Do you treat your conference attendees as adults?

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Photo by Flickr user yvonnert

In a previous post I wrote:

“We are scared about not having control in our lives. That’s why we lock down our events, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to, at most, choosing which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.”

What messages do traditional events send to adult attendees?

  • You are children, unable to create meaningful learning experiences for yourself.
  • You don’t really know what you need to know, so we have figured it all out for you.
  • Your job is to pay our fee and sit in one of these rooms at these times.

These messages aren’t appropriate, even if only novices attend your event. (Though in this case, it should be billed as a training, not a conference.) Control-centered leadership is appropriate for emergencies, not conferences. Treating adults as if they were children is demeaning and evokes an uneasy climate that brings out the worst in attendees.

Of course there are conferences for children. And it’s interesting that these events usually bend over backwards to empower the youth that attend and provide the tools for the participants to make the event their own. Adults who work with youth know that the last thing teenagers want is to be told what to do. How surprising, then, that once those teenagers grow into adults we start treating them like children again.

At the start of Conferences That Work, we tell you that we will treat you like an adult. For example, if you need a break from the full schedule we’ve co-created, take it—this isn’t school! Or, if you want to discuss a topic that didn’t make it into the crowd-sourced program, contact the other people (known from the roundtable) who want to join you and use one of the extra empty rooms we’ve reserved. And, if you want to question (respectfully of course) the process we’ve offered—do so, and know that we’ll listen and respond to your ideas and suggestions.

Participants find these simple suggestions refreshing. They encourage attendees to take ownership of the conference, and make them less likely to complain about the aspects of the event that, as we’ve reminded them, are under their control.

So try treating your attendees as adults at your next event. Even if they aren’t. Give them the freedom to challenge, to comment, to make suggestions, to question, and to influence what happens. They will thank you for the opportunity.

How do you treat attendees as adults at your events?

7 thoughts on “Do you treat your conference attendees as adults?

  1. Although I whole hartly agree with you in my experience adults tent to freak out and sometimes openly rebel against treating them as adults. They want to be taken by the hand and let to the ‘appropriate’ room.

    1. Yes, many people are scared of moving outside their comfort zone. Luckily and perhaps paradoxically, because they cling to being led, it’s usually possible to lead them gently to an environment where they can be supported and encouraged to take risks.

  2. I love it, treating our attendees as adults is a novel concept but one which all planners should put on their list of things to do today.

    I do understand the comment about people wanting to be led by the hand where ever they go and that is true but I think that you will find that if you throw people into the deep end of the pool they will learn to swim quickly and before they know it they will be having a conference experience unlike any they have had before.

    1. That’s been my experience too, Keith. I wouldn’t describe what I do as throwing people into the deep end of the pool (though it may feel like that to a few of them) but, indeed, one of the delights and responsibilities of leadership is the opportunity to introduce people to new experiences and enlarge their perspective in wonderful and important ways.

      1. Throwing them into the deep end may be a little much! But I do think that it is important that in treating them as adults, we go ahead and give them the responsibility which is akin to the ol toss off the diving board, for so long they have been led along and told what to do and when that for the first few seconds, it may feel like getting hit with that cold water.

        What most find after that though, is that they can swim and they actually enjoy the freedom!

  3. Well Adrian I agree with you, and my 2 cents:

    There is a certain safety/ comfort in “obedience mode,” esp when people are beginners at something. People (again, mostly newbies) also have varying capacities to “open themselves up.” That’s not an excuse or argument for the obedience system, altho it is often used as such. True mastery is only obtained when people take charge.

    Offering a musical example (as I love to do), while the classic stereotype of a conductor is that of a harsh taskmaster always giving direction, in the major orchestra realm, it’s the exact opposite. It’s rare that any issue comes up that needs one centralized authority, as the players are such experts at just about everything. The conductor is, more than anything else, an executive coach.

    Of course, in case we hear gunshots or the place is on fire, it is good to have a collectively acknowledged single person in authority to give directions. But clearly that system usually is taken too far, and you can never get top performance results via obedience and passivity, no matter how extremely that approach is embraced. -jl

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