Archives for category: Talks

I do a lot of talks, and I’ve worked with event organizers ranging from awesome to, uh, not so great. I’ve found that how the organizer handles me, both before and during the event, has a definite effect on my performance. And so the purpose of this post is really simple — it’s to help you, the organizer, make it possible for your speaker to do a great job at your event.

The invitation

In your invitation, say why you’re inviting the person and what you hope they’ll talk about. Tell them how they’d fit into the event — e.g., would they be keynoting, in plenary, a workshop, opening or closing. Are you flexible on the format. How long would the talk be. What’s the expected audience size. What’s the date and location. Do you pay, and if so how much. How do you handle travel.

(If you’re inviting me, you send all this to the Lavin Agency.)

The planning stage

Once your speaker’s accepted, have a call or exchange some mails. Tell your speaker how many people will be at the event and what they’re like demographically, what kind of work they do, what they know or don’t know about the speaker’s topic. Are they at the event to work/learn, or is it more of a junket or social experience. Why will they be in the room and how will they feel about it.

The most useful things organizers have ever told me: “everybody is very angry about [x recent thing], and it will be an undercurrent to all the questions”; “really this is their holiday: they will just want to enjoy themselves” and “we are very interested in this topic but we are Finnish so nobody will ask questions.” The better your speaker understands the audience, the better a job they will do.

Then, send one email with all the logistical information. It needs to include the date and time and location of the talk including the full street address; the talk duration including split between presentation and Q and A; formatting practicalities (e.g., aspect ratio, acceptable formats), and contact information including cell numbers for anyone the speaker might need to reach during the event. Ideally it’ll also describe the room and AV setup (e.g., what kind of microphone, will there be a confidence monitor, size of screen, how the seating will be configured). It’s awesome if you can attach a photo of the room. Personally I’m always really interested in screen size and room brightness, because a big screen in a dark room lets me emphasize visuals, but the opposite does not.

The mail should tell your speaker what time to arrive, where to go and who to ask for. If you’re arranging travel, it should include those details too, even if the speaker already has them.

Essentially, you want this mail to contain all the practical information that the speaker might need, then or later. The more structured the better, so it can be parsed by applications like TripIt and Google Now.

Then, in the weeks leading up to the talk, send your speaker a couple of reminder mails. It’s easy for talks to slide off people’s radar, and more than once I’ve appreciated prompts that the day is getting closer :/

Day of the talk 

Empathize with your speaker! He or she has spent dozens or maybe hundreds of hours getting ready for your event. They may have travelled a long distance. They may be jet-lagged or not-yet-caffeinated or distracted by something happening at home. They may be nervous. Your job on the day of the event is to help them get into the right performative headspace.

To that end, make sure there’s somebody assigned to greet your speaker and get them settled. That person should be present, knowledgeable and friendly. If they don’t know the speaker’s work, it’s polite to vaguely pretend otherwise. I once watched a speaker’s confidence visibly degrade when a stressed-out stage manager asked him, for the fifth time in five minutes, how to spell his name.

Ideally you want to let the speaker do a quick rehearsal onstage, at least an hour beforehand. This is the opportunity to sort out any glitches such as missing adaptors, dead batteries or broken deck formatting. It also gives your speaker a chance to get used to the stage, which can be helpful because stages are often squeaky or creaky or bouncy or otherwise weird. Once I spoke from one where the audience and I were separated by 27 feet of yawning open orchestra pit, and I spent the entire talk reminding myself not to fall in. Better to discover and adapt to that stuff beforehand.

This is also a point at which your speaker might ask for some adjustments. I do this a lot. I’ll ask for chairs to be moved around, tables to be switched from classroom to tiered style, or changes to the lighting. If you can adapt to the speaker’s preferences, try to — they’re not trying to hassle you, they’re trying to make the audience experience as good as possible.

Give the speaker a green room or other quiet place for at least an hour before the talk. Make sure they have water and have eaten. A live feed of the event is great.

Some organizers seem to feel like it’s part of their job to entertain the speaker, but it really isn’t. Most speakers I know don’t want to chitchat: they want to rehearse mentally, or warm up, or just work quietly. It’s totally fine to use this time to run the introduction past them if you haven’t already, and to tell them if anything important has changed about the set-up or timing. Otherwise, try to ensure they’re left alone.

