Wednesday 29 February 2012

Let's Talk About...

... conferences, one-day workshops, fora, symposia and similar events. And the catering at these activities.

For almost ten years now, I've attended a great deal of events within the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. Some have been high profile, for instance, I still remember a lavish affair at the Tate Modern in 2003 with then Minister for the Arts Estelle Morris as main speaker. Some have been more modest, for example, there's a regular, bimonthly volunteers' forum in my area that's been going on since 2004. I feel like a Nam vet in there now, I tell you. The purpose of these gatherings differs from one to the other, but there's a common thread that unites them all. Guests have similar goals of pursuing a more equitable society and there's a congruence of interests in how to achieve this. For me the formula for the ideal conference is a lively facilitator, exciting workshops and specialists, who not only master their subject, but also possess the skills to convey the content to their audience easily.

Now, if I was to be utterly honest with you, my dear reader, I'll have to say that only a handful of events like the one I've just described above turn out to be that way. The rest are just a waste of time and money. Especially money. What with the catering! But more about that later.

First of all, a situation I've come across time and time again is the need or lack of it thereof for the conference/master class/symposium/insert your own one, to happen. Sometimes I don't think that the idea that people will miss work to attend a particular event - with cover being one of the major issues - crosses the organisers' minds. You can see it, sorry, you can smell it the minute you walk through the threshold, usually of a plush hotel in central London and you are greeted by a big, flashy banner bearing your host's logo. Because of the nature of these events (I'm referring to the ones I have attended), which tend to focus on how we can build a better society, or how we provide a better education for our children and young people, or what opportunities there are currently for adults to carry on learning in their mature years, the subjects to tackle should be less difficult to choose. And yet sometimes the waffle-waffle to justify the event  is so loud that it'd be better if they equipped guests with earplugs at the entrance.

Let's deconstruct then the standard conference in the third sector (and that includes education, too).

You first have the guest speaker(s). If they're any good, and sometimes they are, you're in for a ride. One of my favourite ones is Professor Charles Desforges, a specialist in education, more specifically in the relationship between parents, their children and school. He's a joy to watch and listen to and I've seen him in action three or four times. The opposite of Mr Desforges is the conference bore. Usually egocentric, he or she (although given that most speakers are male, the conference bore tends to be mainly a man) uses a voice that sounds as flat as the line indicating a patient's sad demise in an operating theatre. No matter how strong the coffee you had in the morning before coming to your event was, you will still catch yourself dozing off at nine-thirty am. The worst combination I've seen so far is a conference bore who happens to be also a government official and is the main speaker. Listening to him makes me want to roll my sleeves up and reach for my razor blade. Platitude after platitude falls out of his mouth onto a silent (we're all in trance) audience. Guests check their watches waiting for the magic words: "And now, we're going to have a tea/coffee break".

If the conference bore is... well... boring, then the technophile is even worse. This is the individual who prepares the PowerPoint presentation using every single function available to them and, to be fair, they make a decent job out of it. But then, they... read the whole bloody thing out to you! I thought I'd learnt how to read and write many years ago, but, no, it turns out that I still need to be coached on the spelling of "social enterprise" and "charity", while each single letter is yelling at me from the vastness of the screen onto which they are projected. To cap it all, the speaker often has a grating voice that is at odds with the content of his/her presentation, which, by the way, is sometimes very interesting.

