Stop treating adults like children at your conferences

stop treating adults like childrenPlease stop treating adults like children at your conferences. (For an exception, see the end of this post.)

With children there’s an argument for broadcast-style learning. Schools originally developed as establishments for improving the efficiency of oral communication of information. They did this by bringing many students together, so they could learn simultaneously from one teacher. The key cultural reason why broadcast methods remain firmly embedded in our children’s education is the sheer quantity of knowledge that society — for whatever reasons — is determined to cram into young heads during formal education.

For example, school curricula invariably include the Pythagorean theorem. (Why? One can make a case to skip it.) You can argue that most kids are best served by a broadcast style introduction to this GED requirement (though you might try a flipped classroom approach).

stop treating adults like children

Treat adults differently from children

But with adults, unless you’re an expert training a bunch of novices, there’s no excuse for deciding unilaterally “this is what you will learn today”.

Instead, frame the scope of the session, find out what people want to learn or discuss first, then create the session they want and need. Five minutes of Post It! for Sessions, described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing, is exactly what you’ll need for an in-person session. Or use this variant if you’re meeting online.

So, please stop treating adults like children at conferences. But with…

…one exception

Children play — and play is important at meetings. More precisely, creating the potential for meeting moments of what I’ve described as mystery, play, and the suspension of belief.

That doesn’t mean filling our events with children’s games, singing, and water and sand play tables. Though I remember a few conferences I attended where such activities would have made a distinct improvement.

Rather, consider including sessions involving improvisation, Serious Play, and creative group work that satisfy attendees’ actual wants and needs. And if someone brings bagpipes to your event, let’s dance the hornpipe! 

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?