I spend a lot of my time delivering conference keynotes and events. In a couple of weeks I’m off to Estonia to speak at a conference and later in the month speaking on innovation at Pfizer. This gives me a unique perspective on event design and management from the front of the stage rather than the back. I must say that I’m impressed with the meticulous detail that many event companies use to deliver exceptional events. However, I thought it might be instructive (and fun) to pick out some “deadly sins” from my 20 years of doing this kind of thing as a kind of “reverse set of instructions” on what not to do to get the best from your speakers and presenters.
Don’t Tax your Speakers – I was astonished to get a call from HM Revenue and Customs a while back, asking me to speak on “Punk Rock and Disruptive Innovation”. All was well until I enquired:
“What are the commercial terms?”
The event sponsor said:
“I’m not sure what you mean”
“How much are you paying me?”
“Ah well, our Finance Director has said that it is not our policy to pay external people for events”
I pondered momentarily but then felt compelled to reply:
“Ah, well it’s not my policy to attend then”
It’s not the real thing – Many years ago I was approached at short notice by an event manager who had to fill a slot at a conference for a well-known caffeine based carbonated soft drink company’s conference, was taking place in five days. She called and said “We want Rock’n’Roll Management next Tuesday between 11.30 and 12.30. We’ve got a budget of xx thousand pounds. Can you do that?” I asked her to give me some basic details as to what the conference was for, how they would judge my input a success and what was expected as an outcome, but no answers came, apart from a more stern repeat of the request. I politely declined after trying to ask to speak to the sponsor, but she said he was too busy. Whilst it would have been lovely to present to a large group of people from the said company, without a solid brief, it would be bad work for all concerned, however attractive the fee. Of course I understand urgency but it still was important to find out the need rather than just filling the time slot.
Smoke on the Water – One of the strangest events I spoke at was in Sweden. I was asked to speak on parallel lessons between business leadership and music and, on this occasion, the event organiser had decided it might be fun to take the ‘rock’ part of my presentation to its ultimate end point. Just as I was to start the session and completely unannounced (in order to surprise me), they had arranged for a smoke machine to pump out tons of fog into the hotel venue whilst the Deep Purple classic “Smoke on the Water” was played at full volume over the PA system. The ‘fogging people’ took their job very seriously and, for the next 10 minutes the 150 executives were invisible, as their heads bobbed around in a sea of smoke. Needless to say I had to shoulder the blame for this as it would be a natural assumption that I had requested the pyrotechnics as part of my contract. Internally, I was not amused. Nor were they. The best I could do at the time was to point out that leadership was all about handling ambiguity and the unknown and that this was sometimes like wading through fog …
Avoid Premature Evaluation – We all love voting technology and apps at conferences, but I’ve spotted a worrying trend amongst busy people. They tend to vote on sessions almost as soon as they have started. This is what HR professionals and sex therapists call “Premature Evaluation”. The impact of some speakers / events cannot be assessed until long after people have had time to reflect and apply the lessons. The use of technology tends to reduce evaluation to fairly trivial “Like / Dislike” choices. Event people would do well to study the work of Kirkpatrick in this area to design meaningful evaluation strategies.
Write to me with your top three to make the Full Seven Deadly Sins of Event Management and I will publish them in an update.
Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE.