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The great conference con

This is a column I've wanted to write for many years, but as someone who earns a living partly out of talking at conferences I thought to wise to keep my Sagittarian mouth shut on the topic.
However talking at and attending a couple of conferences recently I felt the time had come to sound off on the topic.

Firstly how do most of these conference companies acquire their distinguished line up of speakers? It's really quite easy. Depending on the topic of the conference they look at big business and possibly parastatals and even government to get BIG NAMES. It doesn't matter that they've never heard these people talk in front of an audience as long as they're a BIG NAME...

Spot the sleeper

The bonus of using corporate people is that the conference companies don't need to pay them. They're not professional speakers and the conference company's spiel to them is 'think of the publicity this will give to your company.'

It also looks good in their advertising to name the CEO of one of the country's top corporations. You automatically think 'great opportunity to glean some useful insider tips.' Unfortunately what you generally get is a fumbling, mumbling speaker who subjects you to death by PowerPoint.

Seriously, I play a game at conferences - it's called 'spot the sleeping delegate'. Sometimes this hits double numbers...

Then you get the arrogant speaker, who feels you should know it's an honour they are there at all, deigning to speak to you.

Talk to me, don't yell at me

Then my personal favourite - the angry speaker, who virtually shouts at you. You sit there thinking I've come here to enjoy the day, not be shouted at. This one particular speaker in the IT field, who I've now listened to at two conferences, is a master of shouting at her audience. I think perhaps she comes from a teaching background where she taught naughty grade ones.

Occasionally though you do get a gem. Just recently I heard a wonderful speaker talking on the benefits of Linked In. He made me want to go home and really see where I'd been missing out on this networking opportunity. Now that's what a speaker should be doing - inspiring you.

I'm not at all surprised to find that many conference companies have in fact gone out of business in these tough economic times, where companies aren't just forking out to send staff on a two-day jaunt in the hope they'll come back invigorated and enthusiastic about what they've learnt.

As a speaker your aim should be to not only impart knowledge but also to entertain your audience - maybe even get a laugh or two...

Hello-o-o-o... I'm talking to you

I used to think the worst thing for a speaker would be to see a sleeping delegate but today it's more a case of can you stop your audience from staring at their phones or tablets?

I understand that people want to Tweet what they're seeing, but it's really disturbing for a speaker when all they can see are heads down! Surely people can wait twenty minutes or so until the speaker's finished to Tweet.

Even worse is when the conference flashes up the Tweets whilst the speaker is talking in front of the screen. This means that at least half the audience is glaring at the moving screen - again not listening to the speaker.

So the question is - are conferences really useful or just a great place to network with colleagues?

About Marion Scher

Marion Scher ( is an award-winning journalist, lecturer, media trainer and consultant with 25 years' experience in the industry. For more of her writing, go to her Bizcommunity profile or to Twitter @marionscher.
Walter Pike
Marion - My huge issue is the fact that conference organisers sell speakers IP - thats all they have to sell and then they expect speakers to speak for free. Its no wonder that the quality of speakers is poor and no wonder the insights are non existent. Because after a while the good quality speakers just don't accept the invitations to speak. I do sometimes speak for free but there must be a really good reason and some measurable trade exchange.This must be the only industry in which a business can get its product for free - Imagine Ford giving dealers free cars.There are many clever, insightful fresh thinking speakers in South Africa. But most times they just aren't on the stage these organisers prepare.
Posted on 3 Oct 2012 15:00
Philip Woods
Dear Marion and Walter,I am sorry that you have such a view of the conference industry. If it is done properly it is not a an easy task, yes we do have speakers who do not charge, and they are often very passionate about their subject and delegates do get benefit from them. Maybe some organisers do not vet their speakers, but please do not assume we are all the same. We often pay speakers as well. It is not in our interest to have short sighted approach to this and deliver poor quality speakers. Most organisers are looking for longevity in their business and want to create a worthwhile, memorable experience that will attract delegates each year and be of value to the target sector.Our delegates complete feedback forms which we look at carefully in order to improve the conference for next time.I certainly think that you cannot be quite so critical until you have maybe tried to organise a conference yourselves. It is not as easy as it may at first appear.As for speakers giving away their IP, it does depend upon what the speakers aim is. Is it to impart knowledge for the greater good or to promote their services? If the latter, then they need to strike the right balance, demonstrating their knowledge, without giving away all their IP. Maybe ending with, 'if you would like to hear more about this topic, please contact me direct'
Posted on 3 Oct 2012 15:54
Llewellyn Kriel
Bravo on your brave expose, Marion. Conference organisers have participated in a huge scam for more than 25 years now, and (despite Philip's plea to the contrary) value for money has been an issue since the mid-1980s. For Philip to contend "we often pay speakers" is clearly disingenuous and, given the grossly disproportionate fees levied, not to pay speakers is a rip-off. Walter's point about the vast number of of excellent - if costly for organisers - speakers out there is borne out by the highly successful and great ROI conferences and seminars organised privately or on a much smaller scale.
Posted on 3 Oct 2012 16:21
Greg Knowler
I am with Phillip on this one. What is the point in deliberately providing a poor line-up of speakers? Your conference business will soon go belly up, especially with so many events across so many business sectors to choose from.People who attend conferences regularly - or cover them for trade magazines - soon work out which events to attend. Most successful conferences are held annually and after one or two disappointments only an eternal optimist would continue to attend.To call conferences a "scam" is unfair. A conference organiser presents and markets their conference to a targeted audience that decides to attend based on the content promised and on the reputation of the company. No one holds a gun to their head, and if the conference fails to meet their expectations, they need not attend the following year. That is the reason so much effort is poured into getting audience feedback and why any conference company that wants to remain in business takes the feedback very seriously.
Posted on 4 Oct 2012 07:12
Greg Knowler
As for paying speakers, here in Asia there are many executives perfectly capable and prepared to deliver, completely free, a presentation or addressing a topic or participating in a panel discussion without trapping the audience in Powerpoint hell. Maybe Marion is simply charging too much …
Posted on 4 Oct 2012 07:15