What does your audience need?

I speak at a lot of conferences, on topics as diverse as configuration management, business and front-end development. Rather than try and “build my brand” as a single domain specialist, I’ve decided just to embrace being a full-stack speaker. My daily work finds me in all of these areas, I speak about what I’ve learned, wherever it might be. If I have a skill, it’s in figuring stuff out and then explaining it to other people.

This morning I listened to Episode 110 of Unfinished Business, Andrew Clarke was speaking to Jeremy Keith and Jeffrey Zeldman. The topic of conferences came up briefly and Jeffrey asked Andrew what the differences between the audiences of An Event Apart and Smashing Conference were. I’ve spoken at both events, and they do have very different audiences and a different feel, and this difference between event audiences is incredibly important to understand as a speaker.

People often ask me what my favourite conference is, a question that is impossible to answer. Taking An Event Apart and Smashing Conf as examples, I loved both events. Both are excellently organized, take great care of speakers, curate their line-ups well and craft an excellent experience for attendees. However, as Andrew pointed out in Unfinished Business the people attending are there for quite different reasons and work for very different organizations.

Almost every attendee I spoke to at An Event Apart was an in-house team member from a company on the larger side of “small business” right through to big corporations. They referred to taking information back to their colleagues, some were even expected to present on what they had learned once they returned to the office. They were keen on code and takeaway tips, concrete learning that they could share. These are people who work in teams, and while meeting other designers and developers is a fun part of being at a conference, they get to have those conversations at work too. People sat in the hallways chatting while the conference was in progress didn’t really happen at An Event Apart, everyone was in the sessions.

Contrast that with Smashing Conf where the majority of attendees were freelancers or working for very small agencies. A lot of them work mostly alone, or are the web person on the team. They tend to be more generalist, even if they declare themselves a web designer they also need to do some back-end work, sort out servers and email for people and perhaps also are running the business. On the social side, conferences like this can be incredibly important to the solo web-worker. They are a chance to catch up with industry friends; to have discussions about the work we do; to be inspired and enthused about work that can sometimes seem a lonely slog. Even though the content at Smashing is amazing, you will tend to find more people skipping a session to have a chat with someone, the hallway track is vital.

What does this mean for speakers?

As a speaker you need to know what type of audience you will encounter. Both of these conferences know their attendees and give advice to speakers, but not all do. You can often guess, due to the price of the conference and presentations online from previous events, but the organizer should know this information. They should also have some idea of likely skill levels.

Sometimes the same subject can be presented to both groups. A talk on front-end development for example can be shaped to appeal to the specialist front-end developer working in-house and also be useful to the generalist who covers a number of job functions. The differences you will find will be in that typically the freelancer has more control over their tools and techniques, the in-house developer may be tied to company standard tools and policies. Some talks just don’t work for an audience working in large businesses. My talk on development to deployment was useful for the Smashing Conf audience, people who need to set up their own development environments and work out how to deploy client sites. The in-house developer is likely to already be surrounded by process for that. Making sites live – or at least the decisions around how to do that – shouldn’t really be the job of a front-ender in a large company.

Inspirational talks tend to work better for those who work alone too. Often what I really need at a conference is to be reminded how much I love what I do. I wouldn’t want to attend a conference that was all hand-waving stuff, however sometimes being inspired and encouraged is just what the doctor ordered when you mostly work alone.

It comes down to what your audience needs. If it is concrete tips and takeaways, give them that. For extra points make sure you provide slides, code examples and anything else that will make their job easier on return to the office. Give them things that are easily shared with their peers. For the crowd of freelancers remember that you are talking to people who have probably paid their own way to attend this event. Aim for a balance of useful tips but without overwhelming and making people feel they have to do everything right now. You want people not leave inspired rather than horrified at how much there is to learn!

As a final note, don’t forget that you can start to ask these questions while preparing a proposal for a call for papers. Pitching something that is just wrong for the audience is a sure-fire way to have an excellent talk rejected.

Stuart on the 24 Jul 2015:

Very good points. Too many speakers have a single presentation approach that may only work for a certain audience. I think that giving people something to take away and develop on themselves is the key, that’s what I find most helpful anyway.

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