Organizing a Regional Con

Stephanie Zvan, Ben Blanchard, Joshua Preston, JT Eberhard, Lauren Lane


SZ: Someone wants to start a conference. What should they think about first?

JE: Depends on who they are and what they are doing. Student conference? Local gathering?

SZ: Let’s start with student conferences.

JE: A lot of universities are set up to provide money to groups who want to bring in speakers and run conferences. Also, don’t start big. You won’t have the money. But also don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

LL: Think first about finding help. You cannot do this alone. Find people equally passionate and can bring their skill set.

BB: Make sure you’ve had other organizing experiences. If running a student con, you’re probably already a leader of a student group. But working with leaders can be trying, but you need an organizer mindset going into it.

SZ: Challenging in what ways?

BB: Detailed enough and have enough backup plans. Diplomatic with speakers and flexible, such as a speaker who wants red M&Ms.

JP: We’ve been doing this enough for it to be old hat. But many people watching this probably have little experience. Maybe you start small, running a bake sale to fundraise. All success depends on coalition building. Everything else, raising money, getting speakers–you don’t need to get celebrities. You’ll have a lot of freethinkers in your institution. They would love to talk about what they do.

Everyone starts somewhere. Don’t be down on yourself. Start small. Humanist Organizers’ Prayer: Oh Sagan, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to seriously just chill the fuck out.

You’ll survive. Reach out to one of us for advice.

BB: Know your resources. A lot of schools have budgets, but some don’t. Other orgs have speakers’ bureaus.

JE: Also, you don’t need to bring in Richard Dawkins, but if you want to, don’t be afraid to ask. Being told no is usually free. A lot of the famous people you admire were activists at one point and no what it’s like and want to help you. Celebrity atheists bring in most of your audience. Don’t be afraid to ask.

JP: For Midwest Science of Origins Conference, we knew that one of the introductory bio classes was using a book by Neil [inaudible] Shubin* of U of Chicago. So we sent an email out to him to ask him to speak. We then called and said we had no money. Will you take a bag of potatoes? He said, don’t worry about it. Just pay for my travel. People are sympathetic to the cause.

JE: Agents are your worst enemy. They are there to make money for the person they are representing. Try to email the person, not the agent.

SZ: Are you looking for specific things in people to help?

LL: You are looking for people with different skills. [Lists specific names I didn’t catch who do business, tech stuff, personable, etc.] I feel like we’re the Mighty Ducks. Everyone’s got their special skill. You’re gonna need lots of people to help. Look for people with accounting, marketing, graphic design.

JE: You can use the skill sets of the people you get to define your conference. Don’t forget to take on a volunteer who is passionate but has no particular skills. Lauren is the best organizer I know, but she wasn’t six years ago.

LL: Give small tasks at first, then give them more as they prove themselves. Organizers can’t do everything themselves. You have to let it go.

SZ: Ben and Joshua, how did you do it? Did you pull in particular people?

BB: I’m a networker, so I started organizing with my colleague Chelsea, so we went from there and had people in mind for specific tasks. Flexibility is key. When someone was more passionate about something else or we had someone new come in, with new skill sets, we had to adapt. You want to hold it all close, like your baby. But your baby has to fly. [complete with gestural illustration]

SZ: Just toss that baby up in the air and let it fly.

LL: No, we’re all atheists here. We eat babies.

BB: OK, so you have to let your baby cook. While it cooks, don’t hold it close. You’ll just burn your fingers.

JP: When dealing with the public, I keep the dead baby references as close to the vest as I can. Putting on a con is hard and you can’t do it alone. You have to build a coalition not only of people invested in the conference but people willing to put in the hours to see it through.

Through Morris Freethinkers, we had weekly meetings. We would say, who are most invested in this. We went to bio clubs, office of student affairs, other groups with an interest. It’s not only placing people where they can do the most good, but also giving perks. People put in extra hours for the privilege of driving Neil Shuman (Shuban?) Shubin from the airport for three hours.

SZ: How much time did you guys invest in putting together that first conference, just each of you personally.

JE: Skepticon 1 was just a few speakers. Maybe 40 hours. Not that much.

LL: Are you kidding? Skepticon 1, every week we were scheming.

JE: In our free time we talked, but Skepticon 2 was like a full-time job. It doesn’t always feel like work, it’s time you enjoy. If it’s not, do something else. The only reason you’d put on a conference like this, and it’s a lot of hours, is if you enjoy it (or if making a name for yourself, but that’s a terrible motivation because you’ll burn out).

