Down with the Delegates

Down with the DelegatesIt's conference season

It's crazy conference season and as a veteran circuit speaker, this is the peak time of my working year.  Closely akin to the external auditor's January equivalent (those of us with the glut of December year ends and insane international reporting deadlines), it feels like a full twelve months are compressed into just six weeks. 


But this year I'm taking a new perspective, fresh from a chunky corporate contract, I decided to take the conference season off and try out being a delegate again.  Did I say 'take off'?  Forget it; its hard work being a delegate!


Speakers are generally good.  The audience, in the main, get what they came for; content is pretty reliable, relevant and appropriate, often stimulating and thought-provoking; delivery generally acceptable, sometimes outstanding, occasionally disappointing.  Speakers can always do better but we're usually professionals and you'll likely get what it says on the tin.


As a delegate I'm surrounded by largely new faces, possibly a few familiar ones, but all in all seizing the opportunity to network, make new acquaintances and build and develop relationships.  So far so good.  That's not so bad I hear you saying, add in coffee on tap, a break from the office and usually a half decent venue, it all sounds like a veritable vacation, what could be so hard about that?


I'll tell you the hard bit - it's the breakouts, the roundtables, the discussion groups.  What happened to those innocuous acquaintances you just lunched with, the polite stranger with whom you made small talk while you were awaiting the key note speaker?  Because, turn over the conference to table discussions and it's like opening the cage doors in a zoo.  Everyone speaks, no one speaks; side discussions sprout up oblivious to the rest of the group, the topic or even the theme of the entire conference; dominant speaking genes burst forth; opinionated trumps the persuasive and suddenly everything is personal (I just love the sound of my own voice and the story of my own life).


Whatever happened to professionalism amongst delegates?  Did we lose our social mores as our primeval thrust for the right to be heard kicked in?  How did the discussion thread loop back to minutia of what went down in your office yesterday (or yesteryear).  Personal anecdotes are for coffee time, foisted into roundtable discussions they're often merely amusing (or not), time-wasting, dead ends.


I'd like to see a professional code for delegates.  We're not  talking rocket science, simply a set of ground rules that we recognise in our daily doings as human beings: listen more than we speak, desist from talking over and interrupting, being present in the discussion and sufficiently self aware to sustain connection to the themes and our fellow participants.  In other words maintaining a convention that is courteous, considerate and caring and taking responsibility for the group experience, over and above the personal one.


I wonder how many feedback forms have been brave enough to say 'loved the speakers, shame about the delegates!'   Maybe we should be asking for delegate feedback, alongside speaker feedback. Now that's a thought...


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