Off-Topic: Why So Many Conferences Suck

On the Jupiter Research blog, Michael Gartenberg opined that “most conferences suck.” He said he goes to fewer and fewer conferences each year because “there’s so little to be gained as an attendee.”

My take: He is so right. Gartenberg didn’t elaborate on why there’s so little to be gained, however, so I’ll add my two cents:

CEOs don’t get to speak freely. Conferences like BAI’s Retail Delivery show have focused on pulling in top name financial services CEOs over the past few years. Unfortunately, many of these speeches are the worst ones. It’s not the fault of the CEOs. They’re like political candidates — they have to watch every word they say, so as not to offend anyone, and not to reveal any information that could be construed as revealing insider information. And all too often, they’re just giving speeches prepared for them by staff members because, let’s face it — they’re often not that close to the conference topic.

The next rung down are lousy presenters.
Sorry to call like it is, but many people speaking at conferences are lousy presenters. There’s one that really sticks in my mind from a financial services conference I attended this year: A presentation by the SVP of Customer Experience at a large bank (please Lord, don’t let him read my blog). If it wasn’t bad enough that he was boring as hell, you’d think that a customer experience guy would know better than to use 8- and 9-point fonts on his slides.

You’ve got to pay to play. Translation: The people who get to speak are the vendors who sponsor the conference. I’ve been personally hit by this. Despite being recommended by other speakers to present at an upcoming financial services conference, the organizer said nope, I work for a vendor, I have to sponsor in order to speak. Never mind that I might actually provide value to their attendees, and was willing to pay my own way there. So what ends up happening — when you throw in point #2 — is what you get are not only shameless vendor pitches, but shameless pitches from lousy presenters.

Too many authors, not enough practitioners.
It’s a consultainer’s world out there when it comes to conferences. Write a book, develop a canned speech, get a few speaking gigs. Don’t get me wrong — some are really good. But some — and I’m talking about some of the big authors here — aren’t that good. Conference attendees want something customized to their industry or the conference topic or them — which they often don’t get.

Too much talking at attendees, not enough talking with attendees.
The way most conferences are setup, you’d think that the speakers are the only ones worth hearing. Sessions are 45 minutes long, the speaker takes up 40, and leaves 5 minutes for one or two people to ask a question. The first Law Of Conference Questions states that those questions will be the ones the rest of the attendees find the least interesting. The second law is the one that pertains to me when I present: I get the two questions I can’t answer very well.

What’s the solution? I haven’t been to a BarCamp yet, but it sounds like this might be a welcome relief from the plethora of no-value-added conferences out there today.

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14 thoughts on “Off-Topic: Why So Many Conferences Suck

  1. Excellent post.

    It’s gotten so bad that a recent credit union industry conference that I simply wanted to pay $1,000 to attend, I was denied admittance, because our company was not a displaying vendor and the vendors/speakers had iron-clad non-competes in their agreements that perceived competitors couldn’t even attend, much less speak. What happened to simply wanting to learn?

    And when I am allowed to pay and attend, I am tired of the one-way dialogue of a talking head with crazy 500-word slides.

    I also think the too many attendees are simply there because they had their way paid by the company and then proceed to skip half the sessions to do some killer shopping at the mega-mall next door!

    I have been to one BarCamp and the nice thing is the total collaboration, the lack of thinly veiled sales pitches and the fact that everyone there actually wants to be there.

  2. Ron you have said what a lot of us have been thinking for a long while.

    Don’t get me wrong there are some good presenters (you being one, and Denise and Doug and Shari and …). But you get too many that are just plain lame. They have all the answers. If you do get a chance to talk to them afterwards their chance of making change for a $20 without using an adding machine are slim.

    And as Tim mentioned the price. For $1,000 you could buy an excellent library of reading material, magazine subscriptions or PlayStation 3 games and be farther ahead.

    I will go to BarCamps because the collaborative element is apparent. The Indianapolis junket was well worth it. The Canadian Credit Union system stuff sucks to put it mildly. Getting a couple of dozen like minds at a cheap hotel and bar for 3 days would probably be a lot kinder on the budget and much more productive.

  3. Hey, Ron, these are EXACTLY the reasons why the BarCamp concept was born and has flourished. Technology now moves SO fast that attendees realized that in most cases they knew more than the paid presenters, certainly the big-name talking heads. Attendees can now twitter with each other and discover who in the audience has the real scoop/true knowledge. BarCamps are not without their problems, but I’ve learned a bunch by both that I’ve attended in-person, as well as learned very cool stuff by virtually attending two other events.

    Some of the best things from conferences happen between the sessions, in the hallways, at the bar. BarCamps are all about those spontaneous interactions, and trying to maximize those happenings. I guess that’s why they are un-conferences!

