Preparing speakers for an event

At the last Civicon london, I was volunteered to prep the speakers. I sent 4 messages, starting about a month before the event, focusing mostly on:

  1. Define the topic and audience
  2. Slides
  3. Presentation
  4. Thank you (after the event)

I probably missed a few points: asking more the speakers to promote the event ... and didn't insist enough on getting their slides beforehand (have to admit that I was -as a speaker- late as well, and finished the slides the night before the event). Anyway, the other organisers though it helped having an even better level than the previous civicon, and most of the speakers found them useful (or funny, not sure).

Some speakers freaked out a bit feeling the expected level was too high for what they could deliver, I did my best to re-assure them... and it turned out ok at the end, according to the participants.

As of some things that I did beside these messages: discuss the topic and re-define slightly some talks, look at the slides and help, provide images to illustrate and general support during the day.

We did give a gift to all the speakers (small thing, as a token of our appreciation). Something else I'd warmly recommend doing: have a dedicated facilitator in each room, with a timer and 3 papers "5 minutes", "1 minute", "End". Ask them to tell each speaker before their session they are here to help and they will show the papers to them so they have a sense of the timing... and that they switch them off if they talk too long after the "end" ;).

Luckily, civicon doesn't have the same issue as other tech events and we don't have issues with sexist jokes and so on. If you think it might be an issue, empower the facilitators and tell the speakers they will be stopped if they do something that might offend or exclude part of the audience for no reason beside being "funny".

Feel free to re-use, mix and adapt for your event. If you improve on them, please send them back to me.

1st message: Civicon london 22 august: your session is accepted

Hi {contact.first_name},
I'm glad to formally inform you that your session proposal has been selected! We offer you a 1 hour timeslot at CiviCon London 2011. Can you confirm that you accept it and you are still attending?
During the next 2 weeks I will be in touch with you and hopefully help you to have a great session at civicon. If you have any questions about practical details, about the audience or if you want to discuss the content, feel free to contact me, I'll do my best to reply or forward your question to another organiser that can.


We are still working on the schedule and will be able to tell you when is your session in 10 days, but that's going to be either:

  • 10h->11h
  • 11h15->12h15
  • 13h45->14h45
  • 15h45->16h45

We will have 3 rooms running 3 sessions in parallel and we will arrange the sessions so everyone in the audience finds something interesting to attend to at any given time.

It also mean that we will need to enforce the timing to be sure each of the 3 rooms run on the same schedule so participants can switch from one room to the other between sessions. As you will need to walk in, switch on and plug the computer, deal with the occasional technical glitch... you won't have a full hour. We aim at having exchanges and audience's participation and would like to have time for questions and answers (up to you if you prefer having them at the end or like to have an exchange during your presentation).

Don't plan to solo speech more than 45 minutes. If when you rehearse it last more than 45 minutes, it's very likely you won't be able to go though all your material. Having more is fine, but keep them at the back as a support to help answering a question you think will be asked.

We will have wifi and internet connection, but always assume it won't work or will be flacky during your presentation. We will have a beamer, be sure you can plug your laptop to a standard VGA (eg. if you have a mac, you'll need an adapter, bring one). If you aren't from the UK, you'll have to get an adapter for the power plug too.

However and because shit happens, I would like to get a copy of your slides by the 19th at the latest, so we can put them on an usb stick and spare laptop, to be able to provide them to you as a backup if needed.


We have divided the sessions in different experience levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. To be sure your presentation is adapted to the level, let me define what we mean by that:

  • beginner: has a knowledge of civicrm in general, but doesn't know it in details. Your goal is to address "What can I do with it ?", the details of how to do it are less important at that level.
  • intermediate: a power user or implementer. they are using civicrm and want to know more about a specific way of using a feature, have practical problems and want to know how to solve them. Your goal is to address "How could I extend it to solve something that civi doesn't do out of the box".
  • advanced: they are developers, you can show code (keep it short and to the point) and go into details of implementation. Your goal is that they will know how to develop something after your session (and to avoid going into a flamewar about vim vs. emacs ;)

I would suggest that by early next week you got a clear idea about what's your goal for your presentation, what you want to get out of it, and more importantly what you want participants to get out of it.

