05 May 2011

Genealogy Conferences - Delivering the Content

This week's discussion at Geneabloggers is about genealogy conferences. On day 1 Thomas and Helen (and probably others whose posts I did not see) talked about conferences from the perspective of the planners. Thomas has also written a brilliant post about being a speaker.

Later this week I will explain why I love attending genealogy conferences, and the realities of selling goods and services there; but today's topic is Delivering the Content: what does it take to be a speaker at a genealogy conference? One thing it takes is courage! Even after presenting fifty papers to audiences ranging in size from fifteen to over one hundred people, I still get butterflies in my tummy. (Hint: take homeopathics such as Rescue Remedy or Brauer's Nervatona Focus before the talk!)

A wise friend once told me, 'Choose a topic that you know well. Then, as you look out at the sea of expectant faces, remind yourself that they have come to listen because you know more about the topic than they do.'

When I am asked to give a talk, this is what usually happens:
  1. The organisers and I agree on a date, time, venue, number of talks, length of the talk/s (with or without question time), and payment / reimbursement of expenses if applicable.
  2. Sometimes I am asked for a specific talk that I have given elsewhere, but usually I submit a list (titles plus content descriptions) and the host makes a selection.
  3. I ask what equipment will be provided (laptop, projector, microphone etc), and I ask permission to display and sell my books.
  4. I ask whether I need to put a purchase order number on my invoice. (I once waited three months for reimbursement of $600 travel costs because the host forgot to give me a purchase order number.)
  5. Only once have I been asked to sign a contract, but I was happy to do so. Occasionally I draw up an agreement based on the advice in Professional Genealogy: a manual for researchers, writers, editors, lecturers and librarians (Elizabeth Shown Mills; Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 2001). Usually I just send (and require acknowledgment of) an email that clearly states all the arrangements.
  6. I write or update the talk(s); do one or more practice runs to check the timing; prepare handouts; scan documents for use in overheads; and create a Powerpoint presentation. Non-presenters have no concept of how long all that takes!
  7. I save the Powerpoint show on a USB flash drive (or two), in several different formats including HTML. I once found that the host's laptop would not open my Powerpoint slides, so now I play it safe.
It's lucky that I enjoy travelling, because 90% of my talks have been a long way from home. A six-hour drive is not uncommon. If I need to fly, I check airline schedules before agreeing to speak at a certain time. I once had to leave home at 3.30am because I made the mistake of letting the organisers book my flight. After some panic situations due to cancelled flights or vehicle breakdowns, I now aim to arrive in town the previous night.

Many speakers enjoy being billeted in private homes, but I had a very bad experience with that. My hostess insisted on talking (picking my brains?) until midnight - and to make matters worse, I was allergic to her dog.

In Making Money from Genealogy, I talked about payment for speaking engagements. Unless I belong to the host society, I usually charge a speaker's fee and ask to be reimbursed for travel and accommodation expenses. The 2009 Australasian Congress on Genealogy and Heraldry was (to the best of my knowledge) the first Congress to offer speakers a really good deal. The organisers might not want me to publish all the details here, but you can email me if you wish. One of the conditions was that we should be available to delegates at all times (so no skipping social functions or sneaking off to go sightseeing!)

Talks are usually arranged many months in advance, but my most enjoyable 'speaking trip' was an impromptu affair. My sister asked me to relocate her campervan from the Gold Coast to Cairns. I drove 2,000 kilometres in nine days, and along the way (with only three weeks notice) I gave talks at Biloela, Rockhampton, Yeppoon, Mackay, Townsville and two in Cairns. I had contacted Council libraries and genealogical groups, told them what day I would be in town, and offered to do a talk for just $50. (Council libraries in Australia usually expect to pay about $100.) I gave them a choice of three talks, all of which I had done before. The trip was tiring but great fun, and the $50 fees plus sales of my books covered the cost of fuel, caravan parks and my flight home from Cairns to Brisbane.

I would love to do similar trips in the future, especially in rural Queensland, NSW and Victoria. Family historians who live far from a capital city really appreciate the opportunity to learn about sources and research strategies. I can empathise with them, because I grew up in the bush and started researching my family when I lived six hundred miles from Brisbane (with no Internet).

I wonder what other speakers find especially rewarding. For me, the ultimate thrill was having a member of the audience look at one of my overheads and excitedly say, 'That's my great-grandfather!'


  1. What a great idea to talk your way up the Queensland coast! Hmm...wonder if I should do that on the next trip to Australia :)

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. Yes Joan, go for it! Email me in advance and I'll give you some hints on which libraries to approach. :-)

  3. Anonymous05 May, 2011

    You are so right about the preparation time. I agree with Thomas MacEntee's estimate of 30 hours to prepare a one-hour talk.

  4. I forgot to mention pre-conference publicity. Whether the conference or seminar is large or small, speakers are usually asked to provide a photograph and 'speaker profile' for the organisers to use in brochures, media releases etc. I also help by publicising the event myself:

    1. My accounting software lets me generate a list of clients who have an email address and a particular postcode (in other words, a list of local people who may be interested in the talk). I use a 'template' email but I often personalise each message by adding 'Dear Joe' or whatever.

    2. I put the details on my 'Talks' web page.

    3. I mention the event on Facebook, Twitter and whichever of my blogs is appropriate (usually 'Queensland Genealogy' and 'Updates Genie').

    4. I put brief details and a link to my 'Talks' page in a message to appropriate Rootsweb genealogy mailing lists, including AUS-GEN-EVENTS.

    Everyone agrees that speaking can be very tiring. Some presenters enjoy being 'wined, dined and shown the sights', but the organisers should discuss this with the speaker in advance. Those who work full-time (and are spending their only days off travelling to and presenting the seminar) may prefer a quiet dinner and an early night. 'Coffee after the seminar' is often a good way for the speaker and organisers to get to know each other better.

  5. There are actually some valid points in this comment that I deleted. (Maybe I was too hasty, but it was from a Joseph Smith with a 'blank' profile on Google, and it contained a link to a commercial non-genealogy site). I quote: "In an age when event budgets are being cut and broadband Internet access is rising, webinars are becoming increasingly popular. Webinars are web-based seminars, that usually include over 30 participants and are used to conduct presentations, workshops, lectures and large-scale meetings. Since webinars are held online, they allow companies to save money on travel, catering and venues, all of which are costs commonly associated with face-to-face seminars. However, due to their large attendance, webinars need careful planning in order to be successful. This is why those planning on video conferencing need to take their time to ensure that they properly go through all the necessary steps which will ensure the webinar's success."


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