There are many good reasons not to go to every talk possible when attending conferences. However, increasingly, it became hip to boast about avoiding going to talks – encouraging others to follow suit. That rubs me the wrong way as a speaker, and I’ll try to explain why.
This article started at PyCon US 2019, the biggest Python conference in the world with roughly 3,500 attendees. On the first day, I noticed tweets encouraging people not to go to talks and instead do the infamous hallway track (= socializing in the hallways) or go to open spaces and watch the talks on YouTube. Sometimes, even claiming that it doesn’t make any sense to go to talks in the first place.
I love open spaces. I love the hallway track. As an introvert, I sometimes have to hide somewhere to recharge my energy to tolerate being surrounded by thousands of people. Taking care of your own needs always has to be the number one priority.
However, this “advice” neglects to mention that there are two sides to a talk that are both important. And so I wrote a thread, which hit a nerve, given the feedback I got. Therefore, I think it’s good to write it down properly – incorporating said feedback.
I’m not telling you you must go to every talk because I don’t do that myself. The hallway track and socializing are critical parts of a conference, and I wouldn’t travel around the world to only watch talks. I also believe that the trend is based on ignorance, not malice. So, all I want to do is to add some context for the next time you have to decide whether or not you should go to a talk:
It’s positively soul-crushing to put all your love into a talk for weeks and months and then present it to an (almost) empty room.
And it doesn’t just suck for the speaker. In case you’re a sociopath and don’t care1: it also sucks for the audience both in the talk and later on YouTube. Because the lack of butts in seats also means a lack of energy, and a lack of energy means a worse talk. The content will be mostly the same, but a speaker who doesn’t feel good on stage is less fun to watch than one who enjoys themselves.
I am on the record to spend lots of time with talk preparations and while I was very lucky in my first three years, in my fourth year at PyCon US 20162 I talked to a huge room that was 1⁄4 – 1⁄3 filled. I felt terrible throughout, and the only reason I even proposed a talk in 2017 was that I had a much better experience at EuroPython and other smaller conferences in the same year.
To give you an idea how a low-energy room feels like, I’d like to share a piece of feedback I got:
I gave my first talk at a regional Python conference to a mostly-empty audience and the lack of energy in the room was so nerve-wrecking. At the end of the talk I fainted, fell forward, cracked the podium into pieces, and woke up bleeding.— Anonymous (with permission to publish)
Certainly, not everyone has such a strong reaction but you get the picture.
If something like that happens to you in your first year and you never get to experience how it feels to talk to a room with good energy, you may stop giving talks altogether. Why spend months on a talk just to feel bad on a stage? One of the reasons many shy people like myself like to speak at conferences is because it makes people approach you to talk about your topic. Niche talks aside: the fewer people that come to your talk, the fewer people will speak to you; thus, all the effort will also fail that goal.
We will never know how many (future) great speakers we’ve lost just because they had such a disheartening experience when presenting their first talk.
I agree with this wholeheartedly. My first conference talk was to a loaded room of one person, and the sheer anxiety of having to do that again has prevented me from really desiring to present again.— I am not you, Tweet
They are the price of the hallway track.
What Can Attendees Do?
Assuming you’ve accepted that it’s better for everyone if you make speakers feel good – what can you do?
Go to talks you find interesting. Unless the speaker is very famous (see next point), you cannot rely on any kind of turnout. I’m considered semi-famous in Python circles, and yet I occasionally get a relatively empty room because someone with a more broadly interesting topic is in the same slot.
Hence, if you want that speaker to give more talks in the future, help them by showing up and supporting them. They may not come back.
Prefer talks of less famous speakers. When the likes of Brandon Rhodes or David Beazley give talks at Python conferences, they have the opposite problem: their rooms are overflowing, and people are frustrated because they can’t get in.
If you find another talk interesting in the same slot, consider supporting that poor soul instead.
Tell me about it! I presented in the same time slot as Raymond H. today, pretty sparse audience on my side of the dividing wall… 😕 (But thanks to everyone who came!)— Jonas Neubert, Tweet
Don’t leave the room if the talk isn’t what you hoped for. I know time is precious, but people leaving in the middle of the talk can be quite depressing. Especially in smaller rooms where you even can hear the door slam behind them.
Talk to speakers after their talks. Especially if the room was empty, consider making them feel better after they gave their talk. Chat about the topic, or just tell them you liked their talk. Speakers usually get very little positive feedback.
Avoid derping on your phone. Try to be engaged! Talking to absentminded statues is a small improvement over talking to air. I don’t mind notebooks because many people use them to take notes.
Sit front and center. This is the most important one. A room with 20 people sitting right in front of the speaker can have much better energy than a room with 200 people distributed throughout the room. It can even add to the experience by creating an intimate atmosphere.
On the other hand, if you sit alone in the last row, you’re essentially non-existent for the speaker, and your experience won’t be much better than watching a video. It’s impersonal and distant.
I make a point of always sitting in the front row myself and encourage others to do that too.
What Can Conference Organizers Do?
The last point can easily be helped by session chairs (the people announcing the speaker and managing the handovers). Make them announce (repeatedly) that crowding in front of the speaker is beneficial for everybody.
Harry Percival does that exceptionally well by making up fake statistics of how much better it is to sit in front.
What Can Speakers Do?
First off, take it from one of the most popular Python speakers, and don’t give up if your first attempts go badly:
If you do talk to an empty room, don’t give up though. I gave the first talk about Python at the Supercomputing conf to 400 empty chairs.— David Beazley, Tweet
If my session chair doesn’t shepherd my audience in front of me and it looks like it’s going to be empty, I ask the AV crew to unmute my microphone and do it myself. But that’s not always possible.
One trick to avoid this problem in the first place is to give your first talks in front of meetups that will be entirely focused on you3 and choose conferences that have only one or two tracks. They are usually more fun anyway.
You don’t owe speakers anything, and I don’t mean to guilt you into doing things that will make your conference less enjoyable.
But I hope that the next time you’re deciding between chatting in the hallway and going to a talk you’re really interested in, you take into account that speakers have needs too and by showing them some love, everybody wins.
You also cannot rely on every talk landing on YouTube. Paul Hildebrandt ’s talks are fantastic but contain Disney IP and were never recorded. PyCon US 2019’s keynote that made everybody cry fell victim to data loss. ↩︎
I got the year wrong in my thread. ↩︎