As a professional conference goer, I have certain routines. My main focus is to learn and, although I won’t attend every session, I will attend many. Unfortunately these days, the wandering mind and desperate need to get to the next level of Candy Crush, means that most of the time is spent playing with the smartphone. That’s most conference goers’ terrible habit these days.
In terms of content, I rarely like panel sessions. I find it hard to concentrate on them and, unless the panel is formed of personalities, they can be very dry. In fact, the worst panel sessions are those that have been over-rehearsed. So, here’s one pet hate: the conferences that want one, two or three preparation calls before the event itself. I really hate any conference that wants me on a prep call, as I don’t find them useful. In fact, if I’m moderating a panel, I like to free format it and always have a standard way of managing them:
Start with who are you and what are your thoughts on Subject A
Based on what you said about Subject A, I will then get themes and questions to ask
When there are five minutes left, ask each panellist to give their thoughts on Subject A five years from now
It’s a standard format for me and it works. Unfortunately, most panellists want the exact questions beforehand. Tough. I don’t have any. The only concession I make is that they can send me specific questions they want me to ask them, if they like.
Equally, another thing I hate at conferences is if anyone does a pitch. A conference is the last place to do a sales pitch. I’ve seen many conference sponsors walk in and talk about their latest bells and whistles on their widget. Terrible. I usually walk out.
Similarly, people reading a script or obviously over rehearsed make me want to vomit. Sure, I know that none of us are perfect, but the number of times I see people standing on stage reading is about as interesting as watching paint dry.
Then there’s the grass grower. That’s the presenter who has really wordy and detailed slides, and they talk them through line-by-line. They might as well be reading, but they’ve made it worse by letting us see their script so that we can read them whilst they read them. I’d rather watch grass grow.
So, what does work?
Well, obviously having some strong keynote names like Chris Skinner or similar. OK, I’m blowing my own trumpet, but people do say I’m not a bad presenter. Equally, I’ve attended conferences where I’ve been blown away by some other presenters like Clayton Christensen, Bill Clinton, Kjell Nordstrom, Patrick Collison, Elon Musk and more. A draw name, known to be a great presenter with strong content, always wins.
I also love hearing from people with new ideas, new content or a new angle. I like hearing from businesses that are known as innovators, such as the Google’s, Apple’s and Alibaba’s of this world.
And I like to hear from leaders who are respected: CEOs of companies that are doing things different. They don’t need to be big companies, but any company that has a great idea or progress always wins over some technical panel discussion.
But the real challenge for any conference producer these days is how to make it work. There are so many conferences every day – I am typically being asked to two or three a day, with a record of seven FinTech conferences all on the same day – that there has to be something different. And I saw a first the other day, that has stayed with me.
The conference was going well. I had done my keynote and was listening to the other sessions. There were some panel discussions and some slightly less interesting presentations. Then we went to lunch. When we came back, we had a session called: “Beyond Banking”. It didn’t tell me much about the content or the presenter. Then the presenter started talking and it wasn’t long before I realised he was a professional comedian.
He talked about brands and how some were awful, like calling an airline Wow! He talked about how bad service can be on airlines – the guy was a former airline steward and confirmed that yes, the first question he is always asked when people find out is are you gay? – and then turned his wrath on bank services. It was hilarious. The audience was in stitches and everyone was wide awake for the rest of the afternoon.
That’s a first … and I didn’t look at my smartphone once … another first.
So, if you’re wondering how to make your conference different, then do something different. Get a few professional comedians and magicians in the room. It will always make an impact.