The ‘Art’ of Conferences

For Greta, the noblest one

Warning: Politically incorrect, satirical text.

Often, when invited to speak at a conference or join a panel, I’ve had the impression that the organizers wanted to add something feminine, preferably nice-looking, in the same way, that you’d add a flower arrangement on a set table, a final touch. A recent incident confirmed this. I was asked last minute to step in for my male boss, who could not attend a conference. When informed about the change in casting, the organizer responded in one line, copying me, “It will be good to have Ximena to improve the gender balance”. I am certainly in favour of greater representation of women in all spheres of professional life, including as speakers. It is the reduction of this noble objective to a tick-the-box requirement that offends me. Beyond the gender balancing act, there are other aspects about (some) international conferences that tire me. I am guilty of having organized a few myself and have fallen into some of the tricks I recommend below. Conferences are a strange social invention. Truth is, the idea to gather people, plenty, of the ‘knowledgeable’ type, to converse and progress on a theme, often results in futility. These gatherings are mostly purposeless vanity fairs, where frivolity and ostentation reign. Ok, not always. Last month, as I sat in the conference, contributing my gender (and little else as I was too distracted), I wrote this text. It is a sort of meta-text about the “Art of Conferences”. It contains an odd mix of good, practical advice, exaggeration and ridicule. I leave it to you to make the difference.

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

How to Organize a Conference

1. Select a topic, preferably one you are somewhat familiar with. Human rights, Global Warming or Microfinance are equally appealing. Narrow it down, add detail, The Role of Local Government in the protection of Human Rights is fine. Adding precision adds authority and exclusion -it is good to exclude. (But don’t overdo it, The Role of Local Government in the protection of the Human Rights of Minorities in Post Pandemic Times in Sub Saharan Africa, is overkill.)

2. Draft an agenda with a balanced mix of plenaries and breakout sessions and coffee breaks. If possible spread your conference over 2 days, it will allow time for one-night stands, which may stimulate cross-fertilization and breeding of experts. If you’re limited to one day, ensure sufficient opportunity to network. Indeed, conference-goers’ main attraction, as with children on a field trip, is the promise of a day away from their desks.

3. Secure attractive speakers. Select a big name and call him/her the Keynote, ideally a woman, a beautiful one. Beauty commands authority, especially female beauty (provided she doesn’t smile too much). If you get hold of a mixed-race or colourful one, you’ll kill two birds with one stone.

Write a persuasive invitation to each speaker. Make them believe all other speakers have already confirmed. Drop names, speakers love to be part of a league, to belong to something exclusive. Make sure to praise them in the invitation letter. Use words such as Pioneer, Founder, Knowledgeable, Distinguished, Creator, Widely-published, Opinion-driver. When referring to your conference use, but do not overuse, superlatives, such as greatest, largest, best, first, ground-breaking.

4. Participants. Identify influencers. Check previous high-flying, popular meetings on similar topics, the participants’ lists are often public. Use media hype and social media manipulation to bait conference-goers. Algorithm influence has become affordable and easy to use, there’s no reason to abstain from using a readily available manipulation tool. Once you have a few good names, they will lure others, like a pack of wolves.

5. Gender balance and cultural diversity. A good amount of men in grey suits makes a respectable audience, but be sure to add women, again, preferably pretty ones. If yours is an international conference, aim to have a few women wearing distinctive headwear, headwraps or headscarves, and traditional clothes, it will make you culture-sensitive, and inclusive. Nowadays, gender balance is important. A ratio of 8 females to 20 males is no longer sufficient. You should come closer to 50%, but don’t go over 50%. That makes men nervous and devalues the entire affair into Women’s Issues. Be sure to secure balance not only among participants but foremost among speakers. Ideally, find someone who identifies and acts non-binary, include them in a panel of experts.

6. Food & Drink If you offer food, make sure to offer a vegan option, like Chile sin carne, it’s the perfect vegan dish, the name makes the statement. Drinks are always a good lubricant, helping reduce friction. Be aware though, of cultural and religious sensitivities, drinking is a rule-governed activity, mind the rules in your particular context.

