MICE industry research going back decades identified the top two reasons people attend meetings or events are either for the educational programs or the networking. Everything else pales in comparison.
Because educational programs are so critical to the attendee experience, you’d think that there’d be a rigorous process in place to insure the best and the brightest are selected to deliver the most compelling content.
But you’d be wrong.
The typical “Call for Presentation” process is relatively ad-hoc process that has evolved little over time. This is despite the fact that a successful ‘Call’ is arguably, the best determinate of a successful event. If you don’t get this right, bad things happen.
The way most leading organizations manage their “Call”, is tantamount to throwing spaghetti against a wall and seeing what’ll stick.
Because of my extensive writing and research experience, I’m invited to present at many industry events. I speak at most of the big ones both domestically and internationally. I also managed the “Call” for one of those leading industry organizations. This has given me a unique perspective on how the typical “Call for Presentation” process works, or doesn’t work, as the case may be. If industry organizations are truly sincere about providing their attendees with the best professional development or continuing education opportunities, here are a few steps they need to keep in mind.
It All Starts with a Competency Model
A competency is a collection of knowledge, skills, or abilities or attitudes (KSAs) that determine successful performance for a particular job. (For a list of competencies for meeting professionals, see the Meeting and Business Event Competency Standards (MBECS) at http://www.mpiweb.org/Portal/MBECS).
The problem with most industry education is that it’s not aligned with a particular competency model. If there is a model, it’s not based on empirical evidence, like a job analysis. More often than not, it’s based on the best guesses of professional peers or sometimes an audience survey. These surveys aren’t developed by a research professional either. They’re riddled with common errors which render the data useless.
If the model is developed on a legitimate job analysis, it’s rarely published, which is a tremendous disservice to your audience. There’s an inexplicable lack of transparency when it comes to curriculum or session development.
Competency Models Start with a Job Analysis
I’ve developed enough curricula to say with confidence that anything short of job analysis, conducted by trained professionals, gets competencies more wrong than right. Empirically-based job analysis also provide information at the job task level as well as differences in competencies between job categories or levels (i.e., coordinator, manager, director). This detailed info helps you develop the most customized education, which is presumably what we’re all be striving for. Otehrwise, you’re left with generalized education that can only address a generalized need, which is the current state of industry education.
This lack of job-based competency models is the primary reason why our industry has not kept pace with the rate of change taking place outside our industry. Other industries I worked in are better at adjusting to external changes. They take a more rigorous approach to learning program development.
The good news is that there’s a simple solution to this problem. I recently developed a comprehensive curriculum for a 40-year old professional organization that traditionally relied on whoever raised their hand to present at their global meetings and events. Now they have a plan for delivering the right information, to the right people, at the right time, using the channel that’s most convenient for them. If they can do it, anyone can. All it took was a commitment to quality education.
Know Your “Customer”
Closely related to the lack of a competency model, most organizations have only a rudimentary understanding of who their audience is and what their true learning needs are. (A thorough job analysis includes an audience analysis.) I recently helped a client understand “what kept their members up at night”. This meant going beyond the typical demographic information most organizations collect. I created a number of games that tapped into more psychographic information. Combining these data sets, along with other proprietary information, allowed us to develop more robust audience profiles and even identify unmet needs for new programming, products, and services. They are on their way to becoming the default professional association in their industry, using their learning programs as a competitive differentiator.
Beyond the Superficial
Think about an industry event you attended recently. How many sessions were dedicated to social media? A quick search of upcoming industry events found between 4 and 8 different sessions on some aspect of social media. This is the “mile wide, inch thick” problem many educational programs suffer from. To remedy this, I’ve developed graduated curriculum (beginning, intermediate, and advanced programs) so attendees don’t waste their time attending multiple sessions and then have to synthesize all that information themselves in order to understand a particular topic.
Open Your “Call”
I’m still surprised at the number of leading industry organizations that only solicit presentation ideas at certain times of the year, generally leading up to an important event. While this may be easier for them to mange, it unnecessarily limits their window of opportunity to the best and most timely programming ideas. Why not set up an inbox and monitor it every 2-4 weeks? You’ll find your learning programs will become more responsive to internal and external changes.
Promote Learner Objectives/Outcomes
This is perhaps the greatest crime of all when it comes to Calls for Presentations. When I first started working in this industry, too few organizations even asked for this information. The staff responsible for managing “Calls” didn’t even understand the difference between learner objectives and outcomes. (Objectives = what you intend the learner to learn. Outcomes = what the learner actually observably learns). Now, more organizations are soliciting objectives and outcomes while others have curiously dropped them from their “Calls”. Others solicit them but don’t share them with their audience, which also makes no sense at all. One leading organization asked for objectives in their online “Call” but limited it to a certain (insufficient) number of characters. The limit was based on what their onsite program publisher allowed them to have. Incredible.
You Get What You Don’t Pay For
Finally, I’d like to make the case for compensating your presenters for their contributions. Most industry organizations have a budget for professional speakers but offer little to the greater number of professional peers who they depend on to share their expertise. We know that the majority of attendees derive more value from peer-led sessions than professional speaker-led sessions. Most organizations falsely believe that paid, professional speakers are necessary to draw an audience. The truth is that they contribute little to event registrations and even less to the overall attendee experience. I’ve been encouraging my clients to start weaning themselves off their dependence on paid, professional speakers and offering more generous compensation packages to everyone else. Their program evaluations have been steadily improving.
The bottom line: “Call for Presentations” are designed for consistency. But consistently mediocre is more often what you end up with. If you want to improve your attendee learning experience, take a closer look at this critical front-end process.