your presentation).

Putting your presentation online (along with maybe even a dedicated custom page of your slides and resources) and pointing to that URL at the start of your talk has it’s advantages too. If someone asks or off-topic or deep question, this gives you an option to quickly say “the information on that URL has the answer or can guide you there, and if not reach out to me”. Takes 10 seconds to say, and you can move on to the next question or taking point.

Also, in an attempt to avoid the “i don’t have a question as much as a comment/statement” questions (if someone in the audience says this, high chance at least one person in the room is rolling their eyes) you might want to also state that you are looking for brief questions, otherwise you’ll be available after the talk. Which brings me to…

Tip Three: Be Available After Your Talk To Take Questions/Comments/Feedback

I’ve seen people literally get to a conference an hour before they speak, get up and speak, and have to either leave the venue or otherwise become unavailable. When you can, try to be available after your talk.

WordCamps have “Happiness Bars” or rooms set aside for semi-private conversations. If you have access to a WordCamp organizer, ask them if they can encourage the practice of setting aside space at the “Happiness Bar” or some other easy to find location where you can have further discussions. This way you aren’t trying to answer multiple questions within those last few minutes as you are trying to “close it down” and get off the stage before you go over time.

Tip Four: Be Approachable

This one was debatable to add, because honestly it depends alot on your personality and how your audience perceives you. Some speakers have different levels of approachability, so just be conscious of yours. Do you say in your presentation something along the lines of “i would love to have a discussion about (your subject) with you (the collective you)” or “please reach out to me for kindly discussion on (medium of your choice)”?

Make sure ways to reach out to you that you desire to be known are clearly visible in your slides (at the beginning, at the end, or both). Some speakers use custom contact forms that they point to specifically for the conference they are speaking at. I’ve even seen speakers a tech events hand out physical feedback forms.

If you desired communication and feedback, make it easily both physically and emotionality for your audience to do so.

Tip Five: Be Interactive

This isn’t always possible depending on what subject you are speaking about, how you are delivering the talk, etc. However I’ve seen recently some speakers get an increased benefit of having some part of their presentation interactive with their audience. This can come from the form of taking a survey or poll with raised hands in the audience (see tip one) but you can also try “crowdsourcing” questions or do inglive polls (audience responds with their smart phones while you continue to speak).

Some applications and sites like Sli.do or Mentimeter do this. Kahoot offers some really nice fun and interactive options, including turning some part of your presentation into a gameshow (if you wanted to).

That’s All Folks

There are other ways and methods, but I thought these were the five biggest ones that not every speaker may be aware of or needs reminders for.

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WordCamp Miami Speaker Data (2009-2018)

We announced some interesting data at the last WordCamp Miami for our 10th anniversary. One of which was the speaker data. I’m listing all the “official” speakers here (official as in there might have been some last minute replacements or cancels, but these are all the names reflected on the official sites).

Highlights:
324 Unique Speakers
160 Speakers Have Spoken At WordCamp Miami More Than Once
484 Speaker Slots (although if you include some unofficial speaking, opening/closing remarks, this is over 500)

2009

James Carcutt
David Bisset
Mark Jaquith
Ptah Dunbar

2010

Jake Goldman
Jane Wells
Tammy Hart
Syed Balkhi
Mark Jaquith
Scott Kingsley Clark
Jim Turner
John James Jacoby
Rick Tuttle
Michael Froomkin
Aaron Brazell
Roger Theriault
Brian Breslin
John Carcutt
Stephanie Rosenblatt
Shayne Sanderson
Pete Bernardo
Angie Moncada
Jim Gilbert

2011

Jeremy Harrington
John Carcutt
Matt Martz
Michael Chacon
Dezmon Landers
Kevin Zurawel
Brendan Sera-Shriar
Steven Mautone
Austin Passy
Jonathan Davis
Mark Jaquith
Andrew Nacin
Ptah Dunbar
Tammy Hart
Jhonatan Castaneda
Toni Gemayel
David Carr
Syed Balkhi
Adam W. Warner
Maria de los Angeles
Rey Bango
Josh Guffey
Stephen Gilboy
David Gewirtz

