The next generation of conferences

I've just come back from a 2-day conference in Kraków called Open Eyes Economy Summit 2017 (#OEES), which may have been the 50th event I have attended, this year alone. Even though I usually work at conferences (as emcee, debate facilitator, creative adviser, 'film spot' producer, quality auditor or, as was the case this time, back-stage voice), the sheer thematic diversity of the events I go to professionally invites comparisons and problem-specific observations, at almost instinctive level. With event management evolving rather aggressively towards hi-tech excess, and the MICE industry constantly trying to outpace itself to come out on top of the never-ending race for gimmicks and on-stage innovations, it may as well be the right time to pause for a moment and ask the right questions...again and again!
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Puff & Fluff, Co.

Yesterday, after one of the conference sessions, I had a chat with prof. Charles Landry, who is quite busy these days, measuring Kraków's creativity city index. We talked about large conferences in general and the perspective of speakers vs. someone like myself, whose job is to (not only 'sit down, enjoy and listen' like everyone else, but) occasionally coach conference 'microphone holders'. At some point of our conversation, we commented on the obvious mathematical facts, which, sadly, for 99% of conferences (most likely), are not so obvious at all, it turns out. Here's a quick list of some key conclusions that we appeared to be very much in agreement about:

  1. PEOPLE LOVE THEMSELVES. A little too much in case of conference speakers. The more opportunities they get to speak, the more likely it is they become increasingly blind to the success/failure variables of their own performance.

  2. PEOPLE LOVE TO HEAR THEMSELVES SPEAK IN PUBLIC. For the sake of brevity and conciseness, we are not talking here about those who also enjoy talking to themselves. That's a separate category - one complex and colourful enough to deserve a separate (blog post) treatment, other treatments aside.

  3. PEOPLE FORGET THAT SUCCESS IS, FIRST AND FOREMOST, ABOUT RESPECT FOR YOUR AUDIENCE!

 

What do I mean by 'respect'?

Well, a lot of things, really. Here's a few:

  • not reading out from 10 loose sheets of paper before an audience ranging from 200 to 2000 people (as was the case at #OEES). If for no other reason, reading out loud is heavily reminiscent of a 19th century university lecture, usually a bad one at that. IT IS DISRESPECTFUL TO YOUR AUDIENCE TO DO THAT! It shows your command of the subject matter is really quite poor (implicitly, why should they care, therefore, if you yourself haven't 'given yourself enough trouble' in the first place), not to mention your ability to put your line of arguments into a compelling, pithy narrative. It's really as simple as that! If you can't present your line of argument without relying 99% of the time on your notes, you should probably restrict your on-stage indulgence anyway.

  • remembering that one of the many consequences of the above is usually limited eye contact, monotonous, flat intonation, not to mention the content of those sheets of paper, the verbosity of which would likely put a raging bull to sleep, let alone a polite, well-versed, patient, respectful audience.

  • developing your speech, presentation ,workshop into a clear structure, rehearsing it a couple of times, if only to see where it can be cut, improved upon, made more concise, less obvious.

 

Last but not least, avoiding platitudes and stating the obvious...all the time, may sound like the kind of good advice there's never too much of. You'd be surprised how much can be improved by spending a little time listening critically to any of your own past presentations, watching yourself speak, trying to actually imagine you don't know the guy/woman you're listening to, and posing the obvious questionsIs there any structure to it? Are the examples used compelling? Do I want to (dis)continue listening? Why? Why say this at the beginning and not skip it altogether? What about my body language? Is it annoying, overbearing, too expressive or flat in any way?

To all those speakers out there: Remember, time is precious! Everyone's, not only yours! If you're lucky, confident, smart, famous, notorious, talented, controversial or scandalous enough to have so many people want to 'give you their time', show some respect.

