One of the oldest rules in communications is start with your audience first. Think about their interests, their motives and how you can get them to care about the information you’re trying to give. I went to a whole host of conferences in 2018 and organisers seem to have completely forgotten this rule.
In fact, most conferences have become nothing more than extended forms of advertising for the event sponsors. Chief among the culprits is the panel debate. By a conservative estimate, three quarters of panels I attended last year were dull, predictable dronefests.
Most panels now play out in a highly predictable format. The chair introduces each member and gives them a chance for an opening stanza. Some are true to the aim here – a brief chance to set out their stall. Many are not, trying to cram in as many key messages as they can and droning on for several minutes.
What happens next is a set of pre-ordained questions are posed and passed up and down the panellists in a dignified procession. Army chiefs would enjoy the military precision. Audience members certainly do not. Again, many answers drone on and often deviate entirely from the question asked. After 20, 40 or (God forbid) 60 minutes, the panel concludes and everyone shuffles off stage, ready for the next set of panellists to be loaded onto the rank.
This is the very antithesis of the term ‘debate’. Audience members seem to agree. Most that I’ve observed spend more time on their phones or laptops than actually watching the action on stage.
Who is to blame for this? I see three culprits. The first are the organisers. Desperate to keep sponsors happy (and therefore get them back next year), they’ve softened panels and increased the number of sponsors who sit on them. What was once debate between parties with opposing views has turned into mutual agreement among familiar bedfellows.
The second are the moderators. Too many stick to the rigid nature of the brief they’ve been given, reading through the pre-agreed list of questions and patiently waiting for each participant to respond in turn, no matter the length or content of that response. Question Time on a Thursday night this certainly isn’t.
The third are the panellists themselves. The self-discipline to relinquish the microphone is one problem. The other is the apparent fear of the unknown, hence the list of pre-ordained questions that accompany most panels. In this regard, communications advisers are equally culpable.
I’ve heard more than one marketing or communications director express their concern about the future value of conferences in recent months.
Good conferences, featuring engaging panels and panellists, can still be highly valuable, especially when treated as part of an integrated plan around a given moment or objective.
The problem, increasingly, is finding the shrinking number of conferences that still fulfil the role they set out to intend.