How the Right Explanation Can Get You a Blank Check for Attending Conferences

The keynotes are inspiring, the breakouts are revelatory, and the networking is top-notch.

In short, your conference experience was outstanding.

Now you’re back in the real world, and it’s time for the big reveal of What I Learned at Conference X.

You launch into a fervent overview, gushing over the hors d’oeuvres, the influencers you met, the great ideas you heard, and how it’s all going to revolutionize how your department runs.

The response is unenthusiastic silence, in which you seem to hear your plane ticket to the next conference being ripped up.

Without a thoughtful, impactful explanation of what conferences mean for you as a professional and your company as a whole, you won’t be getting on a plane again any time soon.

explanation quote

But, with a few pointers from the outstanding book, The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever, instead of ripping plane tickets you’ll hear blank checks being written at end of your next post-conference recap.

How to Move Your Audience to Complete Understanding

In order to achieve your personal post-conference goals, you’ve got to move your audience (your boss, colleagues, the rest of your company) to a place where they can completely understand what you brought back.

Lee LeFever provides this quote about the power of effective explaining:

“Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information.”

Your goal should be to have everybody to whom you present information about your conference leave saying something like that.

Here’s how you do it:

Package Your Ideas Based on Your Audience’s Level of Understanding and Needs

The first thing you need to do is establish some kind of agreement around your basic points.

Some possible points of agreement:

  • “I think we all know that our current CRM is a problem.”
  • “Remember when none of us could agree on whether we should be using X kind of strategy? I learned why we should/shouldn’t.”
  • “You know that problem that we’ve all been hearing about from our customers? The one we all want to solve? I think I came across a solution.”

Once you’ve found some areas of agreement, you need to setup context for the explanation. This will form the foundation for the rest of what you have to say, so take your time here.

Obviously when explaining conference takeaways you want to center the context around a problem or opportunity for your company.

The goal of creating context is to establish why your audience should care.

Done right, your context should provide an entry point for experts and novices alike.

explanation quote 2

If appropriate, use a story “to provide a human wrapper for facts.” This can be particularly useful when you’re trying to communicate larger concepts that need a grounding narrative.

A common story format goes like this:

  • Meet Bob; he’s like you
  • Bob has a problem that makes him feel bad
  • Now Bob found a solution, and he feels good!
  • Don’t you want to feel like Bob?

The next step is to create connections, analogies that connect new ideas to something people already understand, once you’ve brought your audience into your larger story.

You want to take things your audience is familiar with and build on them.

After you’ve established agreement, created context, spun a story, and connected old and new ideas, you can move into more detailed descriptions with your more advanced audience.

Descriptions focus more on the “how” part of the explanation, while the previous steps were focused on establishing “why” people should care.

It can be tempting to get bogged down in a laundry list of tasks that will bring about your desired outcome at this point, but make sure you continue to frame your explanation in a way that holds your audience’s interest and drives them to learn more.

You may need to go back to the beginning of this list and establish context, connections, and stories for many of your “how” steps so you can keep returning to a focus on the why.

Ultimate Goals of Explaining Conferences (Other Than Repeat Attendance)

Marketers are all pretty good at justifying a conference trip (after all, we’re ROI experts), but we sometimes forget about why we need to explain our conference experience after it ends.

An effective explanation can serve three important purposes, in addition to ensuring you a spot at the next exciting event:

  1. Getting buy-in to implement the important changes you learned about.
  2. Sharing new learning with the appropriate team members so they can use it to do their job better.
  3. Clearly communicating the intangible value of your time at a conference, such as connections, networking, improving brand awareness etc.

Consensus for Positive Change

Conferences are great places for luminaries in your field to unveil their newest book, idea, white paper, etc. And hopefully you’re able to see applications of those new insights for your own organization.

Along the same lines, breakout sessions should be chock full of great tactical advancements that can improve your output and bottom line.

But those ideas and tools will gather dust in a corner if you can’t get the rest of your team, and your bosses, to see their value and agree to implement them.

Creating Viral Spread of New Ideas

Hopefully you learned something that applies not only to your own challenges but to your team members’ as well.

But once again, if you can’t convey the power and possibility of what you learned to your colleagues it’s as if you never learned anything at the conference in the first place.

Make the Intangible Understandable

Outside of things that will earn your company more money and make your colleagues’ lives easier, you also get intangible benefits from conferences. It’s your job to make these clear and relevant to your boss and teammates.

From cocktail receptions to chats after a keynote speech, you need to explain how the people you met and the connections you made are important.

Presenting to Outside Departments

Occasionally you’ll need to explain your conferences not only to colleagues but to members of other departments who have absolutely no foundational knowledge you can draw on.

Presumably your team members know the problems you went to the conference to solve and you could build your explanation on that shared understanding.

For those without any of that:

  • Don’t make assumptions about what people already know
  • Use the most basic language possible
  • Zoom out and try to see the subject from the broadest possible perspective
  • Forget the details and exceptions and focus on big ideas
  • Trade accuracy for understanding
  • Connect the basic ideas to ideas the audience already understands

Why Conference Explanations Typically Fail

Explanations in general break down “when someone has lost confidence that they can grasp — or should even care about — the idea you are communicating.”

For conferences, this can happen very easily if you forget about your audience’s perspective, start name dropping or throwing around buzz words too early in your explanation, or use the explanation as a platform to make yourself look smart.

The Curse of Experiencing Conferences

The problem is that after you’ve attended the conference, you have trouble imagining what it’s like for your audience members who weren’t there. This is a called the curse of knowledge (or in this case the curse of experience).

Using the art of explanation, however, should help you create an empathetic way to explain your understanding that takes into account your audience’s feelings and points of view.

Buzzwords Are Banned

One wrong word can lower the confidence you’ve so carefully built up with your explanation, so save the new fancy terms for another time.

If you’re successful in planting the seed for future learning in your audience, they should seek out knowledge like this independently. They don’t need you to throw them around and make them feel uninformed.

The same goes for industry big wigs you heard or met. If you can’t answer the “Why should they care?” question, leave that funny story Famous Guy told out of your explanation.

Others Should Feel Smart, You Don’t Need to Look Smart

Remember that the conference explanation IS NOT ABOUT YOU. If you’re spending the whole time trying to look smart instead of helping others feel smart, your explanation will fail.

If your ultimate goal is to be able to attend future conferences, consider which reaction is most likely to create that result:

“He sure sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, but I don’t see how any of that stuff matters to the rest of us.”


“That new technique could really help our email campaigns perform better. I wonder if he learned anything else like it that he didn’t have time to cover…”

Explaining Conferences Well is a Challenge That Pays Off

Attending conferences is a valuable professional activity, but it’s easy for managers and accountants to get jaded by their costs if they can’t see their benefits.

Master the art of explaining the value of your conferences, and you’ll be booking your next trip in no time.

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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