The Well- timed Conference Conference organiser Jane Barsby explains how well- planned conferences can provide a refreshing change from the information overload of our everyday lives BUSINESS 42 lime October - December 2008 " When there is a surplus of information, the degree of comprehension falls in direct proportion to the amount of information provided" ( The law of ' fast time', by Thomas Hylland Eriksen) T here was a time when conferences lasted for a number of days, when papers spanned a couple of hours, when facilitators were hired to ' orchestrate' interminable question and answer sessions, and when one of the main conference hazards was falling asleep in the dreamy doze-time of the afternoon session. These days, conferences are threatened by a much more powerful adversary – time. It's not that we don't have time to attend a conference; it's more that we don't have time for anything; because we spend most of our time processing the deluge of informational ' lint' ( lightweight trivia), which floods hourly across our technological thresholds. Nor do we have any real hope of actually absorbing the influx of information, much of which is of poor quality, and vast chunks of which we neither want nor need. The trouble is, we can't avoid it; because whenever we attempt to ' save time' by using the Internet or Email – more information floods in. And every time we attempt to ' take time- out', by watching TV or listening to the radio, even MORE information floods in. As a result, the actual events of our lives are squeezed into steadily decreasing time slots. And, because we are under ever- increasing pressure to demonstrate just how much the influx of ' instant' information has improved our performance ( and allowed us to work faster), we become increasingly stressed. Illustration of this concept lies in the contention that more information has been produced over the last 30 years, than was produced over the previous 5,000 years; and that one copy of the Sunday edition of the ' New York Times' contains more information than a cultivated person living in the Eighteenth Century would have consumed during a lifetime. Slow time vs Fast time As a result, the most valuable commodity in the ' information society' is the attention of others, whose vacant ' slots' of time become fewer and shorter with every passing day, while the efforts of those wishing to grab those slots become more aggressive by the moment. Apply this concept to conference- planning, and it becomes immediately apparent that most people are so busy dealing with their own informational deluge, that the idea of adding to it is appalling. Worse still, is the idea of talking about doing one's job when there no longer seems time enough to DO it in. According to Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who has made a lifetime's study of the relationship between time, technology and human life, there now exist two forms of time; ' slow time', which you can control and enjoy; and ' fast time', which you can't. This, he contends, reveals the REAL
October - December 2008 lime 43 PLANNING ESSENTIALS 01 Be disciplined in estimating the length of your conference, and the length of your sessions. 02 Allocate brief time slots to each speaker and enforce them ruthlessly ( pulling the microphone works well). 03 Edit all papers and presentations to eradicate ' information lint'. 04 Encourage your speakers to avoid the unnecessary ' dumping' of information. 05 Advise your attendees to learn how to filter information ( to avoid subjecting themselves to an unnecessary ' information assault'). 06 Limit the amount of written information, especially if it duplicates verbal information. 07 Limit unnecessary Audio- Visual presentations – especially if they duplicate verbal delivery. 08 Ban lengthy, supposedly ' erudite' questions during the Q and A session: they are a manifestation of ' information vanity'. 09 Insist ( pleasantly) on punctuality: information that must be repeated for latecomers represents a double assault for those who were on time. 10 Allow long breaks; and promote ' after- conference' leisure time. 11 Ban the use of cell phones within conference sessions (& fine offenders). 12 Ensure conference rooms are well- ventilated – stuffiness inhibits concentration. 13 Try to ensure that conference venues offer health club facilities – exercise facilitates information absorption. 14 Encourage laughter – a powerful tool in the digestion of information. 30% of the UK workforce report mental health problems. The number of prescriptions for anti- depressants in the USA rose from 131 million in 1988, to 233 million in 1998. Further reading: ' Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age' by Thomas Hylland Eriksen ( Pluto Press ISBN 0 7453 1774 X) value of conferences; which is that they offer a pretext for enjoying ' slow time' with colleagues. He also suggests that ' as everybody knows, the most important parts of conferences are the conversations that take place during coffee breaks and in the evenings' and that clever conference planning should take cognizance of this fact. So, if you're planning a conference in the near future, maybe it's time you protected your delegates against the ' Tyranny of Time'. Jane Barsby is an international conference organiser with experience in Europe, America, Africa, China and the Middle East.