Aiding and Abetting

Technology may be the conference organiser’s best friend, but it’s no substitute for ideas.

High-definition TV, 3-D walkthrough, CDR, computer-aided design, digital library, audience response mechanisms – the range of hi-tech products available to conference organisers has never been so diverse. Today, conferences are limited only by the organiser’s imagination. The chance of an individual coming away with a long-lasting impression are greater than ever.

But with such a vast array of technical gadgetry to hand, the choice can be bewildering for the non-expert, not to mention costly. There is always the risk that the message will be obscured by technological wizardry. Technology is no substitute for a strategy, planning or research. If companies are to use hi-tech aids successfully, they need to know what they are doing or they are liable to make expensive mistakes.

Iain Liddiard, presentations director at Page & Moy Group, agrees: “Technology should never overpower the job the conference is designed to do, which is to communicate information. If technology helps that communication then it is quite valid. But often the organiser uses CD-Rom, a laptop or digitised video just because they have the equipment. It’s like the emperor’s new technology.”

Liddiard feels that while state-of-the-art equipment has its place, and it is essential for organisers to be aware of the technology available, they should lead with what the client can afford. This may not include the latest innovation from Silicon Valley. “If somebody just needs to get from A to B you don’t always need a Rolls-Royce to do it,” he says.

Paul Easty, production director at Clearwater Communications, believes that sometimes technology can hinder rather than help to get the message across. “The danger is that it can be suggested to a client as flavour of the month to win a pitch,” he says. “However, there are certainly some instances where we will tell our clients we intend to use the new technology because it is appropriate and effective. We will use high-definition TV in a presentation situation where we need to get high-quality imagery. For instance, if we’re portraying a high-quality product. On that basis, we would have no qualms telling a client we should be using this technology.”

Technology has its place if it conveys a message more effectively, or aids its retention. But older technology can often be more economical and effective. For example, there is little point using an audience response system where a structured workshop presentation would suffice. “Use new technology for something that cannot be delivered otherwise,” says Easty. “Anything interactive is a good example. Interactive media would be impossible to achieve without access to the new technology.”

Over the past ten years, interactive has become the buzzword among conference organisers as the structure of conferences has changed. Today, they involve more audience participation. The days of the presenter lecturing an anonymous crowd in a darkened room are over. And moves towards using technology have accompanied this change.

Presenters now have wire-free microphones that allow them to move around the stage, and audience, asking questions.

Delegates, meanwhile, are able to choose subject areas using response systems. These can also help to gauge the level of understanding among the audience, which enables the presenter to tailor their presentation accordingly.

Delegates who go to a conference where they feel they have participated are far more likely to retain information than those who have simply been on the receiving end of a barrage of complex data.

Neil Mirchandani, sales manager for IML, warns companies to be aware of the pitfalls.

“If an adverse reaction to a question is possible, and the company is not prepared for it, then we say don’t ask it,” he explains. “But companies are tending to be more open and it is not necessarily a bad thing to have an adverse reaction because the delegates can get an immediate response from directors.

“The audience is more ready to respond to management if it is seen as open and responsive during a meeting.”

Technology has therefore helped companies to make big strides in reaching their audiences. It can be used simply to impress delegates.

The flipside is the tendency to “over-glitz” a message that would otherwise be rather mundane were it not for the method of delivery. Nick Lamb, managing director of Crown Business Communications, says there is a tendency to use technology as a cover for lack of thinking or strategy. “People may not be disappointed if technology is used wrongly to make up for a lack of ideas, but organisers run a big risk when they use it to position something that doesn’t have much substance in the first place. Sometimes they get away with it, but I don’t think they’ll be able to for much longer because of audiences’s increasing knowledge and sophistication.”

The common feeling among the experts is that there is no substitute for clear thinking, research and strategy.

Technology is bound to be of interest to companies as a cost-cutting tool, one of the most obvious examples being videoconferencing. It costs far less to put people on television and fix them up with a microphone than it does to send them half way round the world for a two-hour meeting. However, opinion is mixed over how successful videoconfer-ences are.

Liddiard believes the medium can be very sterile. “In theory, videoconferencing is brilliant, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s worthwhile. The technology is improving, but it’s not there yet. We still have the echoes and it’s often impossible to read the graphics. On a global basis, we have to cope with time zones, which means some poor soul sitting there at 3am while part of the way round the world colleagues are bright and breezy at 9am.”

Mirchandani, however, believes the medium is bound to be successful because technology that works in the US has a habit of taking off here. Nevertheless, he says the shift towards videoconferencing will not happen overnight, and will never remove the need for meetings. “There is always going to have to be some sort of balance,” he adds. “Meetings are always going to happen. That chemistry has to be there, but it doesn’t have to be as frequent as it is now. Twelve meetings a year could be cut down to three if they’re using videoconferencing. It all revolves around cost.”

Technological overkill is a real danger for conference organisers and weighing up the choices in the face of costly gadgetry is a big challenge. What is clear is that the most successful conferences rely on what they have always relied on, that is, knowing what to say, a clear strategy and a few good ideas. However, experts agree that there has never been a better time to organise a conference. There has never been such a choice of methods for delivering a message effectively.

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