Attendance at the spiralling numbers of conferences confirms the thirst for knowledge that people of all ages, all jobs and all walks of life have. And, my goodness, there’s a lot to absorb. ‘Lifelong learning’ is bellowed at us from all sides. ‘Change or decay’ is today’s corporate hymn title. So we go to conference after conference, begging for a crumb, crying out to be educated. And then?

We hear the titles of the Guest of Honour ten to twenty times – we knew them already. We get lectured that we should employ lifelong learning, that change is coming, that those who don’t will die. Er, that’s why we are here, chummy. So go on, bring us up to date, inspire us, enliven us, above all educate us. One hint of progress will justify our hard-pressed time. One scrap of new thinking, one iota of creativity, one ray of illumination and we shall be ecstatic for months.

Alas, it isn’t happening. It seems like there has been much thought about the title of the event but not much about the content. And virtually none about the purpose. ‘Let’s have a conference about The Future,’ I hear the tones ringing down the corridor from the CEO’s office. ‘Brilliant idea, CJ’ comes the enthusiastic reply, ‘my PA will organise it immediately’. The logistics will be perfect – that’s something to be thankful for – the buns and coffee, impeccable. But the contents?

You may say that conferences are for conferring. Agreed. For airing differing points of view, debating the best way to go forward (where else, for heaven’s sake), for seeing into the abyss that seems to lie ahead of us. It turns out mostly that we learn about past successes – never failures, unless it’s Kodak – which, by definition, won’t work again. As for Q&A, 90% of them are ‘buns to the bear’ more suitable for a visit to the zoo than a conference. So here’s what I suggest.

Every conference plan should answer the following questions before the title is decided, the speakers are approached or the Guest of Honour is persuaded. Indeed, The GoH should use his or her clout to insist on seeing the answers to them before s/he agrees to the ordeal.

What specific forecasts will be offered under which organisation’s
or individual’s auspices and by whom?

What hypotheses about the meaning of these forecasts will be
presented as a result of them?

Who will espouse and present these hypotheses with skill,
vigour and entertainment?

What detailed action will be called for from participants?

How will participants’ behavioural reactions to the hypotheses
be measured – preferably both before and after their presentation?

How will GoH be persuaded to express a view about what
participants should do next and by when?

Organising a successful conference is not easy. However educational it is intended to be there must also be an element of entertainment – as there must be with all education. But conferences are here to stay.

Can we please make them valuable, educational, fun and (failing all else) bearable.

P.S. If you want help with the contents (not the logistics) of a conference ask TMI. We do it all the time – for our clients. It’s called Training.