tl:dr: Use WordCamp to highlight your local experts; shoot for 80% local/20% out-of-town speakers. Speakers should be knowledgeable and embrace the principles of the WordPress project.
Each WordCamp varies. Some are unconference style, with no pre-planned sessions or speakers, others are carefully scheduled with only organizer-selected speakers on the roster, and the rest fall somewhere in-between, often mixing formats over the course of the event. If any portion of your event is going to have scheduled speakers, you need to find, um, speakers. (Hopefully they won’t say “um” too much!)
Here is a recent hangout where we discussed recruiting and wrangling WordCamp speakers
Locals or Rock Stars?
WordCamps are meant to foster local community. If all the speakers are shipped in from out of town, that means that local experts (or people who could become experts) don’t get the exposure that comes from speaking at a WordCamp — both in the local community and in the broader community via the videos posted to WordPress.tv after the fact. Give your community a chance to strut its stuff and have its share of the spotlight! Who knows, the next Mark Jaquith could be discovered talking about security at *your* WordCamp. If you want to try to showcase local talent but aren’t sure if a potential speaker is as expert as they ought to be, never fear! We have some of those WordCamp rock stars on hand to help newer speakers ensure accuracy in their presentations. Alternately, match up your rock stars and your locals to do joint presentations, interviews, critiques, panels, or other interesting speaking formats that will bring them together rather than creating more distance.
That said, who doesn’t secretly hope to meet Matt Mullenweg at their WordCamp? Having the chance to meet some of the more well-known members of the community is fun and exciting, and can draw people to the WordCamp who might not have been involved in the meetup group before. It’s fine to invite people with higher profiles (like WordPress core contributors, forum moderators, people with successful WordPress-based businesses, or Automatticians), just make sure you don’t fill the schedule with them to the exclusion of your own community talent.
If you aim for at least 80% local/regional and no more than 20% visiting, you’re doing great. If you’re veering toward more out-of-towners than locals, we start to wonder if you’ve really gotten to know who’s in your local community. Are there really no people doing cool stuff with WordPress? Sometimes that is the case, we know. If you have virtually no local community yet, and are hosting a WordCamp in an attempt to kick-start one, then we understand that you will likely need to bring in outside speakers for almost everything, and can help connect you to some likely people.
How to Choose Them
There are a number of ways to identify potential speakers.
- Discuss potential speakers among the organizing team.
- Have meetup group members make suggestions.
- Put a form on your site and let visitors suggest speakers.
- Put out a call for submissions, and have potential speakers suggest themselves.
Vetting Potential Speakers
Once you have a list of potential speakers, you need to vet them to see if they all meet the requirements. If they’re not known to you personally, Google them. See if they’re connected to anyone you know who can tell you what they’re like, or if they’re a good public speaker. Are there any videos of them online? Watch them. Does their website look legitimate? Well-made? Running on WordPress? (You laugh, but you’d be surprised.) You should ask potential speakers for more information if you need it, and can suggest chatting so you can hear them talk and discuss their proposal. All speakers must meet the following criteria:
- They must know what they are talking about. If you don’t know enough about their topic to vet their presentation for accuracy, get feedback from appropriate experts. WordCamp Central can put you in touch with the right people if you don’t know anyone locally or through online channels.
- They must respect the WordPress trademarks. This means they do not operate websites with the word “WordPress” in a top-level domain, they do not use the logo in a way that violates the usage policy, they do not use the trademark in AdSense/AdWords, and they do not promote people/businesses/entities that do.
As you start getting speakers to commit, add them to your website – even if you don’t have a schedule yet. Seeing the program grow over time builds interest among potential attendees, and it gives the speakers (not to mention bloggers, people on Twitter, etc.) somewhere to link to when they post the fact that they’re speaking at your WordCamp. Don’t wait until you’ve finalized the schedule; be as open as possible as you are confirming speakers.
Make sure you send your speakers an official confirmation email when you’ve made your decision (either yes or no). At this point, gather more of their contact information, get a bio, and enter it all in the Speakers section of your yyyy.cityname.wordcamp.org site. That’s also a good time to remind speakers to design their presentations to be family-friendly (free of profanity and sexual content), accurate, and 100% GPL.
Some WordCamps also make the speakers authors on the site and ask each speaker to write a blog post about their topic, why they’re excited about the upcoming WordCamp, and asking the attendees if there are any specific questions they’d like to have answered in the presentation. This is universally popular with attendees, as it makes it easier for them to choose sessions to attend, gets them excited about WordCamp, and creates a connection (via comments on your site) that makes it easier to approach people in person on the day of the event. Every blog post is also another chance for people to promote your WordCamp, so be sure to publicize each one via Twitter, Facebook, mailing list, etc.
Send your speakers another email 2 weeks before the event. Include the venue information, what time they are speaking, and instructions to be there 15 minutes before their talk starts. Ask if they need any special equipment. Make sure they have all of the organizers’ cell phone numbers programmed into their cell phones (and that you have theirs in yours).
Covering Speaker Travel
Speaking at a WordCamp is considered a volunteer contribution to the WordPress project, just like submitting a patch to core, answering questions in the support forums, organizing a meetup (or a WordCamp!), as evidenced by the icons on WordPress.org profiles. Just as developers donate hours of time they could have been billing clients instead of writing patches for core or working in the support forums, if someone chooses to travel to speak at a WordCamp, the expectation is that they’ll cover their own expenses. Very occasionally, exceptions are made in the case of a WordPress project leader with financial need.
It’s generally not necessary to help with speaker travel if an organizer team keeps their speaker roster local; and for many speakers, traveling to speak at a conference is a legitimate business expense. Many WordCamps have used Skype and Google hangouts to include out-of-town speakers without incurring travel costs if they don’t have a local expert to speak on a topic the community really wants to hear about. Events like SXSW, DrupalCon, and Open Source Bridge do not cover speaker travel, and following those examples has seemed to serve WordCamps quite well.