Just a Thought: Do conferences have to be so dreadfully dull?

This is the second in the “Just a Thought” series by Dr Graeme Codrington for the TomorrowToday ezine. (Read his first contribution on Getting Rid of Your IT Department here).

Conferences seem to have taken a backward step during the economic downturn. Boring presenters, out-dated content, cheaper venues and food, and old-fashioned technology are all contributing to dreadful experiences for delegates. Dr Graeme Codrington spends a lot of his time at conferences, as a speaker and facilitator. He has some suggestions about why conferences can so often be dull and value-less events, and even more ideas about what companies and event organisers can do to drag their conferences kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

The dangers associated with a short-term mindset in business are particularly acute during an economic downturn. A survival mindset exacerbates the problem of focusing on short-term returns at the expense of long-term health and growth. There are many industries one could look to for stand-out examples of this: Toyota’s recent quality issues; financial institutions paying out massive bonuses with bailout money still floating around the banking system; BP’s flagrant disregard for safety on its Gulf of Mexico rigs; and numerous cartel operations in everything from bread to software.

I have noticed a similar shift to short term thinking in the world of meetings and conferences in the last two years. In particular, I am referring to events that are arranged by PCOs (Professional Conference Organisers), rather than in house company conferences (although I will say something about those, too). And the point I’d like to make is that – on average – they have taken a massive step backwards in quality.

These events are typically industry-related annual conferences, often linked to an exhibition or trade show. They have big reputations and brand names, and aim to attract all the players in their industries. And many have been doing so for many years and are well established “fixtures” in the industry calendar.

But, in the downturn, some of these events have made some short-term-based decisions. Some have downgraded venues. Some have tried to skimp on costs by downgrading food, facilities and staff. This has sometimes led to longer queues, less well run events, and some frustration around organisation and flow of the events. A few conferences I have been to recently have chosen to use cheaper AV (audio visual) suppliers, resulting in bad quality sound and irritating issues with data projection, lighting and so on.

At one level, of course, all of this is understandable. And probably, if they revert to high quality on these issues next year, they’ll get away with it. Everyone has been penny pinching recently, and won’t begrudge PCOs doing the same. But these conferences are in real danger of imploding if they continue to penny pinch in relation to the quality of the content on display.

Getting People Through The Doors

Regardless of the revenue model of the conference, the single most important aspect for the PCO is footfall. Whether they get the bulk of their money from exhibitors, advertisers or delegates, the price they can charge and the money they earn is directly related to the number of people who attend the event as delegates. While many people attend these events merely to network, most do place a high value on what they learn and the insights they gain by attending the event.

PCOs, in an attempt to get more money in, have turned many of the speaking slots over to the highest bidder. My colleagues and I have increasingly noticed over the past 18 months that PCOs are prepared to give speaking slots to professional speakers as long as those speakers pay for the privilege and/or are able to source a sponsor to pay for the speaking slot, too. The speakers who are likely to take up these offers are those who make most of their money “at the back of the room” by selling programmes, consulting, training and other resources – and so spend most of their talk trying to get the audience to take their wallets out and buy these products. Or, they have had to “do a deal with the devil” and end up being a walking advert for their corporate sponsor. Either way, it doesn’t add much value to the audience participants.

Possibly even worse is the trend is that more and more speaking slots are being allocated to corporate sponsors, who pay the PCOs and then get allocated prime slots which they fill with their own internal speaker. These speakers invariably deliver little more than a thinly veiled sales pitch for their company’s products and services – adding very little value to audience members. And, to top it all, most of them are dreadful. Bad PowerPoint presentations obviously put together by someone else with a script they haven’t fully understood or practiced, and filled with meaningless information and the odd completely random “funny” video that’s supposed to add either humour or energy, but is normally just embarrassing.

He Who Pays the Piper… Should Ensure They Sing in Tune

Corporate sponsors have always been a feature of public conferences, and one expects a few slots to be allocated to these types of speakers. But it gets a bit much when almost every slot is given over to valueless content and extended advertising.

And this, I fear, will be the death of these conferences. Or, at least, will hurt them a lot. I have spoken to many delegates in recent months who are wondering aloud at the value of these events, and are planning to cut them out of their schedules for next year.

