Mid-level Executive was excited. Identified as a fast tracker, for the first time he had his own IDP (for the uninitiated, that’s individual development plan). What was more, it carried the prized words “Employee should develop his understanding of best practices in industry by attending one national conference on…". He was, of course, a bit disappointed that the learning counsellor at work had not gone out on a limb and recommended an international conference. But conference recommendations being gold dust in these times of downturn, and never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, off he started on his search for the best conference on the subject in the domestic circuit.

It was then that he had a visitation from a wise old man, a veteran of many conferences. The bearded Methuselah sat him down and gave him some home truths and traps to avoid when selecting Conference El Dorado. And while our fast tracker took out his Moleskine notepad and started jotting furiously, the ubiquitous eavesdropper in me could not resist listening in.

Litmus test of speakers

“The key to a successful conference, my son," said the wise one, “are the speakers. Scan the speaker list with care. Look for those with a proven track record in the field, those known to be ‘passionate’ about the subject. Talk around and find out if they indeed share practical and insightful tips. Or are they just seeking publicity for their corporate mater, suffocating the speaking slot with a slew of slides about their company?

“The speaker list may be awe-inspiring, but watch out for the asterisk trap. Note carefully whether the famous-in-his-field speaker’s name is marked with the humble asterisk. If yes, follow the annotation carefully and scan for the explanation. In most cases, it would read ‘Yet to Confirm (YTC)’. And, son, the thumb rule of a ‘YTC’ is that the said speaker will not materialize finally.

“Beware sponsor obeisance. A conference agenda heavy with presentations by sponsor representatives may significantly corrode the conference’s stated objectives.

“Know thy host, the conference organizers. Stay away from new kids on the block, who bait audiences with a couple of reputed speakers, only to spend the rest of the conference branding themselves."

Schedules and structures

Uninspiring: Most speakers can only talk about growth, productivity and financial returns, in distressingly similar ways.

“Death by speaker density is another common problem. The podium is packed with reputed speakers, session after session—speakers you would give an arm and a leg to hear. But, alas, the sessions are scheduled such that once the moderator’s non-moderated, rather expansive opening remarks are over, said reputed speakers have a few precious minutes for their individual sound bites. Sharp debates among panellists and open forums for audience Q&A are, of course, a complete pipe dream.

“Don’t believe the moderator’s rather apologetic ‘You can speak with the panellist over lunch’, promise as he hastily brings the Q&A to a close after repeated frantic signalling by the conference emcee. Most of them beat a hasty retreat, and why wouldn’t they? As an irate eminent panellist once told me, ‘My early morning flight and whole-day commit to this conference was such a waste. With five of us panellists battling for 60 minutes of speaking time, all I got was under 10 minutes to present my point of view. I wish the organizers had leveraged our presence better.’"

Learning from the audience

“And now, about your fellow participants. Son, don’t forget to analyse the audience profile. Networking with the group is a critical part of the learning that the conference imparts. Choose one where you can make meaningful connects." With a twinkle in his eye, he added, “Of course, if you want to job-shop or be shopped, that too is possible."

“Finally, my son, if they give you one of those feedback forms at the end of the conference, here’s one you may wish to offer. Instead of all those ministerial inaugurations and lamp lighting at the beginning of the conference, it would not be a bad idea at all if the conference actually concluded with the VIP session. Imagine how much more impactful and two-way the event would be if he or she was made to listen to a summary of conference suggestions and then respond in his/her keynote to the same. That would indeed be something for the swarming press to report."

The old man vanished, leaving behind bemused Mid-level Executive. And I, from my eavesdropping perch, thought how the wise Chinese had got it just right again with this one-liner of theirs: “A single conversation with a wise man is better than 10 years of study."

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.

Write to Hema at hrmatters@livemint.com