Learning patterns/Briefing calls with speakers: A simple way to improve conference sessions
What problem does this solve?
When organizing the conference program and sessions, using emails are the best choice for sharing information that is easily organized and easily understood by the proposed speaker. This means that the speaker can read the email and get the message clearly without additional information from you or other sources.
However, there is a point at which emails are not enough for one of these reasons:
- The previously received information about the session, mainly the session outline, is too complex or too little to have a general overview of the session both for organizers and participants of the conference. Sometimes speakers may not realize that the written session outline lacks one or more key points of the session which makes readers misunderstand the session.
- There are lots of interconnected questions about the session which are very hard and time consuming to express in a written form. If the conference organizer starts the email conversation with these topics he/she will end up answering and writing many follow-up emails. In these cases, it would have been better to have a face-to-face personal meeting with the speaker(s).
- The conference organizer cannot be assured that every co-speaker who received the questions on their session has actually had the chance to participate in the discussion to answer them all.
- Sometimes the conference organizer has never met the speaker in person and the level of formality between the two parties is very high. To make the communication between the organizer and speaker better, it will be helpful to decrease the level of formality which is hard to do via emails
What is the solution?
When organizing the Wikimedia Conference 2017, we came up with the idea of having calls with the session speaker(s) after we receive their session descriptions. Although this would make it possible to overcome all difficulties mentioned above, on the other hand, the speaker(s) would have the possibility of reflecting upon their own session and the conference itself.
Which steps were taken?
- 2-4 weeks before the conference: Think of the most important questions you would like to ask the speaker(s). Prepare a document on the base of these questions for each session. For the Wikimedia Conference 2017 we have prepared these main questions.
- Is your session outline ready or do you still have something to change? - This is to make sure that the speaker has completed the session outline and is ready to publish. Furthermore, it is also a way to remind the speaker that the description can always be changed and added to, even when published on the Meta.
- How would you like to see your session documented? Is there something we can help you with? - Documentation is very important for the Wikimedia Conference. At the conference we want to have the sessions documented as much as possible. So this question makes the speaker think about the importance and possible ways of documentation. For certain sessions, a documentation volunteer might be necessary. However, there are often other ways of documenting it, e.g. via flip-charts or worksheets.
- What is the follow-up of your session from the previous conferences? and How did you incorporate with the output of the last conference? What did you change in your session? - Instead of having isolated sessions for every conference we prefer to have sessions that are following each other. It is crucial for us to understand the result of the previous sessions from the similar conferences and how these results impacted the new session. Is this new session a copy of the previous one or does it have something new, something which is based on the output of the last conference.
- What are the next steps you will take after your session? – Likewise, the output of this session is essential. This makes the speaker think that after the session there should be further steps. Not only the session itself is important but also its products, impact, and result.
- Questions on the logistics: The speaker might have special preferences for the room shape and session scheduling. Reassure, that the speaker has previously mentioned all the materials needed for the session.
After your document and questions are ready, inform the speakers about the upcoming call. Explain the need for such a call and find a convenient time to have it. Try to involve all co-speakers (if any) as it is important to hear from everyone.
During the call:
- Introduce yourself: If it is the first time you are meeting the speaker(s) face-to-face, make sure that you introduce yourself properly. Try to make the atmosphere as friendly as possible.
- Explain the call's reason: Speaker(s) should understand that this is not a usual call but a way to make their session and its outcome better. Make speaker(s) feel the real value of their sessions.
- Take notes: As it is an oral conversation, taking notes will help you to remember and document things better. Have a person accompany you to take notes, if needed.
- Start with what you got from the session descriptions: Ask questions. Make suggestions. Let speaker(s) talk about the session more. Encourage them to expand the description, to add as many supporting links, documents, sources as possible. Remind to add the session slides (if any).
- Follow the questions you’ve prepared: Try to follow the order of the questions, in a way that might seem like a casual conversation between you and the speaker(s) and not an interview.
- Highlight the importance of following-up: Encourage the speaker(s) to work on the results from the last conference and track the impact after the current conference is over. Later, ask them to send you additional information about the follow-up of the session.
- Provide and request the logistics details: Is there any other session to which this one should proceed/follow? Will the speaker(s) be already at the conference when the session begins? Are there any other materials speaker(s) will need? What should be the room settings for the session?
- Have a time for other questions/comments: The speaker(s) may have questions/comments about the program and the conference in general. Take your time to answer and clarify them all.
After the call:
- Take a look at the notes you have taken and assess the call. If there’s a need, send a follow-up email to the call participants with the written notes and actions you/speaker(s) will take. Finally, think of how this call influenced the session and speaker(s) and how you can make it better for the following ones.