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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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What annoys you about conferences?


I’m preparing to chair the World of Learning conference at the NEC at the end of next month, so it was with great interest I found an article by Sean Coughlan on the BBC website outlining the ten things which make a conference irritating.

I’m one of those people who generally find ‘listicle’ journalism really irritating – in fact, I’m planning to write the 14 things I don’t like about lists.  But this one struck a chord because we will all have witnessed some of these traits at a conference in the past. 

I particularly like the ‘social media guy’ reference.  The social media guy, Coughlan says:  “is expected to say things like: ‘Twitter is going completely crazy’.  No it's not, it's just a couple of PR hacks faking interest by using a stupid hashtag.”  My own experience of trying to follow a conference via Twitter is documented here.

One other irritation according to Coughlan is the final slide in the presentation which is designed to show a different, lighter and more human side to the presenter – a bit like the ‘And finally…’ story at the end of a News broadcast which, hitherto, has been entirely devoted to war, natural disaster, crime, unemployment and terminal illness.  I don’t often find this particular PowerPoint crime committed at events dedicated to training and development.  One would hope that most speakers from L&D know that these whimsical sign offs are a bit naff at the very least.  But I do recognise the issue. 

I once worked with an organisation which trained trauma surgeons.  As part of reviewing and revising their strategy and approach, I was asked to observe an event in Switzerland.  Most of the presentations were in German for a German speaking audience and I guess I followed about 50% of each one.  But what stayed with me more than the somewhat gruesome images of broken bones and the operations to repair the damage, was that every presentation finished with a humorous photo.  A lot of them featured family pets – usually dogs with cropped pointy ears and a mean and hungry look.  Some of them featured the other members of their family – especially if they had cute children (I can only assume that the ones who featured their guard dogs either had no children or really ugly ones).  A few featured a funny cartoon or even in a couple of cases a video. In what parallel universe is a serious presentation about life changing trauma surgery enhanced by a video of a cat in a cereal packet?  No I don’t know either.  

In terms of my recommendations, the first thing I suggested was that all presentations were submitted in advance and converted into a standard format – with funny sign off slides deleted as part of the editing process.

Clearly, as chair of the World of Learning conference I also have some responsibilities. To avoid a couple of Coughlan’s other irritants, I shall keep people to time and ensure that proper questions - not solely driven by the ego, pomposity or ‘look at me’ neediness of the questioner - are asked and properly answered by those presenting.

Sean Coughlan has given me an instructive and amusing list to work to.  But what would your other conference irritants be? Any things I should particularly look out for?  I look forward to your suggestions.

Robin Hoyle  is the Chair of the World of Learning Conference, September 30th to October 1st at the NEC, Birmingham. He has been a trainer, learning designer and consultant for the past 28 years and is now Senior Consultant with Learnworks Ltd. He is also the author of Complete Training – from recruitment to retirementHe will be signing copies of his book at the World of Learning exhibition which runs alongside the conference.

5 Responses

  1. Irritation…!

    I like your reference to the, "ego, pomposity or 'look-at-me' neediness of the questioner", as that is my major irritation.

    Maybe it's my age and generally-increasing cynicism, but there seems to be a lot of questions for the sake of the above and not for increasing audience understanding.

    I do wonder whether the presenters get annoyed with those questions…?

    Oh, and being 'talked down to' by the egos & pompous because I'm not a 'name'!

  2. Noted!

    Hi Phil and thanks for the comment.

    As a regular presenter at conferences I can confirm that the occasions in which I have been asked a question from a man (and it is always a man) who takes more time than the duration of the original presentation to describe who they are, their qualifications and their experience, were really annoying.  This is usually because they are not interested in the answer to the question (which usually begins, "would you agree with me…?") but interested only in the sound of their own voice.

    However, rather that than the slightly aggressive questioner who picks up on something in your presentation and button holes you one to one to debate the point as everyone else files out. (This is usually in my case because I have been less than polite about NLP or learning styles).

    As most presenters freely give their time and their expertise at these events, it is important that they get the opportunity to have a chat with a wide number of people, one or two of whom may repay the investment in attending and preparation which the speaker has made.

    However, even if they are volunteering their time, it gives no one any excuse to speak down to questioners from the floor and I take you point and will step on that if I hear it during World of Learning.

  3. Tear up the rule book

    Or you could forget all the rules and do it like Ling Valentine. 

    Crazy, but informative and entertaining.

    One of my favourite posters states…

    "It is the audiences job to sleep and your job to keep them awake"

  4. Keeping people awake

    I hope the presenters will be riveting and no one will drift off, but in case I will have a mechanism for waking everyone up.

    Air horn?  Too much?

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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