Building a schedule that brings in new audiences while still pleasing the majority of the old audience can be a challenge. If you’re smart there is natural turnover in a conference schedule anyway as people stop presenting (for whatever reason) and you need to fill those spots. That isn’t enough though. You should keep an ear out for who the new voices are, especially the ones that aren’t often heard from, the magical ‘under represented’ category.
Here is one old school trick I use, I watch for blog commenters, friends of friends of big names on Facebook, and smaller conferences guest speakers. At PantheaCon we’re fortunate that we also have the hospitality rooms. Many of those run their own programming and I keep a watch on them and when I consistently hear about someone or when their item is so popular that it overfills a hotel room then I know they’ll be a good fit to go on the regular schedule the next year in a small room. It doesn’t always work but it’s a great place to start.
Here is another one. Ask people. On the feedback form for presenters I specifically asked for suggestions for future years and got half a dozen names. Again, you aren’t guaranteed a great new presenter but the best voices want to share with more people and you will find folks eight times out of ten.
Finally, you are going to have to step out of your comfort zone and don’t be surprised if the community you reach out to is skeptical of your motives. If you are just inviting a person of color, or gender variant, or a woman so that your panel isn’t all white men? Don’t. It will stand out for the token effort that it is and you won’t actually change the conversation. Instead I urge you to talk to that first person and see who else they recommend to come along. And don’t put them on the sole ‘women in X’ item either. We’re tired of that conversation. Instead how about treating those folks like the rest of the human race (which they are) and invite them onto the regular big name panels. I promise the audience isn’t going to notice one or two less big names out of five. They’ll be intrigued by the two new voices and the three they have heard of before. You’ll change up the format. Make sure that the moderator isn’t overawed by the well known names, though, and that everyone gets equal ‘screen time.’
Of course that brings us to the flip side of the equation which is the inevitable grumbling when a mainstay item isn’t on the schedule. Pay attention to that but don’t give it too much weight. You don’t want to have a stale list either and changing out 10-15% of your regulars any given year is a wise practice. Give them a vacation and let the audience come back hungry the following year when you give something else a break.
If you really can’t for whatever reason take a particular presenter off the schedule then encourage them to try out one of their new ideas instead of the same old slideshow that they’ve put in for the last decade. Get them to switch it up a little bit.
With PantheaCon it started slow and it’s taken five years of concerted effort to change the schedule to consistently include voices that reflect the diversity of the whole community. I promise you, your community isn’t all white folks from the suburbs and neither should your program.