Conference Organizing Isn't a Trap

Every now and then, an oft-repeated joke rubs me the wrong way, and I feel the need to play joke police. This post isn’t targeted at any one individual (no, not even you, the reader). I’ve made these jokes before, and I’ve heard them from all sorts of people. Let’s be a little more mindful about how we portray conference organizing.

This joke has a few variants, such as “I got tricked into conference organizing.” or the simpler and punchier “It’s a trap!” as a response to some other comment. They all boil down to the same sentiment: “you’ll regret conference organizing, and whoever asks you to volunteer is being deceitful”.

A bit of background: I’ve been a volunteer conference organizer for over a decade. I’ve helped organize events on scales from a monthly meetup with dozens of attendees to an annual conference with 600+, and everything in-between. This can be a tremendously rewarding task, but it’s rarely an easy one, especially for the kinds of events that rely on volunteer labor. I’ve seen friends burn out from this scene.

In the right context, these jokes can be cathartic. A circle of seasoned conference organizers may hear this as “I didn’t appreciate the level of effort that I’d put into my conference when I originally signed up for it”. They may find comfort in knowing that others have been through a similar experience and that they’re not uniquely bad at it. They may laugh, and that laughter may fade into a knowing sigh. There’s a kernel of truth here that is often not evident until the organizers have made a significant commitment to producing their event.

A group of first time and prospective conference organizers may not hear it that way. They’ll understand that it’s a joke (everyone laughed at it, after all), but how big is that kernel of truth? Do the people that run these beloved conferences really regret it? How trapped are they, exactly? You know what? Maybe this isn’t for me, after all. I haven’t made any commitments yet. Maybe I’ll just keep quiet during this meeting and not return. Phew, narrowly avoided that trap.

I’m certainly not saying to never joke about your experience or to discard humor as a tool for stress relief. But know your audience. A new organizer’s first experience with an event shouldn’t be a warning to run far, far away. Don’t drive someone away from what could be a passion they didn’t know they had. Don’t deprive the community of a future leader. Be honest and authentic about the good and bad parts of conference organizing. Support them, and let them know it’s an experience worth having.

Obligatory link to, a group of some of the most supportive and helpful people I know.