You can still change the title and description of your session. If you think the experience level isn't correct, could you discuss it with me?

Speaker 10 Commandments

These 10 tips are sent to all the TED speakers to help them prepare, please allow me to share them with you as I find them brilliant advices

  1. Dream big. Strive to create the best talk you have ever given. Reveal something never seen before. Do something the audience will remember forever. Share an idea that could change the world (or the civicrm powered part of it).
  2. Show us the real you. Share your passions, your dreams … and also your fears. Be vulnerable. Speak of failure as well as success.
  3. Make the complex plain. Don’t try to dazzle intellectually. Don’t speak in abstractions. Explain! Give examples. Tell stories. Be specific.
  4. Connect with people’s emotions. Make us laugh! Make us cry!
  5. Don’t flaunt your ego. Don’t boast. It’s the surest way to switch everyone off.
  6. No selling from the stage! Unless we have specifically asked you to, do not talk about your company or organization. And don’t even think about pitching your products or services or asking for funding from stage.
  7. Feel free to comment on other speakers, to praise or to criticize. Controversy energizes! Enthusiastic endorsement is powerful!
  8. If possible, don’t read your talk. Notes are fine. But if the choice is between reading or rambling, then read!
  9. You must end your talk on time. Doing otherwise is to steal time from the people that follow you. We won’t allow it.
  10. Rehearse your talk in front of a trusted friend … for timing, for clarity, for impact.

Looking forward to see you at civicon, I'm sure you'll help making this day a memorable one for every participant!


2nd message: Civicon london 22 august: 11 days to go (slides time)

Hi {contact.first_name}

Me, again. As promised, I'm back.

We are 11 days away from civicon, you should have defined what are your key idea(s), what do you want to share and what you want your audience to leave with.

There is only a finite number of points you can cover in <strong>45 minutes</strong>, you should decide if you want to focus on one point and dig deeply into it, or if you want to present and compare different ideas. Probably a bit of both, just keep in mind that there is a limit of how much information your audience will be able to receive and process. Try to cram too much and you'll loose their attention.

I'll come back with some presentation tips next week, I'd like for now to focus on the slides.

First, it isn't mandatory at all to come with slides. In fact, some of the most amazing presentations I've seen were without slides.

If you prefer having slides (I know I will), remember they are a support for your talk, they aren't meant to replace it. They don't have to contain every word you are going to tell. Among the people giving good advices about slides, I'd like to highlight Guy kawasaki:

Thirty-point font

The majority of the presentations that I see have text in a ten point font. As much text as possible is jammed into the slide, and then the presenter reads it. However, as soon as the audience figures out that you’re reading the text, it reads ahead of you because it can read faster than you can speak. The result is that you and the audience are out of synch.

The reason people use a small font is twofold: first, that they don’t know their material well enough; second, they think that more text is more convincing. Total bozosity. Force yourself to use no font smaller than thirty points. I guarantee it will make your presentations better because it requires you to find the most salient points and to know how to explain them well.

He also recommends 1 slide per two minutes. So 20 to 30 slides sounds like a nice number. If you got something to demo, can be less, if you plan to have a lot of participation, can be even less.

Can I request you something specific for the two first slides?

For the cover page, beside the name of your session and your name, could you write down the level? CiviCon audience is quite diverse, and that's better to clarify one more time what's the level of your session, so people can switch to a different session that is more appropriate to them. Of course, your can as well put your contact details and the name of your organisation (and/or keep it for the last slide).

Beside the initial cover page, I would suggest you to start with a plan/"table of content".

A few bullet points (or any better visualisation) to explain the main ideas you're going to cover, to let your audience see where you want to go with them, if the Q&A is at the end...

This allow the audience (and yourself while you are preparing them) to see the structure of your session.

