This article gives a list of questions that your conference website should
answer, if it is to attract speakers and participants who are unfamiliar with
the jargon. Most conference websites do a good job of answering some of these
questions, but many go unanswered.
This article is inspired by discussion on the LinuxChix mailing lists over the past
couple of years about speaking at conferences; specifically, discussion about
how to encourage people to make their first ever talk proposal.
One problem with almost all Free Software conference web sites is that they
aren't very helpful to a novice speaker. One participant in the discussion
recollected reading that she would need to send in a "paper" if her
talk was accepted and asked what would be required of the paper. Was it an
article? How long did it have to be? How did it have to relate to her talk?
The only response from the organisers pointed her to mbp's
(excellent) article on getting a
conference abstract accepted, which, alas, helped her not one bit in
finding out what it meant to send a paper if her abstract was
Many Free Software conference websites assume a lot of background knowledge of
the conference process. This assumption is a strange one: many Free Software
developers work outside academia, and if they were ever inside it, never got
to the stage where conferences become part of academic life. And the Free
Software conference procedures are subtly different from academic conferences
in ways that aren't obvious, mostly because Free Software conferences are
generally more informal events than academic conferences. People used to the
peer review process may not be sending in abstracts because they're used to a
very high workload of writing and revision for each conference.
In other words, your conference might a first conference for a lot of people
— some of whom are qualified to speak. You need to write parts of your
website assuming that potential speakers and attendees know very little of the
conference process. This is doubly important since conferences vary in lots of
respects: do they pay for travel? are they for users or developers?
Simple general questions about your conference.
Almost all conferences websites answer these simple questions already.
- Where is your conference?
- When is your conference?
Give times as well as dates when answering this question, so that people know
to book an extra night's accommodation if your last event finishes at 8pm.
- What is the target audience of your conference?
Are you focused on a particular project, are you a general Free Software
conference or a tech conference accepting talks related to Free Software?
- Would a user of Free Software benefit from your conference?
- Would a developer of Free Software benefit from your conference?
- Would a Free Software advocate or someone involved in community
projects (like LUGs) benefit from your conference?
Questions everyone wants answered
Many conference websites are doing a good job of answering these questions
somewhere, but not all are.
- How can I get to your conference?
It's worth listing the airport, train station, and bus station nearest your
venue and giving some idea of the carriers that travel to that station. If
you're not in a city with a major international airport or transit hub, it's
also worth suggesting a hub for people to travel to, and then a route to your
- Any visa tricks or traps in your part of the world?
Will international attendees need a visa? Will it need to be a tourist or
business visa? Will they need a letter from the conference organisers to get
their visa (this is not unheard of)? Will they need to have anything to
present to border officials?
Something conference organisers in the US in particular are apparently still
neglecting is this fact: if you are not a citizen of a
country whose citizens the US will admit without a visa, it can take
months to get a visa to enter the US and it requires considerable time
spent gathering documents and visiting consular officials. Accepting speakers
closer to the conference will result in your international speakers being
unable to come. If your conference is elsewhere in the Americas, it is
important to warn attendees that even transiting through a US airport now
requires a visa.
Similarly, visitors to Australia are frequently shocked to find out that the
Australian government has no visa waiver program, except for citizens
of New Zealand. Nor are the US and Australia the only two countries that trip
visitors up with their entry regime.
In most cases, being denied entry to a country will require your attendees to
immediately return home at their own expense. If your conference website
addresses the basics of getting permission to visit your country and points
to the relevant authorities, you can avoid a lot of pain for them.
- What sort of accommodation is available nearby and what is the
Some conferences are doing excellent work organising conference accommodation.
Even if your conference isn't doing this, you could provide pointers to a few
types of accommodation nearby: budget hostels and mid range hotels will be the
most useful for your attendees.
- What kind of social events are you holding during the
- If I bring partners, family members or friends who won't be
attending the conference, is there anything they can do or see while
I'm at the conference?
Free Software conferences tend to be slightly bigger events in the lives of
their participants than academics ones. Frequently, attendees combine a big
conference with a holiday, and might want to bring their family. Kudos to linux.conf.au 2004 for providing
activities for partners and family members who didn't attend the conference.
A few more questions: Is the conference providing any kind of childcare?
(I've never heard of that happening.) Is there short term childcare in the
area? Can family members too old for daycare attend the conference social
- What's there to do in your area?
A not insignificant number of attendees will want to combine your conference
with a holiday, or at least with some sight-seeing, or a visit to the pub.