BB: I spent well over two years planning Skeptech. I’m a long-distance person. Actual hours? Several hundred? But I also have a problem with overanalysis and micromanagement. Plus all the contingency lists and backup plans.

JP: It took a year from idea to it happening, but also a semester and summer of saying when should we start organizing this. Then weekly meetings, everyone had a task, and we had an agenda, and we’d check on progress. It depends on what you’re building you’re conference around. We just sent an email to locals, and we had Neil coming. But we worked with university offices with people whose job it was to organize a conference, so they were doing that for us.

JE: Organizations that have oodles of money to put on conferences, but don’t be intimidated by that. Lots of resources for students. It’s not money so much as what you do with the conference that makes it a success. You can be innovative.

JP: Let’s not forget that this con is being put on through Google Hangout.

JE: When I first heard of this, I shit my pants. I was so angry I hadn’t thought of it.

JP: You can bring major people to your conference just on video. Plenty of popular science writers are making a killing appearing via G+ or Skype at book clubs. Sending an email and getting a no is free.

SZ: If some of us hadn’t been attending conferences that were streamed live, we wouldn’t have thought of this.

Question from chat: Pros and cons of charging admission? What’s a reasonable amount?

LL: A pro is that it’s easier to pay for your conference! Every year, at Skepticon, we’re like, just like $5, but no, we can’t. It’s very difficult to keep it free. It’s very important to us to keep it accessible.

JE: Pros and cons depend on group and what you want to accomplish. TAM is put on exclusively to raise money. It’s a fundraiser. Skepticon, just $5 admission, would pay for two Skepticons. But it’s a principle. And the reaction we’ve seen has been glorious. It’s the only thing they can go to. If your goal as a regional group is to have a conference just to get the word out, charge 10 or 20 bucks. Then you don’t have to focus on fundraising. Don’t feel bad about asking for money.

LL: If you feel shame asking for money, lose that now.

BB: That baby bird does not come back.

Who are you making a conference for? Who is your audience? Students are poor. School is expensive. Free makes sense. American Atheists has a conference that’s more expensive because that fits their audience. They have student discounts.

JP: If we put a $5 sticker price, would we get more people through the door. But if you already have a success like Skepticon, you keep it free on principle. We did because we wanted it to be accessible. But if you’re doing your first con, consider keeping it free. If you’re putting a $5 sticker price to see a professor everyone already knows, would you get people?

There’s nothing wrong with asking for free will donations. As in the music industry, some comedians releasing whole shows for free will donations–they make more money than they would.

We had a chip-in account. We had a jar with fun buttons and stickers people could pick up. We raised more than we would have with a charge.

What is your standing in the community? Could you raise more with a jar on the registration table?

JE: People say, everyone can afford $5. No, not everyone can. If we want it to be truly accessible, we don’t charge.

SZ: Not charging can make it more difficult to determine which people registering will show up.

LL: We like people to register, and we offer an incentive. This year, we’ll have lanyards and maybe other goodies. Every year we guess and are never right. Ever.

JE: Skepticon doesn’t compete with TAM. We want people to go to both. At one point, we thought we’d have more than TAM, but people register and don’t come because it’s free.

BB: With a free conference, you have people coming who just happen to be nearby. This happened at Skeptech. People at the U of M asking what this was and coming in and hopefully coming back next year. We actually had donations from people who didn’t know what it was at all.

JP: It’s the rule of halves. Political organizer putting on any event–con, rally–take your total number and cut it in half.

SZ: How do you get out the news about the event?

JE: Make the news rather than advertising. We just leaked the news that we were having an atheist conference. We emailed churches.

LL: Social media, and have the speakers pimp it out on their websites and twitters. And postering is always a good idea. Talk to other student group leaders. Write it on your chest and run through campus. No idea is too weird.

BB: A lot of universities have mail systems. You can pay a fee to have your flier put into every mailbox on campus.

SZ: What has surprised you the most that you needed to do?

JE: Formalize a power structure early. Even though Lauren and I were best of friends, there was friction. Figure out who makes certain decisions and who to go to.

LL: It can get really stressful, and that can bring out the ugly in people. Having a structure really helps. Also, get away from the conference. Skepticon owned my life at times. Taking some me time is good.

JP: Every few weeks, we went out for Chines food. It was like a cease fire. We wouldn’t talk about the conference. We’d just be a family. I did not imagine I’d be hunting down people in the student center and unloading an elevator pitch. You learn to become social very quickly as you try to sucker people into your conference. And that surprised me.

