Ever year, various professional bodies organise Annual (inter)National conferences. In this piece, Isqil Najim exposes some of the reasons some people stops attending professional gatherings and conferences, or do not come back after first attempt.
“I’m the customer who never comes back. If the product I buy is poorly made, if the customer service is less thaN I expect, if the price is unreasonable, I’m not going to write letters. I’m not going to call someone and complain. I’m just never coming back.”
What does the above has to do with conference and workshops? A lot! Conferences and workshops are kind of services rendered to participants who came with high expectations. They invested resources, (money and time) to attend and therefore expected good services.
I wrote series of articles on importance of attending professional gathering. I especially focused on conferences in which case, I tried to impressed it on our young professionals that there is everything to gain in attending. I wish to use this medium to address those organizing the conferences in order to ensure that they play their part in making conferences, not only memorable for participants, but also ensuring that participants look forward to attending more of it.
What are the reasons some people do not return after attending a gathering?
1. Not meeting expectation: If a participant attends your event and his expectations of the event was not met; he will not only stop attending but also will discourage others close to him by providing negative feedback. Feedback is important ways to know if your efforts to put in great event has succeeded or not. Do not pat yourself in the back by listening to your organising committee members. The real feedback comes from attendees. This is especially tricky as many people may want to be nice and provide false positive feedback. It can also be that they fear facing negative repercussion if they criticise openly.
I remember a time a senior Engineer facilitated a workshop. The presenters were just talking without communicating anything. After the event, the man asked for feedback and I gave a positive feedback. Just like everyone else. He however guessed from my body language that the feedback was not genuine. So he persuaded me to provide honest feedback and I told him confidentially that the workshop was boring. He thanked me. Some weeks later I heard from his staff that i was too negative. The man also changed towards me. Needless to say, they continued to organise the workshhop in that format. The last one they organised, nobody show up.
One way to encourage honest feedback is to allow participants provide feedback by filling a feedback form anonymously. This form can be physical paper or digital. The feedback can then be used to plan better future events.
2. Not providing opportunity for networking. What is the point of attending a conference when I can’t meet new prospects, new Friends or build new professional relationships? Travelling far away outside your comfort zone is because you hope to gain new perspective. Meeting new people is one of the main reasons we attend physical events. Otherwise we will sit behind zoom and listen to lectures. Or read media reports. Networking has a lot of business and professional benefits. they are also proven way of enhancing good mental health and other social benefits.
A Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study found that with as little as ten minutes of contact and conversation with a new person, brain stimulation led to improved mental cognition. You are basically giving your brain a workout and expanding the ability to learn to accept new ideas and change preconceived notions. Another Research shows that a physical handshake promotes cooperation and influences negotiation outcomes for the better. An MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab research showed unequivocally that the most valuable communication is done in-person.
3. Not proving enough time for resourceful presenter(s) to deliver their message. A big common observation at many public events is giving resourceful presenter(s) as low as 5 minutes to outline their points. After the Guest speaker have spoken, there is always one or person in attendance who have some very valuable to contribute. But the main culprit is found at plenary sessions where the names of these resource persons have been advertised along with the event.
Many organisers see this as way to allowing everyone they invited to speak. I have attended events where a speaker had to rush through important presentation just because another speaker was lined up to speak after him. To me, it amounts to humiliation cutting them off while they are in middle of making important points. It doesn’t matter whether it was done politely or with courtesy. A passionate teacher will always want to get his point across. It is best to minimises the number of speakers at plenary sessions to two or three or within realistic time-frame. The current practice of assembling 5 to 8 highly resourceful people as panelists to speak collectively within time frame of 30 minutes is not encouraging.
4. If you are not providing refreshment, please inform the participants in advance so that they can eat at home before coming or make provision for their feeding at the venue. A lot of people left home with empty stomach only to be distracted by their rumbling bowel while proceeding is ongoing. Naturally, their attention is distracted and their participation is spoiled.
5. Question and Answer session is a big part of an interactive and intellectually stimulating event. As a result of restricting time, many people’s questions are not attended to. While many contributors could not get their points across. Where people came from long distances, from other states or even other countries, this will be really disappointing.
