Tom's Rules for Conference Organizing

reading time 8 min

These opinions have been developed from 3 decades of attending and organizing conferences. This advice applies whether a conference non-profit or for-profit, all-volunteer or professionally run, community-driven or commercial.

Time is precious. A bad conference wastes people’s time. As as conference organizers you owe it to the attendees to make sure their time was well-spent.

Keep to the schedule

You owe it to the audience to keep to the published schedule. We make plans around what you publish. Don’t mess with our plans.

Warn speakers that they have to keep to their allocated time-slot. Each person that runs over causes knock-on effects for everyone else.

If the conference starts late, tell the first few speakers to cut their material.

Don’t start late. Make it clear to the committee that starting on time is a high priority.

Do a “tech walkthrough” the day before to make sure all the pieces will come together. The tech walkthrough will take 1-2 hours per day of the conference. That means for a 4-day conference you should plan an entire day where

Make Badge Pickup/Registration AWESOME

It sucks to arrive at a conference and have to wait in line or experience a disorganized badge pickup process. It doesn’t reflect will on the organization.

The only way I’ve seen badge pickup work well is to have the people involved visit the space in advance and plan things out. Plan out the exact position of the tables, where people will line up, etc. You can’t do this virtually; you have to be in the space.

A little math helps a lot. I recently attended a conference with 800 tickets sold and badge pickup was scheduled from 9-9:30am. That means the organizers were expecting 800 people to get their badges in 1800 seconds or 2.25 seconds per person. That’s not possible. If there were 10 lines, that would be 22.5 seconds to process each person. That’s still not enough.

The organizers were shocked (SHOCKED!) that the conference was delayed by an hour because people were taking so long to get their badges. (They ended up letting people in without badges just to get things started. They checked for badges starting after lunch.)

The fact that this was the third year in a row that badge pickup was a disaster makes me sad.

  • Rehearse the badge pickup process. Get a few people together. Simulate the process. Fix problems. Simulate again.
  • Do the math. If it takes 1 minute per person, calculate how much time will be needed; how many lines are needed, etc. Open badge pickup as early in the morning as you can get volunteers!
  • Optimize:
    • Can you mail badges to those that registered early?
    • Can you have a speed-lane for VIPs, speakers, early birds, etc?
    • Can someone walk the line and pre-check each person to make sure they’re in the right line, have their needed materials, etc. so that when they get to the head of the line there won’t be any delay?

Rehearse your speakers

The single biggest thing you can do to improve your conference’s content is to require all speakers rehearse their presentation two weeks prior to the conference, via video conference, with someone from your committee that has not seen the talk before.

If there is no rehearsal then the presentation at your conference will be the rehearsal. Your audience didn’t show up to watch a bunch of rehearsals.

A rehearsal is the only way to know that the slides are complete, that the talk matches the audience, that the length fits the time-slot, and so on.

The only way to know the presenter actually did a full rehearsal is to watch them do it. Otherwise they “rehearse in their head” which is not a real rehearsal.

A rehearsal is a large time commitment. Your acceptance notification should alert people that they’ll be required to do a rehearsal.

I wrote more about this in How to fix a conference? Rehearse Your Speakers

You might not have the full slate of speakers ready to announce but you have to at least announce enough details so that people can make travel plans.

Example: A conference advertised that the “paper presentations end at 5pm” which was technically accurate. However there was a keynote talk scheduled for 5-6pm (after the “papers”). From the organizer’s perspective they were accurate, but try telling that to the people that couldn’t attend the keynote because they had booked flights that required then to leave at 5pm.

Oh, and then I learned that I missed the pre-conference social that was scheduled the evening before the event. I could have booked an earlier flight. I was robbed of this networking opportunity, and during the conference everyone else seemed to know each other already. I was lonely and disappointed by this avoidable mistake!

If you can’t announce the entire schedule, at least give people enough info so they can book their flights accurately.

  • Is there a pre-conference social the evening before the main conference?
  • Is there a social or cocktail hour after the final speaker?
  • Should people plan on leaving after the last “session” or is there more after that?
  • Will there be a special discounted hotel rate announced later?

Give your speakers these tips

Speakers may be new an inexperienced or old pros. Either way, they haven’t spoken at YOUR conference, at THIS venue. That makes everyone a beginner.

  • Suggest they duplicate their ending or “conclusion slide” and put the dup at the start of their presentation.
  • Tell them that you’re strict about ending on time. Someone will hold up cards indicating how much time is left. However if you run out of time, “skip – don’t speed up.” Trying to read your remaining slides quickly never works. If you gracefully skip to the end and talk about your last few slides they might not even notice you were running out of time.

You can remind speakers about this a few ways:

  • A sign in the speaker’s lounge or greenroom.
  • The session chair or person that introduces the speaker should remind the speak (privately!) before the talk.
  • If you have handlers assigned to escort speakers to the stage, they should all remind their speaker: We’re strict about ending on time: if you run long, skip to the end, don’t try to go faster.

Breaks should be 15 minutes minimum

Q: “What do you call a conference with 5 minute breaks?”

A: “A conference with no women on the planning committee.”

Nobody should be expected to sit in a chair for more than 90 minutes without a break.

Breaks should be at least 15 minutes long.

If you don’t understand why, ask the women on your committee. If your planning committee has no women, shame on you.

Say nothing after your last speaker of the day.

All the closing business (thanking the organizers, etc.) should be done before the last speaker. The only thing that should happen after the last speaker is for a conference chair to say, “Thanks for attending! See you next year!”

That’s IT!

The last talk of the day usually ends with a passionate, dramatic, awe-inspiring conclusion that sends everyone home feeling good. Nothing ruins that more than the conference chairs running up onto the stage to hold the audience hostage with thank yous, announcements, etc.

Or worse, as I once experienced, the conference co-chairs ran up to the stage and didn’t have a plan for what they were going to say, and held everyone hostage with 15 minutes of “ummm” and “ouuhhh” and “oh yeah! we have to thank this person too! Would you like to come up to the stage and say a few words?” Fuck that noise. People were walking out and it was just plain bad.

Showing gratitude is important to those being thanked, but it is boring for the audience and kills the momentum created by the last speaker.

The only thing that should happen after the last speaker of the day is for the EmCee to grab the mic and say one of these:

  • “Thank you, [name of speaker]! Thank you all for attending! We start ON TIME tomorrow morning at [fill in]. See you then!”


  • “Thank you, [name of speaker]! Thank you all for attending! We’ll see you next year!”

Anything else ruins the momentum.

You should rehearse this. Really.


How do you list all this in the program guide?


4-5pm Closing Plenary
         Closing Remarks
         Keynote: Sara Speaker, "Title of My Presentation"


4-4:15pm    Closing Remarks
4:15pm-5pm  Keynote: Sara Speaker, "Title of My Presentation"

(This is bad because it lacks flexibility. If your closing remarks wrap up early, the keynote can’t start right away because you’ve advertised it won’t start until 4:15pm. Plus if you list the closing session this way people won’t enter the room until 4:15pm.)

Really bad:

4-4:45pm    Keynote: Sara Speaker, "Title of My Presentation"
4:45pm-5pm  Closing Remarks

(Never end with the closing remarks. It kills the momentum.)

Tom Limoncelli

Tom Limoncelli

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