BB: Guerilla marketing–I didn’t realize how much was necessary. The amount of time going to other conferences and tabling and talking with people and being different enough that people would talk about it. I was skeptical of it, but it worked. Going outside the box worked.

JE: Good composers borrow. Great composers steal. Don’t be afraid to steal what works from other conferences.

LL: Every time I thought I’d planned this so well and thought of every detail, there were surprises. Also, no idea is too crazy to go with. The livestream was a twinkle in our eye at one point. Now we’ll do it every year.

SZ: You guys were arranging couches for people coming in from out town. Speaking as someone organizing the MN Atheists conference, that’s something that never would have occurred to us.

LL: We had forums for finding floor space or a couch, ride sharing. We want to help people be able to come.

JE: Couch surfing was an extension of what we were doing with Skepticon. We wanted it to be available to everyone. With Skepticon, the couch surfing kind of happened organically. When you’re passionate about something, that’s how it happens. It’s just people having fun. You are talking and think, this will be fun. Let’s do it.

BB: At Skeptech, we had a nice space outside the conference that was accessible and quiet by the tables and people liked that. By reaching out, you can find these things. Many are free and will make attendees happier. Listen to attendees.

SZ: When you have very little money and you’re looking at getting speakers in who like you and want to help, how do you balance that with getting a diverse speaker list, making sure everyone has a good time.

JE: Diverse speakers and celebrity are not mutually exclusive. If your goal is to increase the efficacy of the secular movement, you need to make it apparent that everyone’s perspective will be represented. The character of a speaker is more important than their celebrity. We need speakers who won’t hide in their hotel room, who will be personable. Some celebrities won’t do this, and they aren’t a fit for Skepticon.

Talk to other organizers because some speakers are divas and a pain to work with. Bring speakers who are good people, not just celebrities

LL: Consider topics. You don’t want five talks on atheism, or five talks on biology.

JE: Why wouldn’t you want five talks on atheism?

BB: Why wouldn’t you want five talks on biology?

JE: Why aren’t sweater vests more represented?

JP: We were limited by funds and availability of speakers, so we’re working on changing this for the next one, making it more diverse. As far as making sure everyone has a good time, provide more opportunities for attendees to mingle and engage with each other. Pub crawls are cool but they get old after a while. Schedule time between speakers for people to engage with them and with each other.

We modeled after World Cafes, with tables and butcher paper, and on the paper was a question: Which talk did you like most and why? Etc. Doing this, people sat down and engaged. People who would have self-segregated engaged over the tables.I wish this happened more at conferences.

BB: Be intentionally inclusive. If you’re organizing a conference in Minnesota, and you’re trying to get local speakers, you have to intentionally seek out diversity as well as be sensitive to attendees’ special needs and wants. Cater to these as much as possible. Especially with free things. Free things are the best.

LL: My conference is free, P.S.

BB: So’s mine, P.S.


LL: Mine was first.

BB: Mine had a bigger Twitter feed.

JE: It’s not the size of your Twitter feed, Blanchard.

LL: Yeah, it’s how you use it, Benjamin.

BB: It was used well, thank you very much.

SZ: I was there. I have to agree with Ben.

So, we only have about five minutes left. Tell me something I didn’t think to ask.

JP: The question I’d want to ask is why the hell we do this? Why do we put in the time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears? For many of us, we’re doing it because we’re passionate. For the community. To inspire the next generation of activists. The big names have risen through the grassroots work of activists. Introducing people to new ideas, philosophies, discoveries. If there wasn’t a reward in the end of a job well done, no one would do it.

JE: My father always says, adults don’t make children. Children make adults. Conferences make activists. Your goals change. Our first con, we just thought it would be interesting to bring out PZ Myers and Richard Carrier, and since then, I’ve realized just how important conferences are and how minimally important what the speakers say in comparison. People stay in religion after they’ve stopped believing because they don’t think there’s community. Skepticon gives people community. The chance to sit and talk with your heroes is more inspiring than seeing them on stage. They are more than just about spreading information.

Never stop reinventing your goals, your purpose. You’ll grow so much. And that’s anther reason you start small. Give yourself time to grow.

BB: I’m never sated, so the question you didn’t ask is how will you know when to be happy with your conference? Happy that you did it. Period. Always be happy, but always be moving forward.

LL: I often get emails about how to start. Starting just means doing something. Find people, find fundraising, find that one thing and everything else will fall into place. Remember that you’re never alone. There are organizations that want to help you, people who want to help you. Reach out to us, and we will help you.

*Thanks to Stephanie Zvan for the name correction, made throughout.