So what makes the perfect conference? Providing you're SMART, probably the following in this order:

The best presenters, the most creative use of lighting, AV, the best venue will not rescue a conference or seminar with content that is not relevant to the audience. This happens when the audience analysis has been skimped. The content must relate to:

What's in it for me?
What have I got to do?
How will you help me to do it?
How will it work?

Please bear in mind that it is only the first item, "what's in it for me?" that will obtain buy-in. Yes, the last item will take a large part of the content, but it must not swamp the first three. Expert (IT, medical, engineers, accountants, etc) presenters are particularly guilty of this failing

Any audience, no matter how keen will struggle to take on board more than a third of your presentation and for most of us, this figure is much lower. Relevance, good visual support, suitable structure, a great venue will help, but most of all you must go for simple, easy to digest messages. Presentations of learned papers often fail to follow this rule and leave the audience floundering - it is just not possible to take on board high volumes of information through he group presentation medium. We've all attended seminars where information is handed out prior to the presentation. Now normally this is bad, bad news, but for some complex presentations it is the only hope the audience has of getting something out of the why bother with the presentation, why not send out the papers and invite people for a Q & A session?

Go for simple messages and structure and repeat them throughout the event, through supporting material, display items and top and tail the event with these messages.

Bite Size Chunks
If you have no option but to present a lot of information, then break it down. The maximum audience attention span for a good presentation is one hour or less, so build in lots of breaks. These don't always have to be physical (although we do recommend one coffee and one comfort in a morning session), but may be an involvement session like a mid-point Q & A.

If you really want the audience to take on board messages, get them involved. This has the added advantage of increasing the enjoyment factor. There are lots of ways in which you can do this and a little creative thinking can supply a lot more:

  • straw poll questionnaires completed over the welcome or break coffee, with the results presented in a later session work well
  • hands raised polls regain interest
  • a good presenter will use eye contact and questions (even rhetorical) to get involvement
  • relating content to audience experiences aids both relevance and gets involvement
  • asking the audience to talk to each other to solve a problem or at the start just to get to know each other are simple methods
  • laughing together at appropriate, relevant anecdotes is another obvious form of involvement

Competent Speakers
People presenting at your event must be trained, or they will put a damper on the whole thing.

Location and Venue
These have to be right and reflect your audience analysis and SMART objectives.

There are so many locations to choose from these days as most countries have very sophisticate event infrastructures and can offer competitive alternatives. Venue Search NZ offers an online venue finding service designed to match a venue to your request.

Thoughtful AV
It has become commonplace these days for lighting, music, set design to overpower the event and often make the audience squirm. Don't let the event planning sessions develop an undue enthusiasm for razzmatazz, always remember that these things are part of the overall package and must support and compliment they have limited relevance in their own right. Form follows function keep asking yourself "what are we trying to do?" and is right for this audience. We have witnessed cynical groups of survivors of a redundancy cull being regaled with "Eye of the Tiger" as they entered the conference room; an instant and avoidable switch-off.

In terms of presenter visual aids must support and guide, not confuse. Don't let your presenters start talking about a new subject with the screen showing the previous topic graphics. Go through the presentations with them. If you are using PowerPoint it will allow rapid changes and the insertion of corporate blanking slides. On the downside I've seen audiences "Powerpointed to death", so don't over do it.

Clear Stage
Please, please don't sit your speakers on the stage - it's embarrassing for them and distracting for the audience, and it serves no purpose that I'm aware of. Do not put information panels on stage. The audience will read fire extinguisher instructions rather than listen to you (you've done it) so why put temptation in there way. Very simple graphics only in the conference room unless you can screen things off.
start on time, finish on time always, otherwise you'll punish the people who've turned up on time. Avoid handing out material beforehand, if you do you will lose a third of your audience.

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