FOCUS: CONFERENCES - Learning to get your act together/Bells and whistles are out, quality speakers who know how to deliver are in. Peter Robinson looks at the future of conferences

Is there a danger of form triumphing over substance in today’s conferences?

Is there a danger of form triumphing over substance in today’s


With conferences being held in exotic locations, first class catering

and the full audio-visual assault of laser beams and multi-media

presentations, it seems that speakers may no longer be the main


But the medium is not the message and there are signs of a backlash

setting in, with the future for conferences receiving a more

back-to-basics approach, and greater emphasis being placed on the choice

and quality of speakers.

PR Week’s media columnist, Maggie Brown recently noted that she could do

without all the froth, preferring a one-day conference featuring

unmissable speakers, ideally involving someone with the cachet of Rupert

Murdoch giving the keynote address.

While a journalist’s perspective is different from that of the average

conference delegate, the point remains that it’s the choice and quality

of speakers that is fundamental to a conference - even if organisers are

often keen to market support services.

On the technology front, systems like Futuvision, as developed by Crown

Business Communications, now offer Roman amphitheatre-style conferences

with wide screens, surround projection and sound.

Managing director, Nick Lamb says: ’There is an explosion of new

technologies revolutionising conferences which we cannot ignore. These

are not frills.

It’s all about supply and demand, they are there because clients require

them although there will always be those who prefer a more traditional

approach to conferences. It is not a case of audio-visual overload. The

Futuvision amphitheatre approach may simply be the best to ensure that a

large audience can see and hear, with speakers able to maintain audience

eye contact and use imagery and visuals to enhance their speech.’

He adds that while audiences clearly like the ’live buzz’ of

conferences, the next generation, which is likely to be more

screen-based, may prefer to see further developments in areas like

video-conferencing. But Charlie Grieve, director of conference

organiser, 2Cs Communications points out that people always like face to

face communication.

’It can be more personal and exciting. There needs to be a balance in

presentation, it can get in the way of a message and audiences want to

be rivetted by speakers, not audio visuals, although it is nice to have

light and shade in presentation,’ he says.

It is a case of horses for courses, first defining exactly what you want

to communicate then deciding the format that can best convey it, rather

than imposing a format upon it. Pete Brady, chief executive of

Clearwater Communications says: ’We believe in the message and not the

messenger and conferences are all about communicating a message. The

format and technology are actually totally unimportant unless they help

convey the message. The format can be used for various reasons to

inform, enthuse or raise morale.’

He adds: ’Organisers may want to use the format so that delegates enjoy

themselves, since a happy delegate is more likely to absorb


Sometimes using technology is essential. If you can only get a key

speaker by providing a live satellite link then clearly this will

dictate a video-based presentation. Also, for a big audience you need a

big screen and the client may require that key images or products are

seen in all their glory.’

There can also be sound reasons to choose an exotic location -

especially in the middle of a British winter. Brady points out: ’A car

manufacturer may want to show a new car which can be test driven in a

place where the weather is right, or companies may want an exotic

conference location to reward a sales and marketing team.’

The choice of venue will always need to be related directly to precise

conference requirements. Gill Price of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference

Centre says: ’A venue like the QEII may not be the best place for some

conferences but if, say, a minister is speaking and you require the

speech to be broadcast with live links we have the technology and are

next to the House of Commons.

’In the medical area, we recently had a conference where a new medical

pump was demonstrated via a live video link to a hospital operating

theatre so we could show the pump in action.’

Planning for the format of a conference will always need to take in the

more mundane matters such as whether to provide sandwiches or a

three-course lunch. Brady points out that with a conference giving news

on a new scientific development, delegates are there to gather knowledge

rather than sit back and enjoy an extravagant meal.

The move to make conferences more interactive has been a strong trend

recently and in the future it is likely that delegates will not have

such a passive role.

Sara White, editor of Conference and Incentive Travel says: ’Interactive

conferences have been breaking down the barriers between stage and

audience, reducing the ’them and us’ feeling. Now there are more

break-outs, with seminars in smaller groups in the course of

conferences. We have also seen some more wild and off-the-wall types of

presentation with some conferences verging on a gospel approach to their


White also notes a trend towards smaller meetings, often held on a

regional basis and the increased use of the internet for the public

viewing of major conferences.

Clients are likely to continue to want to invest in any format that can

be actually shown to enhance their investment. Jerry Starling, managing

director of The Eventworks points out that it is the bottom line that

counts, and that if any new format can be proved to be effective, it

will be used. ’There has got to be good use of time, emphasis on results

and accountability,’ he says. ’Results are increasingly being measured,

not just by delegates filling in happy forms at the end of the day, but

giving percentage scores.’

He agrees that people will continue to want to hear high-profile

speakers but notes that while those such as Richard Branson will always

catch the headlines, presentation skills are still important in ensuring

that an audience actually takes in what is said. He says: ’Branson will

always attract an audience but even after listening to just half an

hour, delegates may not actually remember all the messages. Our motto is

’Tell me and I forget, show me and I understand, involve me and I


He also points out that different techniques have to be applied to

internal and external conferences. While clients organising internal

conferences can afford to take risks, with external conferences they

must be more aware of their public image and extravagant presentational

skills may lag behind. Similarly, exotic locations can be particularly

suited to internal conferences to reward employees and provide a

complete change to the normal working environment.

But, whatever the future of the style and format of conferences, the

message which speakers impart will always be the primary


Graham Davies, a regular corporate speaker who also trains business

executives in public speaking says: ’The speaker must always be the main

focus. Support services, visuals and graphics can be particularly

memorable but you must always ask if they are actually aiding the

presentation. Death by acetate can be very painful.’


