Everyone has their conference horror stories. Mine include turning up in the wrong location, being told off by Scottish National Party Commons leader Angus Robertson for wearing cycling shorts (he later lost his seat, who’s laughing now?) and, on one particularly exhausting occasion, ending up in hospital with a chronic illness (not me, that’s for sure).
On that last one, the Association of British Insurers will be pleased to note I don’t hold anything against it. Remove the contrary. It wasn’t the event’s fault. I probably should’ve given it a miss, but the pull of pension folk was too good to miss.
On with the show, though. Inspired by a recent Financial Times piece on the return of conferences, I have been listing some of my own survival tips, and not a few hard-won lessons, from my time on the financial conference circuit.
Take Snacks, The Food’ll be Pants
Conferences aren’t exactly renowned for the quality (or quantity) of food they dish out, and financial events are no different. If you’ve been away from the circuit for the best part of two and a half years, it might be best to rethink that “it’s fine, I’ll get a meal at the venue” mindset. Pack some treats. It may help during that horrendous 3pm lull, when the adrenaline rush of meeting new people gives way to contagious tiredness, and the almost crippling desire to sleep on a stackable metal chair from 1982.
Wear a Fitness Tracker
If you end up at one of the larger events, it’s highly likely you’ll do quite a bit of walking. To that end, I’ve occasionally found it heartening to keep track of my steps. In the event the whole gig turns out to be an absolute dud and there’s an incredibly awkward incident involving a broken public address system, you will at least be able to say you achieved something, even if the achievement is justifying a post-match McDonald’s up the road.
The Best Fund Managers Are Also Salespeople Too
I am of course being naïve, but it’s always baffled me why financial conferences feature so many salespeople because, at the big sponsored dos, the well-prepared fund managers are the ones who end up doing the heavy lifting for the brands they represent anyway. Naturally it helps if they have some form of track record to boot, but if they’re experienced in all the right ways (with people, numbers, and up-to-date fund information) they’ll do a better job at selling than any sales manager will. Make sure you pick their brains, because some of them really are good at answering questions.
Ask Actual Questions!
“It’s not so much a question; more an observation, really.” People who say this with a microphone in their hand while surrounded by other very patient delegates should be banned. I know you agree.
Don’t be *That* Person, Either
Contrary to what most “smug” delegates would expect, conference speaking is quite difficult. I’ve chaired a couple of events in my time and it’s not easy. There is more to it than what you have actually prepared for your audience. You might have an earpiece to the front of the house desk; you might have a Britney Spears microphone that just doesn’t work for your style of delivery; you might have brought the wrong PowerPoint with you (this happened at a conference I attended and the speaker dealt with it so well); you’ll definitely have some sort of timer to keep a firm eye on.
And at the end of it all you’ll have to answer questions from people you can’t even see because modern stage lighting is so powerful you’ll still see it imprinted on your retina when you’re going to sleep a week later. To that end: go easy on the presenters. They get paid handsomely for their time but they’re often made to work hard for it.
A corollary of this is that a lot of effort goes into preparing conferences, so be nice to the organisers, and particularly to the waiting staff, who get paid a fraction of what you do on a contract that probably affords them no job security whatsoever.
Challenge The Organizers on Diversity
And speaking of privilege, it won’t be lost on anyone that the culture wars have found their way into pretty much every edifice of society, and conference halls are no different. These days, it’s frankly not good enough if the event you’re attending features zero female speakers, but even then that’s a pretty low bar. It just so happens, however, that conference organizers love feedback (or claim they do, anyway). Challenge them on their poor diversity performance and you may just drag them into 2022, even if they do kick and scream about it behind the scenes.
Give Your Badge Back at The End
I’d love to see some stats on just how much plastic ends up in the ocean from discarded conference lanyards and badges, so for crying out loud, give yours back at the end. It’ll help the organizers keep their costs down just a little bit, which means bigger speaker budgets, and fewer dolphins with “Henry Whittaker, Whitaker [sic] Financial Management Ltd” knocking around in their gut. It’s not much, but it helps.
Ollie Smith is UK Editor at Morningstar
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.