How Not to Run a Conference

Posted by: Scott Thursday 12th July 2012
Categories: Event Planning

Business and academic conferences, as you probably know, are the butt of endless jokes. Of course, anything that’s imbued with corporate or Ivory tower bureaucracy and fakery will be made fun of. But I think the derision toward conferences results from something more than that. The fact of the matter is that for at least the majority of people, conferences can be a little tedious, at worst a waste of time and money.

The most one can hope for is to meet someone with whom you can do business or seek personal/professional advice. All those days of speeches, workshops, and catered food, typically end up being a huge waste of time. Those who do enjoy conferences are probably excited about the time off from work and the opportunity to travel. Otherwise, let’s just face it—most conferences suck. But they really don’t have to, if only those who plan conferences understood a bit better what it is that conference attendees want. Here are a few things that ruin virtually all conferences for me, based on my experiences and the gripes of other fellow conference-goers.

1. Seeking vaunted experts instead of good public speakers.

This is perhaps the biggest flaw with most business and academic conferences. Of course, you’ll probably draw a large crowd if you can get the top experts in any given field to grace your conference. But you’ll watch as your conference attendees drop like flies during speaker sessions when experts without any talent for speaking begin their vapid PowerPoint slides. I’m not trying to say that a conference must be some sort of wildly entertaining circus. Those who organize conferences should be more vigilant in recruiting speakers, and should ask for a video clip of the guest giving a speech before you narrow down your choices. Their material and presentation should be engaging and relevant enough to maintain the attention of the average person in the industry — someone whose attention span is invariably relatively short.

2. Inaccessible speakers.

Require that your speakers stay for the day, or at least for a few hours after their presentations. While Q&A sessions following speeches are definitely helpful and enlightening, sometimes it takes some time for attendees to absorb the information and ask considered follow-up questions. Some attendees would rather ask questions in person than ask questions in front of an audience.

3. Cheesy activities.

A staple of many conferences is asking attendees to partake in activities that are cheesy and somewhat juvenile. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying to throw a little fun into the mix. But don’t insult people’s intelligence. I remember during lunch for one conference, each table had a little sign with a list of “suggested conversation topics,” most of which included childish themes and seemed more akin to a game of “Never Have I Ever.”

4. Short break times.

Of course, you don’t want the conference to drag on longer than it needs to. But instead of offering short break times between sessions, it would make more sense to shorten the sessions and offer more relaxed breaks for at least fifteen minutes. Breaks that follow lunch should allow sufficient time for attendees to have a little down time before returning in the afternoon. Breaks are necessary not to maintain the attendees’ focus and energy, but breaks are absolutely instrumental to establish relationships among conference-goers that can be further developed in the evening after the day is done. Which brings me to my next point:

5. Limited opportunity for interaction.

If you were to commission a national survey that asked conference-goers to list their top reason for attending conferences, I’d bet you your bottom dollar that the most popular answer would be “networking.” If this is one of the main reasons people attend conferences, then why don’t conference organizers provide more opportunities for networking? It’s usually the case that conference attendees travel in groups of their co-workers, which automatically limits interaction. Instead of the cheesy ice-breaking activities so popular at so many conferences, arrange dining times such that no one from the same company can sit together. Provide both structured and unstructured opportunities for networking.

6. Social events at noisy and crowded bars.

I’m a fan of conference after-parties. That’s where most of the networking action happens. I’m not a fan of hosting said after-parties at crowded locations. I’ve seen this happen all-too often, and it drives me insane. The best option is to reserve a space at an establishment (bar or otherwise) that’s spacious (restaurants with large outdoor areas, weather permitting, are often the best). Whatever you do, choose a location where conversations can be had without needing to raise your voice.

Of course, no matter how meticulously you plan your conference, people will complain, as noted in this excellent guide to organizing conferences that covers way more ground than I do here. But if you put a bit more thought into what your average conference-goer wants, you’ll be surprised by how many people will return year after year. Good luck!

Barbara Jolie enjoys sharing her knowledge on taking classes online with her blogging community. She is a full time blogger and freelance writer, who is constantly considering topics in education and academia. When not blogging, Barbara takes naps with her cat, Moses, and captains her adult dodge ball league. Contact her at

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