Conference content – how to drive away your delegates

A colleague and I went to a free conference that was hosted by a company in our business sector. We spend a lot of money on each year with this company, for many of our business and software solutions.

Some of what went on was good and some of it was very bad…

Hopes and expectations

In the days leading up to the conference I received various emails promoting the conference, guest speaker Blah the 1st from leading company X, guest speaker Blah the 2nd from leading body Y. I was ready to hear from these experts and gain from their knowledge and wisdom!

The itinerary detailed exciting workshops in the afternoon. I was upset that the two that sounded the most interesting were on at the same time and I had to choose between them.

The pre-event information had got me in the right mind-set and not even the train strikes, which meant I was forced to be packed in like a sardine on my way to central London, could hold back my hopes and expectations.


A good start with good content

The morning started off well, the expert speakers were all good, engaging content and providing really useful information to take away, I was scribbling away in my notepad ready to go back to my company and revolutionise what is quite a boring and traditional business sector.

I was really impressed with the passion and delivery from most of the speakers, technology was used well by some, getting people to log in with an app and provide live polls and opinions. It was a great example of listening to the questions the sector has, and then posing those questions to the experts whom delivered great structured content to the attendees.

Downward spiral

After a nice lunch the workshops started: 40 minute seminars that attendees were able to choose out of three on at the same time. In total they would get to go three of these sessions out of the nine on offer.

I was still hyped from how good the morning was. The workshop speaker came on and it was obvious the person was some kind of middle management from the company hosting the conference.

A faltered start, low production values in the presentation and a lack of enthusiasm from the speaker: the professional air from the morning was quickly evaporating.


Where is the content?

The workshop was titled along the lines of “how to update the marketing in your business, gain sales and not lose potential sales.” The talk started as a lot of these things do with some stats, a very blatant use of stats, “how many people view a website for a company before buying something” and “length of time someone stays on a homepage.” The stats were obvious, in your face, focusing on one aspect of marketing, (the website) all from the angle they wanted to talk about. My pen had not written anything yet.

A live poll was put out to the audience, “do you think your business needs a website?” Shockingly everyone said yes. I could see exactly where this was going: I knew the organisation running the conference had recently purchased a website design company so my mind had already finished the obvious presentation. I did still have some hope it would not go the way I thought it would.

I was naïve to think it would not turn into a sales pitch, I had to sit through some more stupid waffle about how important the internet is and websites are, my pen was in my pocket and my pad closed and on my lap as I was talked to like a five year old and spoon fed basic information.

Sales without content

About 15 minutes into this “workshop” the sales pitch hit and went on for the remaining 25 minutes. My pad was back in my bag and I suffered through a sales pitch that was lacking any enthusiasm or depth. I felt cheated and lied to!

I can survive a sales pitch at the end if I have been enlightened with good focused content and feel like I have something to take away. When it is just thrown down your throat and obvious, limited content is used to try and dupe me into a sale is a poor showing indeed.


Unfortunately the remaining two sessions I attended were exactly the same and my colleague who attended three different sessions reported the same feedback.

I understand companies need to make money, renting out a venue in central London to accommodate 200-400 people and provide lunch for everyone for free is not going to be cheap, you want a return on your investment. But it needs to be handled better than this.

Being subjected to three lacklustre sales pitches with next to no useful content did not make me feel for a single second that I should take on these extra services the company was offering. In fact it had the exact opposite affect and made me think I would look elsewhere if I needed to resolve these issues.


Final thoughts on content marketing and conferences 

Good content is key! When it comes to these types of events or any kind of sales pitch if it is in person, a webinar or at a conference, the content will sway the person.

What was interesting in the way that they spoon-fed these basic concepts, skirting the main subject so much and providing so little content, it got to the sales pitch and I was missing a key thing to actually buy, need and want!

I wasn’t sure I had the issues they were trying to provide solutions for because they had provided basic stats, opinions and no content about it.

Free conference or not, I expect better and I hope you do also.

Impressions from The Virtual Learning Show #4

Design is everything: five techniques for designing an interactive virtual class

Cindy Huggett had some great interaction from the beginning in the chat and with Cindy using polls and a separate chat window to understand our role and find out our burning questions.

The five techniques for interactive virtual design:

  1. defining great design
  2. great openings
  3. selecting activities
  4. creating materials
  5. piloting sessions

What is virtual training? We had lots of different answers which led Cindy nicely into…

Technique 1: determine what you are designing for

Common types of online session include meeting, presentation, seminar and training class. All of which need a different approach. Cindy said to think about the environment you are in and what kind of skills you are trying to deliver and “just because you CAN put a few hundred people in a virtual training room, doesn’t mean you SHOULD”.

Technique #2: create a great opening

Cindy explained that we need to set expectations from the first contact with participants or, “as soon as you tell people it’s happening” added Bianca WoodsCindy went on to say that if it’s a series or blended curriculum it’s a good idea to have a kick off session.

I really liked the emphasis Cindy gave that a great opening is also from when someone logs in to the session.

Technique 3: select activities for maximum involvement This wasn’t just about interaction for the sake of it, which I’ve felt a bit recently on other sessions. It’s about the “drive towards learning outcomes and behaviour change”. Cindy emphasised that a “live online session attention will start to falter after about four minutes. Some research will say three, some five”. The subject of clicky clicky bling bling came up, link below if you want to read more:

I like the promotion of “as a designer you should know your platform inside and out. Every tool and every feature” and Cindy shared a link to a document of hers to help us decide which interactivity to use:

Technique 4: set everyone up for success

Cindy stated that this was “important, although participants won’t notice. Facilitators, producers and participants depend up on your design work to be able to play their roles well” and added later that “the best slides make the worst hand outs”. I think we’ve all been on sessions, glad to have a PDF or a printed takeaway only to find later that it’s just the slides and doesn’t really help us embed the learning!