Make sure there’s water onstage. A glass or open bottle is good; hard-to-open bottles are bad, and the worst are those super-flimsy ones that crackle when you touch them and then spill all over the place :/ If there’s no lectern it’s a good practice to have a small table at the side of the stage for water and miscellanea like the speaker’s phone or notes.


It’s nice to send a quick mail thanking your speaker and telling them about how the talk was received — basically, whatever you heard in the halls afterwards. Most organizers do a good job with this.

And finally

None of this is intended to increase organizer stress! Most speakers are super-flexible, and will be fine in imperfect conditions. I did not fall into the orchestra pit! Everything will be okay :)

Wikipedia Anti-SOPA Blackout Design

Below is the text of a talk I delivered Monday at the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference in Boston. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, Icelandic member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir and I spoke on the theme of “Insiders/Outsiders: what is the right approach to change.”

Unlike many of the people in this room, I’m not an academic or a public policy expert and so I won’t be bringing you statistics or analysis or theories today. I run a big website. I’m also a journalist. If we consider ourselves to be in a war for the free and open internet, I am here to tell you some stories from the trenches.

Wikipedia is pretty much the consummate insider-outsider: the #5 most-popular site in the entire world, read by a half a billion people every month, yet written by utterly ordinary people with no special power or authority at all. If they have credentials, they park them at the door.

Wikipedia is a tremendous success story. It launched in 2001 and took off very quickly: by 2006 it had surpassed all the other news and information sites in terms of popularity. Today it’s a behemoth. And people love to point to it as an example of everything great about the internet. There’s only one problem with that. Wikipedia is pretty much alone. It’s NOT the general rule: it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Wikipedia is operated by a non-profit. In Silicon Valley, people often find that astonishing – they ask me why Jimmy Wales “left so much money on the table,” and whether he regrets doing it. (Answer: no.) Sometimes people ask me why we don’t just put ads on the site, and whether we are against advertising, against for-profit companies, against capitalism.

We say no. Our view is that the internet should have balance, much like the offline world. A city has restaurants and shops and banks as well as schools and libraries and parks. Wikipedia is like a park. It’s a public space, accessible and used by everybody.

But where are the other parks?

  • Wikipedia is the only donor-supported site in the top 50
  • Wikipedia and Mozilla are the only two nonprofits in the top 25(*)
  • The average person spends practically all their time online on the sites of for-profit companies, the vast majority of them American. (Caveat: mainland China.)

This worries me. The internet is evolving into a private-sector space that is primarily accountable to corporate shareholders rather than citizens. It’s constantly trying to sell you stuff. It does whatever it wants with your personal information. And as it begins to be regulated or to regulate itself, it often happens in a clumsy and harmful way, hurting the internet’s ability to function for the benefit of the public. That for example was the story of SOPA.

My first war story happened soon after I joined the Wikimedia Foundation. It’s about censorship in the United Kingdom.

The internet industry is, of course, generally hoping to remain unregulated. In the UK a coalition of ISPs have formed an association called the Internet Watch Foundation, which is essentially a group of retired police officers, paid by the ISPs to investigate complaints of child pornography online. In 2008, that group got a complaint about an image on Wikipedia of an album cover from 1976(**) – an album called “Virgin Killer”, by a German heavy metal band called the Scorpions. The album cover image is a young girl, nude, which has been treated with an effect that makes it look like she’s looking at you through a pane of glass that has been shattered by a bullet. It’s deliberately provocative – it’s heavy metal.

The Internet Watch Foundation decided this was child porn, and attempted to block it from the view of UK internet users. In doing that, they accidentally made it impossible for anybody to edit Wikipedia from inside the UK.

People went nuts. There was a lot of press coverage, both inside the UK and internationally. The Wikimedia Foundation spoke to the press, and individual Wikipedia editors in the UK spoke to the press and blogged and tweeted and so on. And after a few days the IWF reversed its decision.

Two interesting things:

  1. When they reversed their decision, they explicitly said that they still believed the image was child porn, but that the public outcry was too much for them. They backed down because they couldn’t win a PR war against fans of the number five website in the world. If we had been Joe’s Album Art History Wiki, it’s clear the decision would not have been reversed.
  2. Importantly and invisibly, while this story was playing out, and was being written about by journalists internationally, at the Wikimedia Foundation we noticed Amazon had quietly pulled the Virgin Killer album from its site. It still sold a version of the album that had a different cover, but it no longer sold the version with the image that was being challenged. Amazon didn’t call us to ask what was going on, or to offer us help. They didn’t even silently watch and wait. They pulled the album off their shelves — not just in the UK but worldwide.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Amazon. I spend a significant portion of my disposable income at Amazon every year, and I am grateful that it’s made my life easier and given me choices I didn’t have before it existed. Amazon is fantastic. But it’s also true that Amazon’s job is not to protect the public interest – it’s to advance the interests of Amazon.