7. Funding. Depending on the topic, the conference will be publicly or privately funded. But bear in mind that it is relatively easy to get seed funding from public agencies, even for a private corporate meeting. It only takes adding a few words to justify the tax contributors funding. Take “Private Equity in Real Estate” if you make it “Private Equity in Real Estate to Close the Inequality Gap” will land you the funding. (And you don’t even need to compromise your agenda, just add a session somewhere that roughly addresses the poverty bit).

Charging a participation fee is always a good idea, conference-goers like to know they belong to a paying club. (If they see someone excluded from entering the conference centre because of unpaid dues, it will give them immediate satisfaction).

Sponsorship Opportunities should never be neglected. Men and women enjoy being patrons, especially if they are given public recognition for their selflessness, a bright colourful badge might suffice.

8. Speaker honoraria Men, yes particularly men, are vain. Offer them a sense of belonging to an exclusive circle, and they will agree to the financial terms you offer them. It might be the opportunity to figure in a publication with their bios next to their photos. And here’s a tip: Speakers (men and women) are fond of photos where they appear holding a microphone in front of their mouth. Indeed, while we rarely hold a microphone in front of our mouths, the amount of LinkedIn Profile photos with microphones indicates it’s a much valued natural pose of the somebodies.

Back to the terms, for speakers travelling from out of town a return fare economy ticket and one night in a three-star hotel should be enough.

9. Venue Find a nice venue, that has a plenary room with mahogany, or mahogany-looking, furniture decorated and portraits of old men on the walls. To contrast the classy ambience, prepare flipcharts, and colourful markers, spread them around as an invitation to be creative (don’t worry they won’t), it adds modernity to your event. Prepare name tags, depending on the number of participants, name shields for the tables. Double-check the spelling, especially for names you are not familiar with like Cheick Dabed or Pas’damour Unterlacama, it is terrifying to have to correct the spelling last minute on the offended participant’s request.

10. Instructions to speakers. Encourage speakers to use colourful PowerPoints, even if they lack power and have no point. Allow them sufficient time to speak. Most speeches don’t say anything, therefore they’re harmless. But don’t let speakers go on for too long, exceeding their allotted time. If they do, the next in turn, who is not listening, (this is normal, speakers don’t listen to each other, they focus on what they themselves will say) will be upset.

11. Opening. In the opening speech, use words like Honour, Pleasure, Unique, Opportunity. Include humour, but make sure your jokes work with the audience and don’t turn against you. A famous anecdote (but apparently false) says that Kennedy greeted a crowd in Berlin saying Ich bin ein Berliner, unaware he was calling himself a doughnut. False or true, check your joke with locals. Independent of the topic under discussion, include words such as Paradigm, Deep-dive, Cross-fertilization, Theory of Change, Accountability (upon further thought Accountability is outmoded). Use a few acronyms, they help exclude and remember exclusion is good. Add some numbers and statistics, 90% or 30% are good, more credible though are 91% and 37%. Be warm, natural, keep eye contact, stand firm on both feet, avoid unnecessary hair touching or balancing from one leg to the other. When introducing speakers avoid clichés, such as “you brought the sun with you”.

12. COVID Protocols In times of pandemics, be sure to follow the protocols. And exploit the opportunity they offer, face masks for instance offer the possibility for further space to promote corporate identity, think of embroidering the name of your company on them, or a phrase. I recently saw “impact-driven” on the mask of a conference attendee, next to the company’s logo.

13. Closing In your closing remarks, deliver some inspirational language, words such as “gratitude” phrases such as “we are in this together” or “we can’t do this alone” or simply, “join forces” or “community of values” all work. Make sure you have “take-aways” or “key lessons” and “informed decisions”.

One final tip to conference-goers: Loiter in the lobby as participants collect their free items and cram their laptops into leather carrying cases. Identify the key players and tell them how much you agree with their speech and look forward to connecting on social media.

One conference at a time, we will save the planet, maybe.

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