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Evan Davis on... conferences

Updated Thursday, 15th July 2010

Evan believes spontaneity and long coffee breaks are the key to a successful and worthwhile business conference.

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Business conferences have a pretty bad name, and frankly quite often they deserve quite a bad name.  Too many of them have corporate leaders standing up saying what they’ve done, what they do in their company, how they cope with this problem, with no real insight and no real testing of the views that are being expressed – all very dull.  Often I notice organisers of conferences are fairly happy with this state of affairs.  You see, the thing about organisers is, their job is to organise things; they want them to be organised.  The problem is that conferences are not there to be organised; conferences are there to shock people, to give them the unknown, to have moments of spontaneity.  It’s those little gems that teach people things or knock them out of the mindset that they were in or tell them something they didn’t already know.  So the big challenge for conference organisers is to ensure that conferences have those little moments in them.  It’s just the sort of thing that organisers can’t produce or organise.

Now I remember going to one conference that was on mortgages and the mortgage market, and I listened to a fairly long presentation about the European mortgage market, but it really didn’t get going until some question prompted the speaker to talk about her own brother’s experience in the Hungarian mortgage market.  A little personal tale that told us all so much, and then someone in the audience said, “As it happens, I was involved in marketing those products in Hungary when they were first introduced.”  Suddenly an explosion of interested thoughts about the Hungarian mortgage market prompted people to think all sorts of different things and to ask all sorts of different questions.  It’s those moments that matter, the organisers don’t put them in, so my advice is to make conferences as useful as they truly could be, you have to build in long coffee breaks so that everybody can overrun if something interesting happens at no cost to the overall schedule.  If that occurs, then you’ll get some surprises, and it’s surprises that make conferences, not organisation.  

That’s my view.  You can join the debate with The Open University.





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