PCOs can recover from this by focusing very clearly on a few key issues:

(1) Make sure they have enough high quality speakers with fresh, insightful and valuable content – PCOs need to realize that these types of speakers do charge for speaking, as it is their profession. They spend their time researching, honing their skills and ensuring their content is customized to their audience and event. It’s not just about finding and booking these speakers, but also about briefing them in detail about the nature of the event, the industry in question and ensuring there is a strong theme, or narrative, running through the conference. Which leads me to my second point.

(2) “Conference architecture” needs to be a key functional capability of PCOs – most PCOs spend most of their time dealing with the logistics of their event. The focus on the shedule of speakers often amounts to little more than creating a timetable with slots in it, and then filling these with whichever speakers and workshops are available. Sometimes there are “streams” of learning, or fairly generic themes (such as leadership, talent, technology, Web 2.0, etc), and speakers are asked to adjust their topics to fit these themes. This is equally bad in in-house company events, where often the conference organizer is a completely different person to the content manager. More often than not, these two different people hardly even speak to each other as they develop the event. And how many times have been at a conference venue that definitely did not suit the learning sessions that you were trying to run?

If conferences are about content (and I fully appreciate that some conferences are not), then you need a “conference architect”, who’s role should be to manage the learning outcomes, create the content by developing a flow between sessions, and then brief the logistics team to find the most appropriate venue and create a theme and set of experiences around the content flow.

(3) Insist on high quality visuals and presentation skills – PCOs should insist that speakers submit videos of themselves in action, and copies of their slides at the time they are pitching to be involved in the conference. PCOs should be ruthless – especially with corporate speakers – and simply reject speakers and presentations that are not of a good enough standard. Yes, even at the risk of upsetting a corporate sponsor. PCOs work hard to build their brands, and need to realise that the quality of speaking sessions at their events impacts their brand directly. They need to take more control over this aspect of their events.

As Warren Buffett repeatedly says: “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

(4) Understand and apply deep expertise in learning methods and theories – again, if conferences are about learning (and not all of them are), then PCOs should be able to apply different approaches to education and content delivery. Entire textbooks could be written on this topic (in fact, they are being written and published almost weekly). PCOs need to ensure that someone on their team (or a consultant) has some understanding of how learning happens (I fear that this point is where I will strike most deeply at PCOs, who are mainly organizers and administrators, with very few educational experts amongst their ranks). When last did one of your conference organizers engage you in discussion about Blooms taxonomy, game theory, multiple intelligences or action learning (and by this I don’t mean paintballing, river rafting or fire walking), for example? Surely, with the amount of money we spend on conferences, we should be expecting a better return than we currently get?

(5) Experiment with new technology and learning tools – following on from the previous point, PCOs should also be willing to try different approaches to learning and content delivery. This would obviously include digital and virtual technologies, allowing really top quality content experts to give their inputs digitally without being physically present. But it also includes using all of the new technologies at their disposal. Every event, for example, should have a dedicated Twitter hashtag, the feed should be displayed throughout the event and speakers should be encouraged (maybe even required) to interact with it during their presentations (or at least in the Q&A afterwards). And if you have no idea what I am talking about, I’d be happy to help you understand what I’ve just said.

Conferencing As It Should Be

There really are no excuses for a bad conference. We’ve had enough time now to learn how to do them properly. It’s 2010 after all.

Speakers who still giggle a bit and act dumb when they can’t get their laptops to send a signal to a data projector are just an embarrassment. Either don’t use the technology, or learn how to use it properly. It really isn’t that difficult. It’s not that difficult to get the microphone levels set properly, and then ensure the microphone is actually switched on before you start speaking. If you can’t do that, don’t get on stage. And don’t ever – not ever! – copy and paste an Excel spreadsheet into a PowerPoint presentation. Just don’t do it. For love of Mike, don’t.

It’s time to take back our conferences. Recession or not, we need to make sure that our conferences add real value to those who take the time to come to them. Only then will you ensure the continued success of your conferencing business. And I am certain that conference organizers who don’t do this will be harshly punished by diminishing delegates in the very near future. I really do believe that conference delegates have just about had enough of dull and valueless conferences. If you’re in this industry, then I hope this gives you pause for thought.

