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Do conference attendees know what they want?

by Adrian Segar

How you program conferences depends (or ought to) on your answer to the question: Do conference attendees know what they want?

No one ever asks this question, of course. But if they did, the conventional answer, given while under the influence of truth serum, would have to be: “No they don’t. That’s why we have a program committee that puts together a set of sessions that’s tailored to our audience.”

The problem with this answer is that, after twenty years of running participant-driven conferences where I’ve had the luxury of comparing what participants chose to do with what the organizers predicted they wanted, I know the following to be true:

The best conference program committees predict only half the program sessions that attendees really want.

Think about that for a moment. Half or more of the sessions in your last conference were not what your attendees really wanted.

What a waste.

So don’t listen to those who say that a committee of subject matter experts will do a good job putting together a conference program. It won’t.

Now it’s not that I think that the conventional answer to the question that I started with is wrong. Conference attendees don’t know what they want any better than the program committee if you ask them before the event. (Yes, I’ve checked that statement by comparing pre-conference attendee suggestions for sessions with what actually got chosen. Same dismal prediction success.)

The reality is that if you want to find out what conference attendees really want to discuss and learn about at a conference, you need to do the following:

Uncover topics for discussion at the event
Potter Steward, Supreme Court Associate Justice of the United States famously wrote that pornography was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it”. In the same way, individual attendees (or program committee members) find it hard to define in advance the session topics they’d like, but when using a group-generated comprehensive list find it much easier to pick what they want to have happen.  As I’ve written about before, this process works poorly in advance. By having group members request topics while the whole group is listening, everyone hears good, unexpected ideas for topics that may subsequently initiate a novel and popular session. This is one of the important functions of the roundtable session used in Conferences That Work.

Provide a convergent/divergent process for choosing the topics that will be scheduled
To get a conference program that optimally reflects the true needs and desires of the people present you need to first publicly stimulate divergent thinking, so that a comprehensive set of plausible ideas is generated by the whole group, and then follow up with convergent process that narrows topics down to a realistic set of popular group choices. This is similar to classic brainstorming and decision-making process, and it surprises me how rarely such a well-established protocol has been used for the creation of conference programs. The peer session signup used in Conferences That Work provides this two-stage process.

Your choice
So, do conference attendees know what they want? Yes, they do—when the above criteria are satisfied. And they do so better than any well-intentioned committee attempting to create a good program before the event. So you have a choice. Keep building your conference program the same old way, knowing that half or more of your sessions are not what attendees would choose. Or, use process that guarantees success, because your attendees get the program they want by creating it themselves.

Your choice.

Photos by Flickr users nycarthur, wererabbit

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