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Up and down the land leaders and their assistants are scanning You Tube, Google Images and the like, seeking video clips and photographs that can help them  find a way to bring their contribution to this years conference to life.

Yes, it’s that time of year again: the ‘Conference Season’ is creeping onto the horizon and onto the ‘to-think about’ list for many leaders and their assistants as they seek to make this year’s conference speech their ‘best yet’ (or, at the very least, better than last year’s)!

PowerPoint applications are creaking with the weight of text, images, video links and music being squeezed onto every available page and servers are dimming the lights of small towns as terabytes of data are passed around the ether. Never have so many electrons, been so inconvenienced…

I have participated in many of these bi-annual conference ‘rituals’ with my clients over my many years in consulting, either as a key note speaker, or conference facilitator (or both) and, on the usually-long-trip home, I have to admit some have left me wondering if the considerable time and money deployed could have been better spent.

At least the last recession has removed most of the excesses that were all too common a few years ago. The days of taking the top 100 senior leaders to Victoria Falls in Zambia – this apparently being ‘a critically important and integral part of getting this year’s strategy effectively communicated’ – are thankfully long gone.

My personal experience of company conferences has left me with a lot of empathy with the comments of Peter F Drucker,writer, management guru and ‘social ecologist’, who said:

“I like company conferences, they are great habitual Peter Druckerevents where the really important things are said over cocktails and are never done”.

The Spring and Autumn conferences are indeed a real opportunity for engagement and motivation but the challenge has to be re-framed in my view. The key question should not be how can I make my speech better? A better question is ‘how can I make this conference better value for both time and money?

I always advise you start with the ‘purpose’ and work out how to clearly link this to the current strategic challenges faced by your organisation. Then think about the audience, what do they want to get from any talk? It is always interesting to ask them, you may be surprised as to what they tell you. I have yet to hear anyone say ‘I think you could have used a few more slides’

In an increasingly virtual world, any event where people come together to get the chance for some much needed ‘face time’ has to be welcome. We are after all, social animals and we need to get our regular ‘face time fix’ if we are to remain productive and more importantly stay sane.

The challenge leaders face when crafting a conference design is to ensure that the agenda does not degenerate into a packed list made up of: ‘Tell’ and/or ‘Sell’ sessions from the stage; with a seemingly obligatory ‘team building’ event stuck somewhere in the design, (as if it alone will tick the ‘team engagement’ and ‘fun’ box); or the odd ‘syndicate session’ to give a further nod towards engagement; not forgetting, of course, the almost obligatory ‘conference dinner’ where the real networking and socialising gets done.

We need more imagination than this!

In my experience participants are often intrigued by the quirkiness of the venue and usually enjoy the entertainment and insight given by the keynote speaker. However, what they really appreciate and value is the chance to participate in authentic conversations with their leaders and their colleagues. This quality interaction is often missing from many conference designs and, as often as not, is usually replaced by information-heavy presentations which create little or no opportunity to actually engage and listen to participants’ views.

I still remember the day I declared to a slightly panic-stricken client: ‘This conference will not contain a single PP slide!’ which to them seemed revolutionary! It is perfectly possible to run such events and this particular conference In2meCturned out to be one of the most highly rated and genuinely valuable conferences they had ever run because it actually delivered insights of real strategic value and built lasting relationships.

I fear that traditional conferences as we have known them in the past are, to use a strategic term, ‘entering their endgame’. The time for fresh thinking is upon us and those who grasp the challenge are finding that money, time, energy and effort can be much better spent in ways that genuinely engage their people and unleash the passion required to fuel the journey ahead.

If you would like to know more about how we are developing innovative ways to solve the problems traditional conferences create, please take a look at our Value For Time conference design and Conference On The Move’ services will ensure your people, your leaders and your organisation get much more value from the investment these bi-annual events consume.

Malcolm Follos