Give them some information about your area. Link to tourist web sites and
Something I've very rarely seen done which would be extremely useful is a
list of restaurants that are likely to be able to serve large groups of people
at short notice late in the evening. Everyone who's been at a few conferences
knows the experience of trying to take fifteen people out to dinner in a
Questions attendees want answered
There's going to be even more neophytes amongst your potential attendees than
there are among your potential speakers. Try and put yourself in the position
of your greenest attendee: has an interest, heard your conference would give
him or her an opportunity to meet some hackers working on interesting stuff,
but has never ever been to a conference. Aim your attendees section
at them: a little extra info won't hurt anyone else.
Questions potential speakers want answered
- What kind of talks can I expect to see? What will their topics be?
How long will they be?
It's a good idea to get your program up as early as possible. If nothing
else, attendees have the same or even more difficulties organising transport,
accommodation and visas as speakers do, so you should make it possible for
them to decide whether or not to attend as early as you can.
- How much will your conference cost for attendees?
- Can I get any kind of discount for being a student, unemployed,
young, old etc?
- Can I volunteer to help out in return for cheap or free
- Are there any sources of funding for attendees?
Now to the problem of neophyte speakers. For this section, imagine someone who
has some experience speaking to groups, but nothing of abstracts, or
proceedings or anything like that. There's no reason this person can't speak
at your conference, so don't make it hard for them to submit a talk proposal.
In particular, don't make your talk proposals or the talk process sound any
more mysterious or difficult than they actually are.
- What do all these words mean?
Explaining what is expected from an 'abstract', a 'paper', a 'presentation',
a 'tutorial', a 'workshop' and a 'BOF' are is crucial if you use those terms.
Not only do some people not know them, but they vary reasonably widely by
Providing links to abstracts and papers from previous years is invaluable if
any are available. You might wish to draft a sample abstract or paper if you
cannot link to previous papers. If not, you should certainly describe
requirements in detail. Place the links prominently with the call for papers.
- What kind of talks or presentations can I give? How can I tell
which one I should give?
The answer to this question should provide detail. For each type of talk,
specify the length, the size of the audience, and the expected depth of the
content if you can. Is it going to be a lecture, or interactive discussion,
or something in between? Will most speakers be using slides, giving
demonstrations, or running a Q&A session? Are speakers going to be
showing the code? What kind of knowledge level can the presenter expect from
the attendees? Are the attendees going to be peers or are they going to be
people new to the topic? Are there any different "tracks" devoted to
- How do I get a talk/paper accepted?
When answering this question, be detailed. Provide approximate word
lengths for abstracts (or papers if you require full papers at this
stage). Specify what kind of information needs to go in the proposal. And
then tell people about the process: when do they submit? how (roughly) is
their abstract going to be judged? when will they hear back from you?
Ideally, you would give examples of a few accepted abstracts here, with a
short discussion from the selection panel of what made those abstracts
appealing to them.
- If my talk is accepted, will I still need to pay the admission fee
Norms on this vary: conferences where most attendees are also speaking will
often not waive the admission fee for anyone. Be very clear about which way
you're going with this.
- If my talk is accepted, will you cover travel and/or accommodation
expenses? Will you cover international travel?
Be very clear about the limits of what you can cover. It's very disappointing
to have a talk accepted and then find out that the organisers can only pay
for local attendees, but not for international flights.
- If my talk is accepted, will I receive any payment above
I've never heard of a Free Software conference doing this, but as there are
other conferences which may do so, and some of your speakers might come from
that kind of world, best to disappoint them early.
- What do I need to do once my talk is accepted?
If you're asking speakers to provide papers, describe whether you need
slides, recordings, or written articles from accepted speakers,
together with any administrative extras like due dates for the final
paper. Describe any editing processes that will take place.
Your answer to this question should be detailed. It should explain what you
require from a full paper (if you require one) including length and format.
How should the paper relate to the talk? How formal should the paper be? If
it doesn't matter, say so. If its optional, say so. If all that is required
is a talk, say so. All this talk of 'papers' is scaring people. To
many first time speakers, especially ones with a passing acquaintance with
the academy, a "paper" sounds like something bristling with
citations and withstanding the full force or peer review. If what you're
actually doing is getting people to send you their slides tell your
On the other hand, if you are a fairly formal conference hoping to attract
Free Software developers outside the academy, you will probably want to link
extensively to style guides and citation guides for your potential speakers
to use. You will need to assume that they are not familiar with the peer
review process also (and it varies enough within academia anyway), so give a
detailed guide to it.
If you've tried to answer these questions as you went along, you probably
answered "well, it depends... small conferences can't pay travel... Free
Software conferences don't focus on citation so much..."
This is precisely the reason your conference website and publicity needs to
answer simple questions like "what do you mean 'paper' anyway?" The answer
varies. Some potential speakers will submit anyway, and assume they'll hear
from you if they don't do something. Judging from the discussion that inspired
this article, others will not.
Thanks to Jenn Vesperman and Terri Oda for input into this article.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.