Another story.

In 2011, there was a Wikipedia conference in Mumbai at which Jimmy Wales spoke as well as our Board member Bishakha Datta, and a few of our staff. To our considerable surprise, a popular Indian political party picketed outside our conference and demanded that the police arrest us. They were doing that because the map of India displayed on Wikipedia shows the country’s borders as per the United Nations – with the borders with China and Pakistan “disputed” – and not as per the map defined by the government of India. It is only legal, in India, to publish a map showing India’s borders as they are defined and understood by the government of India.

As you can imagine, the protest made us exceedingly anxious. We knew that although India is a democracy with a commitment to free speech, that commitment is variable and laws and community standards inside India are somewhat volatile. And so we retained a bunch of lawyers. We spent weeks researching the legal and PR issues. Where we could, we took a variety of small non-controversial steps to protect ourselves. And ultimately we got lucky, and the issue seemed to fizzle out.

What we did not do was change the map of India displayed on Wikipedia. Partly because we can’t – that’s a Wikipedia community decision – but also because we shouldn’t. It’s perfectly reasonable to publish a map of India with the UN borders.

What was interesting here, as we researched our position, was what everybody else does. It seems that inside India, every major player except Wikipedia displays the map of India with the borders as defined by the Indian government. If you’re in India, that’s what Google shows you. When the Economist magazine prints a map of India, I was told by our lawyer, the version of the magazine they sell inside India shows a map different from the version in the magazine they sell elsewhere.(***)

It’s also worth noting that the Wikimedia Foundation has a legal team and a PR team, and Wikipedia is a popular site, much-loved by its readers. Not everyone has those resources. Of those that do, most are private and for-profit. Again, some of those players are doing great things. But on the whole, over time, they will put profits before public service. That’s their job and their obligation.

Governments, in my experience, aren’t helping. Mostly they’re just befuddled, but even if they knew what to do, there’s no reason to believe they’d do it. Too often they’re corporate captives. We saw it with SOPA. Today they listen too much to the entertainment industry – the copyright owners. Tomorrow, maybe they’ll be listening too much to giant technology companies. Either way, the voices of ordinary people will only rarely be heard, and I have difficulty believing that more or better civic engagement will fix that anytime soon. I agree with Larry Lessig: structural problems – fundraising, gerrymandering – have made for a powerful incumbency with skewed incentives.

And so, as a soldier in the trenches, my message to this conference is caution and concern.

Aside from Wikipedia, there is no large, popular space being carved out for the public good. There are a billion tiny experiments, some of them great. But we should be honest: we are not gaining ground. Our schools, our libraries, our parks – they are very, very small and they may or may not sustain. We certainly have no information-sharing participatory Garden of Eden, the promise of the internet that we all originally believed in. Though we are not lost, we are losing.

I say this because it’s easy to come together for a conference like this and get excited about awesome experiments and interesting breakthroughs. It’s worth doing! We want to celebrate success! But if you’ve read Tim Wu‘s Master Switch, if you’re reading Robert McChesney‘s Digital Disconnect, you know that the insiders are winning. We are not.

The internet needs serious help if it is to remain free and open, a powerful contributor to the public good. That’s what I’m hoping you’ll discuss over the course of this conference. How to create an ecosystem of parks and libraries and schools online … that supports participation, dialogue, sharing.

Thank you.

(*Turns out I was wrong about this. Mozilla is #60 globally according to comScore Media Metrix, the industry standard for web audience measurement. Therefore, I should actually have said Wikipedia, at #5, is the *only* non-profit in the top 25.)

(**When I delivered the talk I said 2009 and 1979. I’d been misremembering: it was 2008 and 1976.)

(***Since delivering this talk, Tilman Bayer at the Wikimedia Foundation pointed me towards this BBC article, in which the Economist accuses the Indian government of hostile censorship after it forced the magazine to place a blank white sticker over a map of Kashmir in the 30,000 copies of the May 2011 Economist that were distributed in India.)

On 5 July 2013 I updated the blog post image to be the design that actually appeared on Wikipedia during the anti-SOPA blackout, as recommended to me by Brandon Harris, the guy who designed it :-)