Conference planning needs a conference

What else explains the presence of Bollywood stars at lit fests? The crowds come and go with them. Are you able to keep that crowd for the conversations on intended topics? 
A panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival (Photo| Twitter/ @SachinPilot)
A panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival (Photo| Twitter/ @SachinPilot)

The G20 summit last year brought a flurry of high-visibility conferences around India. Since the 1990s’ economic liberalisation, conferences have dominated the corporate world. They are an excellent way for industry experts to come together and share their knowledge, dwell on challenges, provide and seek support, and network for new opportunities.

Then came the Jaipur Literature Festival, which brought authors and readers to the same space and made them interact. Both sides loved it so much that every nook of India now has a literature festival. I have been to a few of them as a speaker and a few as a bibliophile.

Oh, how I used to get excited about speaking gigs—they are, after all, an opportunity to connect with your audience, reach new audiences and share your thoughts in person. I would have many questions for the organisers, which almost never got answered. I like to know about the audience so that I can prepare my script accordingly. Never ever did I get a straight answer—even when the audience was students, a well-defined group.

You know the general theme, but you rarely know your specific topic in advance. What you want to speak is usually left to you. Now, you can take it as an opportunity to blow your trumpet, which is what most entrepreneurs and marketing people end up doing—their presentation deck is always ready. The rest of us, who want to share our learnings and opinions, just say what we want.

Curation is usually the last priority. Only once were we introduced for a panel discussion well in time and the chair took the effort to discuss the key points we wanted to highlight. Many a time, we come of know of our co-panellists when we meet on stage. People are randomly clubbed together with the hope that they will somehow manage to pull together a 30-to-60-minute session. Session titles target all the buzzwords of the season.

Organisers aim for VIPs or celebrities whose dates are not easy to get. So you always keep juggling your schedules till the last minute. Now when I see an event where too many high-profile people are being advertised, I know only some of them may join. Organisers are also aware of it, but they just use the big names to make the event look high-profile.

What else explains the presence of Bollywood stars at lit fests? The crowds come and go with them. Are you able to keep that crowd for the conversations on intended topics? I do not think so.

I wonder what organisers get out of these haphazard conversations. Is it just another business that runs on the sponsor’s money? These events work well for institutes that have a mandate to host a certain number of them. 

The irony is that the online and offline worlds are full of coaches teaching us how to be effective speakers in a country that has the longest-living tradition of public debates and conversations. The Mahabharata tells us about debates in the court of Janaka that say that the best discourses happen when the speaker, listener and words are aligned. Do we have genuine platforms that let debates flourish to push the boundaries of knowledge?

The top shelf of my library is full of mementoes received at these events. They belong to the times when events were rare and your presence at them added a feather to your cap. No harm in carrying forward the tradition, but can we put a little more thought into them? What a great opportunity it is to showcase local products, be it millets or handicrafts, and make the money spent meaningful for everyone. However, someone in the corporate gifting business once told me that everyone orders at the last minute, so they must pick what is instantly available. Gifting companies stock that can be sold to anyone at short notice. That explains the mugs, t-shirts and shawls.

As a participant or a speaker, my main motivation comes from meeting new people, networking and learning. There is so much more that can be achieved. I have attended conferences on culture and craft where not a single craftsman was present, despite being in a location full of them. For local tourism boards, it is a great platform to showcase the destination, its cuisine and culture, or local businesses. Most importantly, it is a great opportunity to let young students interact with achievers. I have often suggested to organisers that I would like to do workshops for students, especially when the event is in an educational institute, but this is yet to fructify.

Sponsors and stakeholders need to take note of this lost opportunity. People who put their money into these events need to ensure they create the desired impact on society in general and the audience in particular.

Anuradha Goyal

Author and founder of IndiTales

Follow her on @anuradhagoyal

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express