my turn


The Conference Attendee's Bill Of Rights

Conferences are like air travel -- they can be transporting, opening your mind to new worlds and introducing you to fellow travelers, thus creating serendipitous exchanges of ideas, insights, and business cards. Or they can just suck. When a JetBlue plane got mired on the runway for 10+ hours, redefining travel suckiness, then JetBlue CEO David Neeleman issued a Passenger's Bill of Rights as a means of restoring customer confidence.

I believe it is time to issue a similar bill of rights for conference attendees. As someone who attends many conferences in multiple capacities (blogger, moderator, speaker, chair filler) and rarely has to put a dime of his own money into it, please allow me to shamelessly grandstand on behalf of those who are mad as hell and don't want to pay to attend a poorly executed conference ever again.

1. Yes, we need our stinkin' badges

Admittedly, this is pretty basic, but registered attendees want badges ready for them when they arrive -- preferably ones that are legible (tiny white type on a light background is a #fail). If you insist on the lanyard type, make the badges two-sided and shorten the string to avoid those awkward chesty once-overs. (Expert Tip #1: Bring your own big-type badge and attach it to your collar after registration.)



2. SRO = surefire registrant outrage

Having a full room is a great way to reassure attendees they aren't the only fools who registered. That said, not having enough seats or not being prepared to bring in more when the first batch fills up simply reveals that you anticipated a much higher no-show rate or you were too cheap to get a bigger space. Either way, standing folks are not happy folks (unless they're doing so back at their trendy standing desk instead of going to your event.)

3. WiFi that works

A constant conference complaint is that the WiFi connection is slow or flat-out doesn't work. This is a huge lost opportunity for organizers, since it means that much of their scintillating content won't get shared, retweeted or otherwise consumed by those unlucky bastards slaving away back at the office. (Expert Tip #2: Bring your own WiFi hotspot, since -- trust me -- this problem won't go away any time soon.) 

4. Can you hear me now?

Henceforth, it should be a fundamental right of all attendees to be able to hear the presenters. If they can't, you're approaching #EpicFail -- and we're only on my fourth demand.  Having a sound system that works is a start, but that will only get you so far if there's a cacophony of conversations emanating from another area. (Expert Tip #3: If you see vendor exhibits in the same room as the main stage, just talk to the vendors, since at least you'll be able to hear them.)

5. No more speakers who yell at the audience

Yelling is not oratory; it is what our parents and clients do when they are really really angry. And when that happens, most of us just shut down, hoping the unfortunate emotional storm will pass. Gesticulate, inflect, pause, emphasize and debate to your heart's content. But leave the tirades, rants and harangues for your office mates -- or better yet, watch "Anger Management" one more time. (Expert Tip #4: Bring a happy face sign and carry lithium for old yeller.)

6. Thou shalt not sing to the choir

Conferences should not be confused with churches -- enough with preaching to the converted! For example, you don't need to tell attendees at a social conference to be social -- they get that by now. What they do need are facts and cases, not rhetoric and dogma. Better yet, bring in contrarians to challenge the smoke blowers. The conversation (and social chatter) will be way more interesting and informative.   

7. Ban all panelists who insist on winging it

As a frequent moderator, it is really easy for me to tell who's prepared and who isn't -- and frankly, the latter are either too arrogant or too inconsiderate to be worthy of stage time. Even geniuses know an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of wishful spontaneity. (Expert Tip for moderators: If your panelists won't join a pre-panel call, give them the wrong time and address for the event.)

8. Power to the people

Even if you''re not a blogger, chances are you'll have one or more electronic devices going while you're at an event (after all, how else can you check your email while tuning out a yeller?). And soon enough, you'll be looking everywhere (even under tables) for power, which is tiresome, if not embarrassing. Readily available power strips should become an inalienable right, not a coveted rarity.   

I have at least two more demands, but am over my allotted word count -- a sin I find objectionable in speakers. So this might be a good time to ask for audience participation. What say you?

6 comments about "The Conference Attendee's Bill Of Rights".
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  1. Henry Harteveldt from Atmosphere Research Group, October 23, 2013 at 9:11 a.m.

    No, absolutely no, on-stage vendor commercials, unless that is a planned session and is clearly billed as such. It's fine for vendors to to participate, provided their participation is based on merit, and not pay-for-play. Vendors who discuss issues/challenges within the sector in which they operate, or discuss how their clients use their products effectively, contribute to an event's quality and increase the likelihood clients will consider their companies.

  2. Amy Vernon from Amy Vernon LLC, October 23, 2013 at 2:51 p.m.

    Love this, but disagree with part of #1 - many women don't have collars and there's nothing more frustrating than going to a conference where there's no lanyard and you have nothing comfortable to attach your badge to. I sometimes bring my own lanyard, in fact. Agree with the double-sided badge, though - would help sooo much. :)

  3. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, October 24, 2013 at 10:18 a.m.

    How about getting the best possible speakers instead of selling ("wink, wink, you support us, we support you") the slots to sponsors.

  4. Peter Rosenwald from Consult Partners, October 24, 2013 at 11:45 a.m.

    Right on target and should be on the wall of every conference organizer. Thank you.

    I have just returned from a conference where the organizers should have known better, they made almost all the mistakes and the presentations were boooring.

    One more suggestion: conference organizers should give an unconditional satisfaction guarantee to participants. If they are not satisfied, they should get their money back. That would focus their attention.

  5. Krista Carnes from Blissful Media Group, October 24, 2013 at 3:43 p.m.

    Great list, Drew. I would also add:

    counterbalancing #7 - Require Fresh Content. Speakers who offer the same commentary & anecdotes in back-to-back events (or echo the last three presentations found on YouTube verbatim) should be called out. Publicly.

    Also, let's do some actual "engaging" at these conference. Change up the formats, get the audience talking and sharing so the "experts" can offer realtime insights to current challenges. That would be helpful + fresh!

  6. Drew Neisser from Renegade, October 24, 2013 at 5:05 p.m.

    Henry--yes, smart vendors deliver valuable content not a sales pitch.
    Amy--you can have any kind of badge you want!
    George--organizers can pre-screen vendor presentations as a service to their vendors & attendees
    Peter--love the money back guarantee idea
    Krista--fresh content would be fresh. As for getting audience more involved, its harder than you think. I often walk around before my panels to talk to attendees about their info needs since few ask ?s.

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