Two classical ones are
  • Problem->Pathway->Solution
  • Problem->solution->Reasoning

The problem is the problem you've faced, or the problem your solution is aiming at solving. Be specific and personal describing it, try to present related or similar problems that everyone in the audience has. If they can relate to your problem and see that you found a solution, you got them hooked!

If you have pre-requisites and you expect your audience to be familiar with something, that's the good time to mention it (orally, no need to write it on the slides). Be prepared to introduce some key concepts if some in the audience are not familiar with them and it can be done quickly

I will leave you with these brilliant slides "death by powerpoint (and how to avoid it)". They are packed with good advices. Time worthwhile spending browsing them if you haven't already.

And of course, remember that rules are made to be broken, a presentation with a crazy structure can be amazing (please tell me in advance, I'd want to attend).

... and a presentation with 120 slides of bullet points written in comic sans size 10 and 17 colors can be amazing too, I suppose (please tell me in advance, I can't promise I will attend ;)

Hope my suggestions are useful, feel free to ignore them, that's your session, do what you feel right!


3rd message: CiviCon is a week-end away

Hi {contact.first_name},

Last mail before civicon. I hope that your ideas are clear and the slides are nearly finished. May I ask you to send me your latest version?

I would suggest that you try to run the presentation this week-end at least twice, by presenting to your favourite pet. Don't have a pet? If someone is willing to listen to it and give you feed-back, even better! Anything or anyone, really, but talk it loud, to get a sense of the rhythm and feel the duration of your different parts. Get the timing of the different parts and be sure you are in the 45 min range in total.

When you will present, try to engage with your audience at the start, ask them a question, make same raise hands, write down something. Break the ice so that's not them vs. you anymore, but that you are all in the same boat for the next hour.

45 minutes is a LONG speech. attention will dip and become unfocused in this time. There is a 10 minute rule of attention, which is that it drops heavily after 10 minutes. So you need to build into your presentation an emotionally engaging message every 10 minutes or so to refresh the attention. Can be a personal anecdote, changing rhythm, some question, crack a joke...

If you plan your presentation around 4 main ideas, you got natural breaks build in. Make them explicit if you don't have another break "I've finished point X, for the next 10 min we are seeing Y". Silences are as well a powerfull tool, to let the audience digest a point, or simply to break the rhythm.

Something else I'd like to talk about: butterfiles.

Seems that the origin of the fear of public speaking is inherited for our ancestors: when found in an open space with lots of eyes staring at them, it meant they were going to be attacked.

I can (almost) guaranty you that no one at civicon is going to try to eat you. In fact, I'm sure they are attending your session because they think they will learn something, and they want you to succeed. Really, they are on your side and want that both your and them spend a good time together.

“The best speakers know enough to be scared...the only difference between the pros and the novices is that the pros have trained the butterflies to fly in formation.”
Edward R. Murrow

Let me finish by some practical points:

Try to come early on monday, so you got the time to feel the space, have a look around, walk on the stage, have a chat with us...

Two persons are there to help you if needed (they are the contacts for the speakers only, you got your own dedicated team ;)

  • Adams Hill +44 (0) XXXX XXX XX
  • Michael Lenahan +44 (0) XXX XXXXXXX

I'm sure it will be fine, but if you run into problems or got delayed, please let us know asap.

Don't forget whatever plug adapter or other widget you need.

Don't forget to smile, it's going to be great!


4th message: Thanks, fame and glory

Hi {contact.first_name},

Thanks again for your participation, you made civicon more interesting and it wouldn't have been possible without the work you and the other speakers have done to have such a succesful event.

We have received the videos of the sessions and they ready to be online. You will get the chance to see the sessions you missed, or see yours. I did try to watch mine, I found it painful and not good for my ego, but useful to see what was good, and what could be improved (lots). Hopefully, it will help you too and we are going to make even better presentations next time (you are going to present again for the next civicon, aren't you?).

I will publish the videos and tell the participants and the word at large about them tomorrow. Could you give me your twitter name if you want me to put it on the blog post?

Also, please share with me any suggestion you have for the organisers, we did our best to prepare the event, but I'm sure we missed things that would have make it more enjoyable or that would have helped you prepare better.



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