  4. We have a faithful founding member who has always been very involved with our CU and often accompanies employees on conferences. At some point he always comments about how the CU conferences of old were so productive because of the time together outside of the conference. From listening to him it doesn’t sound all that different from the BarCamps you guys are describing.

  5. As a Financial Services professional, I used to speak at one or two conferences a year. I tried (don’t know if I always succeeded) to tell a good story and leave the audience with at least three takeaways they could put into practice immediately at their companies.

    One of the reasons I accepted speaking engagements was to get the same experience from other presenters. Sadly, that rarely occurred. As an alternative to conferences, I managed to join the faculty at a Banking Graduate school. I spend three days each summer interacting with bankers, regulators, marketers, and other professionals in a classroom setting. The idea exchange is self-replicating. I get more new ideas in that environment than I ever did in my conference days. And, we’re not trying to sell anything to each other!

  6. Oh man – thanks for saying it first!!

    My observation. For many credit union budgets, one conference is all a board member or senior management person can attend in a year. Many choose it by location, not necessarily content. My dream conference was always to have it in some place with no golf or casino and amusement park to distract. Just good content and lots of time to think and debate.

    I am a speaker on the “circuit” and don’t want to criticize too heavily so I’ll keep it focused on those that do it well.

    CUES has asked me to speak/facilitate at their Experience conference next year. I am as excited to speak at this event as I was BarCampBankSeattle, FORUM/Trabian LalaPalooza and the EverythingCU Triple B a few years ago.


    Because they are NOT the typical line-up of speaker/vendors/employees with chicken for lunch and a vendor sponsored cheap wine-a-thon in the evening conference.

    They are experiential, top-notch think tanks. Things get done. People are challenged. Sometimes the content makes folks uncomfortable. And they are always life changing.

    I have a couple of rules for being hired as a speaker*

    RULE #1: I won’t speak to a room full of CFOs. Not because I don’t like them (I love MY CFO Mark) but because they don’t “get me”. And I’m cool with that.

    RULE #2: I won’t speak on topics that YOU want me to. Why? Here are just a few of my reasons…..because the topic is five years old, is not my area of expertise, has little or nothing to do with the issues that are important today, etc. That’s why we have speaker packets. A list of topics that we are (supposed to be) passionate about and experts on. I love it when someone asks ME, “What’s hot out there? What would do you think our audience needs?”

    RULE #3: I try not to follow circus acts or pork. It’s just too hard.

    *SIDEBAR: didn’t always have these rules. used to be a bit of a speaking whore because I was newly self-employed and very scared of being un-employed until I realized that every single speech is building my reputation. I made some mistakes.

  7. Amen! And, let me just add that it ain’t just financial services conferences that have become so boring. It’s a lot of them!

    We ran into the same dilemma that you described a couple of years ago at the annual Direct Marketing Assn Conference (DMA). We had a panel of speakers lined up from the healthcare, financial services and telecommunications industry (one from each). They were going to discuss how they solved marketing database issues — i.e., technology type, CDI, data cleansing, etc. We (as ourselves — a direct marketing consulting firm), were going to simply be the “conduit” to the conversation — making sure of plenty of audience involvement.

    The net-net . . . because we weren’t “official” DMA members (we were DMA members as part of a local DMA club), we weren’t picked to speak. So, who presented at the sessions??? The same folks who have been presenting for years from those who sponsor the conference . . . and on the same subjects. YAWN. To be fair, some of them are very good presenters . . . some, not so much.

    In this day and age, with shrinking conference and travel budgets, conference organizers need to work harder to keep people coming back year after year. They really need to mix it up with fresh topics, subject matter and presenters.

    The annual DMA conference fits right into what you discussed in this post . . . and interestingly enough, most folks that we talked to at the past conference in October skipped the full-boat admissions price that gave them access to the sessions. They simply hung out in the exhibition hall — cruising it to get a pulse on what’s going on in our industry.

  8. I had the same experiences Nancy mentions at DMA conferences.

    Actually, only a few of the vendors could divulge real information. Clients were either not familiar with the important details, or they couldn’t talk about it or both.

    It’s only over a cup of coffee or lunch that real discussion and learning happens. We need to introduce complex subjects and then match the right people to the subject matter forming discussion groups.

    More effective and advanced learning techniques are rarely used in these conferences or seminars. All I see is the formal presentation followed by a Q&A. This technique requires a talented presenter with deep subject knowledge to pull off successfully in a demanding audience. And that means few useful presentations because so few people do this well.

    Another key problem is that the increasing costs of these activities have become unaffordable for many businesses.

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