Does Your Association Educational Conference Suck?

At a recent association conference, I heard a classic cliché, “I learn the most during conversations in the hallway.”

My response? If you’ve devoted all that time and energy to an educational event and the best learning is a random conversation in the hallway, your education probably sucks needs improvement.  

Any reasonably competent meeting planner or educator should be able to produce an activity more meaningful than a random conversation.

In Looking Forward 2019, 81% of association leaders indicated they were concerned or somewhat concerned about producing compelling professional development opportunities.

I go to and speak at many conferences. I’ve also acted as a Master of Ceremonies for events. Association Laboratory also designs our own association executive educational events. We also develop education strategy.

Here are some thoughts.

Audience Understanding (or not)

Educational events don’t have an “audience”. They have a Venn diagram of audiences. Multiple markets who are attending for their own reasons.

In research for a recent client’s meeting value proposition, for example, they were serving  three distinct markets (researchers, clinicians and international). For all practical purposes, it was three different conferences that just happened to be held at the same place over the same days.

Without understanding the similarities and differences between audiences and knowing exactly who you are attempting to attract and educate, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Identify the audiences that are identifiable, reachable and substantial and design to their needs without compromise. Don’t put audiences together that aren’t related or relevant to each other.

Content Relevance for Me, not for Thee

 Our Theme? Simpleton

Too many association education events have a generic theme. For example, “Innovation”. For example, “NextGen”. For example, “Re-Energize and Find Out What’s Next”. These are all actual themes I found on the Internet.

The purpose of a theme is to communicate the thematic nature of the education and, hopefully, inspire some excitement by potential attendees. There is nothing exciting, compelling or otherwise attractive about a generic statement. A poor theme does nothing to differentiate you in the market.

If you feel obligated to have a theme, pick one that explicitly communicates the nature of the education and differentiates you from competitors targeting the same audience.

In addition, the topics of education are often what’s popular or that someone heard on the plane. Actual, thoughtful research into learner needs and relevant topics is far rarer than you’d think.

The evidence?

79% of respondents to Looking Forward™ 2019 indicated they were concerned or somewhat concerned about creating relevant, useful content.

Invest in identifying, prioritizing and creating topics that act as a curriculum. The individual pieces need to work together so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Butts in Seats

Consider the following thought experiment. A mid-level manager registration is $1,000 and a CEO registration is $1,000. There are 500 mid-level managers and 50 CEOs. What do you do?

For many associations, they attempt to serve all of the above. You design a small program hoping to attract the CEOS but if you only get 10% of the mid-level managers, you’ll make as much money.

The end result is a diluted program that doesn’t help anyone because all you care about is how many people attend. The majority of speakers talk at a level that isn’t relevant to the CEOs, so they’re dissatisfied.

The more you try to serve everyone, the more likely you are to fail everyone. Don’t prioritize logistics over compelling content.

Start with the creation of relevant content and instructional design and build from that into the logistical component; not vice versa.

Simplistic, Amateurish, Buzz Phrase Education

I’ve lost count of the simplistic, bullet point presentations I’ve sat through.

You know the ones. The speaker tells you about “setting goals” or to “build consensus” or some other generic crap that’s meaningless. 

Overwhelmingly, people who speak at conferences are not educators. It shows.

Developing a compelling educational experience as a speaker is difficult and time-consuming. Not many speakers want, or know how, to do this. The result, all your time spent orchestrating the perfect event goes in the “evaluation”.

Here’s an example of two common scenarios in my industry.

Example 1.

Someone wrote a book so let’s get them as a speaker (bonus points if they are a sponsored speaker). They wrote a book so they must be good. Is it peer reviewed? No. Is there anything new? No. But hey, it’s a book!

More bonus points if the organization producing the conference also benefits from book promotion. No conflict there.

The result? A well packaged, well presented speech full of clichés and pictures of eagles. Rarely with any practical relevance to the audience.

I’ve seen so many of these now, that I’m getting lapped. Recent programs?

“learn like a child”

“the neuroscience of decision-making”

All programs I first heard 20 years ago.

Example 2.

A practitioner did a good program on something, so we’ll have them speak. Everyone wants to hear from their peers, right?

 Have they ever spoken before? No. Have they ever educated an audience  before? No. Other than their one success, is there anything unique about them or transferable to anyone else? No.

The result is a poorly delivered, often embarrassing presentation by someone who otherwise is a fine executive, just not a speaker or educator.

Your speakers are the tip of the compelling education spear. If you don’t identify the proper speakers and give them the tools necessary to be successful, good education is hard to come by.

Poor Instructional Design

I speak a lot, about 3 – 4 times per month. Here’s generally what happens.

I can’t adjust the time. I can’t change the room set. I can’t change the A/V. I can’t alter the number of people (or sometimes, even know how many will attend). I get 5 minutes between programs to set up then 5 more to get out of the way. Maybe I talk over lunch or dinner.

I’m asked to give an inspiring compelling presentation, but also have interaction. Give leading edge, data-driven theory, but also practical take-aways for use at home. Give us sector wide data but customize it specifically to our audience. Be funny but not too funny.

All without any control over the situation.

Oh, and you’re too expensive so could you charge less?

As a side note, it’s better to have 3 great presenters than 5 average ones. Too many organizations work to fill the time rather than make the time valuable.

Invest in good subject matter experts then give them the freedom to work with you on the presentation and the corresponding design of the program.

Compelling Professional Education and Events are Possible

For years, people have said face to face events are dead. But our practical experience as attendees demonstrates this isn’t true. We see our friends, have a drink and learn some new things.

Unfortunately, we do have to think differently about how we produce the education that make attending our events more compelling.

  • We need to understand and focus on key markets?
  • We have to lead with education, not with coffee. We need to identify real subject matter experts who know how to present and educate.

By shifting our focus from the logistical process to the educational experience, our educational events will serve us well for years to come.

Just a quick rant from My Seat at the Bar.