After Venue, the next Skepticon division to get busy at the beginning of the year is Speakers. We look through all of the suggestions made by attendees and previous speakers. (And we’re sorry, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is not going to come speak to us for free, ever. Especially not after what we call “The Time Cheese Incident”.)
We give all of the organizers and volunteers homework at the year’s first meeting to come back with an armload of speaker suggestions for the second meeting, and fight over which ones are the best. More about that next time. The first meeting also decides the balance between speakers, workshops, and panels, and that gives us a target number of speakers to invite.
What makes a great speaker for Skepticon? Experience and speaking skills are ideal, but we try to take some chances on newer speakers each year as well. Star power is not really a priority for us, but we do look for individuals that our attendees want to hear from. We want experts on their topics, and people committed to using good evidence and reason to come to their conclusions. Most importantly they need to be willing to work for high-fives, plus expenses. (Having no dinosaur allergies is a bonus.)
In recent years we’ve challenged ourselves to bring a wider range of viewpoints to our stage. (Once we even had a white Christian gentleman, and we let him use the bathrooms and everything.) We look for speakers from many different backgrounds, often giving us perspectives that we’ve never heard before. We figure, what good does it do be a conference where you hear the same things year after year?
The next step is to invite our top choices. We do aim high, and invite complete long shots, because sometimes it works out and we have someone we never thought we could get. Lauren has been doing this work for years now, and has her own secret formula for landing the most awesome people every year, and it’s totally not begging. (It’s begging.)
But beyond figuring out which speakers we want to invite onto our stage, what does the Speakers role involve? Let’s go to the actual, written job description:
The Speakers role is responsible for recruiting event speakers, arranging their travel and rooms, and seeing that they have everything (legal, ethical, and within budget) they need for a comfortable and successful Skepticon.
For main stage speakers, we arrange and pay for their travel and hotel rooms, feed them, water them, and expose them to sunlight regularly. We make sure that they get to and from the airport safely (except Rebecca Watson, who we seem to abandon in the airport on a regular basis – sorry Rebecca!). We see that their rooms are reserved and meet their needs, double-check their talk’s technical requirements, and make up a small gift bag of swag to say thank you.
Hey, what could go wrong? Oh, let me tell you. I’ve seen a lot, just in the few years I’ve been closely involved. No, I’m not going to give names, but we’ve dodged bullets and learned lessons aplenty. One speaker was becoming abusively demanding toward the organizers. We decided that we did not have time or energy enough to tolerate that and cut them loose. And we’re feeling very good about that decision – just because they’ve waived their honorarium doesn’t mean they can be abusive.
We learned a hard lesson when we didn’t take the time to check a late addition to the program, and things went decidedly wrong. We won’t let that happen again. A different speaker simply never showed up at the conference, and we had to scramble for a replacement. Fortunately they were okay, but our lesson was to check in with speakers sooner and more consistently.
Travel, especially by plane, can be surprisingly difficult to arrange. We need to have the legal names of our speakers in order to buy tickets, and some need to keep their legal identities private. That takes some care, and we haven’t been perfect at it. Flights into Springfield are limited, and often require connections at inconvenient times. We try to send our speakers several flight options to choose from, only for them to need a change at the last minute.
On a more ordinary note, several speaker have had to back out at or near the last moment due to illness, or other emergency. They’ve almost always given us as much notice as they could, and were very apologetic. This is something that we just do our best to allow for, and try to have backup speakers (who have been magnificent!)
The Speakers role is a major year-round effort, but it has been worth the work every time. Come see how it all turns out this year in November, won’t you?