Crashing a conference

Here are the Yes Men's tips on crashing and getting invited to speak at conferences.

How can I attend a conference I'm not invited to?

So you've decided you want to hang out at a conference—out of masochism, or curiosity, or because you have a devious plan for what to do once you're inside.

First step: dress nicely. Visit your local thrift store and get a suit. (Shouldn't cost more than $20.) Get some fairly "nice" dress shoes (shouldn't cost more than $10 - nobody actually wants these things).

Second step: Just walk in the door, giving a friendly, confident wave to whoever's at the desk. Even if registration is required, they might not check that you've registered or that you're wearing a badge.

If you want to get a badge, or feel that you should have some credentials to get in the door, there will be probably be one of three situations you'll have to negotiate:

  1. There will be a table near the entrance that's full of badges all laid out nice and neatly. In that case you can just walk up, find a name, and say you're that person (and that you've forgotten your business cards). Take the conference materials you'll be graciously offered, along with the badge, and proceed inside.
  2. Another approach is to come to the table around midday (when a few tags are left), observe a tag, and then run out and print a few business cards. A sheet of pre-perforated cards and a copy shop will do the trick.
  3. There will be a table with a box on it, and a person behind the box. Then, you have to figure out what name to say. Perhaps you can adopt a heavy accent, say you need to register, and that your name is, for instance, Xzorpidquon. If you say it incomprehensibly enough, and with enough enthusiasm, the person behind the desk may help you by suggesting various names you might mean. Agree immediately with the first suggestion, especially if it matches your gender.

Once you have your badge, you can copy it quite easily by scanning it and reprinting it on the right color paper at your local copy store. Then you can get all your friends in!

Another way is to simply book a room next to the conference. Sometimes a conference does not use a whole hotel venue, and there might be a cheap room adjoining the conference you want to crash. For as little as a few hundred dollars, you may be able to book that room, and parasitically pretend you are part of the conference. Since you control that room, do as you like with it!

How can I speak at a conference?

Option: Just find an opportunity and take the microphone

Scout the venue before or during the event. Try to determine if there is a sound guy, or if the sound system is on or can be turned on. If the sound system is left on, then there you go: just take the podium and say your part. Make it snappy and short!

Alternately, you can bring a briefcase style battery powered PA with you and take the stage whenever, without relying on their sound system. If you put on a lavalier mic and carry the briefcase, you could even lean it against the front of the podium and start speaking - it will seem like you are amplified through their system, but they can’t turn you off. You can rant on till they kick you out.

One other option: you can simulate a mic takeover for video by simply having your person take the stage and make a speech when nobody is around, and then intercut with reactions in the crowded room. So then the intervention becomes a video release only.

Option: Register online as a speaker

If you want to speak at a conference, the easiest way is to find the conference website, find the page called "speaking opportunities" (often in the "About" menu), and register. (You can also just search online for "speaking opportunities" - and you'll find tens of thousands of pages. Add a keyword if you like - like "oil and gas 'speaking opportunities'".)

You'll need to fill out some hard information - for example, a company name, an address, an email, a phone number, etc. You should use an email and phone number that work (and depending on what you've filled out, you can expect a follow-up call), but the address can be totally fake.

As for the email: pick something that looks right. For example, if you're representing Exxon as Luella Arschenfleck, buy a domain like exxon-corporate.com and use an address like arschl@exxon-corporate.com. Note: a company like Godaddy might cancel your domain name just because it contains a well-known corporate name, so you might want to use an off-beat registrar like Joker.com.

The form might also ask for your biography, description of presentation, benefits of the presentation, and additional people who might want to speak on a panel with you. For all of these, don't stand out. To help, you can plunder liberally from the internet. For example, if the conference is on oil and gas, you might try to find a powerpoint about drilling technologies - simply search on "drilling technologies ppt" or the like. Start from that.

Note: with this approach, you'll probably be asked to pay a fee as speaker. If you insist that you're very important and that you'll be issuing some very important information, that fee might be waived - but don't count on it. When we registered as Dow Chemical to speak at a nanotechnology conference in San Francisco, we dodged the fee, but at the door the organizers demanded it ($600). So we had to go find a cash machine.

Plan B: Try to register to speak without doing all the dirty work. Simply register as yourself. Once you are the speaker, you simply take the stage when it is your turn, and you say something to the effect of: “I am very glad to be here talking about X, however, when I realized that the chairman of Megacorp was here, I had to cede my time to him.” Then the person playing the megacorp guy comes up and speaks... and you can choose whether or not to publicize how they got on stage, but you do have video of them speaking.

