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!