Saturday, July 25, 2009

Time to make conferences genuinely useful

Now, that may sound a tad harsh and that I'm just taking aim at all conferences or the people that organize them.

I am not.

This is not a personal dig at anyone, and if you read on you will see that I'm even prepared to back up my words with action.

I have to say I am critical in general at the value that conferences deliver and the lack of takeaways that delegates actually put into practice, as I talked about last year.

But what gets to me even more than what we actually do with the learning's we get is how fundraising conferences around the world are crafted. I got thinking about this over the last few days whilst attending and speaking at the DMAW Bridge Conference in Washington, DC.

Some of you may have read Sean Triner's article some time ago where he was (rightly) critical of the flawed scoring system at conferences. If you haven't read it, it's worth a look here.

I agree with Sean on this one, but I also believe we need to change the way we run these (very expensive) events to do the following:

1 Make the sessions longer.

As a speaker and delegate its nigh on impossible to learn anything in a 60 minute session. Many speakers travel internationally to present for an hour, or less, like I did this week. Crazy stuff.

But I'm not talking about making sessions 90 minutes or even 2 hours, but all day, even 2-3 day streams.

Sean recently ran a session at the IWRM conference in India where they phsyically helped delegates produce a direct mail over the course of 2 days. Brilliant stuff. Rather than just dazzle delegates with countless PowerPoint slides, the small group actually walked through the key ingredients of a direct marketing pack and then step by step were shown how to actually produce the pack.

And then they did it. Each developed a great pack ready to post. Fantastic. Now that's what I call real learning.

2 Don't just do what you did last year and the year before.

It's easy for conferences to rollout stuff that was done last year and every year since 1998. In other words, bringing back the same speakers 8 years in a row, using the same (useless) speaker evaluation forms - refer Sean's article on this - or having 2 hour 'networking' breaks that delegates end up using to check their emails.

We should do what we do because it's right, not because it's easy.

As a side note: conference evaluation forms are absolutely critical for the future success of a conference. Not making them do what they should do (accurately evaluate a speakers value and impact) means that we aren't using real data to drive the future direction of upcoming conferences.

I digress.

3 Ensure the speakers make the sessions 'sticky' to maximize learning.

If you don't know what I mean then go and get a copy of Made to Stick, one of the best books you can read, regardless what profession you work in. It will show you how to make your ideas stick so they resonate with your audience, whether that is donors, your colleagues or even your clients (for us agencies) etc.

There are some great tips in here that speakers should follow to ensure that their ideas stick with their audience. 'Stickier' ideas means better learning and more chance the ideas will actually result in change.

That's it for a Friday afternoon. The challenge is out to all conference organizers to ensure we deliver the most value for the investment (in time and $) that our delegates make.

Oh, and I've just been dobbed in to help on one of the conference committees next year, so I won't just rant, I'll be doing my best to make some of these ideas a reality.


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