Six reasons to change our conferences

Six reasons to change our conferencesIn my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons to change our conferences for them to remain relevant to today’s attendees.

Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time I’ve summarized them in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.


Sessions provide no connection around content

Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.

At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.

Lectures are a terrible way to learn

We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.

Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything someone tells us. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.

The rise of online

Most broadcast content is now readily available online. An internet connection provides expert content anywhere, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!

Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom

Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.

Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.

Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share

Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!

Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs

Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning.  And you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.


My first two books explore all these themes in detail. To get the full story, buy ’em!

Join me at Blend Abu Dhabi on October 17!

I’m honored and excited to be presenting at Blend Abu Dhabi, a free one day conference for event professionals on global event industry trends, meeting innovation, and event technology at the new Yas Conference Centre, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi.

Also presenting are industry luminaries Julius Solaris, the editor of Event Manager Blog the number one blog worldwide for event professionals, and Shawna Suckow, The Buyer Insider, a leading expert on buyer behavior.

Here are descriptions of my workshop and presentation.

Workshop — Participation Rich Meetings
How can you make your conferences highly relevant, important, and useful to your attendees? 

Every conference attendee arrives with unique wants and needs. They may be facing specific professional challenges or want to learn more about certain topics or issues. Many will want to connect with others who share their interests or who could benefit from their expertise and experience. Unfortunately, conventional fixed-content conference programs rarely provide the level of truly effective learning and connection that is possible.

We’ve known for twenty-five years how to design conferences that provide superior learning, connections, and outcomes. Unfortunately, centuries of exposure to old-school conference culture focused on pre-determined lectures by experts makes it difficult for event planners and stakeholders to adopt proven participant-driven and participation-rich approaches for improving their meetings.

In this short workshop, you’ll experience some of the simple yet potent core techniques you can use at the start of your conferences to uncover and facilitate the connection, learning, and outcomes your attendees actually want and need. You’ll learn, share, and connect with other session participants in ways that are relevant to your wants and needs without the use of artificial “ice-breakers” or high-tech. You’ll leave with key understandings and the motivation to incorporate participant-driven and participation-rich design elements into your meetings.

Presentation — Creating Participatory Meetings That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action
As meeting professionals, it’s easy for us to zero in on the extensive logistical requirements of any modern conference — that’s what we do! Unfortunately we invariably take for granted the traditional conference format we’ve experienced our entire lives. You know what I’m talking about: conferences where a few experts share content to an audience of passive listeners, and connections between participants are expected to occur outside the sessions during breaks, meals, and socials.

Well, today there’s a significantly better approach to conference design. An approach that creates and supports more effective active learning, more useful connections, greater engagement, and better action outcomes.

We now possess the tools to make fundamental meeting improvement happen!

This presentation (which includes some experiential learning) will introduce you to the global business and meeting industry trends that are making participant-driven and participation-rich formats increasingly crucial requirements if you want to keep your face-to-face events healthy, growing, and relevant in today’s world.

We’ll also cover the basic components of participant-driven and participation-rich conference designs that will deliver improved learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes to your attendees and stakeholders.


I’m looking forward to experiencing the Yas Conference Centre (Abu Dhabi’s newest venue), meeting regional event professionals, and exploring the United Arab Emirates. I hope to see you there!