2012

Adrian Esquivel
Alex Gutierrez
Andrea Graham
Andy Stratton
Aubrey Sears
Ben Metcalfe
Blanca Stella Mejia
Brian Breslin
Chris Lauzon
David Tufts
Denise Jacobs
Erick Hitter
Gary Bacon
Jake Goldman
Jane Wells
Jess Jurick
John Sexton
Kevin Zurawel
Lisa Sparks
Maria De Los Angeles
Mason James
Melissa Venable
Myke Bates
Pamela Wynn
Ptah Dunbar
Rick Tuttle
Sam Grant
Stephen Gilboy
Steven Mautone
Syed Balkhi
Taryn Pisaneschi
Vicent Llopis

2013

Boone B Gorges
Tammie Lister
Paul Gibbs
Diana Espino
Syed Balkhi
Michael Chacon
Michael Alcantara
David Parsons
Brian Breslin
John James Jacoby
Bowe Frankema
Emilio Cueto
Federico Sandoval
Asa Shatkin
Erick Hitter
Mark Jaquith
Siobhan McKeown
Andy Vitale
Ernie Hsiung
Mason James
Mauricia Ragland
Nick Gernert
David Laietta
Jacqueline Jimenez
Myke Bates
Blanca Stella Mejia
Alex de Car­valho
Joshua Hansen
Cody Landefeld
Steve Zehngut
Ken Granger
Joe Boydston
Jayvie Canono
Suzette Franck
Zac Gordon
Andi Graham
Randy Hoyt
Denise Jacobs
Taylor Jasko
Grant Landram
Chris Lema
Brian Messenlehner
Michael Montgomery
Andrew Norcross
Shane Perlman
Tony Perez
Justin Sainton
Cliff Seal
Lisa Sabin-Wilson
Brad Williams
Pippin Williamson

2014

Aaron Jorbin
Adrian Cardenas
Alison Foxall
Amanda Blum
Anna Tuttle
Blanca Stella Mejia
Brad Touesnard
Brad Williams
Brian Messenlehner
Brian Richards
Carl Hancock
Chris Lema
Chris Wiegman
Cody Landefeld
Cory Miller
David Laietta
David Parsons
Diane Kinney
Dre Armeda
Gabriela Levit
Hector Torres
Hristo Pandjarov
Jackie Jimenez
Jared Atchison
Jared Easley
Jeff Chandler
John Carcutt
John James Jacoby
Jonathan Brinley
Josh Eaton
Karim Marucchi
Karla Campos
Kathryn Presner
Mark Jaquith
Mason James
Matt Medeiros
Michael Eisenwasser
Michelle Schulp
Mika Epstein
Nathan Hangen
Noel Tock
Pascal Depuhl
Pippin Williamson
Rebecca Gill
Rebekah Monson
Rick Tuttle
Rosie Taylor
Sarah Gooding
Steven Alig
Suzette Franck
Syed Balkhi
Sze Liu
Tammie Lister
Tomas Puig
Tracy Rotton
Trisha Salas
Zac Gordon

2015

Aaron Campbell
Adam Culp
Adam Soucie
Andrea Rennick
Becky Davis
Ben Newton
Bill Erickson
Brian Messenlehner
Chase Livingston
Chris Christoff
Chris Lema
Chris Wiegman
Chrissie Scelsi
Cory Miller
Dan Beil
Darcy Sullivan
David Bisset
David Hayes
Devin Vinson
Doug Stewart
Enrique Canals
Hristo Pandjarov
Ibis Arrastia
James Tryon
Jared Atchison
Jason Coleman
Jason Nickerson
Jeremy Pound
Jesse Petersen
John James Jacoby
Jonathan Brinley
Joseph Van
Josh Pollock
Justin Sainton
Karim Marucchi
Lisa Melegari
Marc Benzakein
Mark Jaquith
Mason James
Matt Cromwell
Michele Butcher
Michelle Schulp
Morten Rand-Hendriksen
Nakeesha Charles
Nancy Richmond
Nikhil Vimal
Pascal Depuhl
Rami Abraham
Roy Sivan
Ryan Fugate
Sarrah Vesselov
Shanta Nathwani
Shawn Hooper
Stephanie Brinley
Steve Burge
Syed Balkhi
Sze Liu
Taylor Lovett
Tim Sisson
Topher DeRosia