Option: Pose as a public-relations firm with a very important client

An even better technique is to simply call up the conference.

In Calgary, Alberta, we decided we wanted to speak as Exxon at a big oil conference. So Mike emailed the conference from an address we happened to own, using a new name: gus@hillknowlton.com. (We don't own hillknowlton.com anymore, but any address that looks like it could belong to a PR firm will do.)

So "Gus" (Mike) wrote to the conference and told them he represented none other than Lee Raymond, the former chair of Exxon Mobil and one of the biggest players in the oil industry. Raymond, said Gus, happened to be going hunting near Calgary, and since he was involved in an outreach campaign related to his new position advising the U.S. government, he was interested in speaking at the conference. They jumped at the chance. Of course, on the day of the event, Raymond did not show up, and assistants (that would be us, Mike and Andy) had to take his place.

The problem with promising to deliver someone very famous is obvious: everyone knows who they are – and it might just get back to someone who knows the truth. So we explained that due to security and the nature of the very sensitive announcement that Raymond was to make, the conference was not allowed to say anything about him or his presentation on their promotional material. Surprisingly enough, that approach has worked…  more than once. Remember to use the word "embargoed" a lot, it sounds quite important. (It hasn't always worked. In New Orleans, we promised a conference Alfonso Jackson, the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and told them to keep it a secret so that the real Jackson didn't find out. Instead, the conference folks told the mayor and the governor, who both showed up to rub shoulders with Jackson... or, as it turned out, his assistant, one Rene Oswin—actually Andy.)

Option: Pose as a public-relations firm with a nobody client

A slightly more elaborate version of the VIP invitation can be used to get a "nobody" on the roster as well. When we found a conference on "Catastrophic Loss" we felt compelled to send someone from "Halliburton." First, Mike made up a bunch of names at different email addresses at hillknowlton.com. The first one, "John Smith," sent an email to the conference company, acting as if he had met them before. He wrote that their colleague "Joe" had said that they really would love to have "Fred Wolff" at the next conference, and he, John Smith, had promised to try. So now he was trying! A few days later, they got an email from a different person at hillknowlton.com, saying they'd gotten him! The conference fell for it, and "Fred Wolff" (Andy) showed them Survivaballs.

Option: Set up a website and wait

This is what we started out doing. Download a website, alter it, post it at a believable web address, and voilà! instant boss-bait. It may take a while to catch one, though....

Option: Fake it entirely

This is perhaps the most underutilized of the methods. We did something like this in Copenhagen at the Cop15, where we did not have access to the forum anyway. When nobody is at the podium (could be after hours during the conference, or during the conference when nobody is in the room) simply have your person stand behind the podium and give their speech. They can do it into a wireless mic, or they can be wearing a lav. When the room is full for another event, record the reaction shots of the audience. Cut together, add ambient sound and perhaps reverb to the speaker. But do keep in mind that this is a very dirty trick! Bad, bad boys and girls.

What you’ll need

So, just to review, you will need at the least:

  • A speech or speeches from the “perpetrators”—or whatever intervention you plan
  • A press release—or more than one release (as the organization you are mocking and as yourselves—whoever you decide that is.)
  • A domain name / website to send press release from (optional, since you may just want to send the release about the event). However, if you create this website, it is also a good place to post info and video.
  • Another website, from your real organization, that takes responsibility for the action. This one should have links to actual campaigns and to action items.
  • For documentation, cell phone cameras can be enough, and there are some actions that have gotten huge publicity just from that sort of footage, or from hidden camera footage.
  • If you want to document really professionally, make sure to find camera people / editors who can turn the video around in a matter of 2 hours. Make sure that these guys are legit. Everyone says they can do this, but they need to actually be able to do it at a professional level. but there should be some of those too. You need three cameras: one for the podium, locked down, and two on the audience, with an eye to catching someone who is going to intervene (real or fake; you can always plant a friend to respond to you). And you should ensure the room includes some fake press and attendees, to stimulate questions and to make the room look more full. Think about filming and editing bystander "reactions" to the speech before you actually stage this event, rather than waiting, so you can post those reactions immediately.
  • A plan to get other conference goers involved somehow - including egging on an intervention.
  • Someone to act as an official and fake intervener, calling the police or threatening to throw you out. This is for theatrical effect.
  • A web person who is ready to post video on the day of and update the website as things come in, like new press links. (See Documenting Your Project)