~jpetazzo/Being a track host – tips from DockerCon

You’ve accepted to be a “track host,” but you don’t know how to do it? Or you’ve done it before, but you’d love to swap a few tips, tricks, and new ideas to do it better next time? I got you covered!

I’ve been a track host twice. Both times were for DockerCon, in the “Black Belt Tech” track. I had a wonderful time, because that gave me the perfect excuse to sit during the whole conference in a track that was both fascinating and enlightening to me, and listen to speakers of the highest caliber; some of them my friends, some of them my idols, some of them both at the same time. I’ll be honest with you: the first time, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew I was supposed to introduce the speakers and make sure that everything went fine, but that was pretty much it.

This experience alone doesn’t make me qualified to tell others how to be good track hosts, or “MCs.” However, I have spoken at conferences many, many times. If we include meetups and internal presentations at various companies, I have given more than one hundred talks over the last couple of years. This gave me a feel of what worked (and what didn’t) as a speaker. When I started “MC’ing” at DockerCon, I tried to have these experiences in mind, to turn them into useful teachings to better do my job.

These tips and tricks are for the “day of.” If you are also involved in the program committee, speaker selection, and pre-conference preparation – I have another post that I want to write about that; but in the present one, I’m sticking purely to things happening the day(s) of the conference.

Before the sessions

This is going to sound silly, but make sure that you know when your speakers arrive. Know how to contact them. (It could be a phone number or any kind of instant messaging where you know that they’ll be responsive.)

Good speakers will typically check their room the day before; but you can also setup a tour. Sometimes you have the room sufficiently ahead of time to offer rehearsals in that room; sometimes you’ll just be able to show them what it’s like. This is important for the speakers: it lets them anticipate the size of the room, how the audience will be seated, where the screen is (or are). If there are multiple projector screens, they’ll know that they shouldn’t use a laser pointer (since they’ll only be able to point at one screen at a time). They should also be able to check if there is a mirror screen, allowing them to see what they’re projecting without turning their back to the audience. That’s also a good moment to check that their computer (if they’re using theirs) can connect to the projector, and that they can connect to the network (wired or wireless) if they need it.

I highly recommend to have a few video adapters. Most conference projectors use HDMI connectors, and VGA is also pretty common. But lots of laptops won’t have these connectors, and will instead use miniDP, or USB-C for recent models. Ideally, your conference AV team should be able to provide a few adapters to accomodate everyone. Ideally, you should tell your speakers “bring your adapters.” But eventually, you will miss an adapter. It’s better to realize that ahead of time than five minutes before the beginning of a talk!

The day of the talks

Make sure you know who the AV person is, so you can track them quickly if anything goes wrong. Will they be in the room at all times, or will they be here just at the beginning of each talk (to mic up the speaker) and then they’ll go away? In the latter case, it’s a good idea to get their phone number so that you can call/text them if there is a problem.

Check what type of mic the speakers will have (ideally, lapel or over-ear); what type of mic you will have to make announcements; if there will be an extra mic for Q&A. If some of the talks will have more than one speaker, ask the AV team if each speaker will have their own mic.

The AV person is sometimes knowledgeable about the lighting of the room. If you want to feel over-prepared, inquire about that: what should you do if the lights go off? Or conversely, if they go on, making it harder to see the projector screen?

You should save yourself a few seats in the front row. The perfect seats should be close to the stage or podium (so you can easily interact with the speaker if needed), but also directly facing a screen (so that you can take good pictures during the talk). It’s often hard to get both, especially in a room with two screens, one on each side, and the speaker right in the middle.

It’s also a good idea to save a few good seats for the speakers. Write down (or print) “SPEAKER” in the middle of a few sheets of paper, and place them on the seats that you want to reserve.

Meeting your speakers

Ideally, you asked your speakers to be in the room 10-15 minutes before the beginning of the talk, and to meet you on the front. It’s time for a few pre-flight checks!

First and foremost, confirm with the speaker the duration of the talk. I know, that might seem weird; but some of us deliver a lot of talks, and it can be hard to remember if your conference has 40/45/50 minutes speaking slots, and whether that includes Q&A.

Speaking of Q&A, ask your speaker if they’ll do one! Not everyone does. Some speakers prefer to keep the whole time slot for their talk because they have a lot of content to cover; some speakers prefer to have their Q&A in the “hallway track.” So check with them!

If the speaker will be taking questions at the end of their talk, remind them that they should repeat the questions (unless you have an extra mic for the audience to ask questions). This will make sure that everyone hears the questions, and if the talks are recorded, it will make sure that the questions are on the recording.

