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Those dreaded words “Can you organise this year’s conference”?

The CEO has just asked you as HR director to organise the next conference for our people. ‘Of course, no problem!’ you say. ‘Where do I start?’ you ask yourself. 

If you don’t have much experience of organising a conference be very careful. Conferences are live events and are therefore open to the potential of all sorts of things going wrong. Firstly develop a plan and timing plan. It may be rough and in outline at the start but it will tighten up over the coming weeks. 

Conferences can be brilliant. An audience can be moved to change their behaviour, learn new information and share experiences. Conferences are a serious financial investment (venue, sound/AV, the speakers, food and beverages) they may also involve the cost of overnight accommodation. So it is vital that the conference delivers the expected right return for the investment for the organisers and the audience. Many of those things that can go wrong are avoidable. 

I have spoken at numerous conferences and seminars in the UK, Europe and I’ve collected the typical mistakes I see being made by those organising conferences and those speaking at event into a booklet “The top 18 mistakes when organising a conference”. USA. Let me share some of the mistakes I’ve seen (and a few in my earlier days that I’ve made). 

I typically speak to audiences of senior management, sales teams and marketing agencies where I’m helping them be more profitable, more confident in their selling technique and ability to build relationships with senior clients and customers. The mistakes outlined below are likely to occur for other conferences, topics and audiences. 

The complete works of Shakespeare in 48 minutes
Tell your audience what they need to know, not everything you know. A classic conference mistake is trying to cover too much content. Einstein said ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ 

The wrong speakers
There can be a temptation to go for ‘the big name’ or celebrity speaker to draw the crowd. This can be good but make sure their content is relevant. I have been drawn to see a big name and then found myself disappointed by their content or style. Find the right balance between speakers who attract the audience and speakers who provide great content, add real value or who have a different or fresh perspective. 

Trying to pack in too much in the time available
This is a common mistake driven by the belief that the more we pack in, the more valuable it will be for the audience. Allow time for the audience to process the information provided. Consider how much the audience can digest realistically? 

Poor start, poor finish
If a speaker gets off to a poor start it will be really hard for them to win the audience over. Ensure your speakers think carefully about how they will grab the audience’s attention right from the start. In a nutshell, get off to a good start. Finishing poorly is also a common mistake. Speakers need to plan the ending in the same way they should plan the start. If speakers are to finish with “Questions” then you may need to plant some in case you don’t get any! 

Don’t keep it in the family
Senior management should speak at their conference, assuming they are good speakers. However bringing in an external speaker or two adds variety and intrigue. An external speaker can bring best practice from other businesses and industries, provide a fresh perspective and can be controversial and challenging if necessary. If the senior team are the only speakers each time, the audience knows what to expect and that can lead to boredom and lack of engagement. 

I’ve identified a further 13 mistakes so if you want a free copy of the booklet “The top 18 mistakes when organising a conference” drop me an email: [email protected]

Chris Merrington is the author of the book “Why do smart people make such stupid mistakes?” – a practical negotiation guide to more profitable client relationships. Chris Merrington speaks at conferences and runs Master classes on negotiation, pricing and Trusted Adviser selling. 

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