Dr Graeme Codrington is a future trends analyst with TomorrowToday, a strategy consultancy he co-founded. He is an author, researcher, keynote presenter and expert on the new world of work. He is a Fellow of the Professional Speakers Association of the UK, and a Professional Member of the International Federation of Professional Speakers. He can be contacted at graeme@tomorrowtoday.uk.com


4 thoughts on “Just a Thought: Do conferences have to be so dreadfully dull?”

  1. As a Conference Architect myself, I particularly endorse point 2. Usually the biggest mess occurs when the “fruit salad” components make some sense on their own, but have no coherence when placed in the “bowl”. Story lines are jettisoned in favour of shoe horning the content into the agenda slots. Speakers are added, not for their value or expertise but for the tick in the “must have a guest speaker” box. How degrading to speakers! Points 4 and 5 are natural extensions of point 2 and I heartily agree.

    My heuristic on the matter:
    1. Purpose – why are we here, what to we want to achieve, and how will we know when we have?
    2. Process – what is the storyline for this event and what are the components of this story (more on this below)?
    3. Content – and finally, what are the scripts for the components themselves, or how can we plug-and-play the ones that match the storyline?

    I think of conferences like a single episode of your favourite TV show. [Spoiler alert follows!] In Season 1 of Prison Break, Michael gets into jail in episode 1 and then he and Lincoln get out in episode 22. Each episode unravels a part of the “long” story but is also self contained, and at the same time contains several sub-plots to build up the whole episode. With a single conference event, the architecture should include reference to the “season” trajectory (this should be carefully architected too), and have a start and end within itself. The sub-plots of the episode are the components in the agenda of the event.

    If we are careful the “show” will be around for many episodes and seasons to come. If not, we may find that the series is cancelled after season 1, and if it is really bad, the pilot is all that will be seen, or worse perhaps continue to be aired even after the audiences have long since tuned out.

    Stay tuned for scenes from Graeme’s next episode of Just A Thought . . .

  2. Gordon says:

    Just a thought Graeme – conferences are not dull – just badly planned and managed.

    Maybe the conference organizers and the delegates need to look at the raison d’etre of the conferences rather than simply downgrade and penny pinch. In the boom times all and sundry were holding conferences, increasingly with either little to offer (other than the thinly-veiled sales pitch you mention) or lining up speakers who presented a rehashed version of outdated research. And yet people continued to pay the fees (plus accommodation and travel) to attend. Why?

    The two reasons that spring to mind are:
    1. The company footing the bill needed to ensure that it had a presence at the conference and one way of doing this was to send delegates under the guise of “networking”. These delegates’ attendance at any speakers’ sessions was generally serendipitous and as the individuals were not picking up the tab they were not sufficiently critical of the speakers’ lack of professionalism and the dated presentation.
    2. Companies (and many delegates) are not sure what to expect from a conference. The invitations and programmes are often so generic in their descriptions that it is difficult to determine the focal point of sessions, or even presentations. Of course this is often due to the fact that the speakers have yet to submit their abstracts and presentations before the distribution of the programme – a fault of the PCOs who are not sufficiently strict on deadlines and quality, as you mention.

    So, are the conferences simply networking events? Or do the sessions and speakers’ presentations have value other than the sales pitch? Companies representatives (those paying as well as those attending) need to be more critical of what they expect from these events and communicate their expectations to the PCOs. They then need to follow through after the event to determine if they received what they were promised, and communicate this to the PCOs as well.

  3. Gordon, great thoughts.

    Of course, you’re absolutely right that companies and individuals need to be a lot more deliberate about what they want to achieve out of an event. I think we need to give ourselves permission to be more honest about this as well.

    I attend Professional Speaker Association conferences around the world mainly to catch up with old friends, and to sit in on a few select sessions from the top speakers in the industry. It’s a slightly mercenary, but very deliberate approach to conference attendance. I am trying to get PSA conference organisers to realise that many attendees do the same – and to change their conference style to meet the needs expressed by that sort of behaviour. I am hoping that the Canadian event in December this year will be such an event.

    Watch this space.

  4. Raymond, thanks for your support. And thanks for your concise and impressive three step process. Very helpful indeed.

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