Unquestioned traditional conference assumption #4: Conferences are best ended with some event that will hopefully convince attendees to stay to the end.

Four assumptions #4 FinnishHow to end a conference? Trainings and conferences that professionals must attend to maintain certification can close with the triumphant presentation of certificates of completion or attendance, but other traditional conferences have no such obvious conclusion. All too often, the conference finale is manufactured: an awards ceremony, a closing keynote, a fancy dinner, a raffle, a celebrity speaker, or some combination thereof.

The reason for this artificiality is simple: Traditional conferences that are not training-oriented don’t provide any kind of progression through their theme. The sequence of session topics is guided by logistical, political, and speaker availability considerations, rather than logical flow. One session doesn’t follow from another. Such a conference doesn’t have a beginning; how can we expect it to have an end?

Some conferences dispense with the pretense of closure. This at least is honest, though the effect of “transmit content, go home” is somewhat blunt.

In contrast, peer conferences provide a progression, not through content, but through process designed to increase attendee connections as the conference proceeds. Two closing spective sessions, personal and group, build on the generated intimacy to provide a powerful and appropriate conference ending.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ilike/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Unquestioned traditional conference assumption #3: Supporting meaningful connections with other attendees is not the conference organizers’ job.

People are impressed when I tell them that on arrival, peer conference attendees are immediately given a printed face book (that’s face book: small f, two words) that includes photographs, names and contact data, and additional pertinent information about each participant.

Adrian face book

They tell me that it’s rare to receive such a document at conferences. How sad that conference organizers don’t bother to provide this basic tool for learning about fellow attendees. (Perhaps it’s not too surprising, since an attendee face book is not mentioned in any book on conference management I’ve read.) The absence speaks volumes about the lack of support for participant interaction at traditional conferences.

Typically, conventional conference support of connections between attendees is limited to providing meals and social events where people can mingle. Attendees are left to their own devices to learn who else is at the conference, to seek out interesting people, and to introduce themselves to others. All these barriers must be surmounted before conversations and discussions can occur. Consequently, attendees who are new to a conference are disadvantaged compared to the old-timers who already know other participants, reinforcing the formation of cliques.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Actively supporting useful attendee connections is an integral part of every peer conference. When the information, openings, and opportunities needed to meet like-minded attendees are provided, not only during session breaks but also as part of the formal conference structure, it becomes attendee-centered rather than session-centered, greatly increasing the intimacy and enjoyment of the event.

Unquestioned traditional conference assumption #2: Conference sessions should be used primarily for transmitting pre-planned content.

VITTA annual conference 2006The three communication modes used among a group of people are one-to-one (individual conversations), one-to-many or broadcast (presentations and panels), and many-to-many or conferring (discussions). Traditional conference sessions are predominantly one-to-many, with perhaps a dash of many-to-many at question time.

One-to-one conversations are infinitely flexible; both participants have power to lead the conversation along desired paths. Many-to-many conversations are powerful in a different way—they expose the participating group to a wide range of experience and opinions.

In contrast, one-to-many communication is mostly pre-planned, and thus relatively inflexible if the presentation involves a passive audience. At best, a presenter may ask questions of her audience and vary her presentation appropriately, but she is unlikely to get accurate representative feedback when her audience is large. Some presenters are skilled at creating interactive sessions with significant audience participation, but they are the exception.

Presentations and panels are appropriate when we are training, and have expert knowledge or information to impart to others. But with the rise of alternative methods for adults to receive training—reading books and articles, watching recordings of presentations, downloading answers on the Web—what can’t be replicated at a face-to-face conference is the conversations and discussions that occur. So why do we still cling to conference sessions that employ the one communication mode for which a variety of alternatives can substitute?

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/plakboek/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Unquestioned traditional conference assumption #1: Conference session topics must be chosen and scheduled in advance.

complex conference scheduleOne of the questions I asked when interviewing conference attendees for my book was:

“Most conferences have a conference schedule and program decided in advance. How would you feel about a conference where, at the start, through a careful conference process, the attendees themselves determine what they want to discuss, based on what each person wants to learn and the experience each attendee has to share?”

Forty-five percent of my interviewees were unable to conceive of a conference that did not have a schedule of conference sessions decided on and circulated in advance.

The most common response was that the interviewee wasn’t sure she’d want to go to such a conference without knowing what was going to happen there.

The next most common response was that the idea sounded great/interesting/intriguing, but the interviewee had no idea of how one would create a relevant conference program at the start of the conference.

Suspend disbelief for a moment, and assume that at the start of a conference it is somehow possible to use available resources to create a conference program that reflects actual attendee needs. Imagine attending such a conference yourself, a conference tailored to your needs. (You might want to reflect on how often this has happened for you.) Wouldn’t it be great?

What is the origin of the assumption that a conference program must be pre-planned? Perhaps it arose from our experience of learning as children, from our teachers in school who knew or were told what we were supposed to learn following a pre-planned curriculum. Certainly, if one thinks of conferences as trainings by experts, a pre-planned schedule makes sense. But conferences are for adult learners, and adults with critical thinking skills and relevant experience can learn from each other if they are given the opportunity. We’ll see that there are ways of putting conference attendees in charge of what they wish to learn and discuss. But this cannot be done effectively if a conference’s program is frozen before attendees arrive.

The peer conference model described in Conferences That Work does indeed build a conference program that automatically adjusts to the actual needs of the people present. Read the book to find out how.

Four unquestioned assumptions of a traditional conference

No mistakesFour unquestioned assumptions lurk behind the traditional conference format—assumptions so deep-seated that they go unquestioned by most conference organizers. These assumptions embody, and consequently help perpetuate, a distorted and outdated way of thinking about conference purpose and structure, leading to a conference model that, according to a majority of the people I interviewed for Conferences That Work, does not well serve conference attendees.

Here are the assumptions:

  1. Conference session topics must be chosen and scheduled in advance.
  2. Conference sessions should be used primarily for transmitting pre-planned content.
  3. Supporting meaningful connections with other attendees is not the conference organizers’ job; it’s something that happens in the breaks between sessions.
  4. Conferences are best ended with some event that will hopefully convince attendees to stay to the end.

Over the next few weeks I’ll examine these assumptions individually and explain why they lead to conferences that don’t work as well as they could.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/un-sharp/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0