Six ways to avoid wasting attendee time

bored_noun_38100 avoid wasting attendee time Raise your hand if every conference session you’ve ever attended was accurately described by its program blurb.



Bet your hand didn’t go up.

Wasting attendee time

When we have to sit through a session that bears little resemblance to its description, attendees waste time. We tend to blame the presenter. But, in my experience, it’s often conference producers we should be holding responsible. Last week, Peggy Duncan sent me an example:

“I’m a conference speaker, and I am often put into an awkward situation. When I’m hired to do a seminar and the meeting organizers bill it as a workshop, people who do not use those words interchangeably are expecting something hands-on. I was recently hired to conduct a 1-hour SEMINAR at a conference on using the iPad for work, but the meeting planners are describing it as a workshop in their marketing. I’m trying to explain the difference, but their response is “Well, that’s just the terminology we use.” No, that’s like saying the color is red when it’s blue. These words are not interchangeable, and here’s [a blog post about] the difference.”

Language is important

People, language is important! A “workshop” implies that attendees will get experiential learning, while “seminar” implies more of a traditional session, with a presenter talking most of the time. Big difference.

Unfortunately, incorrect terminology is just one of the ways that a session can turn out to be very different from its description.

For example, I’ve had a client write and publish a description of my session on the basis of a quick phone call, without requesting any additional input from me. Then there are the folks who take carefully written session descriptions and brutally rewrite them, sometimes to a point where I barely recognize them. Unsurprisingly, the subsequent renditions do not accurately portray what I was intending to do. Usually the first I know of this is when I surf the conference website and see I’m being billed to teach juggling notation (please don’t ask me to do that).

So how can we avoid session descriptions that avoid wasting attendee time? Here are six ways:

If you’re a conference producer:

  • Be clear about what you want! Your presenter should be happy to help you figure out what that is—make the most of their expertise.
  • Listen to your presenter! Yes, you have the right to ask for what you want. But if she says “I think X would be more effective”, or “That’s too much to cover in the time you’ve assigned”, “I can’t do that”, or any other responses that indicate that a mind-meld hasn’t yet taken place, then continue discussions and keep paying attention.
  • Feel free to edit/change a session description. But, send your changes back for presenter review and final sign-off before publishing them!

If you’re a presenter:

  • Don’t assume that the conference producer will accurately represent your session to attendees! Trust, but verify. Even if your client assures you that he will simply copy your description to their conference marketing, insist on reviewing it before it’s up on the web. And if they print it, double insist.
  • Be persistent! Meeting producers are busy. They may consider a description change to be a minor detail to hazily delegate or put off. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
  • Be willing to go through several rounds of rewrites! Don’t give up until the session description accurately presents what you’re going to present.

Not-as-advertised sessions squander the time of hapless attendees, and are far too common. Luckily, it’s easy to avoid wasting attendee time if you follow the above advice.


Does asking attendees in advance for program suggestions work?

predetermined programs don't work Over and over again, attendees report in conference evaluations that the predetermined program was a poor fit to what they would have liked to have happen. In my experience, the average participant gives lukewarm ratings to over half of the sessions available to them at a conventional conference. In other words, predetermined programs don’t work.

How can we do better?

One obvious approach is to poll attendees before the conference. Nearly all conscientious event planners do this.

The problem is, asking your attendees for their input on the upcoming conference program simply doesn’t work very well. Here’s why:

Attendees are busy people

Attendees, like all of us, are busy people. How many of yours are going to fill out a long (or even a short) questionnaire about what they want at an event that’s happening six months from now? Not many. Even if you force them to answer as part of the registration process, how much time are they going to spend to really think about the three most important topics they’d like you to offer? Sure, a minority of attendees will be conscientious and may give you some good ideas. But do you know if they represent an unbiased sample of your attendees? Do you want to base your conference program on their responses?

Six months is an eternity

Most food goes stale. (OK, Twinkies don’t, but how many of us enjoy eating Twinkies?) Similarly, most conference topics have expiration dates. The topic that’s hot now may be cold by the time your conference rolls around. So even if lots of your attendees tell you they’re really into sushi now, it may be Cambodian Cha knyey when it’s time to actually sit down for the conference meal.

What do you want to talk about now?

There’s a world of difference between a response to the question “What do you want” when it’s asked about the distant future and when it’s asked about what you want in the next five minutes. At Conferences That Work, when the roundtable facilitator announces that, in five minutes, people will start to answer three questions out loud to everyone present, minds become wonderfully concentrated. That’s when you find out what attendees really want. Not before.


I’m not saying we should give up asking in advance what attendees want in a conference program. Sometimes you’ll get good suggestions for conference presenters or session topics that you can turn into valuable sessions at the event. But you’ll rarely be able to create the bulk of a conference program that fits as well as one that’s created at the event.

So, don’t sweat about creating the perfect conference program in advance. Remember, predetermined programs don’t work. Instead, relax. Use event crowdsourcing to ask your attendees what they want. Your attendees will build the best program possible themselves—and they’ll thank you for the opportunity!

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