Commando Briefing

A crash course for conference commandos.

Esther Dyson's Conference Code

In a world of conference commandos, Esther Dyson is a five-star general. Every spring, she hosts PC Forum, a gathering that draws 600 of the computer industry's top players. In October, she convenes EDventure's High-Tech Forum in Europe. Last year, the Forum was in Copenhagen; this year, it's in Budapest.

When she's not organizing conferences, she's attending them -- all around the world. "The way I evaluate a conference is simple," she says. "I ask, What will I learn, and whom will I meet?"

Here's how Esther Dyson cracks the conference code.

Break new ground. "I push myself to go to conferences that are somewhat off the beaten path for me. I want to hear new people, to process new ideas. One of the best conferences I ever went to was about yield management [a business practice -- common in the airline and hotel industries -- that involves adjusting prices to fluctuations in demand]. I knew nothing about yield management, but I was interested in the topic, since it's such a wonderful mix of math and marketing. The ideas may not have been new to the other people at the conference, but they were new to me."

Be a session player. "I don't adhere to a preordained schedule. I'm always willing to follow friends to a session that they think will be interesting, and I'm always willing to miss a session if I meet someone who's interesting to talk to. I'm never shy about walking out of one session and finding another.

"I tend to bring a newspaper or a laptop with me into a session, and to sit in the back. With the laptop, I'm mostly deleting spam and putting email into folders. It's the equivalent of knitting. I'm not embarrassed about multitasking. It gets me through the slow spots of a presentation and lets me focus more intensely on the parts that are totally new to me."

Small is beautiful. "For me, the most enjoyable conferences are the smaller ones. Last summer's Aspen Institute workshop on how to govern the Internet was a good example. It was extremely interactive -- not a lot of speeches, but a lot of thinking.

"And I tend to enjoy panel discussions more than speeches. I'm always interested in finding out what people are like as people, rather than who people are as speechwriters. Panels give you that sense of people."

Coordinates: Esther Dyson, edyson@edventure.com

10 Commandments for Conference Speakers

The only thing worse than sitting through a bad presentation is delivering one. Jack Powers can help you avoid that fate. Powers, one of the conference world's most accomplished talent scouts, is chairman of Mecklermedia's Internet World conferences. It's his job to sign up captivating speakers. In the 16 years that he has spent organizing conferences, Powers has accumulated a set of 10 guidelines -- commandments, really -- that he shares with new speakers. Here he shares them with Fast Company.

1. Engage brain before opening mouth. "Read the conference brochure before you plan your presentation -- and then again after you've planned it. The brochure is your contract with the audience; it's your responsibility to deliver on that contract."

2. No pitching. "Speakers who give product pitches will never surface again at one of my conferences. People are paying to get your perspective. Don't cheat them by reciting a commercial."

3. Readability counts. "You know you've lost the audience when you say, 'You can't read this slide, but there's some good information here.' "

4. Familiarity breeds contentment. "Familiarize yourself with the room. Run through some slides to make sure that you're comfortable with the gear. And chat up AV people, so they'll be on your side if anything goes wrong."

5. Keep the energy level high. "Shout. Move around. If you're sleepy or if you've lost interest, stay home."

6. Tell a story. "Good seminars are a series of problems and solutions -- ups and downs -- that keep people on the edge of their seat."

7. Don't assume knowledge. "If you give an acronym, follow up with a definition. If you mention the name of a person, give title and affiliation. Keep inside jokes to a minimum."

8. Dress nicely. "Always dress better than your audience. If you don't care about being there, why should your audience?"

9. Give people a way to contact you. "Provide an email address, a Web URL, a stack of business cards. A successful presentation is only the beginning of your relationship with an audience."

10. Insist on feedback. "Most conference organizers will survey your audience and provide you with a rating. Pay attention."

Coordinates: Jack Powers, jpowers@in3.org

Guerrillas in the Midst

The first law of business is that every good idea gets taken to excess. The second law is that every excess sparks a backlash. Michael Roney and Michael Utvich are the voices of the backlash against conferences. They were sharing a cab at Comdex, the computer industry's utterly over-the-top annual gathering in Las Vegas. Crawling through traffic, they came to a shared realization. "The insanity of trade shows hit us at that moment," says Roney, a computer-book editor for IDG Books. "Every social phenomenon needs a critique."

