Firstly; let’s talk business – where in the mid 1700’s as the world moved away from the agrarian economy into industrialisation, the birth of business as we still know it today began. Its beginning reference point? At the time the only framework available or known came from what we had; the military. Hence the world ‘company’ was coined to describe a business – itself a military term – with all the resultant militaristic follow-ons; the hierarchy of command and control, plus strategy, war-rooms and tactics. And yes: it’s a model we still follow slavishly today.
Conferencing is no different. In its origins over 150 years ago the only available reference point (looking backwards once again) was something we’ve done since time immemorial – religion. Pile people into a darkened room, preach from ‘the good book’ from behind an altar whilst looking down on the assembled (schoolroom style) congregation.
Sounds familiar? It is. Today, having spoken at well over 2 500 conferences and seminars around the world, I can bear witness to the fact that over 95% of every event I’m asked to speak at is still assembled like an old-fashioned church, with a very similar delivery style of preaching from on high from the internal company presenters. It’s got to change!
Conference – and delegate – fatigue is very real today. Whilst conferencing remains one of the most powerful mass communication opportunities inside the world of business… most organizations do it very badly indeed. It’s the same old – same old style over and over again; and it’s got to change.
I’ve been a professional speaker for over fifteen years. I think the origins of my profession emerged from the self-same conference fatigue… company organizers began to realize about twenty years ago that boring internal speakers, one after the after, weren’t passing muster. The professional speaker was called in to elevate the message, and usually asked to speak in ‘the graveyard slot’ after lunch, in the hope that he or she would at least provide a little more ‘motivation’ than the regular internal company presenters. When I began my career as a professional speaker, following a life of developing and presenting company strategies in the advertising and corporate communications world, I was keenly swept up into this environment. “Won’t you come and present that strategy – just after lunch to our channel partners/customers/staff/suppliers at our event?”
It’s remarkable how much this style of dull, internal conferencing still takes place today as we approach 2020. It’s almost as if there seems to be no other way to communicate inside a conference – yet there are plenty of different things you can do. Clients are often surprised when I talk seating plans (preferring round tables to schoolroom style) in order to generate dialogue instead of repetitive monologues from stage; I’m introducing the concept of ‘interventions’ after a presentation. Getting the company delegates to consider and work on the messaging they’ve heard, to comment upon it and discuss how they can turn the message into action. I even ask about the length of comfort (or coffee) breaks scheduled into the agenda. Mostly I hear the stock-standard ’20 minutes’ for coffee mid-morning and afternoon and ‘45 minutes’ for lunch; without the organizers ever considering that it is impossible to visit the bathroom, network, have a coffee and catch up on social media within a 20 minute time frame. Normally leaving the room and re-entering takes at least a quarter of that time! Networking/refreshment breaks should be at least 40 minutes long and lunch, for similar reasons should be a minimum of one hour!
Which brings me to the average length of a keynote; why is 45 minutes the ‘usual’ standard? Most amateur presenters struggle to fill the time anyway and with short, modern attention spans; surely a 30 minute presentation works better? (Which also allows for good networking breaks on a well-planned day agenda!)
Let me not even mention the average content of a PowerPoint slide, save to say that the Microsoft team that built PowerPoint had clearly never presented anything in their lives. The usual templates are atrocious, over-stuffed and designed to include all the bells and whistles like bullets, charts and clip art graphics; all of which should be consigned to the dustbin.
Conferencing, when well done, leaves the origins of the church safely behind in the 19th century. I’m working with all of my clients now on the principles of Building Better Conferences; which often surprises, yet delights them when they call me in as a potential speaker. It’s resulting in better events for them and myself… and I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t really take much other than a burning desire to consciously consider how to turn something ordinary into something remarkably special.