Over the last 15 years I’ve been privileged to present at over 2 700 business conferences in 43 countries around the world as a keynote speaker, master of ceremonies and a facilitator. I’ve seen just about everything there is to see at events – the good, the bad and the very ugly; and I’ve worked with some famous, infamous and not so famous people – as well as all types of clients, venues, conference organizers and audio visual folks.
It’s been an incredible journey, although the world of conferencing and travel is by no means the glamorous lifestyle business that most people assume it is. It’s largely just hard, solid work with a lot of airports and flying in-between.
Here’s what I’ve learned though along the way, which hopefully will provide some guidance as to what not to do when it comes to putting on a conference or event:
1. There’s no success in cutting corners
If you’re putting a conference or event together it needs to be planned and executed properly from the outset, with a definitive reason and clear goals and aims in mind. Merely cobbling together some form of business or company gathering for its own sake without a clearly defined purpose is absolutely meaningless in this day and age. Conferencing is expensive, and becomes even more so when executed poorly. A conference or event needs to be carefully planned, budgeted and is always best planned executed with, and by, the experts. Anyone who avoids careful and appropriate venue selection, who fails to engage professional conference organizers, and doesn’t appoint reputable (not in-house) AV equipment and technicians in favor of ‘my marketing/communication people/PA can do it’(delete as applicable) is heading for a potential disaster.
2. It should never be just a ‘conference in a box’
Believe it or not, conferencing in its regular form merely began by modelling events on religion. Simply piling people into a darkened room with a raised podium at one end and having someone standing behind a lectern preaching from ‘the good book’ worked well back in the 18th century, when it was both interesting and exciting as a method of communication. It’s been overdone to death ever since and just doesn’t cut the mustard today, as people have literally gotten tired of boring, mundane gatherings.
3. Audiences are nowhere near as excited as you think or hope
They’re largely bored because they’ve seen and attended way too many dull events in the past. Mostly they’re only looking forward to attending a company function as it offers an opportunity to escape from the mundane workplace and the routine of daily life, and the chance to mix and mingle with their fellow employees, and also because there may be free alcohol. You may have noticed, delegates always fill up the back rows in the venue first, as these seats offer an easy escape as soon as the lights go down and things begin to get really mundane.
4. In-house speakers are largely poor presenters
No-one’s there by choice to witness the CEO, MD or Financial Director along with the assorted other management folks deliver poor presentations, as they largely bore the audience into submission. And largely internal company speakers do exactly that; predominantly because most management and company training neglects to include the art of creative presentation skills and as a result such speakers are extremely poor at it. Very few people like, or choose to attend, amateur dramatics.
5. Death by PowerPoint is real (bullets kill people)
Think of your typical conference slide replete with its company logo (normally bottom right hand corner) on a plain white background, with a Times New Roman 11 point font and lots and lots of bullet points. (I’ve seen more bullets in my career than were fired in World War 2). Bullets kill people, and so does bad PowerPoint. Now think of it being served up, lukewarm, hour after hour, at your next event, and recognise it for what it really is; simply soul destroying.
6. Monologues are boring too
Poor presenters, along with their bad PowerPoint decks full of bullets, charts and clip art imagery, generally tend to present poor and mundane monologues; at best inducing audience yawns. Good presentations tell stories, with few words on slides and great imagery. Storytelling captures the imagination…yet recitals don’t.
7. Agendas are poor at time management
Ever wondered why conferences never run to time? It’s often because they lack thought in agenda planning. They start too early, leaving people battling through traffic. Tea breaks are too short; 100 people can’t exit a room, take a bathroom break, grab refreshments, hold a conversation and re-enter a room within 20 minutes. Nor can they eat leave, eat lunch and return in 45. Compound this with poor speakers who, without adequate facilitation from stage tend to run over time anyway; and you’ve got a recipe for your agenda disaster.
8. Team building never does what it offers in the title
The thought of a team building session merely induces near panic amongst conference delegates. Quite frankly no-one wants to run through a wet forest, fire-walk, build rafts next to a lake or paint meaningless images. Often built in as an add-on, and intended to fire up the troops, such miserable attempts at generating camaraderie and teamwork regularly fall flat on their faces. It’s far better to endeavor to build real dialogue, through conversation and engagement in an adult manner, using the strengths of the people in the room; yet this too seldom occurs.
9. Guest speakers
Outside speakers were originally brought in as an attempt to motivate the audience. In my early career I was often asked if I could ‘do the graveyard shift’ as most planners used to think it was only after lunch that delegates needed a boost of inspiration or energy. Nowadays guest speakers ought to be selected on the basis of their ability to provide meaningful input into the company subject matter, which is personalized and tailor-made for the business. Often this isn’t the case, and I’ve seen hundreds of examples of assorted ‘celebrities’, charlatans and wannabe’s take to the stage. A professional speaker needs to be very carefully selected, based on merit, relevance and content.
10. A conference ought to be a fire-starter
All too often a conference or event is seen as being the end of a process, where, once complete, the organizers lower the promotional banners and tot up the bar bill before heading home, considering themselves lucky to have survived yet another gig. It should be seen as exactly the opposite: an integral piece of communication that helps the audience start the journey to achieving future success in relation to their business. The theme of the event should rather live on; in the form of marketing and communication materials – where the audience is continuously fed a diet of constant information relevant to the issues discussed. Rarely am I asked as in my capacity as a professional speaker to contribute in such a manner, which is, as I see it, an opportunity lost, or not even considered.