To address this, Organiser can encourage more questions on papers where the time allotted is short and can’t attebd to everyone. The questions can be written with name of the questioner or anonymous (if they wish to be) and passed to the speaker. The speaker can then attend to them in writing after the event and pass them through the organization. These can be published on their website or social media platforms. The long term effect of doing this is highly beneficial as it keeps attending bonded to the organisers even after the event was concluded.
Make use of social media. Sometimes, the speaker can’t answer everything in a live session. If there are more people who have questions that need answer and the time allotted cor the session is short, it make sense to connect then to the speaker so he can engage them after the event. He can provide his social media handle and answer those questions on his social media pages like LinkedIn or twitter. And he can provide his email if he is willing to encourage personal interaction. Many speakers will appreciate the connection and feedback that come with their presentations. It help them improve as it helps the participants achieve their goal. Most importantly, it may bring both parties a very important networking opportunity.
6. Provide opportunity for those who came from outside the event location to Speak or simply recognise their presence. For example of an Event is holding in Abuja and attracted national international audience, it is good courtesy to encourage at least one from each location to speak. Alternatively, recognising their presence at the gathering will go a long way. even if they are not on high table. Endorsement and positive review from outsiders is crucial towards building a strong reputation for your events.
7. Reduce the number of cameramen and restrict journalists to specific angle. What is the point of coming from a distant location to attend event in person, only for our vision of main gathering to be obstructed by swarm of cameramen/journalists who are more concerned about getting a perfect position to capture the events than care about impact of their action on participants. It get even worse in this era of smartphones where everyone wants to capture the event on their mobile phone. Organisers should save the day by reducing the number of cameramen while ensuring that the official cameraman capture as many pictures as possible and upload them on cloud storage, such as Dropbox google drive etc. The links can then be shared with participants after the event their download their interest. Journalists should be given their stand where they can have ample view of the events without obscuring the vision of the participants at gathering. All these should be planned in advance. Many participants grumble silently when this happened. Consistent repetition of this practices may discourage them from subsequent participation. Another way is to provide live streaming via zoom other social media, or have extra large screen position at strategic locations within the hall for those who may not get good view of the front row.
8. Tailor the topic to what is needed: Conference should be organised to take into cognizance what is needed at that particular time rather just picking a topic for the sake of it. Many topics are boring and repetition of what has been preciously fone elsewhere. Organisers should conduct more research before selecting a theme for their conference. And most importantly, they should Stop repeating same topic or theme concurrently. Make each event unique and better than past editions. Unless it it is what attendees want to hear.
9. Encourage young people to speak. We are in a midst of Idea revolution. The young and old must work together to ease the transition. As Engr Majajuola said.. At events always encourage a mix.. comments. From both young and old. You can predetermine this in advance if you are not sure.
10. Give your events wider publicity. I do not need to add this but I have noticed a lot of Organisers take this for granted in recent times.
11. Not saying Thank you or follow up . Many organizers neglect to thank participants or follow up after the event. Send conference materials to their emails or a link where they can download them. Send them thank you note. You have their contacts at the point of registration. Why did you collect them if you are not going to follow up?
Bonus for young people: Stop nurturing wrong expectations
Wrong expectations by the attendees, especially young ones have been responsible for their disappointment. Many attendees want instant results. A young man wants to be “connected” to big men so he attended because he wanted “connection”. He got the “connection”, and got the contact address. But he soon realised that nothing come out. The connection didn’t pick his call or reply his emails again. Frustrated, he tried again and same results. So he decided that the event is all scam. Many times, young poeple feel that their “connection” must find job for them. Not everyone will bring you jobs. and not every professional gathering is for jobs seeking. Even those who attended job fairs do not all get jobs. Less that 5% of those who attended job fairs got the job. So? Change your strategy! Lower your expectation, focus on building long term relationship and network.
In conclusion, I will suggest that we treat conferences and workshops as business (whether it is paid for or free). Every participant is our image maker. When we satisfy them, their positive feedback is big win for us and them. They gain valuable experience, and we earn more referral for future events.