Does anybody have any questions?

4 years ago

By Neville Smith
What kind of industry conferences do you enjoy? The heavyweight one or two day affairs that pick apart a single subject, or the half-day seminars that accompany the major trade shows and are slightly more social?

Chances are, with a few years of experience under your belt you’ve been to both, as well as academy-type training sessions, roundtables and seminars. That’s not to mention the internal events run for information and training.

And I wonder if you have ever sat at the back of any of these things and wondered what on earth you were doing there? Making a broad distinction between the internal and external, the practical and the commercial, there must have been times when as a paying punter, you wondered if what you were hearing was in any way new and insightful. I know I have.

There is a slightly tricky bend to navigate here of course. The conference is the staple of many an industry, not just shipping. The opportunity to get out of the office for a couple of days, even a week, travel, stay and subsist on the company is frankly a tempting prospect. That’s particularly true if your conference is in somewhere exotic, or even somewhere with a very high standard of living and great nightlife. And hang on, there’s a golf day on the Sunday and a spouse programme… Too good to miss – honey, back your bags!

It’s for this reason that many industries hold their conventions in Las Vegas, a trick I bet shipping wishes it could get away with. It also means that if you asked 10 company executives, middle managers or new joiners if they thought conference they just got back from was worth it, they would say yes. Say no and you spoil it for everyone.

Well here’s my probably unpopular and hopefully controversial view: there are far too many shipping industry conferences, their programmes are rarely well enough formed, their content is often boring and their cast of characters sometimes dismally repetitive.

Now, I attend trade shows (two so far this year with another looming) and also go to conferences – it’s my job after all – and they are a fine networking opportunity if nothing else. But recently, when asked for my opinion of some fairly major events, I struggled to find much positive about the conference content in particular, though I cannot deny the shows are holding up commercially.

Of course it is not witchcraft to assemble a fairly senior panel for your session of the markets, piracy or whatever. You simply pick a nice venue and pay their travel and subsistence. You suggest a none-too tricky subject, get it agreed and hope they turn up on time with a presentation in a format your PC can read.

But to me, the transparency of this situation is such that – while these industry leaders can be relied upon to do all of the above – they are either compelled or simply not minded to say anything new or interesting, or either. Perhaps it’s because of the market – though as already noted it doesn’t seem to have crimped the budgets as much as might have been expected.

So what is stopping better quality events from being held? Why is the format often the same – and similarly constrained? Why won’t speakers stick to time, speak to the brief, leave out the adverts, and challenge the audience and their fellow panellists? Why – you sigh to yourself – did they pick him or her as the chair or moderator when they have clearly done no homework or research and have no presentation skills?

The first rule of conference chairing is that the delegates see the chair as de facto responsible for what happens on stage. If after the five, 20-minute PowerPoints there really are no questions from the floor then the chair has an opportunity to earn his flight and hotel room.

Very often this doesn’t happen. In extreme cases there is uninterest in the delegates, which is palpable if you happen to be among them. The chair should also be able to pick out audience members they know have something to say than relying on the same windbags that always grab the mike because they never get invited onto the panel.

The event producers have a hard job when the subject is highly specialised or obscure but it’s a little like booking a celebrity – you have to give them things to do because at the end of the day, they will just head off to the next gig.

Can we also please encourage the producers to work a little harder on content so that a session on piracy in one continent is not exactly the same as that in another? Some authors continue to publish the same book quite regularly but few people will come back for more, only new suckers attracted. I fear the same could happen to shipping conferences, without some radical re-thinking.

I’d also personally vote for a ban on PowerPoint presentations or at least for limiting them to no more than three slides per speaker. The reason why they are made available in the paperwork or online afterwards is because most delegates cannot absorb that much information while also listening and thinking without one faculty suffering. It should also be a test for the speaker that they be compelling, succinct and informative without the need for cartoons or mind-bending graphs (or pictures of ships).

Finally, let’s please think about format and timing – and how to involve the audience while still keeping some structure to the proceedings. A better brief and greater commitment might enable delegates to lodge questions beforehand. I have worked with audience voting and the results are good even if the technology malfunctions – it’s a quick way of sparking debate.

Can you draw a crowd on content rather than location? Some do already, though they generally charge the speakers for the privilege of presenting. That might be a rigged game but what if sponsorship was sufficient to make admission free to those interested enough to register for limited places by a deadline?

New formats also beg for new voices. This is a big industry and there is a great opportunity to promote the next generation – to its juniors and its seniors – so that dialogue can take hold on transitional and structural issues. That way, the media might come out of more of these events with better stories, delegates might learn something and feel the experience was valuable, speakers might be challenged in a positive way.

Until some brave soul is prepared to try and smash a few of these idols, I suspect many of us will just take our seat at the back, put the phone on vibrate and hope for the best.



Neville Smith is a freelance journalist.

© Neville Smith 04.05.11

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