If the speaker has a “complicated” name (and by “complicated,” I mean something that you don’t know how to pronounce), ask them how you should pronounce it. Full disclosure: as a French person, the pronunciation of english makes no sense at all to me. I mean, what do you expect from a language where ghoti and fish can be pronounced the same way? I expect that it’s also true the other way around, since I’m asked very often how to pronounce my last name (which is written “Petazzoni”). I’ll tell you: I don’t care how you pronounce my name. I got it from my grand-father, who was Italian; but I was born and raised in France, and I can’t speak much italian, save for counting to ten and a few expletives. Italians would pronounce it “pet-a-DZOH-nee,” French typically go for “pet-ah-zoh-nee,” but I mostly give talks in english anyway, so I don’t care. I will be slightly sad if you write it incorrectly (e.g. “Pettazoni”), so I will give you a mnemotechnic trick: it only has two Zs, like “pizza.” I will also be slighty sad if you mix it up (e.g. “Bertaloni”, it happened), unless you call me “Pizza Toni” with an overly heavy italian accent – but in that case, you also have to pour me a glass of limoncello. As a speaker, I will appreciate if you ask me how to pronounce my name; and I will invariably reply with an honest smile that it doesn’t matter. Bottom line: ask your speaker! I bet most of them won’t hold a grudge if you don’t nail the pronounciation right, but they will always appreciate you asking.

Ask your speaker how they’d like to be introduced. Same story: they generally don’t care (or rather, don’t have anything specific on their mind); but they might give you a hint about what matters to them. If they work for a company doing something particularly impressive, it’s a good time to do some fact-checking. For instance, recently I introduced Brendan Gregg, who works for Netflix. I remembered that Netflix accounted for about one third of the internet traffic of the US during peak hours, but I wasn’t 100% sure about that; so I checked with him.

If you can, try to find a little anecdote or story to introduce the speaker. I personally try to find something fun or exciting. It doesn’t have to add to the talk (the speaker will take care of that; not me!) so I just try to get people’s attention before the speaker begins. There is some research showing that people pay more attention after they laugh; so I aim for “funny” instead of “insightful” when introducing speakers. They’ll be the smart ones; not me!

If you’re going to do some live-tweeting of the session (or even just a few pictures), make sure you have their Twitter handle.

Just before the beginning of a talk

If the room is pretty full, and a bunch of people are standing in the back of the room, there are a couple of techniques that you can use to optimize resource utilization.

(1) You can announce that there are available seats and point at them.

(2) Even better: you can invite people seated near the aisles to shift away from the aisles. This will let people find available seats easily, without having to disturb a bunch of attendees to find a spot in the middle if a row. (This technique was taught to me by the amazing Bridget Kromhout!)

A couple of minutes before the designated time, go on stage (if you’re not there already). Welcome the audience. If people are talking and chatting, don’t worry: when you’ll start speaking with the Holy Microphone, they’ll go quiet. (I never had to do “Shhhh!” or ask people to stop talking so far!) Then, introduce the speaker. Their name, their title, the topic of their talk; the small anecdote about them or their subject … And it’s off to them!

Upping the social media game: if you feel like it, and if the speaker is OK with it, now is the moment to take a great selfie with the speaker and the audience in the background!

During the talk

Now is the moment to listen to the talk and tweet stuff. Insightful quotes, unexpected numbers or results, hot takes, summary slides… Here are a few tips and tricks that I use.

Of course, you don’t have to use all these tips all the time. But I guarantee that they’ll come up handy!

Last thing on the social media side: check regularly for tweets tagged with the conference hashtag. You can do that very easily, even if you don’t use a fancy Twitter client. Just enter the conference hashtag in Twitter search, and switch to “live.” Then, whenever you see an interesting tweet (related to the session where you are right now or anything else), retweet it for reach. Even if you don’t tweet much yourself, retweeting other folks ends up having a significant impact overall.

The end is near

Five minutes before the end of the talk, if you see that the speaker will probably run over, it’s time to flash them the helpful “FIVE MINUTES” sign that you had printed in huge letters beforehand. Oh, you forgot to print it? So did I. Every single time. Instead, I take my favorite editor, put it full screen, and type “5 MINUTES” with a huge font. Then I flash that to the speaker. It usually works.


If there is a Q&A, you might have some housekeeping to do!

The easiest scenario is when there are mics on mic stands for the Q&A. People will then line up behind the mic, and all you will have to do is to intervene if there is a risk of exceeding the alloted time. (“We are running out of time, but don’t hesitate to reach out to the speaker after the talk!”)

If there is no mic at all for the Q&A, make sure that the speaker repeats the questions (especially if there is a recording).

If the AV team gave you 1 or more extra mics for the Q&A, if you are able-bodied, now is the perfect time to get some exercise! You can run with the mic to hand it to whoever is raising their hand. If your mobility is reduced, or if you don’t want to run around, get someone to carry the mic for you, or keep the mic but repeat the questions yourself.

After the talk

Thank the speaker, ask the audience to give one more round of applause. It’s a good idea to tell the audience how long it is until the next talk. If your conference has a rating system for talks, remind people to use it.

Some conferences want to have the speakers’ slides. Some speakers don’t turn out their slides ahead of time. As a result, at some conferences, somebody shows up right at the end of the talk to ask the speaker to copy their slides on a USB stick. Give your speakers some time to breathe!

Parting words

I gave a ton of ideas, hints, things to do; but of course, not everything will apply to your conference. You might or might not be comfortable with some of the things I mentioned here. So feel free to adapt as much as needed!

This work by Jérôme Petazzoni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.