13 Things You Can Do Now To Improve Your Conference Content

Imagine you are going to hear Martin Luther King’s memorable “I’ve Got A Dream” speech for the first time, live and in person.

You grab your time machine manual and follow its instructions. You step into your time machine and set the location for the steps of the Lincoln Monument and the date for August 28, 1963. You put on your seatbelt, push the flux capacitor button thingy and away you go.

As you open the door of your DeLorean, you find yourself in a New York Subway. There standing on the steps is Martin Luther King getting ready to deliver his speech. Just as he starts, a subway car speeds by and its doors open. The voice of others and speeding subway cars drown out King’s speech. You can’t hear him for all the noise and distractions.

You’re think you’re dreaming and then look down at the time machine manual. In fine print you notice a caveat that says, “Using this machine may cause strange time warp malfunctions with locations, date and time. Use at your own risk.” “Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly. Think!?

How are you going to hear MLK’s famous speech if the environment is not appropriate for his presentation?

This silly analogy references just one of the things you as a conference organizer can do to help improve the content: improve the presentation environment. (See number 11).

Here are 13 things you can do now, to improve your conference content for your next meeting.

1. Offer instructor training for industry speakers.
Most industry speakers are chosen for their expertise and knowledge, not their good presentation skills. Typically, their presentation skills are severely lacking. Follow the lead of Lynn Randall of Maritz Travel which is now training all of their speakers in the Neuroscience of Presentations. If you consistently offer instructor training for several years, you are investing in your members and ultimately everyone benefits.

2. Require Learning Objectives (LOs) for all presentations.
You don’t start traveling without a goal in mind of where you want to go. So why do we allow presenters to ramble through presentations without several LOs of what they want their attendees to learn. All public education teachers identify the LOs for every 60 minutes of teaching. So why don’t conference organizers require LO’s for every presentation?

3. Have attendees evaluate whether the presentation matched the marketed description and whether the presenter met the learner objectives.
We’ve all attended a session where we look back at the conference program to make sure we are in the right room because the speaker is presenting something entirely different than what was marketed.

4. When evaluating presentations and presenters, at a minimum use the following criteria:
      a. Facilitator’s Knowledge
      b. Facilitator’s Delivery Style
      c. Pace & Timing
      d. Program Content
      e. Relevance
      f. I will be able to apply what I’ve learned.

5. Set a goal for an overall average favorable score of all your conference speakers.
Let your speakers know that you’ve set a goal of an overall average speaker, such as 80% favorable. Tell them they will be evaluated, ranked and judged upon their score. The following year, move that overall average favorable score up a few points to help improve the presentations of your speakers. You also can use the scores to select industry speakers from past years. For example if an industry expert scores 70% favorable, they need to improve something in order to be considered again in the future.

6. Set performance standards for all professional paid speakers.
It’s amazing that we pay speakers the same fee whether they succeed or fail. When negotiating a speaker’s fee, consider a performance standard clause in their contract. For instance, if their normal fee is $5,000, tell them you’re willing to pay the full fee of $5,000 if they score 90% favorable or higher. If they only get 80%-89% favorable, you’re willing to pay them $4,000, etc.

7. When securing a speaker for multiple gigs, place a performance cancellation clause in their contract.
Set a minimum overall average score you are willing to accept, say 80% favorable, and if the speaker scores less than that on the first presentation, you have the right to cancel any future speaking gigs without additional payments. This puts the pressure on the speaker to meet the attendee’s expectations and needs.

8. Release a public comparison ranking of all your conference speakers based on the evaluations.
Let all speakers know you will be doing this in their conference contracts. Then release the overall average favorable score, the number of attendees and the number of submitted evaluations.

9. Require all paid speakers to customize their presentation for your audience.
Include a clause in their contract that the speaker is to customize their message for your audience and industry. Have them interview at least four members of your organization to understand the audience better.

10. Stop using famous people and marquee names to put butts in chairs.
That doesn’t work. Very few people, if any, attended an event because of your keynote famous presenter. Secure relevant, business related keynote presenters.

11. Improve your presentation environment.
Look carefully at the rooms you are using for your presentation. What’s the lighting like? Are their poles or chandeliers in the way? What room layout are you using? Is there proper AV?

12. Set your keynote sessions in chevron or semi-circle.
Instead of viewing your general sessions as a way to get the most people in a room as possible, consider what would be the best attendee seating experience as possible. If you have a large, rectangle room, putting people in long row is not the best experience. Find ways to bring the audience closer to the speaker and for attendees to see the eyes of other participants.

13. Include a discussion breakout about the keynote presentation immediately following the general session.
If the presenter was good, people want to talk about it. They want to digest it and engage with the content and each other. Encourage it and secure moderators or table facilitators to help lead those discussions.

What content and education tips would you add?

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  1. Justin Locke says:

    well i must confess i am somewhat shocked and confused. as a speaker i would be embarrassed if I got less than a 100 from an audience. you mean pro speakers at the 5k level are giving you that much mediocrity? how do they stay in business? and there are pro speakers that DON’T customize/ research? amazing. not good for business in general. sorry to hear that.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Justin – Yeah, it’s odd right? That a speaker can charge $5K and then provide a 70% overall favorable rating, barely clearning the just passing hurdle. Yet we meeting organizers continue to allow it. Time to shake things up a bit.

  2. Justin Locke says:

    well jeff it’s an interesting facet of human nature that, even if filet mignon is readily and freely available, some people will still choose a chili dog, as that is what they are familiar and comfortable with.

  3. DawnV says:

    A conference that follows these suggestions is one that I would LOVE to attend!! I especially like suggestion #13. So many times after hearing an informative speaker it would be great to have a discussion session afterward. I hope that conference planners from every industry read this post and incorporate these ideas! Thanks for “shaking things up a bit”.

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