For the avoidance of doubt, the last few events which I have done have been models of efficient planning, with the bare minimum of input needed to achieve the result and venue arrangements which could not be faulted.
kCura has been inviting its Twitter followers to tell them about their preferred industry conferences or events. The question is, I think, aimed at delegates, but it set me thinking about what makes a “good” event from the point of view of a speaker.
It seems to be assumed that I spend all my time at events, attending dozens of them in a year. That is not in fact correct, but I can see how the perception arises – I write about most of the events I attend but do not, on the whole, record that I am sitting at my desk in Oxford reading and writing (as I do most of the time), so a slightly distorted perception arises. Nevertheless, I spend quite a lot of my life preparing for events of one kind or another, travelling to and from them and participating in them. On the whole, I enjoy them all, much as I may sigh when the alarm goes off at 5:00am or I start packing my bag for a foreign trip.
To twist kCura’s question slightly – what is likable or dislikable about some of the conferences I go to? I will take for granted for these purposes that panel members and content are good and the food at least acceptable. I will avoid identifying any of them and stick to the concepts (though I should make it clear, since kCura was my starting point, that kCura’s own events are NOT the subject of any of the adverse comments below).
First, though, why do I do it at all? I did not set out to stand on platforms – the original intention was simply to write about eDiscovery. I found, however, that conference organisers assume that if you know enough to write about a subject then you are competent to speak about it. I did it partly because it was consistent with the mission to get messages out, and partly because speaking at an event is a passport to hearing other people speak (for which I would otherwise have to pay a hefty delegate fee) and to mingling and speaking with those who actually face eDiscovery problems and deal with them. I quickly discovered that I loathe making speeches but enjoy taking part in (and preferably moderating) panel discussions with suitably qualified and interesting people.
The nature of the sponsorship model which supports my business is that I am required (a burden willingly accepted) to attend events at the request of my sponsors and to engage also in events which have a public interest element which may benefit one or more of the sponsors directly or indirectly. It follows that I decline invitations from those who might sponsor what I do but who, for whatever reason, do not do so. I also decline invitations from anyone who thinks that they are doing me a favour (“It will give you good exposure”) or who, laughably, expect me to pay for the privilege of shoring up their crappy events (“crappy” because if they need the guest speakers to fund their events as well as provide the entertainment, the events themselves can’t be much of a draw).
Taking part is immensely time-consuming, just for the event itself, never mind the preparation; a 60 minute panel in London effectively wipes out a day when starting from Oxford, and a foreign one often takes up most of a week. I am largely measured by my written output and I am no good at writing when on the road. The travelling therefore diminishes the writing time, as well as being simply wearing. Someone said recently that he can tell when I am away because the blog posts dry up.
At the beginning of the year I wrote this:
My New Year resolution, in business terms, was to take on things only if a) they had a business benefit for me or b) they benefited one or more of my sponsors and/or c) were interesting. I would cut down on the flying, and write only for me and for my sponsors, declining (nearly) all invitations to write for third parties. I would devote more time to devising means of producing eDisclosure / eDiscovery resources which did not involve the inconvenience and expense of having to travel to deliver them.
As with so many resolutions, this one has not worked out too well so far – I spent half February in New York and Hong Kong, and the Pyrrho judgment and pending developments in privacy and cross-border discovery have added events to the diary, ones which I welcome, despite my New Year’s resolution, because these are important and interesting topics. I have one conference coming up at which I am moderating or participating in three panels in one day followed by a long flight home that night. You don’t want to do that too often.
Coming back to kCura’s question (or, at least, my adaptation of it), what makes a good event for a speaker, or at least for this one? I am not too bothered about the size and composition of the audience in the way that its organisers or sponsors are bothered; I don’t really care if there are four people in the room or 400 if they are interested in the subject. I do care very much about the composition of the panels and in this I am lucky – I get to sit with judges and senior lawyers, with eDiscovery industry leaders and with people from industry and finance. I have only ever had one truly duff panel (somebody tweeted of that one “Dale is not happy with the panellist’s answer; he is pressing him for a better one”).
