Smooth talkers
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Smooth talkers

Simon Carless, EVP of Specialist Communities at events-led marketing and communications services business UBM, explains how to nurture speakers for your events, and provides insights on how they select industry figures to participate in conferences.

One of the most infuriating experiences when attending a conference is to sit through a tedious, scattershot panel, or a barely prepared lecture, with no takeaway. This experience seems universal irrespective of industry - bad content is bad content.

But it doesn't need to happen on your watch! Some of UBM’s largest conferences are known for the quality of their conference talks (for example, our Game Developers Conference [GDC] attracts over 26,000 attendees. Our top talks are on GDC's YouTube channel if you're interested).

We're not claiming we have it right - or anywhere close to perfect. But we have thought about it a lot, given that people are shelling out a fair amount of money to learn and be inspired. Here are some of the things we've discovered:

1. Track your speaker feedback methodically

As any good 21st century organisation knows, data can be harnessed to your advantage. We scan our attendees' RFID badges on attending lectures and send a feedback email 10 minutes before the end of each session.

We use this data – both the empirical score and the comments – in several ways. Firstly, it's sent back to the speaker so they can get an idea of how they performed relative to their peers, so they can improve in the future.

Secondly, we flow the info into an interactive database so we can see previous scores and comments when reviewing submissions for future events. If a speaker has previously had issues, such as going over their allotted time, we can work with them to improve for future events.

2. Get your industry, or other experts, involved in picking talks

There's a couple of schools of thought at play here, even within UBM. If you're working at a conference that has content leads who are experts – or a related magazine or website that has content-expert editors – then getting those editors to help program the show can be a major win.

The model that we try to use for both GDC and Black Hat (our information security event) takes it a step further. We operate advisory boards (made up of industry experts) for both shows and these boards are solely responsible for picking the content, with few exceptions.

Being a member of these boards is prestigious and meaningful. We don't just ask a couple of questions and then program whatever we want, the board drives the content. It’s done in two ways: by using the database that rates the speakers submitted in our ‘call for submissions’, and through invitation.

This model ensures we get cutting edge but actionable content on real problems and solutions. For the board members, the opportunity to help us advance the industry is valuable.

And yes, 'actionable' means that the content in our shows isn’t necessarily future-looking. We feel concrete, practical (and inspirational!) industry-approved content is better than a lot of pontificating about the future (although we do hand-pick the odd inspiration talk on this subject).

3. The great panel fallacy

Panels: use them sparingly. While you might create some buzz because of the calibre of CEOs that will sit on your panel, the empirical data suggests discussions are rarely as well received as a well-performed lecture. Panelists do not tend to come well-prepared, given they can 'jam' extemporaneously on whatever subject comes to mind, and loud voices can dominate the discussion and make things lopsided.

'Fireside chats', one-on-one, can be decent if well-directed, but even these lack the takeaway of deeply thought-through, well performed talks. The message isn't not to use panels (they’re good for certain subjects) but to ask yourself if there’s better content available.

4. Increasingly, shorter is better

Given the research and original content-centric nature of our conferences, the majority of our lectures are 60 minutes. However, as attention spans decrease, we've discovered that 25 minute lectures can work almost as well – and sometimes better.

Shorter talks allow people to distil their key points and focus on them. More to the point, attendees get double the content and takeaways in any given day's content. They're not a be-all-and-end-all, and you have to be careful about forcing longer talks into a shorter timeframe. But if the speaker can get all the key points across in that amount of time, why not try?

5. One final secret tip

To end, here's a special (and blindingly obvious) tip for you all. Has the talk already been performed at least once - ideally more than once - from start to finish in front of an audience, and refined based on that feedback?

If it has, the talk will do a lot better. Ask your speakers if they're intending to do this, and if they're not, glare at them a lot until they do! The number of speakers who are nervous and therefore won't practice their talk properly can be startling. With mentorship you can enhance the quality of your event.

Simon Carless Executive Vice President UBM
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