2016

Rachel Carden
Jim Gilbert
Adrian Cardenas
Jose L Pimienta
Bruno Cunha
Binod Purushothaman
Logan Kipp
Cliff Seal
Ptah Dunbar
Adam Culp
Karla Campos
Christina Siegler
Rocío Valdivia
Mark Jaquith
Dr. Nancy Richmond
Zac Gordon
Nizar Khalife Iglesias
Alex Oliveira
Shayla Price
Frank Corso
Bill Gadless
Chris Christoff
Andrew Norcross
Kimberly Lipari
Karim Marucchi
Michele Butcher
Jean Felisme
Patrick Alexander
Nicole Perpillant
Fridelande Rosas
Michelle Marin
Steven Alig
Ibis Arrastia
Carl Alexander
Dr. Anthony Miyazaki
John James Jacoby
David Bisset
Konstantin Obenland
Michael Cain
Josh Pollock
Ben Stoffel-Rosales
Kevin Stover
Camden Segal
David Yarde
Patrick Rauland
Marc Gratch
Marc Benzakein
Mike Hansen
Georgina Lewis
Ernie Hsiung
Pascal Depuhl
Matt Medeiros
Louise Treadwell
Adam Lamagna
Nile Flores
Dustin Meza
Devin Walker
Syed Balkhi
Stephanie Brinley
Catalina Valenzuela
Michelle Schulp
John Bloch
Adam Soucie
Steve Zehngut
David Laietta
Karen Dimmick
Victor Santoyo
Shawn Hooper
Sarah Pressler
Irina Blumenfeld
Chris Lema
Mindy Postoff
Scott Mann
Cal Evans
Sandy Edwards
Elayna Fernandez
Elyssa Fernandez
Elisha Fernandez
James Laws
Chris Wiegman

2017

Jon Brown
Kyle Putnam
Liam Dempsey
Bradley Cummins
Miles Lifton
Andrew Wikel
Sherry Walling
Karim Marucchi
Mason James
Jodie Riccelli
Diane Kinney
Mark Jaquith
Victor Santoyo
Andrew Norcross
Peter Carabeo
Michael Dyer
Brian Rotsztein
Jonathan Brinley
Hristo Pandjarov
Pascal Depuhl
Allie Nimmons
Chris Coyier
Krystal Galewski
Leah Halbina
Meagan Hanes
Melanie G Adcock
Mike Herchel
Naomi C. Bush
Paul Gilzow
Pete Nelson
Rachel S Lucas
Rebecca Gill
Shayla Price
Shelly Peacock
Shilpa Shah
Tanner Moushey
Tara Claeys
Tracy Apps
Troy Dean
Jayvie Canono
Jason Mazier
Eduardo Carreiro
Diana Espino
David Johnson
Christie Chirinos
Carrie Dils
Brian Messenlehner
Auston Bunsen
Andrew Taylor
Amanda Giles
Aleksander Kuczek
Carl Alexander
Pirate Dunbar
Karla Campos
Dr. Nancy Richmond
Zac Gordon
Nizar Khalife Iglesias
Alex Oliveira
Chris Christoff
Kimberly Lipari
Steven Alig
Anthony Miyazaki
John James Jacoby
Josh Pollock
Patrick Rauland
Louise Treadwell
Syed Balkhi
Michelle Schulp
Adam Soucie
David Laietta
Shawn Hooper
Scott Mann
Cal Evans
Sandy Edwards
Chris Wiegman

