Know your role

by Derek Featherstone

You need to know where you fit into the line up of speakers. How do you fit into the grand scheme of things of the overall conference. Are you an opening? A closing? Part of a particular thread, theme, or stream?

This is why we need to ask why when we get asked to speak at a conference.

All speakers should be entertaining to an extent. But there needs to be a balance between entertaining and whatever else it is that you are supposed to do. If you’re an opening or closing keynote, then you must realize that your role is different than the other sessions during the day.

This past July, I was the closing keynote at the Edge of the Web conference in Perth, Australia. My goals? To wrap the day. To inspire people to go forth and think about what they had learned that day and help them chart a course to do more. Specifically, I wanted them to question their own working cycles and see how we should build in recovery time into our days, weeks, months and years.

And, just last week, I was doing a main conference session at Fronteers in Amsterdam. I wasn’t an opening or closing keynote. So my job was different. My goal was primarily to give people practical techniques that they needed to know now and help them do a better job of making their web sites and applications accessible to people with disabilities.

I didn’t get as many laughs in my talk at Fronteers as I did at Edge of the Web. So, did I fail? No.

I’m completely at ease with the results of the talk, because I knew in advance that my number one goal was to share practical techniques and strategies that people can walk away with and put into practice now.

There were a number of people that came up to me after the conference and told me how much they appreciated the techniques that they learned in my session. That they really liked the pragmatic way that I approach accessibility.

Sure, I would have liked to have had a few more laughs, but at the end of the day, I’d already decided that success will be defined by what people learned that can help them make web sites more accessible, not by how many times they laughed.

Next action:

  1. Really make sure you ask why so that you know your role at the conference.
  2. Decide what will determine your success: how entertaining you are? How practical your session is? Some of both?
  3. Ask yourself what is the most important take away from your talk and plan accordingly.
  4. Be sure to judge yourself against the right criteria that you already set out in #2 and #3 above.

October 11th, 2011



Excellent points, Derek ~ I found that this is one of most essential questions, yet people are often vague in their answers.

I’ve been teaching webdesign for quite a number of years now – where this is such an easy role to define. However, being asked to speak at networking events – they usually say ‘just to your thing’…
I usually manage to get to the bottom by asking more about their audience and attendees, to be clear about the focus of the talk.


Derek Featherstone October 13, 2011

Prisca – thanks for being here :)

Excellent point about “knowing your role” as it is very well-defined in so many cases. I wonder how intuitively we know that we need to “dig deeper” to uncover our role in other, more nebulous situations. Perhaps even in scenarios where the person asking you to speak doesn’t even know what they want your role to be?


This is great advice! I’m doing a breakfast presentation at a conference in November, but I had not factored into my planning what my ‘role’ was – setting the tone of the day, waking people’s brains up gently, moving into practical case studies. A little entertainment over their meal, too. This will be very useful in planning how I choose to communicate :-)


Derek Featherstone January 3, 2012

Wendy – how did the breakfast presentation go? I’m curious to hear about it and how this did or didn’t help you plan… :)


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