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Meeting and Convention Terms Explained: What IS the Difference Between a Conference and a Convention?

The meeting industry is rife with interminable terms and bloated, obfuscating jargon that only seasoned professional orators such as myself are able to fully grasp. In my ongoing effort to be helpful, I have provided a guide to help you differentiate some of the terms that are often used—mistakenly and rather sadly–interchangeably.   So without further ado, allow me to clarify what’s the difference between . . .

Meetings vs. Starbucks:  Both involve large groups of people intermingling in a neutral setting as a means of avoiding work, with the inclusion of a lot of unintelligible language, hence the confusion over these two terms. Moreover, meetings often serve Starbucks coffee, while conversely, many meetings are held at Starbucks. The easiest way to remember which one you are in is this: blog-03if the wi-fi is working perfectly, you are most likely at a Starbucks.

Convention vs. conference:  If only I had a dollar for every time I had to slap someone’s lanyard who told me they were going to a convention when in fact they were merely attending a conference. There are fundamental differences between these two events, most notably the hats that most convention goers get to wear. Beyond that,  the technical difference is this: a convention is where people convene;  a conference is where people confer. If you decide to confer and convene at the same time, then you’re attending one of those rare gatherings known as a convenerence. The advantage of attending a convenerence is that not only do you get to wear funny hats, you also get to use more important sounding language, such as confer.

Keynote speaker vs. breakout speaker:  About $10,000/hour

Workshop vs. breakout session: A breakout session is merely a term used to describe a workshop that is so mindbogglingly dull the participants begin actively seeking ways to break out of the room.

Podium vs. lectern:  (Sounds like a classic Superhero-super villain match up, no?) A podium may refer to a small South American rodent, the stage that a speaker stands on,  or, if you’re the a/v tech, client, audience member, or anyone with a last name, the wooden object speakers stand behind when they don’t want the audience to see that they haven’t shaved their legs. A lectern, conversely, is a lecture that includes a very stern warning to audience members.

Dais vs. stage:  A dais is a term you only use if you don’t care about whether or not the a/v guys are going to laugh at you behind your back or not. May also refer to an actress who got her first break in the highly underrated comedy, The Mask.  A stage, on the other foot, is the platform that a speaker is given in order to sell his or her books.

Plenary sessions vs. general session: A plenary session is a presentation that is given to the entire gathering at a conference whereas a general session describes any presentation that doesn’t offer any specifics whatsoever. Please see motivational talks.

Motivational talk vs. inspirational talk: A motivational talk motivates you to be inspired, whereas an inspirational talk inspires you to become more motivated. Both presentation styles tend to appeal first to the heart, secondly, to the wallet.

Industry speaker vs. professional speaker: About $10,000/hour

In house meeting planner vs. outhouse meeting planner. Really? Do we really need to go here? I mean sometimes these just write themselves.

Meeting facilitator vs. meeting emcee: Meeting facilitators help guide processes and discussions, using a lot of thoughtful head nodding while repeatedly saying, “Anything more you’d like to add to that comment?” A good facilitator often wear clothes that match the meeting room drapes or paneling, so they seamlessly blend into the background.  An emcee on the other hand, often wears loud ties or head scarves, and works tirelessly to keep the schedule running smoothly, which often involves the use of sarcastic wit, stop watches, exaggerated eye rolls when a speaker goes over time, and, on occasion,  cursing.

Cash bar vs. open bar: About $10,000 an hour

Virtual meeting vs. actual meeting:  A virtual meeting is when you almost run into someone in a convention center that you have a loose connection with, where as an actual meeting is where you actually do run into a person and actually get less accomplished than had you only almost ran into them.

Often actual meetings are relocated to the nearest Starbucks, where many virtual meetings are also convened, and of course, conferenced.

So I truly hope this has helped to raise the level of discourse, and well, not just discourse but every course you come across at your next convenernce.

Michael Kerr is listed as one of Canada’s most in-demand speakers. Michael travels the world researching, writing and speaking about inspiring workplace cultures.  You can often find him convening at his local coffee shop.  For more information drop him a line at  or cruise by


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