How To Not Have Horrible Conference Sessions, Hopefully?

gdctalk[Through our company’s London office, I was asked by the Chartered Institute Of Marketing to write something on how events might pick good speakers for events. An edited version – because I got a bit overenthusiastic with word count – is available now on CIM’s website – and here’s the full version I originally wrote, hurray.]

One of the most infuriating experiences when attending a conference is to sit through half an hour – or an hour – of a tedious, scattershot panel, or a barely prepared, droning lecture with no takeaway. This experience is universal no matter what industry you’re in – bad content is bad content.

But it doesn’t need to happen on your watch! Some of UBM Tech’s notable shows in the United States (particularly Game Developers Conference – about video game development, and Black Hat – about information security) are known for the non-horrid quality of their conference talks. (You can see some of our top talks on GDC’s YouTube channel, if you’re interested.)

We’re not claiming we have it right – or anywhere close to perfect. But we have thought a lot about how we approach content. This is particularly because our shows are largely paid conferences where people are shelling out a fair amount of money to learn and be inspired. So here’s some of the things we’ve discovered along the way:

Track Your Speaker Feedback Methodically

As any good 21st century organization knows, data can be harnessed to your advantage. So we do optionally scan our attendees’ RFID badges on attending lectures. They are then sent a feedback form via email 10 minutes before the end of each session.

We use this data – both the empirical score and the literal comments – in several ways. Firstly, it’s sent back to the speaker (we do check for unacceptable comments and remove!) That way they can get an idea of how they performed relative to their peers, and improve for the future.

Secondly, we flow the info into an interactive database where our call for talk submissions are also processed. So we can see previous scores and comments when you are rating submission for this particular year.

Thus, if a speaker has previous had issues in going over his allotted time, or any number of other issues, we can work with them – mentoring them, often via very hands-on advisory boards – to improve their talks over time.

Get Your Industry – Or Other Experts – Involved In Picking Talks

There’s a couple of schools of thought at play here, even within UBM. If you’re working at a conference that has content leads who are experts – or a related magazine or website that has content-expert editors – then getting those editors to help program the show can be a major win.

The model that we try to use on both GDC and Black Hat, however, contends that it’s the people _in_ the industry who know it the best of all. So we operate Advisory Boards for both shows. The boards actually solely pick the content for the event – with very few exceptions.

Being part of these advisory boards is prestigious and meaningful because we don’t just ask you a couple of questions and then program whatever we want – you’re driving the content. And there’s two ways that’s done – both rating talks submitted in our call for submissions, and inviting select talks.

By using this model, and by carefully picking our Advisory Boards, we tend to get smart, hardworking advisors. We also get cutting edge but actionable content on real problems and solutions. The advisors put in a lot of time picking – and in some cases mentoring – speakers. But the payback in terms of them feeling like they are helping us advance the industry is worth it for them. And we really appreciate all their effort in help us.

And yes, ‘actionable’ sometimes means that the content in our shows skew away from the future-looking. But content being concrete, practical (or inspirational!) and industry-approved is better than a lot of pontificating about the future. The future’s pretty much always different from what anyone thinks, anyhow. (And it’s fine to hand-pick the odd inspiration talk on this subject, if things feel too rooted in what already happened.)

The Great Panel Fallacy

Panels: use them sparingly. I know that it tends to be ‘de rigueur’ to put a whole bunch of smart people on stage with a moderator and let them chat among themselves for an hour. It also might create some buzz because of the highly-placed CEOs that you’ve managed to get speaking at your show.

But the takeaway – unfortunately – tends to be significantly less than a well-performed lecture, at least according to the empirical data we’ve collected over the past few years. Panelists do not come well-prepared, since they known they can ‘jam’ extemporaneously on whatever subject comes to mind. And loud voices can dominate the discussion and turn things lopsided.

‘Fireside chats’, one on one, can be decent if well-directed, but even these lack the takeaway of deeply thought-through, performed, or researched talks. Anyhow, the message isn’t NOT to use panels – and there’s certain subjects they may be quite appropriate for. But the message is to use them less than you probably do now – in our humble opinions.

Increasingly, Shorter Is Better

Our shows have historically had plenty of 60 minute lectures in them. Because of the research and original content-centric nature of our conferences, we’re continuing with a majority percentage of longer lectures. But as attention spans decrease, we’ve discovered that 25 minute lectures can work almost as well – and sometimes better.

Shorter talks allow people to distill their key points down, focus them, and more to the point, get double the content and takeaways into any given day’s content. They’re not a be-all end-all, and there’s a danger to forcing longer talks into a shorter timeframe if you don’t have a clear way to do it.

But you can try to increase the amount of shorter talks you have, as well as experiment with ‘microtalks’ (hour-long sessions where each speaker talks for 5 minutes in a very focused manner). You’ll start to get content more acceptable to today’s event attendee who may have a slight attention deficit – or just a lot to get done during their day at the show! And if the speaker can get the key points across in that amount of time – why not try it?

One Final ‘Secret’ Tip

To end, here’s a special (blindingly obvious?) tip for you all. The single biggest predictor in my mind re: whether a talk goes well is simply this. Has the talk already been performed at least once – ideally more than once – from start to finish in front of an audience, and refined based on that feedback?

If it has, the talk will do a lot better. Ask your speakers if they’re intending to do this, and if they’re not, glare at them a lot until they hopefully do! And a fair amount of our mentorship focuses on this refinement process, which can also be self-driven. The amount of speakers who are nervous and therefore won’t practice their talk properly can be startling.

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