All this is soothed by the imminent arrival of... LUNCH!  Now, can we agree on something here? People in Britain do like to eat. I know that that doesn't sound much of a statement to make, but back home the image we have of Europe is that of a gigantic gastric band where its inhabitants devour only un petite morceau of this and un petite morceau of that, all the time swearing by the diet they're following. No, my dear chiquilines,  that's all a façade. Lunchtime at a conference where like-minded people want to change, if not the world, at least their local community, is the equivalent of the Battle of Waterloo, with our own Blüchers and Wellingtons. The fight for the tomato and mozarella pizza swirls is as fierce as that between the Seventh Coalition and Napoleon's troops. Which, in a certain way, makes sense, as occasionally, one-day events are the equivalent of what bunking off school used to be for some of us in our teenage years. It should follow then that the consumption of vol au vents and sausage rolls feels like a transgression. Albeit of a naughty nature, truanting while getting paid for it, if you like. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the attendees even started their own food fights. It is the catering that defines a conference, or a symposium. Get it right and most guests will stay for the afternoon session, including the workshops. Serve rubbish food and some of them will leg it, especially if the event takes place in town around Christmas. Suddenly, "something I have to do back in the office", sounds more urgent, no matter if the "office" is in Newcastle and the conference is taking place near Piccadilly Circus, in London. I still remember a Film London event years ago at which some "alternative" film-makers ate their way through most of the vegetarian dishes on the table, including some yummy quiches, one of which I managed to get hold of before they ran out. When I returned to the table for a second helping, they were gone, the quiches, not the film people. They'd already began to "locust" their way through the meat plates. I thought you were all vegetarian, I said to them, naïvely. Oh, yes, we're lapsed ones. Run that one by me again, guv.

Once lunch is over, it's time for the afternoon session. Let's talk about the "graveyard" slot, so called, because there's usually a dead silence amongst the guests, the result of people dozing off, with the occasional snoring sound coming from a gentleman - or lady, they do snore, you know - who forgot to turn the volume of their soft palate down.

Again, it takes a magician of a facilitator to keep the audience's focused on the content they're delivering. Professor Desforges comes to mind again because once he had to speak straight after a heavy and nice lunch (none of that finger buffet malarkey, we're talking proper chicken and rice). His trick was to mix the anecdotal with the opinions of the public sitting in the large conference room. I remember us hanging on to his every word. The other day I attended a masterclass on fundraising delivered by a specialist and he was so good that I came away from the event wanting to sit down and write my next bid straight away.

However, you also have the others who come on the graveyard slot and seem to be more skillful at curing insomnia sufferers of their curse than at communicating effectively. Or they are failed clowns and they haven't realised it yet. Then, there are the well-meaning ones who adopt all kind of forward-thinking techniques only to miss their target badly. And not because we're difficult, mind. For example, I recall a bloke with a throaty voice who began to tell us a traditional tale from the Native American folklore. I swear that I was interested in his story but he went on for so long, that I fell into a deep slumber. I think his intention was to make us "levitate" mentally, take us on a journey, as spiritual gurus are fond of saying these days. But after eating one too many jerk chicken thighs at lunch, I felt as if I'd fallen victim of Don Vito Corleone's crooks and had gone "to sleep with the fishes". Pity, though, as I wanted to find out what had happened to Coyote at the end.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 4th March at 10am (GMT)


  1. Your discourse on conference speakers is good. I'm getting ready to go to one soon and I so hope I am not the bore!

  2. I (briefly) worked for a company (voluntary sector) that ran weekend long "courses" to get people communicating across different sectors. It was my job to make sure the sausage rolls were on the tables at the right time, the speakers present, the coffee not stewed, the badges all in place etc. etc. One of my least favourite jobs... it all felt like such a lot of work (and badges... and paper... and food) for... nothing really. A giant amount of waffle!

  3. Hee Hee. You have expertly summed up the conference experience. And I thought I was the only one who felt like this.

  4. Aaargh! Just all too familiar!
    Having been in the volutary sector for about twelve years, I now think all conferences should be like Henry VIII banquets, with much wine and beer. After all that, a quick speed-dating type event to help the like-minded identify each other, and then finish with the workshops. Such fun!

  5. I've been to many many MANY conferences like what you just described. The grating voice of the pointless speaker who spends 30 minutes justifying themselves is always the worst part for me.

    Like you say, the best conferences I've been to have been lively and interactive and full of people chipping in together to share ideas and come up with concrete action plans. Some of my favourites have been conferences on the environment and free trade.

    I used to be a member of my university people and planet society. Every weekend there was a conference in some city or another. My head spins just thinking about it.


  6. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    I have to say that the number of conferences I used to attend years ago has come down dramatically because of the economic situation. Which is understandable.

    Greetings from London.



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