The implicit ground rules of traditional conferences

Many people are surprised when I talk about the need for explicit ground rules at conferences. “Why do you need them?” is a common response.

So perhaps it’s worthwhile pointing out that every traditional conference has ground rules.

We just never talk about them. They’re implicit.

Here are some common implicit ground rules:

  • Don’t interrupt presentations.
  • Don’t ask questions until you’re told you can.
  • The time to meet and connect with other attendees is during the breaks not during the sessions.
  • Applaud the presenter when she’s done.
  • Don’t share anything intimate; you don’t know who might hear about it.
  • The people talking at the front of the room know more than the audience.
  • Don’t talk about how you’re feeling in public.
  • If you have an opposing minority point of view, keep quiet.

And a few more for conference organizers (a little tongue-in-cheek here):

  • Don’t reveal your revenue model.
  • Never explain how a sponsor got onto the program.
  • Don’t publish attendee evaluations unless they’re highly favorable.

You can probably think of more.

Of course, each of us has slightly different interpretations or internal beliefs about implicit ground rules like these, and that’s what causes problems.

When explicit ground rules aren’t agreed to at the start of an event, no one knows exactly what’s acceptable behavior. (Think about what it’s like when you have to go to a conference and don’t know the dress code.) The result is stress when we’d like to do something that might not be OK, like ask a question, let a presenter know we can’t hear properly, or share a personal story. We’re social animals, and most of us don’t want to rock the boat too much. The end result: we play it safe; we’ll probably remain silent. And an opportunity to make our experience better and more meaningful is lost.

A common misconception about explicit ground rules is that they restrict us from doing things. (“Turn off your cell phones”. “No flash photography”.) Actually, good ground rules do the opposite; they increase our freedom of action. That’s because, by making it explicit that certain behaviors, like asking questions, are permitted they remove stressful uncertainty and widen our options.

I use six explicit ground rules for all Conferences That Work. Four of them, The Four Freedoms, are available for download. To learn about the others and understand how they all work, read my book!

What do you think about having explicit ground rules during conferences? Have you attended conferences where they were used? If so, what was your experience of having them available?