2018

William Jackson
Carole Olinger
Miriam Goldman
Naomi C. Bush
Matt Cromwell
Rodrigo Donini
Josh Pollock
Bobby Bryant
Jesse Velez
Jean Regisser
John Blackbourn
John Maeda
Tara Claeys
Lenora Porter
Francesca Marano
Matt Mullenweg
Aidan Lacayo
Pascal Depuhl
Keri Engel
Scott Mann
Rick Tuttle
Roxana Colorado
Christie Chirinos
Adam Warner
Patrick Alexander
Alejandro Sanchez
Andrew Taylor
John James Jacoby
Joshua Strebel
Dr. Nancy Richmond
Zac Gordon
Bradley Cummins
Kevin Langley Jr.
Sherry Walling
Mary Baum
Mark Ratcliff
Sandy Edwards
Melanie Adcock
Nakeesha Charles
Windy Pierre
Chris Flannagan
Jayda Washington-Boothe
Carlos Vazquez
Irina Blumenfeld
Cody Landefeld
Karim Marucchi
Syed Balkhi
Rian Kinney
Mauricio Dinarte
Chris Lema
Grzegorz Ziółkowski
Andrew Norcross
Andreas Lopez
Jean Felisme
Zach Stepek
Dwayne McDaniel
Karla Campos
Raquel Landefeld
Birgit Pauli-Haack
Natalia Real
Pat Ramsey
Michelle Schulp
Tessa Kriesel
Beka Rice
Anthony Miyazaki
Aleyna Harris
Victoria Dameus
Lindsay Halsey
Brian Richards
Marc Benzakein
Sze Liu
Georgina Lewis
Alyssa Harris
Victor Santoyo
Annejeanette Washington
Pam Aungst
Miles Lifton
Nicole Paschen Caylor
Louise Treadwell
Sebastian Rusk
Edward Pratt

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Tips On Talking With People Whose Names You Can’t Remember

In a few days, i’ll be traveling to WordCamp US before that I would like to share a secret.

I’m horrible with names. And slightly less horrible with faces. I have a “face blindness”. And “name blindness”. And “Twitter avatar blindness”. And “I’ve talked with this person 20 times in the past year via email but still can’t remember this person” blindness. So conference times are hard for me.

Turns out it’s hard for others as well – I’ve had a few admit that to me. But for natural reasons few want to admit that in public or social media. Allow me to be your sacrificial lamb and offer some tips.

Scenario: You are side-swiped as this person approaches. You need a name.

Tip 1: Obvious first move is to look at the name badge. Although the universe is against you and the name badge is covered by a jacket or reversed (this is why as a WordCamp organizer i recommend when doing conference badges to make front match the back for this reason). If by some reason the conference badges print Twitter handles, it gives you an excuse to look and ask “Has That Always Been Your Twitter Handle?”.

Tip 2: Introductions. If you have someone with you that hasn’t met the person (at least that you are reasonably sure hasn’t) allow them both to introduce yourselfs. You’ll get the name that way.

Tip 3: Get into the conversation and make up a reason to ask for their email address or Twitter handle. Odds are good you’ll get something useful from that.

Tip 4: Some conferences have “unique” info on their badges and you can ask to see their badge to see what theirs looks like.

Tip 5: Ask for their business card.

Scenario: You are the one approaching, but you forgot the name (slightly better scenario because you have time to prepare).

Tip 1: It’s harder to get line sight of the name badge from a distance, but sometimes the odds can be in your favor.

Tip 2: Approach said person, excuse yourself for the interruption, and ask them for their Twitter because you want to follow them (or Twitter accidentally dropped some followers – it happens). Walk away knowing you’ll be prepared for your next encounter.

Tip 3: Never hurts to ask someone else. Believe me, everyone has crappy memories. Or mostly everyone.

Tip 4: Ask for their business card.

Wait – Why Don’t You Just Ask?

This blog post is a bit of a parody, because you shouldn’t be afraid to ask someone’s name. All of us endeavour to remember people, but stress and time put a strain on our brains. Especially if we are at conferences outside of our local area. Outside of those with total recall, this effects ALL OF US at some point or another.

If you are talking to someone, be understanding if they can’t recall your name at the moment.

Especially if that person is me.

See you in a few days, WordCamp US.

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