Friday, October 28, 2005

What NOT to do when planning a conference

(Note added on 10/31/05: The conference described below was a two-day conference. I was only able to stay for the first day. This morning I emailed some friends who stayed for both days and asked if the conference got any better the second day. They ALL said that it did - that the second day was very good. I wish I could have been there for that day. It's too bad that there were so many problems on the first day.)

I attended a conference on Thursday of the Alabama Reading Association in Huntsville, AL. It was a disappointing experience. Almost always I can gain something of value from attending a conference. Not this time. The conference planners could have written a book entitled WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN PLANNING A CONFERENCE. Here are the main points of their yet-to-be-published book.

(1) Obtain a nationally recognized speaker - one that is so well known and popular that teachers from surrounding states will attend the conference. That will get lots of people to attend the conference. Get so many people to register for the conference that the conference hotel will fill up quickly, requiring many participants to seek hotel accommodations elsewhere. Then, during the keynote speech, when you have the civic center auditorium filled with eager attendees, have an audio system so poor that the speaker's voice is distorted, and people can't hear the speech. Compound the problem by not having the speaker stand on the speakers' platform where she can be seen by all, but rather off to the side on the floor among the audience. That way only a few of the people present can see her. Have a large projection screen, but don't be a copycat and show the speaker on the screen like other conferences. Instead, show grainy images of the speaker's transparencies that can't be read by most of the people in the large civic center auditorium.

(2) Next, when planning the "concurrent sessions", have some of them lined up along the sides of that aforementioned large civic center auditorium, but separate the different "rooms" using only 8-foot high partitions. This will allow sound to travel so that participants can hear bits and pieces from several sessions at the same time. Then don't provide microphones for the speakers OR enough chairs for all the participants. That will ensure that, once again, most people are uncomfortable and won't hear the speaker. All those people having to stand up or sit on the floor are an indication of how successful the conference is.

(3) In planning where to have the more popular speakers conduct their sessions, don't put them in large rooms. Rather, put them in small rooms with only a few chairs. That way, people will have to stand up along the walls and sit on the floor in the back. It's a good way to test the determination of the conference participants and prove quickly who has the mettle to stand for an hour.

(4) To top off the day, put a 40-minute lunch break in the daily schedule. However, don't provide lunch for the conference participants and provide no information about possible places nearby where lunch can be obtained quickly. Instead, ensure that there is only one concession stand in the civic center to serve the thousands of participants. That way, the participants will enjoy the social opportunity of talking to other participants as they stand in line for over an hour to get greasy chicken strips and fries. As a bonus, the long lunch line also ensures that many participants will not be able to attend the session following the lunch period. That should help solve the over-crowding problem in the first concurrent sessions after the lunch break.

(5) To sooth any ruffled feathers, end the day with a popular author and have the sound system work well. He can be heard clearly, and his message is great. However, in order not to interfere with the general theme of ineptitude for the day, tack an interminably boring local honors and awards time at the end of the speech. That, along with all the other absurdities for the day, will keep the audience down to only the loyal few.

I hate to think that I missed a full day of being with my students to attend such a poorly planned conference. There were fantastic speakers - and the potential for a powerful and meaningful conference was there - but it was unrealized. If I were one of the speakers or presenters, I would be furious that my hard work and preparation were rendered useless and ineffective by poor event planners.

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