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The Honor and Burden of Chairing a Conference

I attend a lot of conferences. Okay, more than a lot — an ungodly amount. Just check the Conferences tag on this blog.

Attending them is a ball, inspirational but tiring. Speaking at them is a privilege, stressful but rewarding. Organizing them…now that isn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy.

Why? Because it’s a thankless job, completely takes over your life for the better part of the year, and tests friendships, business relationships, and your sanity.

I have watched many great people go through it, and it ain’t pretty. Blood, sweat and tears isn’t just an idiom — or a band. It’s real, and it hurts.

Note: I’d be remiss not to mention Jared Spool, who chairs two conferences each year via his company User Interface Engineering, Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer, who chair An Event Apart, and Brady Forrest and Jen Pahlka (and now Sarah Milstein) who chair Web 2.0 Expo. Amazing people, all of them. The major difference is that they each have a production team, and conduct these events as a part of their businesses. The people I’m referring to in this post are entirely volunteers who do this work on top of full-time jobs.

Jennifer published a blog post yesterday titled My Voice and the IA Summit. In it she discusses how she made decisions on the speakers, the keynotes, the theme. She briefly mentions the personal toll it took on her life. But what struck me most of all were these two lines:

Organizers are not seen as thought leaders but rather administrators. And in general administrators don’t have a voice because they are busy doing things behind the scenes.

The experience left her feeling silenced. And from watching other people go through this process, I know she isn’t alone in feeling this way. The phrase “behind the scenes” is accurately used to describe the organizers of an event because they are felt but not seen or heard. If they do their jobs well, they don’t exist to us (the viewers, the attendees, the participants) at all. And it can be a very emotionally jarring realization for someone who has sunk their entire life into making this thing a success.

If you’ve read this blog for any significant amount of time, you probably already know that I enjoy the glory. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I appreciate the attention for my hard work and extreme passion. I want to be a recognized leader. Chairing a conference does not give you that, and so it should be no surprise that I would never take on that responsibility. But I have a tremendous, unwavering respect and appreciation for the people who do, and it’s important to me to recognize them here.

These people are the unsung heroes of our industry. A lot of us like to talk; they act. They bring us together in the same place at the same time to learn from each other, to further our careers, to inspire us to do better work and live fuller lives. They feed us, they house us, they comfort us, they free us from making any decisions for three days beyond What awesome session should I go to right now? And yet we complain when the coffee is bitter, and the room is too cold, and the speaker had too many words on his slides. How often do we take the time to say, Holy shit you just completely transformed my career! If they hadn’t given us a mecca to travel to, we’d just be wasting away behind our computer screens doing the same old bullshit we always do — just like we’re doing right now.

So to the generous, tireless, self-effacing, methodical, scrupulous, fervent, true torchbearers of this community, I bow before you.

If you build it, I will come.

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  • http://www.aminworldwide.com Janna Sundby

    Thanks for the honest blog on conference planning. Just completed one in Cambridge for AMIN Worldwide and had so many last minute cancellations that we had to charge attrition costs to those that cancelled (even though the reasons were legit). It’s a tough job, but I do like doing it.

  • http://www.userglue.com/blog/2009/10/25/idea09-debts-of-gratitude/ Russ

    Thanks very much for the mention, Whitney! It’s truly great to see the mention, and even as a chair / curator / whatever my job really was/is, it’s not done alone, and last year’s IDEA had a lot of great people helping out (many of whom are back again!).

    So, for the folks who made it this far to the comments, I’d encourage you to take a read of a blog post that I wrote thanking all the folks who helped prop me up while working on IDEA.

    http://www.userglue.com/blog/2009/10/25/idea09-debts-of-gratitude/

    Thanks!

  • http://www.useraid.com Paul Mueller

    Good post, Whitney. It is so true that we often notice only when things go poorly.

    Another great conference leader is Joe Welinske, who puts together the WritersUA conference (www.writersua.com) each and every year.

  • http://www.speakerfile.com Peter Evans

    Wow….what an amazing blog post Whitney. My brother just mentioned to me that he was just asked to chair a prestigious global conference and found your writings here doing a google search. You managed to scare the life out of him! ;-)

    Luckily some of us are trying to ease the pain conference organizers have with regards to discovering, evaluating and selecting speakers. Volunteer organizers really do need help as you cite in your blog post. My new startup (Speakerfile) started with the premise that event organizers need a better way to find experts beyond their own personal networks and communities of practice. We’re focusing on the corporate speaker market – the people who don’t get listed in a (paid) speaker bureau site. Recruiting the right speakers who will come speak at your event at no cost is a major challenge. And we are doing our part to help with this. I’d invite you to check out http://www.speakerfile.com There is no charge for anyone looking for speakers. Best of luck in your blogging, speaking, UX’ing and of course…conference organizing in 2012!