So Roney and Utvich, a technology consultant, wrote "Guerrilla Guide to High-Tech Trade Shows: The Underground Resource for Saving Your Time, Money, and Sanity" (Random House, 1996). It's a fun, acerbic guide to tackling big industry shows. Roney and Utvich have also developed a Web site, which includes a database of their top trade-show picks. In an interview with Fast Company, these two conference guerrillas offer some intelligence on maneuvering across the trade-show terrain.

Why do so many businesspeople go to trade shows?

Utvich: "Every brochure carries an implicit threat: 'If you don't go to this show, you're going to lose out.' "

Is there a sane way to handle the insanity of a trade show?

Roney: "Treat each show like an episode of 'Wild Kingdom.' Watch the bestiary. At one show, I saw a person in a glass booth, grabbing for dollar bills that were flying around, with a crowd of people standing around and laughing. It was bizarre."

What freebies are worth going out of your way to snag?

Roney: "I like the higher-grade textile products, like hooded sweatshirts. Clock radios are also cool."

Utvich: "One of the saddest things at Comdex is the search-for-the-yardstick game. There's always a company that gives out cheap yardsticks, and everybody asks where to get them. People will take buses all over Vegas -- for a yardstick!"

How do you avoid pesky vendors?

Roney: "I cough and affect a neck twitch."

What's your advice for making the best of a bad show?

Roney: "Get a massage. A lot of trade shows feature masseuses."

Utvich: "At the Consumer Electronics Show, there's a pavilion full of vibrating chairs. You can sit there and get buzzed!"

Coordinates: Roney and Utvich, www.guerrilla-guide.com

Rules from a Conference Rambo

Think of Joe Maglitta, an industry editor for Computerworld, as the Rambo of conference commandos. He spends at least 150 days a year attending events. It's his job to scan the horizon for new trends and to relay his findings back to Computerworld HQ in Framingham, Massachusetts. He views his grueling work as "an ongoing graduate education in business and technology."

Fast Company caught up with Maglitta at a conference -- in this case, the Gartner Group IT Expo in Orlando. He offered a seven-point guide for surviving conference combat.

1. Dress for success. "Like a soldier, conference commandos live on their feet. A comfortable shoe is the difference between Waterloo and D-Day."

2. Pack the right provisions. "Living in the air-conditioned semi-darkness of a conference can freeze you and dry you up. I carry lip balm, Visine, breath spray, aspirin, Power Bars, and Handi-Wipes."

3. Do some reconnaissance. "If you have some spare time before the start of a conference, act like an advance scout. Where's meeting room 1526-E? How are the booths in the expo hall arranged? Advance work will keep you from wandering aimlessly later on."

4. Expect the unexpected. "Make a few appointments to meet with people beforehand -- but don't overschedule yourself."

5. Be wise -- exercise. "Most of my conference days tend to last from about 6 a.m. to midnight. Doing 20 minutes of exercise in the morning -- yoga and stretching, mostly -- helps me marshal enough energy to get through the day."

6. Eat smart. "If you're at a conference and you don't have plans for dinner, look for a 'dinner board' -- a posting area that strangers can use to arrange shared meals."

7. Pack smart tools. "In addition to my IBM ThinkPad, I carry a Psion Series 5 handheld computer, a Kodak digital camera, a Sony portable Mini Disc recorder, a PalmPilot, and a cell-phone. My newest gadget is a Motorola PageWriter 2000, a digital pager that can receive email. I also have a CardScan 300, and at night, while I'm watching TV, I try to process all of the business cards that I collected that day."

Coordinates: Joe Maglitta, joseph_maglitta@cw.com

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1 Comments

  • Smash Hit Displays

    Great advice! Going back to #1 - comfort is definitely important. Not only are comfy shoes a must, but adding flooring to your trade show booth is just as crucial, since it offers some padding (trust me, your feet will thank you).
    More and more businesses are starting to see just how profitable trade shows can be, and it shows in the drastic increase of exhibitors over the past few months. Can't wait to see what's in store for 2011!