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Your conference sucks: Part 2

In my first article on this subject, I focused on why conferences suck and what we need to do about it (adhere to our objectives). In this article, I will talk about some of the techniques we use to make our conferences kick more ass than yours.
The first is this: contrary to popular belief, you learn by observing, not just by doing. It's not enough that we spend our working time throwing conferences and presentations; we must spend our down time attending them. Events such as TED, Pop!Tech, VizThink, Brand Hooligans, Picnic and CaT.

Attend as delegate, not organiser

If you're involved in conferences in any way, my advice to you is this: attend as many top conferences as you can as a delegate, not an organiser. As Howard Mann, author of Your Business Brickyard, says, "It's very hard to read the label from inside the bottle." Attend, learn, and steal (ideas, not stationery).

Here's the funny thing, though: are these conferences awesome? Yes! Are they worth the R40 000 or so that it costs for the ticket (not including flights and expenses)? Undoubtedly! Are they structurally different to the average conference a corporate would throw? Not at all.

Shock. Horror!

This throws a curveball to the organisers of the string of alt.un.anti.yawn.blah conferences that seem to be cropping up everywhere, with the strategy of having no agenda, no theme, no set-speakers, just brilliant minds chewing the fat. They blame ‘death by PowerPoint' for terrible conferences.

Blaming the pan

Well, I have this to say to them: blaming PowerPoint for a bad presentation is like blaming the pan for a crappy meal! The good ones have speakers, they have PowerPoint decks and they have agendas that are militantly adhered to. In fact, in many cases that's actually the key! Tight agendas, short presentation durations and great speaker guidelines.

This leads to my second bit of advice: take time seriously, both with how you allocate it, and how you adhere to it. Please bear in mind that not all presentations are created equal, and as such, they don't all deserve the same amount of time. As the organiser, ask your speakers the following question:
  • What is the shortest time you would require to do your topic justice?
Other than your keynote, no topic should last an hour. Twenty minutes is optimal; it forces your presenter to only cover the important bits, and it gives your audience a far better chance of remembering things.

Once you have agreed on a time, stick to it! Use technology to help - a screen at the back of the room that counts down is easy, and works well. Oh, and be prepared to have your MC gently nudge them if they run over. I've seen CEOs and prime ministers stick to their timeframe - if they can, so can your speaker.

Important enough to mention

The third and last bit of advice is a little self-serving; however, I feel that it's important enough to mention: knowing how to use the tool PowerPoint doesn't automatically qualify you to actually build a presentation anymore than knowing what type of house you want qualifies you as an architect. You've spent a lot of time and money on getting the audience there and entertaining them - spend a little on the primary reason they're there in the first place too, which is to leave a little bit smarter.

Call me, we'll do lunch...!

About Richard Mulholland

Richard Mulholland is the founder of Missing Link (, a specialist conference and presentation strategy company. Rich's dynamic way of thinking took him from rigging lights at rock concerts to telling CEOs what and how they should present. A renowned speaker, strategist, creative thinker and capitalist punk, Rich is the guy you hire to make your presentation or conference rock. Email him on and follow him on Twitter at @RichMulholland and Missing Link at @presorockgods.



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