Monday, August 19, 2013

Delegate "Species" at Conference

One of the important elements of my job is to speak at conferences. Typically, conferences are events centered around a topic, with speakers lined up for the whole day - some of whom flown in from overseas and delegates who attend primarily for networking but some of them may also be interested in acquiring the information about the central theme. There are speeches, panel discussions lined up for the day with sufficient time around coffee breaks, lunch breaks for delegates and speakers to network. I have attended a lot of such events and observed some peculiar "species".

What I have realized is irrespective of the topic and venue of the conference there are several commonalities. Organizers have the same facial expressions - caught between making sure all lose ends are tied and appear in control and courteous. The registration desks are always (wo)manned with impeccably dressed good looking girls, who always have trouble finding my name tag. They invariably mistake me for those MBA students who are encouraged to attend such events to get industry perspective. I can confidently say that the tea, coffee and sandwiches in all conferences taste the same.

But what is perhaps most striking is the "species" whom you meet at these conference. These are a group of people who show similar characteristics, talk and act in same way and you are likely to meet them at every conference.

Let us look at some species among delegates first.
Business card crusaders : "My name is XXX from YYY company", a small built, busy looking, not-so-impressively dressed delegate spoke to me, holding his business card for me. I accepted the card, reached out to mine, handed it over with my introduction. both of us said, "nice to meet you." as I started inspecting his card. "what is your company......", I asked as I looked up, but I had no chance to complete my sentence as Mr. XXX had vanished. I could see him in an adjacent cluster, introducing himself. I knew I had just met a Business Card Hunter.
Sole aim of this species is to collect as many business cards as possible. Everyone in the conference wants to collects business cards but these guys are different. They are not interested in anything else other than the business card. You can see them jumping around from one group to another making sure they don't get stuck into any lengthy and meaningful discussion. They strike early to make sure they reach everyone before their cards are over. During the speeches they pull out their attendees list and keeping ticking names of delegates whom they have "covered". I am sure specimen of these species would be catching up with each other to understand trends and passing tips "go to so and so guy, his cards are getting over" or "dont waste your time on so and so he the "Lost types" ". Lost types is our next species.

The Lost types : "I am Vivek from Frost & Sullivan", I introduced myself as I held my business card for my fellow speaker. He shook hands and said "nice to meet you" and suddenly his face turned very apologetic. He had forgotten his business cards and was feeling very stupid. (rightly so). He was a knowledgeable person but unable to continue the conversation as he had forgotten the simple basic thing. Surprisingly, I meet at least one such person in every conference.
The primary objective of organizing and attending any conference is networking. Carrying a stack of business card is as essential as wearing your tie. Yet in every conference I meet up with couple of lost type specimen. For some reasons these guys don't have realistic idea of what they are getting into. They have a lost look on their face or they are not dressed appropriately or forgotten to shave. But the most striking characteristics of these species is they have forgotten to bring their business cards. They feel majorly apologetic about it, they are not able to engage in any discussion and keep assuring you that they will keep in touch thru' email. The business card hunters stay away from their meaningless existence in the conference. However, if you find a confident looking "Lost type" person either he has done it very often and has made peace with this fact or he is a "Targeted Card Distributor". This is a sub-species who are very selective about whom to hand over their cards, mostly because they have limited business cards. If they meet an important enough person they may shamelessly flash the card and go on with their business as if nothing has happened.

The Foody types: Different things appeal to different people, to these species food is the most important part of the conference. They are characterized by extended breaks, overflowing plates and multiple serving. They may leave a speech early to beat the queue at coffee breaks and lunch breaks. They can be solitary or place themselves in a discussion groups. In discussion groups, they tend to be very good listeners - for obvious reasons. Lunch epitomizes the moment of truth for these species. If the lunch is too bad, they may be very disappointed with the 'content' of the organization and decide to leave early. They may also leave early, if the lunch is significantly better than their expectations - due to overeating. The existence of this species as helped immensely in solving the puzzling phenomenon of dropping attendance for post lunch sessions. In every single conference.

Aspiring speakers : You always find couple of delegates who are really disappointed with the content and quality of speakers. They are kicking themselves in their minds for not attempting the speaker slot or for paying the full delegate fee for such an ordinary conference. They can be seen discussing and debating vociferously in the networking sessions. They try to capture the public sympathies and win popularity that helps them to corner the speakers or get approvals for their "out of the box" views. Although, they are not happy with the conference, they are one of the last ones to leave the conference. Their enthusiasm and concentration level seldom drops and they leave the venue with determination that they will turn up as a speaker, one day.

Speaker hunters: These species is perhaps the most visible after speakers on the stage. They specialize in asking difficult questions to speakers on stage. They may be Aspiring Speaker species or may belong to some NGO who is working against the topics being discussed in the conference or may be a related to academic sector and been on the receiving end of such difficult situations. Their questions may sound like , "on your slide number 15, the third number in your table does not appear to be accurate." If they are from NGO they may pose a question that questions the whole basis of organizing this conference. In one of the electrical vehicle related conference, after I made a presentation about how EV companies are concerned about safety of battery in EVs, one Speaker Hunter asked me about my opinion on hazards of recycling the Lithium Ionian battery. God forbid if you come across a Speaker Hunter and Aspiring Speaker rolled into one. Once I was asked if cellphone companies can innovate to make telephony wireless why can't power generation companies innovate to transmit power wireless! Its a valid question in some sense but nothing to do with original topic of batteries for electric vehicles.
Only silver lining to this dark cloud as a speaker is most of the Speaker Hunters are not really expecting an answer. They get their kick out of asking a difficult question. They have got their attention, their limelight, their moment in the history. One of the gracious ways of exiting this situation is to appreciate their thought process behind the question. Thank them for bringing in out-of-the-box views to the table. Also praise the organizers for having such a high quality topics and delegates and do this long enough for the audience to forget the question and organizers to call it timeout. Trust me the you will win top rating from Speaker Hunters with this strategy.

In next blog, I will talk about some species among the speakers.
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