What happens when your main speaker suffers a nervous breakdown at the

podium and starts throwing his shoes at a persistently difficult


’Expect the unexpected’ seems to be an appropriate motto in the

conference business since this and many other unpredictable events have

actually happened to Albert Kemp, chief executive of conference

insurers, Insurex Exposure.

After 21 years in the business, very little surprises Kemp. For instance

an MP once arrived to speak at a conference to find the waiters on

strike and suddenly decided to join them, and a last minute replacement

had to be found. On another occasion a key speaker on holiday in Papua

New Guinea suffered a bad back and management guru Tom Peters had to be

flown in on Concorde to replace him. He also recalls a hotel which

misread a booking for a conference of 400 and catered for four


’Anything outside of the control of an organiser can be insured,’ says

Kemp. ’Policies outline exactly what can be done in emergencies, as long

as you spend wisely.’

Only around 12 per cent of loss incidents actually apply to problems at

venues, yet this is often the only area for which contingency plans are

made. However, problems like bad weather, terrorism, transport

breakdowns, newspapers forgetting to run key advertisements, misplaced

mail shots or even the organiser suddenly dying can all stop a

conference in its tracks.

Contingency plans need to cover the whole programme and even without

insurance, a neat bit of juggling can sometimes cover up major


Nick Lamb, managing director of Crown Business Communications notes:

’The test of a good organiser is not when everything is going right,

it’s how they react when things go wrong.’

Jerry Starling of The Eventworks recommends ’what if’ meetings to try

and cover any eventuality. He explains: ’We brainstorm everything that

could possibly go wrong and plan for it, but you usually find that when

you are fully prepared these things tend not to happen.’

According to Charlie Grieve, director of 2Cs Communications reacting to

crises is all about being aware of the art of the possible and being

adaptable. He says: ’You have to learn to just ride it, so if a hole

suddenly appears in the speakers’ programme you try and draft someone in

at short notice. Events require a constant stream of quick decisions

like that.’

One of the most frequent complaints about conferences, relates to faulty

equipment slowing the proceedings down. The more technology you have on

board the more problems can occur. Pete Brady of Clearwater

Communications says: ’With technology you always have to back up the

back up. You simply cannot afford to get caught with faulty



While organisers have some control over the technology and support

services, once a speaker steps on to the podium it’s all completely out

of their hands. However, at an early stage there are steps that can help

to ensure that quality, content and key messages are conveyed.

Choice of speaker is the first and most important decision. Joseph

Jones, director of After Dinner Speakers says it is crucial to be aware

of the broad categories of speakers.

He explains: ’There are broadly three types-humourous-after-dinner,

motivational and specialists. Organisers must be clear on what they

require. Then it is important that the speaker and audience are right

for each other. Speakers can be unhappy if they feel that their audience

does not want to hear them.’

He adds that some also boast the very particular skills of being a good

chairman, providing professional links between speakers and making

pertinent comments with a good sense of timing.

Corporate speaker and trainer, Graham Davies emphasises that preparation

is all. ’If the conference is important enough to be at, it’s important

to prepare for. Speaking is an activity which can be coached by going

through the techniques. Just like with a golf swing you have got to get

the basics right.’

He notes that an outside speaker can often be more effective as chairman

since they can be more objective and ask senior management questions

which colleagues might be afraid of asking.

Isabelle Bulley, conference manager at Haymarket Conferences recommends

holding briefing meetings for speakers at least a month before the


She also emphasises the importance of the role of chairman. ’They are

vital to smooth running and time-keeping and a poor one can really put

the kibosh on a conference.’

Sometimes you have to be quite brutal with speakers. Jerry Starling of

The Eventworks says: ’Some VIPS turn up with old acetates and

presentation aids. You have to be more willing to hurt their feelings

than the audience’s, remembering that conferences are for their benefit

not speakers.’


While some audiences may find company directors on stage dressed up as

the Spice Girls as the last word in hilarity, others may grimace leaving

the company’s image tarnished. Similarly chairman who squirt speakers

who run over time with a water pistol may suit some but not others.

Humour, quiz shows and theatricals all have their place - as long as it’

the right place. So finding the right tone for a conference is


Gill Price, commercial director of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference

Centre says: ’People can be more shocked than amused by these stunts so

you need to understand the desired tone of an event before you can

advise on content.’

She says that for a food and drink presentation, a client wanted the

venue to ’fizz’ and champagne bubbles were projected all over the


For a charity event with sponsors in the audience, might call for a more

utilitarian look, conveying that the charity is professional and


Clients often require specific approaches according to their current

situation. For instance, director of conference organiser, 2Cs

Communications, Charlie Grieve says: ’Littlewoods was going through a

period of change and obviously we could not trivialise the presentation

of that information, but afterwards the time came for a party and an

atmosphere of celebration was needed to help people to bond. Similarly,

for a fashion chain we organised the more formal business for the

morning then a fashion show and awards in the afternoon. The whole shape

of an event can be varied with light and shade and must never be flat

and boring.’

In setting the tone for speeches, it can be important to do some

research on your audience finding out if it is largely composed of

shop-floor employees or a room full of MBAs, according to corporate

speaker and trainer, Graham Davies.

Davies says that personal research on the company itself can be useful

to reveal any ’no-go’ areas. He explains: ’You need to know the taboo

subjects, such as operations which have been closed down or products

which have done badly.’ He adds that humour can often defuse and relax

an audience but even what seems like spontaneous humour is best planned.

’Off-the-cuff remarks are never as funny as lines which are actually

planned,’ he says.

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