Comments are closed. Value for moneyOn 27 Feb 2001 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Avaluable learning experience or a jolly out of the office? How you viewconferences affects what you get out of them. But planning before hand can makeall the difference. By Caroline HornConferenceorganisers generally put enormous efforts into creating events that they hopeare informative, well-presented and innovative. But it is less easy for them topredict what kind of audience they will get on the day. Nodoubt, some delegates will be rapt with attention and keen to develop theirknowledge of online learning or complexity science – whatever the day promises.There will also be those who are less than keen, having been ordered to attend.And there will be some delegates in holiday mode, who view the day as awell-deserved break from the computer terminal and telephone.However,even for those people whose hearts sink at the mention of conferences orexhibitions, there are ways to ensure that such events provide something ofvalue. And, as conference organisers start to move away from the traditionalday-long format of hour-long sessions, the chances are that more people willstart to view conferences in a positive light, too.JeremyStarling, managing director of The Eventworks, says the globalisation ofbusiness and the swift development of technology mean conferences are becomingan increasingly important occasion. “Getting people together in a room is anincredible opportunity for businesses,” he says. While smaller meetings can,increasingly, be handled using technology such as videoconferencing or bye-mail, the ‘big event’ is an invaluable opportunity to bring togetherdifferent groups within a company, or to share expertise among a wideraudience.”Unfortunately,he adds, that opportunity is often wasted. “Most conferences are an appallingwaste of time,” he says. “They are ineffective and an outdated method ofcommunication. Most delegates don’t expect to get much from them other thanmeeting people, or a good session in the bar afterwards.”Manypeople attend conferences wanting to hear experts answer all their questionsabout new issues but, as Paul Kearns of Personnel Works points out, it can bedifficult for the conference organiser to meet these expectations. “The raisond’être of conferences is to pick up on a topic that is sexy – say, onlinelearning. It is a new area and people coming to listen want to hear the dos anddon’ts.“That’sfine as far as it goes, but it means that those organising the conference haveto get expert speakers, people who know a lot about it. And that’s where a lotof public conferences fall down, because sexy topics are the new topics andthere is not often a lot of expertise out there. It’s a Catch-22 situation.”Anotherspeaker comments, “I have sat through some conferences where 90 per cent hasbeen complete dross. The speakers have not told anyone anything new and havenot provided any insights.” Whena conference for blue-chip companies can cost around £100,000 that is anincredible waste of resources. “Maybethe conference industry has been peddling the same thing for too long and maybethe whole question of the role of conferences needs to be rethought,” hesuggests.So,while delegates need to work at getting the most from conference events, thereare many who agree that the conference itself needs to change if it is toprovide an effective opportunity for learning.Sowhy should you go? It can be important for delegates to do some homework beforesigning up for an event, says Kearns. “People need to be clear about theirexpectations – you’re not going to get all the answers quickly at a conference,but you might hear something useful. “Checkwho is going to speak beforehand. It’s better to attend three or four decentsessions than to go to lots just for the sake of it. If you’ve never heard ofthe people on the conference sheet, ask yourself why you’re going.”Sometimesit can be difficult to decide whether a conference is relevant to you by justlooking at the standard pre-publicity material and invitation information; atelephone call to the centre could help to clarify that.JaneLittlewood, sales and marketing manager for Hayley Conference Centres, adds,“We generally try to ensure that there are notes for people to read before theyarrive at the event. Delegates are also asked to fill in a pre-conferencequestionnaire on what they want out of the conference.”That,says Starling, helps delegates to get more from the day. “When you have theinformation before the conference, you can start to work at it and then developthose issues at the conference – rather than using the conference to introducethose issues.”Oncedelegates have decided, or been told, to go, they need to ask themselves abouttheir frame of mind en route to the event. “Are you going to learn, as a prisoner,or as a holidaymaker?” asks Richard Greaves, European manager of ImpactDevelopment Training Group. “Ifpeople can move away from ‘prisoner’ or ‘holidaymaker’ to ‘learner’, they’reheading in the right direction. If you come to a conference and you’re not inlearner mode, then you’re wasting your time.”Whenyou arriveThinkcarefully about which seminars are relevant to you and how much creditabilitythe speakers have, advises Greg Whitear of business training consultancy GregWhitear Associates. “Do the speakers have an academic background, or do theyhave grass-roots experience? You want to hear people who have worked in anenvironment similar to your own,” he says. TheEventworks’ Starling believes that delegates could do more to ensure the conferencewill fulfill their expectations, “Delegates should make sure they are includedin sessions that offer involvement – or they should get conference organisersto promise formats that offer some form of involvement. “Itis hard to learn something when you’re sitting in a chair and listening, evenwhen a speaker is interesting,” he explains.SarahChurchman, head of diversity at PricewaterhouseCoopers, agrees. “I shy awayfrom traditional conferences, but I’d be more interested if there were a lot ofworkshops involving discussions, feedback and working in small groups.”Whenspeaking at conferences, she has found that the question and answer sessions atthe end of seminars can be very telling. “Often speakers will dress up theirorganisations in fairy lights to make them sound more interesting. But thequestions at the end, if they are used properly, can show the company in a morerealistic light,” Churchman says.NetworkingNetworkingwith people in the audience is the most important part of the day, says Kearns.