Bianca shared her resources for free design assets:

Technique 5: pilot each session as a design review

Practice is important is what came through to me, as well as the idea of feedback throughout and ensuring you review your activities. Most places don’t do the review and update very well, so it’s something I’m keen on doing for best delivery practice.

This was a great session from Cindy, the best of the day in my opinion. This was because of the content, interaction and delivery. I really look forward to following Cindy more closely and learning from her!

Impressions from LSG13 Conference – Ensuring true interaction in live online learning

Tweets from this session used #T2S1

Philip Green, Co-founder and Director of Onlignment, opened his session with the Kenneth H. Blanchard quote “none of us is as smart as all of us”, encouraging the audience that we might learn from each other.


Phil encouraged some interaction in the room at our tables discussing differences between what goes on in classrooms and virtual classrooms and what teachers/trainers/facilitators do that might be the same or different. There was lots of humorous discussion that we hoped people learned in the classroom and that the teacher was there to inspire, encourage, facilitate and, well, bore, disengage, belittle and so on. Perhaps it depended on the classroom and the teacher.

For all the discussion that was had, I genuinely think that the lines between advantages and disadvantages of face to face versus the virtual classroom are blurring. There are always different perspectives, contexts, geography and experience to take into account, but both serve a purpose. What you lose in one place (face to face interaction online) you can make up for in another (everyone accessing the model/toy/data or perhaps being involved in well-designed interaction).

Phil made the point about what online facilitators need to do, summarised nicely by the tweet of James Hobson:

Also good, solid advice from Phil was not letting the technology get away from you – it’s always easy to focus on the new toy rather than on what learners need in order to make changes:

Another sound point was that we can’t control the technology used for our virtual classrooms. Just like in a face to face classroom, I can’t always control if the windows will open or the air conditioning functions…

After this Phil shared some ideas for interactions and tools he had obviously put much work into and has delivered in the past. If I’m honest, I wanted a bit more from this section of the session. I wanted to get a greater feeling of whether I’m approaching interaction in the right way when I’m delivering online and gain some insight and different thinking from someone so experienced. I didn’t get this and it was disappointing, but I know Phil is delivering a session in the Virtual Learning Show on Thursday 20th June, so I can look forward to some more information there. During the day I spoke to other people who attended Phil’s session and they commented that they learnt a lot.

A key message I’m taking away with me is what I tweeted, below, which was seconded by Colin Steed:

It doesn’t mean there’s no hope though; for me it’s all about learning the technology, transferring the skills and, as Harold Jarche commented to me over drinks in the evening, “lots and lots and lots of practice”.

Presentation Zen: chapters 1-4

Presentation Zen cover

I’ve read the first four chapters of Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. This was loaned to me by Craig Taylor and he’s asked me to share my thoughts…

I like that the use of the “Zen” part so far at a high level – this isn’t a book on Zen in any depth whatsoever. This takes the principles of Zen and uses a light touch to help us to pause, breathe, think and then move forward.

Lightbulbs in Presentation Zen book

Lightbulbs in the Pesentation Zen book 😀



On a purely personal (and narcissistic?) note, I love the use of the lightbulbs to summarise Dan Pink’s ideas about the “conceptual age” as it is used for design. Lightbulb moments should be in abundance for all!

Introducing concepts

So far the chapters are good to read for an introduction to the importance of audience, key messages and story telling.

I’m feeling the lack of some really good before and after examples for the high level overviews that Garr draws from his contemporaries and am beyond the novelty of his oriental experience, examples and terminology.

Emotion and story

Garr highlights the importance of telling an “emotional story” and this resonated with my own work. A few years ago I was offering presentation support to a senior member of the IPC magazine company in London, who had to present research to the senior decision makers at IPC about the way forward and the opportunities from the competition and of technology.

After much hard work, the first draft was certainly accomplished, but terrible. I had a vested interest in IPC doing well, as it was part of the TimeWarner group of companies, for whom I worked. I also originally trained as a journalist, so my interest was piqued. That was, until my colleague started his presentation.

Even though I was note taking to provide feedback, I struggled as it just felt bland and boring. During discussion though, his face would light up when he would explain the research, the possibilities and his experiences. Suddenly I was engaged in his topic and with his credibility. It was one of a few key things he changed about his presentation, for the better.

Balancing on the tightrope of creativity

Garr writes on page 39 about “how restrictive conditions put on creative projects can lead to inventive solutions”. We can sometimes be wistful in our thinking about what if we didn’t have restriction X or Y. However, this can sometimes be important as necessity is the mother of invention!

Garr goes on with “self-imposed constraints can help you formulate clearer messages”. I found this years ago when I was designing websites. For my clients I found it an easy thing to understand their business, their audiences, define their key messages and design messages in their websites around that.

However when it came to my own website, I found the almost infinite possibilities open to me was just too much. In the end, I had to do as Garr suggested and treat myself as per any other client. Only then, inside those self-imposed restrictions, was I able to come up with something.

I shared this with people attending my website design classes some time later, with the slide I designed to get the point across: the tightrope walk between freedom and discipline.

Tight rope

We all have to walk that tightrope every day – it’s up to us weather to master and enjoy it or not.