Posted by: conferencebay | November 26, 2007

What makes a great conference?

Last week we visited the Asia Business Leaders Forum (ABLF), a conference which is held annually here in Singapore, organised by Sound Initiatives. Afterwards we reflected on what makes conferences great as opposed to just a nice couple of days away from the office in a nice hotel. And of course, “it is all about the people” (something that was actually mentioned a few times too often by the facilitators for my liking..). During the two days of this conference (followed by a half day workshop on Saturday morning) we met a wide range of interesting people with various backgrounds. And we interacted with (NB: not just “listened to”) several speakers who -generally speaking- managed to keep the attention of the room focused on the topic at hand as opposed to the Financial Times or the view from the ballroom (which was spectacular as we were on a beach at Sentosa).

So is this so hard to do? It might be. Many high profile speakers refuse to show up at events which are not well organised for fear that their brand might be tarnished as a result let alone the waste of their time). And many organisers prefer to work with speakers who have agreed to sponsor the event, not paying too much attention to briefing them but just hoping their presentation will not be too much of a sales pitch.

Organising a great conference is actually hard work. Just ask Anne LeBoutillier, the CEO of Sound Initiatives who organised this particular event. She spent a lot of time finding great speakers and subsequently worked with them to make sure the content of their presentation was well thought through and in line with the main topic of her event (“Strategies and Practices of high performance companies). She also made sure that there was a good balance of types of speakers (sponsors, high profile business leaders and consultants) and that a broad enough range of topics was covered to keep everyone entertained.

One of the great sessions at this conference was by the adventurer Peter Hillary, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary (the first man to climb Mount Everest in 1953). He spoke for 75 minutes, without the use of any notes and, more importantly, did not use a moralistic tone or lists of things people in business could learn from the experiences of mountaineers. So we did not get to hear boring cliches such as “Trust is really important” or “Leaders sometimes have to make unpopular decisions”, but instead Peter told us a series of stories which I’m sure will remain in many of the attendees’ memories for a long time.

Another highlight for me was the workshop by Lisa Johnson, author of “Don’t Think Pink” and CEO of The Reach Group, a US consulting firm. We spent a Saturday morning with her examining how a new generation of consumers will demand new things from brands. And not only did Lisa share with us a lot of the research she has done in this area over the last few years, she also had her notebook ready to write down experiences and learnings from our group. It was a real interactive session and therefore so much more enriching and energising than most of these events.

So what makes a great conference? We think it’s all about getting great speakers, briefing them properly about the audience they will encounter and then letting them get on with it. Most of these people relish the opportunity to engage in debate anyway as they get to learn as much from the audience as the audience learns from them.

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