Assuming that the topic is interesting and the panel members from the top drawer, what distinguishes a pleasurable event from others? The answer lies mainly in the amount of administration which is expected of me. I am obviously pleased to get involved in the drafting of agendas and the introduction of potential speakers; I write about the event; it is also useful, sometimes, to have one telephone call (just the one, thank you) with the panellists in addition to the obviously necessary exchange of emails.
Beyond that, however, I dig my heels in. There are one or two organisers who seem to think that I have signed up to half-run the event for them. They send me stupid forms to fill in (Americans, for example, are obsessed with getting a speaker release form signed; I am damned if I will print the form, sign it, scan it and send it back; my usual answer is that my administrative staff are all away and that I do not have a printer anyway).
I get very tired, too, of those who present a great list of things which they “require” from me, usually by dates which they emphasise in bold, and sometimes in red, on their emails. I am sure that this makes their life much easier, but if I am clearing my diary, prepping the content, packing a bag and spending bloody hours in airport lounges or on railway platforms then they can jolly well do the rest. One or two organisers send out great wads of information along with the forms. They may or may not have useful or important points within them, but I often don’t find out about that – the large volumes of material elevate (or reduce) the thing to the status of a project, and a project goes to the bottom of my ToDo list, along with anything which says that I am “required” to do something. In due course they will chase me for the things which really do matter, so why bother to wade through all the other crap?
Another pet hate is the demand that I put slides into the organiser’s template. These fall into two categories: one are those deadly dull basic PowerPoints with prescriptive rules about fonts and print sizes and the number of lines per slide, apparently specified by someone who has read one of those wretched “Top 10 points to bear in mind for PowerPoint” articles; the other consists of immensely complex over-decorated things designed by some arty type in the marketing department, full of clutter and hidden parameters which are a mystery to a non-PowerPoint user. In general I decline to play – I will send barebones slides and they can jolly well fit them into their ghastly elaborate templates themselves. I have rejected slides in which the message has been lost in the too carefully-crafted medium. In other cases, I simply refuse to use slides at all, although US CLE requirements sometimes make this compulsory.
What about the events themselves? Usually, the deficiencies are down to the venue rather than the organiser. Leaving aside the extreme recent example where the sound system was so poor that I as moderator could not hear the panel members and vice versa, pet hates include:
Nowhere to put my own laptop with its notes, because the venue laptop (running the main slide set) takes up the whole of the piddly little podium;
Arrangements where the moderator and speakers can’t see the slides because the slides are behind them with no repeater;
Sharing desk microphones between speakers so that you have to pass them between panel members;
Microphones designed for dwarfs so that I have to choose between crouching down to it whilst still looking at the audience (an uncomfortable and undignified posture), or being unheard.
Soft squidgy chairs into which you subside ungracefully, or tall swivelling stools from which even I, with long legs, cannot easily reach the floor (I spoke to someone yesterday who had been at a recent event, and our evident discomfort with the seating was the first thing he mentioned);
Wearing my photographer’s hat, I get tired of venues where the panel sits in darkness while the room is brightly lit. I have hundreds of badly-exposed or blurred pictures taken in places like that; it is so common as to appear deliberate.
Lastly, I have a deep loathing for panels which overrun their time. This is usually because of ill-discipline on the part of a moderator who is either incapable of time management or somehow thinks that his or her panel is much more important and interesting than the one which follows. I appreciate organisers who enforce discipline by holding up big cards showing that you have ten, then five, then one minute to go. I would be glad of some arrangement by which a moderator who overruns the time was delivered an electric shock if still at the podium three minutes after the session was due to end.
I began by asking what makes for a “good” event, and I have written almost entirely about the things which are bad. It follows that, assuming decent panels and content, a good conference is one which does not involve any of the things described in negative terms above.