We are informed about conferences by email, we arrive by airplane, and we gaze at fancy PowerPoint presentations, but, year after year, over a hundred million people experience a conference process that has changed very little since the 17th century.
—Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love
We need to make our conferences flexible. We need an exercise program for our events. Why? Here are three reasons.
1) Broadcast-style presentations are moving online
Over one hundred billion dollars is spent every year on conferences. And this figure does not include the value of attendees’ time. We routinely spend these huge amounts of money and time to bring people together to meet face to face, only to feed them a program that was determined six months before. What is the point?
These days, real-time content can be shared online as soon as it’s available. It’s no longer necessary to waste time and money flying people to a common physical location where they then sit and listen to predetermined presenters. Online videos and webinars can handle known and/or mandatory content distribution efficiently and at much lower cost.
So what can we do at face-to-face conferences that we can’t do well online? Provide on-the-fly learning and connection opportunities that take maximum advantage of the people in the room!
2) Human knowledge is exploding
The current explosion of knowledge and, hence, associated conference topics, is driving a need for flexible conference approaches that can handle the increasingly complex and faster paced real-time needs of today’s attendees. This is just-in-time learning. Surprisingly, there are effective and tested ways of putting attendees in charge of what they wish to learn and discuss. But you cannot give conference participants opportunities to determine what they wish to learn and discuss if your program is frozen before they arrive.
3) How we need to learn has changed
The final significant trend inexorably shaping adult learning is that adults now only learn about ten percent of what they need to know to do their jobs formally: in the classroom or at meeting presentations. Ninety percent of relevant adult learning today is informal; supplied through on-the-job experience and practice, connections with our peers, and self-directed learning.
Conferences—where attendee peers come together at one time and place—are the perfect place to create a rich environment for informal peer learning. We can’t continue to waste this opportunity with the rigid pre-determined sessions of the past. Instead, we need to set up opportunities for relevant peer learning to flourish in the sessions themselves.
Exercise flexibility for a healthy event
All conference organizers know the truism that to keep people coming to your events you need to provide an experience that meets their needs. Unfortunately, many believe that this is just a question of providing the “right content”. Not any more! Truly successful events these days need to provide the right environment and formats for desired and appropriate learning and connecting to flourish.
You can respond to this challenge by adopting participant-driven and participation-rich meeting formats and techniques that adapt to the unpredictable, individual, and constantly changing requirements of today’s attendees. This exercise, while perhaps a little painful to start, will keep you and your events flexible. Remember, the quicker you start, the healthier your events will become!
Photo attribution: Flickr user theloushe