Wednesday 19 March 2014

Conferences: just who are they aimed at?

Lectures are for thickoes. That was the blunt warning I received from a sophisticated second year student within days of arriving at arguably the country’s top university in 1972.

His logic was impeccable. Lecturers dumbed down their books into accessible gobbets for the less intelligent students. Those who aspired to the academic top flight should read the complete books instead.

Major advantages of this approach included not needing to get up in the morning, and being able to regurgitate some less familiar quotes when the time came to sit examinations.

So naturally I took his advice and attended virtually no lectures in my time at university, apart from those that promised a laugh or were obvious period pieces. The finest of which was Nikolaus Pevsner’s series on architecture, illustrated with pre-war black and white lantern slides.

This meant that the grand total of relevant “teaching” I received each term amounted to eight hours of individual supervision by a usually moderately distinguished historian, who typically gave me a glass of sherry, listened with a slightly condescending smile as I read out an essay, and suggested which books I should read next.

I am not convinced that I would regard this as fantastic value for money if I were racking up £9,000 a year in student debt to cover my tuition fees, instead of having all my educational and living costs covered by the generous ratepayers of North Tyneside, as was the case back then.

The reason for these reminiscences was my decision last week to accept an invitation to a two-day conference, widely acclaimed as the most interesting and exciting event in its field. Within little more than an hour on the first day I felt an urgent need to pop out for some fresh air. Shortly afterwards I found myself in the comforting embrace of a pub. It was just like Cambridge 40 years ago all over again, except with staggeringly higher beer prices.

Why do people pay large amounts of money to hear people recite edited versions of stuff you could read on their websites any time? One major advantage of the technological revolution is that one no longer even needs to trudge around to a library to access their work, or run the risk of someone else having borrowed the critical book.

For some, I suppose, the answer will be the “networking” opportunities between talks. These have no appeal to me as I’ve always loathed networking, not least because people invariably have a much higher opinion of my abilities before they’ve actually met me.

This was borne out by my experience earlier this year when I was approached to give a hilarious conference talk of my own on great PR disasters I have known. The organisers asked their agent to propose it on the strength of my appearances on the Iceland Foods TV series. It only took a few minutes talking to me on the phone for them to realise that I was nothing like famous or amusing enough for their purposes after all.

Still, at least my years studying history appear to have given me a better grounding in public relations than the many students now doing degrees in the subject, at no doubt huge personal expense. Some of them write to me asking for my help. Their English is usually execrable: one recently used the words “you was” more than five times in a list of questions.

Another was clearly shocked when her request to me to explain why Iceland’s response to Horsegate had been so utterly useless received a short and dusty response.

I am strongly tempted to write a book on the first principles of public relations to point these poor souls in the right direction, but I don’t imagine they would ever read it. They would no doubt much rather go to lectures for thickoes, delivered by people who couldn’t actually make a go of public relations so decided to teach it instead.

I imagine that they will go on to spend much of their working lives in meetings or at conferences, where they will fit in brilliantly. Because, let’s be honest: conference speeches appeal to precisely the same constituency as university lectures.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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