Improving the Big Conference

In recent months I've done something that I swore years ago I would avoid: I’ve attended multiple large-scale conferences. I gave up on Big Conferences in the early 2000s after wasting so much time, energy, and money attending them that I began to really question their value and return on investment. Being thrust recently back into the conference scene gave me a chance to reflect on whether I'd been too rash in ruling out Big Conferences as a concept altogether, and whether there might be ways to improve the Big Conference approach moving forward.

The typical Big Conference daily agenda looks like this:

Opening Plenary, followed by audience Q&A

Coffee break

Breakout panel presentations and discussions


Breakout panel presentations and discussions

Coffee break

(optional) Skills workshop

Dinner/evening excursion

This, however, is what I think most of us experience in real life:

Opening speeches by famous people who often ramble aimlessly and leave no time for questions. The two questions asked from the audience are half-crazed rants rather than insightful queries.

Queue endlessly for sub-par coffee and tea.

Similar version of the morning’s plenary but in a smaller room: too much presentation, not enough discussion. Begin checking email if the conference wifi hasn’t failed completely yet.

Heavy starches for lunch.

More “panels” (lectures, really) with not enough discussion.

More bad coffee; consider abandoning the day entirely.

Schedule one-on-one conversations to avoid the day’s final panel or workshop. Shake fist at sky as conference wifi finally collapses.

Debate merits of attending awkward evening “cultural” event and hosted dinner. Relent, attend excursion, and get too little sleep.

Repeat for 1-3 additional days.

I’m of course being glib, but I’m not so sure this depiction is terribly far from the truth. The actual value derived from the conference agenda itself is minimal for most attendees, I suspect. In fact, most of us attend these things largely for the non-agenda value: networking on the margins with friends and colleagues, and doing other meetings in the same city since we’ve bothered to make the trip. All of which raises an interesting question: are there ways to improve the Big Conference concept to better align the agenda with the things that attendees actually want to get out of these conferences?

Here are a couple of ideas I’d throw out for consideration; chime in with yours in the comments:

1.    Rigorously enforce the time used for speeches and ensure there are at least 25 minutes left for actual Q&A.

2.    Think about alternatives to the traditional three presenters plus a moderator “panel” discussion format: every attendee is asked to come with 90 seconds of remarks/thoughts to kick off a meaningful discussion, or at a minimum presenters are limited to 5-7 minutes maximum. Three 25-minute presentations in a row followed by 10 minutes of questions do not make for a meaningful “discussion.”

3.    Invest in heavy-duty, conference-specific wifi. It’s 2012; people want to email, blog, and Tweet about what they are listening to. Assuming the existing hotel wifi will support an extra 1,000 people is folly.

4.    Explore giving attendees vouchers for lunch and dinner at local restaurants rather than forcing them into gulag-style communal meals. Self-organized group outings for meals may yield more meaningful relationship building than “Can I join your table?”

Nathaniel Heller

— Image Credit: Flickr | Thomas Hawk

1 Comment. Leave new


An excellent comment on a none too interesting topic. Having moved to New Delhi and working across South Asia, I smiled at the all too familiar images, particularly the gulag-style eating – argh!

One brief comment. South Asia is enamored with technology these days. (In fact, it’s quite a driver of service deleivery reforms out here.) In the spirit of looking for inexpensive, available technology solutions which might improve the big conference, I am wondering what can be done through mobile phones. This is a much more common technology for most conference attendees. Very few are showing up with laptops and Ipad, although that could change over the next few years.

I am enjoying seing the changes at GI.

Grace Morgan

World Bank

South Asia Region Governance & Public Sector


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