TIME-LAPSE VIDEO: The Wawel Hill in Kraków, Poland (view from ICE Congress Centre)

The mathematics of waste

In short, 3 minutes wasted on speaker verbosity (e.g. the usual chaotic intro that most speakers consider to be the stage equivalent of their birthright), multiplied by the number of people present in the room (3 minutes x 2000 participants = 6000 minutes). In other words, saying nothing for 3 minutes literally translates to 100 HOURS OF THE COLLECTIVE TIME YOU HAVE STOLEN from your audience, the very same people who HAVE GIVEN YOU THEIR TRUST without asking questions, paid for the ticket to attend and planned their day accordingly to be able to listen to you. We are not talking about the people who have literally 'travelled the world' to attend the conference, with you as one of the speakers.

If this logic doesn't get through, you're really left with only two options:

  1. You should probably never speak before large audiences of your own free will, or
  2. Put much more effort into preparations. If for no better reason, to 'respect your audience back', return the trust you have been given in the first place. And remember, 2000 participants is a rather small number, given that many international conferences are streamed live on the internet.

 

Quantity, Quality and Celebrity magnets

Event organisers are very ambitious these days. When it comes to logistics, planning, visual panache and scale, great many events organised in Poland are absolutely top notch, by international standards. Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (aka MICE) has become a powerful industry, constantly inventing new ways of attracting the attention of their 'key stakeholders', i.e. politicians, investors, company owners, top executives, trend setters, influencers, artists, and just about every other professional category. Today, having at least one conference to attend to in your calendar is almost a social-status marker.

In response to this growing market, event organisers are quick to indulge the obvious temptation of overcrowding their programmes and agendas with too many items (to be able maintain a reasonable level of control over quality). Some of them offer speaker coaching, in an effort to strengthen content and quality, which, by the way, some speakers may even find offensive in principle. Luckily for conference organisers, most speakers can be found, listened to and watched on YouTube and elsewhere. In other words, you know what you'll get or you are free to develop your own sense of the potential (risks included). And so, many event managers, especially those who can afford it, bet on low-risk scenarios, such as inviting (or 'hiring', to be more precise) expensive celebrities, former prime ministers, presidential advisers, actors, travellers, stars of many a constellation, to achieve their 'event reputation' goals.

From size to wise

My little dream in all that? Hopefully, over time, 5-day events will become 3-day events, 2-day events will become 1-day events. With the usual logistics burden reduced, maybe more attention can be given to finding new, creative ways to ensure that every minute on stage counts, that content, not audio-visual gimmics and design are the ultimate determinants of conference success. And to all those elitists out there, yes, it's always a good idea to share your most valuable debates and presentations on the internet. I know some of your speakers may be unhappy about it. In their 'ideal world' they could just go on repeating the same slogans in the same presentation formats, on many different conferences in many different countries. YouTube doesn't make uninspired repetition any easier.

Having said all that, yesterday's OPEN EYES ECONOMY SUMMIT may have been a very interesting conference. I would not dare pass any such judgments in this case as I was a little too busy working, reading, making phonecalls and talking to people. I was simply unable to attend more than 75% of the sessions. Still, the obvious advantage of the ambitious 'let's change the world and make it a better place' conference format is that you get to meet so many wonderful people. You feel that to match the experience of being able to talk to them, exchange ideas, share stories, whatever happens on stage would have to be characterised by top quality and amazing content discipline. Open Eyes Economy Summit is a promising format, one whose DNA is designed to evolve and continuously improve over time. And that's what it's essentially all about.

And one last thing

Come on! We're in the 21st century! So many of you, sleek conference gurus are happy to talk about fairtrade, environment, sustainability. But, in all honesty, why do you continue to throw bags full of leaflets, company catalogues and brochures at your guests.

There is a reason why most people don't have access to rooms where such conference bags are being 'assembled' for hours and hours, by teams of volunteers. Nor aren't any photos being posted by conference organisers showing boxes with those catalogues. You know why? Because for a conference of nearly 2000 people, you'll need a large room to store all of this paper wasted. It would have been so much more impressive to take all that into the digital domain and compete there, for sleek design, layout, developing super-intuitive apps, etc. To become a trend setter in the brave new world of 'you won't find a single paper leaflet at our conference', it takes character, that's all there is to it.

 


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