Come Together, Right Now or (What’s Wrong with Conferences?)

I had breakfast with a very smart person this morning. Eventually, the conversation wound around to conferences, and some good and bad experiences the two of us have had, as participants, as audience members and as speakers. We started discussing our ideal conference and what it would look like and it took us down some interesting paths.

But first some things I LOVE about conferences:

- the ability to connect face to face

- the opportunity to learn new and exciting things

- the free stuff

- the free food

- the camraderie

- the networking opportunities

- the glam locations (sometimes)

- the amazing dedication and organization it takes to pull something that big and involved off

Hmmm, what’s missing from this list? I feel like some pretty important things such as “innovation” and “intimacy”. Here’s what I HATE about conferences:

- there’s never enough time to talk

- while the opportunity is there to learn new things, often those things are not highlighted in the sessions, but outside, over smoke breaks and in impromptu get togethers

- conversation is not encouraged in any meaningful way

- we never turn off our gadgets and engage

As my  friend and I discussed these things, we realized that this is not necessarily the fault of the conference organizers, nor has it always been the problem. For years, conferences and expos were the places to learn new stuff, attract all kinds of business and hear from the leaders in your field. Now with the leaders in my field doing webinars every single day, white papers on industry trends being published hourly and exponential amounts of information available in increasingly attractive packaging, what can conferences give me? What will make me pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars and fly halfway across the country? Some ideas:

-Encourage discussion. Folks lined up against a wall may promote blogging but it doesn’t promote conversation. Conversation is winning out online and if conferences want to stay in the game, they need to follow suit. Round tables, networking sessions or (gassp!) what about an idea that’s never been tried before?

- Promote Intimacy- Cue inappropriate 7th grade giggles. Ya done? Great. Intimacy is necessary for CONTEXT. How can I know where you’re coming from unless I know where you are COMING from? As social media, increased portability and a thousand other factors shrink the globe, people expect more when they show up somewhere!  One speaker telling his/her story every hour? Uh-uh, try leading a discussion, asking interesting questions and drawing people out. How about something that sets folks out of their comfort zone from the moment they begin? Why do you suppose unconferences are so popular? Because anyone who thinks they have something valuable to share DOES share and folks from all different disciplines learn something valuable they can apply to their process.

- Throw away the speaker handbook- How do you find speakers? Do you find yourself hearing that so-and-so was great at thus and such conference and so you book em? How about this person just wrote a book so they must be a good speaker? Or, this person has an incredible blog so they must be a good speaker. You know where that gets you? A whole lot of speakers that look alike and talk alike and have little practical experience. Or conversely the industry superstar, who’s SO busy doing he/she thinks all they have to do is show you his/her roadmap. It’s deeper than that. Conference organizers should look at their speakers with the same scrutiny as sponsors look at conferences.

-Accountability from conference GOERS- For months, friends of mine from all over the country (many who don’t even know each other) have been talking about a retreat where we get intimate, get comfortable, turn off the BlackBerries and  really dive into what we want for the future. Why has no one done it? Because in the world of conferences, step 1 is you get the idea, step 2 is you find some big fat company to pay for it. If the first step is changing the way a conference looks, then the we must be willing to go out on a limb for that. If that means subsidizing what you think a conference ought to look like, then maybe that’s how change occurs.

-Enough with the celebs- Okay so it was sort of exciting to ask Kevin Costner a question via live video and I will deny I ever wrote this post if SHRM has John Mayer keynote BUT celebrities don’t do our job. If we’re honest, they don’t care. So (SHRM) stop giving them the spotlight. I’ve seen more talented people in this business than I don’t know what, so don’t tell me you can’t find someone dynamic, innovative, wise, beautiful, funny, smart, exhilirating, ____________ to keynote your conference. If you can’t call me. I have a list of names of people who would love to do it AND knock it out of the park.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE conferences. They are tremendous opportunities for people new to the industry and offer a unique snapshot that webinars, videos and blogs can’t capture. However, maybe we need to change it up just a little. Maybe what worked ten years ago, isn’t going to work forever. Maybe, unlike so many other industries, we could swallow this pill and start changing now instead of when we’ve become so irrelevant there is nothing pulling us back from the brink. Okay so maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But unless fresh water flows in and out of a cistern, the water becomes stagnant and sometimes poisonous. And I wouldn’t want that to happen to my beloved conferences. They’re way too much fun!

  • http://thispersonstinks.wordpress.com/ Tracy Tran

    I remember SHRM had a industry roundtable discussion in San Diego in ’05 and I thought it was a very smart idea and one of SHRM’s best in a long time. However, the turnout was around 15 people and they stop doing that the following year (Full disclosure, the roundtable started at 7 AM).

    I think these conferences have to be more like business vacations. Of course you’re going to have business meetings, but give the time to explore the location. I can tell you I wanted to go to Chicago not only for the SHRM Conference last year, but what Chicago had to offer. It was easily not only the best conference I went, it was a great vacation to boot.

    If they’re coming to a conference to do business, I don’t think it would benefit them since they can say they can get this info off the internet.

    I agree wth your post 100%, but to get a successful conference, it’s all about timing and that could be tricky.

  • Franny

    You hit the nail on the head, Maren. I go to conferences to have great conversations with people, not to be lectured to. I can read the book for a LOT less money. I can pretend to be busy on my blackberry to make eye contact and meet a stranger while I’m getting my oil changed rather than paying a lot of cash and going out of town to do so.

    Give me connections and laughs and knowledgeable creativity about real-world problems and opportunities. Dump the stacking chairs, the PPT deck, and the self-importance – all create false walls around real information sharing.

    Here’s a link to some basic info about unconferences/bar camps -
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BarCamp
    http://www.digital-web.com/articles/understanding_the_unconference/

    You can also follow barcamp info on twitter at http://twitter.com/barcamp.

    Both links mention that sponsorship is always an issue. I think another issue, at least at SHRM conferences, is that many people are there to get their PHR/SPHR/Whatever credit hours as much as to learn, and they wouldn’t be available in an informal format. I still want to try it. All that experience in one place shouldn’t go to waste!

  • Franny

    …I can pretend to be TOO busy on my blackberry…sorry.

  • http://hrmarketer.blogspot.com/ Kevin W. Grossman

    Rock on, Maren. Well said. All this online content marketing webcasting podcasting shenanigans are fueling the fire for more face to face interaction.

    But what to do if travel budgets are slashed? John Sumser and I have been talking about conducting intimate (tee hee blush) face-to-face regional gatherings for vendors to discuss the scope of national to backyard marketing.

    It’s time to get some fresh water flowing.

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  • http://www.aspiretolead.blogspot.com Mary Jo Asmus

    I am a frequent conference attender and speaker, who has had the opportunity to come across a few venues in the last few years that actually WANT the speakers to encourage discussion and have interactive sessions. I won’t speak at such events UNLESS I can be supported in having a session that is interactive. I think we’ll see more of this as people seem to interact face to face less.

    In the meantime, I’ve observed that a lot of people prefer to simply sit and listen. I’ve actually had feedback from my own presentation sessions that some participants don’t like/want to interact!

  • tsgspeakers

    Great post, Maren. In support of your “complaints” about conferences… I asked Keith Ferrazzi (marketing/relationships guru, author of Never Eat Alone) for some insights on “how to make a meeting cancel-proof” for our Spring magazine and his response was specifically related to making meetings more engaging for the attendees and creating more opportunities for people – the real power behind meetings – to connect. You can find the full article on p. 4-5 of the PDF here if you’re interested: http://bit.ly/19eUKt.

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