When Nobody Shows Up To My Conference Talk

May 21, 2019

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 👂🏻.

6 thoughts on “When Nobody Shows Up To My Conference Talk

  1. Super duper stuff. I love how you have taken a positive and encouraging tone in response to complaints you witnessed.

    If there’s any point I would add to this already complete post, it might be a suggestion to take session titles extremely seriously, and descriptions too, though to a slightly lesser extent.

    When attendees peruse the schedule and decide where to head, they have usually the title and your name to go on. Your name won’t do much because none of us are famous in this context. Even the most well known people in our industry are unknown to the majority of attendees. That leaves just the title. I think it is worth extra effort in many cases, especially if you’re repeating the session at other events. Make it inviting, relatable, and accurate. It makes a difference.

  2. Great advice, Daivd. Pivoting to a more hands-on and interactive discussion has helped me in my early efforts of public speaking. Plus the people in those settings tend to make a more impactful connection.

    One of my early, small event attendees has gone on to become a very active social presence in Shanghai ( https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-linkedinlocal-changed-my-life-tamar-hela )

    And none of that would have happened if I was let down and not engaged based on room size.

    Prior to any event I try to get my material and presentation to a level where it’s something I feel like I HAVE to share. The “talk” portion becomes easy for me after that, and emotionally I’m fine if there’s only one other person hearing it.

  3. Here’s the thing. I admit that I was a little disappointed in one of my talks as far as attendance goes. I was hoping for a more full room. And yet. . . it’s been close to two years now and I’ve had more people come up to me and tell me that the talk changed their lives than any other talk I’ve given. I’ve long had the attitude that if one of my talks impacts just ONE person in a positive way, it’s worth it. Sure, we’d like a full room, but you never know how the dynamic might have changed. Also, remember, the purpose of speaking is not for your own edification but for the benefit of others. Always.

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