Ten Commandments for Conference Organisers
Opinion piece by Clear Europe Managing Director Gareth Harding on why most conferences are so boring and ten ways to make them less torturous.
I hate conferences. Always have. Always will. Maybe it’s because of my fidgety metabolism and intolerance of bullshit-peddling. Or maybe it’s because, champagne and canapés apart, conferences are usually a colossal waste of time and money.
Either way, I highly doubt one of my death-bed regrets will be “I wish I had spent more time away from my loved ones listening to long-winded PowerPoint presentations in stuffy conference rooms.”
The problem is that in my line of work – writing, lecturing and media training – and in my adopted city of Brussels it is pretty hard to avoid conferences. So I tend to go to more than is recommended for my liver and sanity.
As this unhealthy habit is likely to continue, here are my 10 commandments for conference organisers that would make my life, and those of many others I assume, less torturous:
1. Thou shalt hold a conference for a specific reason
For some organisations, notably the European Commission, the purpose of having a conference often appears to be to have a conference. I can think of no other reason why they would want to spend millions of euros of taxpayers’ money on events like European Development Days, Green Week, European Trade Policy Day or other manufactured meet-ups with no message and little media value.
2. Thou shalt foster debate amongst thy flock
A press officer recently asked me why so few journalists attended her organisation’s annual conference. “Look at the titles of your sessions” I told her. “They’re almost designed to put people to sleep.”
Journalists – and I suspect most conference participants – want speakers with contrasting views, not a bunch of dull insiders agreeing with each other. So debate should be built into programme titles – like at a recent European Trade Union Confederation conference session on “Is precarity the only vision for the future?” pitting the head of Business Europe against his ETUC counterpart.
Session titles that sound bland and boring – like “Perspectives for Public Communication and Citizen Engagement” (EuroPCom 2013) or “Education and Business for Innovation: Acting Together” (European Business Summit 2014) – probably will be bland and boring.
3. Thou shalt leave thy mobile phone at the door
During my weekly lectures on EU politics and media, I tell my students to switch their mobile devices off. For one simple reason – it is impossible to concentrate on what a speaker is saying whilst flirting with someone on Snapchat or booking a Ryanair flight to Barcelona.
So to avoid the eerie sight of scores of participants swiping their mobiles while pretending to pay attention to speakers, I’d suggest putting everybody’s phones in a giant bin at the entrance to the conference hall. Somewhat draconian maybe, but watch the quality of the debate improve.
4. Thou shalt shut thy trap after 10 minutes
A golden rule of conference-moderating – something of a cottage industry in Brussels – is that if you ask someone to talk for 10 minutes they will drone on for at least 20. And if you ever hear a speaker say “I’ll be brief,” reach for your knitting or copy of “War and Peace.”
According to no-nonsense journalist Andy Carling, the best way to avoid speakers giving Fidel Castro-length orations is to hire a shaven-headed bouncer with tattoos. After 10 minutes he should start tapping his baseball bat menacingly. That might speed things along.
5. Thou shalt refrain from boring people to death by PowerPoint
Can you remember anything from any PowerPoint presentation anyone ever gave? No? No wonder.
PowerPoints are designed to kill debate, induce sleep and bury the potentially interesting and important in an avalanche of pie-charts, bullet points and cheesy stock photos. If you really must use PowerPoint, or its drunken cousin Prezi, use loads of photos, keep text to a minimum and limit your slides to 10.
6. Thou shalt answer thy question
The surest way of letting speakers wriggle out of difficult questions is for moderators – who should never be moderate – to cluster them into batches of three, or even five.
This allows speakers to cherry-pick which questions they answer and completely ignore those they are uncomfortable with. The result is usually a cluster of an unprintable kind.
7. Thou shalt aim for gender equity or risk the wrath of @EUPanelWatch
Men in suits and ties looking down at you from a podium. From the audience’s perspective, this is the most common sight at conferences in Brussels.
So common in fact that @EUPanelWatch have set up a Twitter account to call out the organisations that field all-male, or almost all-male, panels. Their twitter page has a photo of 12 blokes on a platform – a middle-finger salute to both gender parity and time-keeping.
8. Thou shalt not grandstand
There was once a well-known journalist in the EU pressroom who presaged every intervention with the dreaded words: “Three questions if I may.” Of course, the response to this sort of mic-hugging should be “No you may not.” POLITICO Europe News Editor Craig Winneker calls this sort of self-important pontificator a “Stakehole n: person who engages in ‘unilogue’ at any #EU conference.”
9. Thou shalt leave time for questions
Is there anything more insulting to audience members who have often shelled out hundreds of euros to attend your conference than telling them that “unfortunately there is no time for questions”?
At least half the time allotted to a conference session should be reserved for questions from the floor. Or if you really want to be radical, tell speakers to ditch their set-pieces and go straight to questions – as a moderator did at Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum in June. I guarantee it will be more interesting for everyone.
10. Thou shalt have no more than three speakers on thy platform
This article was originally published in EUobserver on September 29.