“I try to be provocative in my talks and I judge how well it has gone by howmany people ask for my business card afterwards.” Butwhile delegates can use the coffee breaks and lunchtime for networking, hefeels the conference format doesn’t really build in enough networking time.Noteveryone, however, finds it easy to start chatting to complete strangers, saysGreaves. “There are people who can go to a conference and within five minuteshave become firm friends with another 10 people. Others find it harder. Ifanything is going to happen, it will happen in the social time, coffee andlunch, or the bar session at the end.” Forthose who do find networking difficult, Whitear advises, “Try to go up tosomeone and just look at their name badge, and they will generally introducethemselves.”Anddo not ignore the fact that in-house conferences can be a good opportunity tofocus on your career. As Starling says, “If it is a company conference and theleaders are there, that is often the only time you will get to talk to them.Use that time and say what you thought about the event, engage them, find outwhat is their vision of the business.”Headds, “A lot of executives worry that they are not approachable and wonderwhether people will come and ask questions. You don’t have to ask in front of300 people – find a quiet time after the sessions. And always ask, ‘What’s init for me?’ Are your ideas valued? Find out where the business is going, whatthey want you to contribute, and what they are going to do to help your career.”Networkingcan also take place after the conference, says Churchman. “You can phone peopleand talk about the information given at the conference. I have done that and Ihave always been surprised at how many people have called me to follow uppoints I have raised during talks I’ve given.”Afterthe eventManypeople are familiar with the scenario of leaving a conference with a bag fullof A4 diagrams, texts of speeches and autocue notes, says Greaves. “People takethat bag to the office and never open it again.” Itis a point that Kearns focuses on after his seminars. “I always ask people,‘What are you going to do with this tomorrow?’ If you don’t think about that onthe day of the conference, you never will.”Starlingsays the best time to make an action plan is while still at the venue. “Isuggest that, while still at the conference venue, delegates take half an hourto sit down somewhere privately and ask, ‘What am I going to do differentlytomorrow as a result of this conference?’ “Makean action plan with four or five points and say, ‘I’ll make sure I do this andthis, and stop doing this and this’. We call it a reality session.”Delegatescan also pass on relevant electronic information to work colleagues, saysGreaves. “If it is the appropriate thing to do, we use a website with apassword that people in the conference or organisation could access, with keyslides and key ideas. If delegates have fallen asleep during the conference,they can still learn from their office! At any rate, people learn in differentways and speeds – for some people, it’s crucial to be able to go back.”Churchmanwill often forward information from the conference to her work colleagues, orperhaps organise an internal presentation. “These days, companies want to knowwhat other organisations are doing, and quite often that’s what a conferencecan give you,” she says.“Thereare also times when it is imperative that people in the office find out whatwas discussed at a conference, particularly if it was an in-house event todiscuss strategy,” says Greaves. “People who weren’t at the conference may wellbe concerned about their future, so it is essential that delegates walk awaywith a communications plan.”FeedbackIncreasingly,organisations are asking for feedback from delegates, says Littlewood. “Moreconference companies are working on a return on investment, so delegates willbe asked whether a conference met their expectations and about the venue.” Starlingadds, “It’s important to know that, if your company asks for feedback, they areinterested in what you have to say. If you go to a conference knowing they wantyour feedback, then give it. Listen and comment.”But,says Starling, if companies really want their delegates to get the most out ofconference events, they need to ensure “involvement, involvement, involvement”.Headds, “If you stand on a stage and lecture people, no matter how sexy yoursoftware, they might retain 90 per cent of what you’re saying, but if you wantthem to take ownership of the ideas, you have to get them committed and getthem working. You can’t sell it from the stage.”Perhapsthe whole idea of the traditional conferences needs to be reconsidered, saysKearns. “It is hard for anyone to take away all the information they are givenduring a two-day conference. Conferences work better when there are fewerspeakers, chunky sessions where you get to grips with the practicalities of theissues, and where the time is more limited,” he says.AtHayley Conference Centres, Littlewood says there is a discernible trend towardsmaking conferences more inclusive and less formal – from people wearinginformal clothing to “cabaret-style” seating, as well as demand for moresyndicated workshop rooms alongside the main conference area.Andas Starling adds, “Once you get people really working on areas like strategyand business plans, they can make a real contribution to the business, so atthe end of the day, your business is better. Don’t use the platform to tellpeople things – use it to drive your business forward.”10must do’s before you attend a conferenceBesure the conference is worth your while. If you don’t recognise any names amongthe speakers, are you sure you want to go?Preparefor the conference. Read any background notes and prepare questionsBookyourself on events that promise interaction – or persuade the conferenceorganiser to stage someUsethe question and answer session to find out what the speakers’ companies arereally likeBebrave – use coffee breaks to networkThinkabout what you have learned while you are still at the venueWritea four-point action plan on using your new-found skillsFollowup contacts after the eventEarnBrownie points by sharing what you have learned with colleagues, perhaps withan in-house presentationTellyour company whether the conference lived up to expectations – or they mightsend you to another one Related posts:No related photos.