Sometimes you meet someone again, perhaps someone you haven’t seen for a long time, and you connect through the eyes and you both know, in that moment, the love you have for each other. The love may be buried deep in one of you. Hidden under hard, seemingly impenetrable layers that have built up over the years. The moment is only a flicker and it’s gone—buried again. But in that moment you know.
When I was living in England in the 1960’s, finding a telephone number was cumbersome. Five huge telephone books, each requiring both hands to lift, sat in a cupboard in our hallway, with millions of alphabetized names and associated numbers in microscopic print. The books quickly became out of date and were updated sporadically. And, if you didn’t know the exact spelling, or had only an address, you were out of luck.
Books were a key way to obtain information. Wealthy families (not mine) purchased the Encyclopedia Britannica and proudly displayed the 24+ volumes on sturdy bookshelves. The local free library was a key resource. For current information, I could watch three TV channels and read several rather good print newspapers. For specialized information, I subscribed to, or read in the library, a bewildering variety of magazines and journals.
And, of course, I talked to people. My parents, my teachers, my friends, and, later, my professional colleagues were all valuable resources. I found my friends from face-to-face social events or through my work. Finally, if I needed to know more about a subject of interest, I would attend a conference and listen to papers delivered by experts in the field.
How I find information today
the rise of online has changed everything. I don’t remember the last time I consulted a paper telephone directory. Ten years ago I checked eBay to see if an Encyclopedia Britannica set was worth anything. Reluctantly, I ended up recycling the books, because no one wanted to buy them. Today, apart from a local paper and a few paper magazine subscriptions, online is where I find telephone numbers, email or physical addresses, and information on just about any subject that, in quantity and mostly quality, dwarfs the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
People are still a major resource for me, but the primary way that I first meet new people professionally these days is online, via a variety of social media, rather than an initial face-to-face encounter.
And, of course, these days I am a creator of conferences rather than a passive consumer of them. For me, a good conference is one where I can interact, connect, share, and learn with others, and can influence what happens at the event in a way that is useful and meaningful to me.
How the bountiful availability of online content changes events
Today there is amazing one-way content on the web. The internet is where we go for information about people, places, facts, processes, techniques, and solutions to problems. Our resources have migrated from cumbersome books and broadcast media to browsable indexed data servers in the internet cloud.
For face-to-face attendees, this makes vanilla delivery of content at events far less compelling.
In the future, people are not going to travel to your event to listen to a speaker they could watch streamed live, or as a recording at a time and place of their choosing. Providing a ten-minute opportunity for questions at the end of a presentation isn’t going to cut it either. Viewing one-way content over the internet is cheaper and more convenient for attendees. If broadcast content is mostly what you have to offer people will gravitate to obtaining it online; either from you or a competitor.
As a result, traditional events concentrating on the transfer of predetermined content from experts to a local audience are dying. I don’t know how long it will be before rigor mortis sets in. Perhaps some events will remain viable as training opportunities for novices, or as vehicles for CEUs to be awarded or certifications to be maintained. Over time, however, the majority of professionals who care about their profession and best use of their time will stop going to face-to-face events that don’t incorporate significant opportunities for connection, peer-to-peer sharing, and participant-driven sessions. And, no, a lunch and an evening social or two aren’t going to be enough any more. Instead you need to put opportunities for connection front and center of your events, because connection around content is becoming the most important reason that people attend face-to-face events.
Why you should care
In the fifteen months since my book on participant-driven conferences was published I have been amazed and delighted by the flood of interest from meeting professionals, peer communities, and business & association leaders. And I’ve also been disturbed. A common story I hear is of long-running conferences in trouble: conferences where attendance, evaluations, and consequent income are falling. The organizers who are contacting me have realized that the traditional conferences-as-usual models are not working like they used to. Attendees are starting to defect, or ask for something different. I’ve heard this story from professionals in many different fields.
In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before the importance of the shift in emphasis away from content towards connection at face-to-face events becomes apparent and generally accepted by the events community. As usual with industry trends, the people who recognize and respond well to them early will be the beneficiaries. Those who continue doing things the old way will lose out. If you’re not currently investigating ways to restructure your events to significantly increase attendee connections and participation, I recommend you start.
Do you see a trend of increased attendee dissatisfaction at traditional events? If so, why do you think it’s happening, and what are you doing about it?
There are three things conference attendees really want to know about each other.
Connections with people are formed by our experience with them over time. (Yes, Buddhists and Taoists, the present moment is our only reality, but we still experience it through the filters of the history and desires in our brains.) Besides learning about people we’re with through our direct experience, we discover more by listening to their descriptions of their past and present experiences and their hopes for the future.
That’s why the first thing that happens at Conferences That Work is a roundtable, where each attendee answers the following three questions (there are no wrong answers!) to the group:
How did I get here? (past)
What do I want to have happen? (present & future)
What experience or expertise do I have that might be of interest to others? (past & future)
As people, one by one, share these three things to know, they share their past, present, and future with everyone in attendance. Each person opens a window for others to see the timeline of their life more clearly. This sharing provides the foundation for connections to deepen during the conference that follows.
Long ago, when I was a British college student, I would set off to explore Europe each summer. There were no budget flights in those days, so I traveled by train. Some of my trips lasted days, but I loved the journey because of the people I met. I still remember the G.I. returning from Vietnam who’s now a Denver judge. The Belgium cabinet minister who tried for several hours to convert us to communism. And the cute Irish postgraduate student who…well never mind.
Now I live in the U.S. where trains are a rarity, at least in my part of the world. So I fly when it doesn’t make sense to drive. And I still enjoy striking up conversations with the stranger(s) sitting next to me. I’m not pushy—some people don’t want to talk, and that’s fine—but, more often than not, we end up exploring each other’s lives for a few hours. Over the last few years I remember, among others, the French airline executive who kissed me on both cheeks when we parted, the nun who visited prisoners and showed me years of correspondence, the fascinating sales director of a major internet hosting company, the lay ministry provider of counseling support for military families, and the British basketball agent who also owned a debt collection agency.
Some of these people shared intimate things about their lives during our time together. Things I doubt they shared with most of the people they worked with every day. They did this because we were never going to meet again. For a few hours, they were with the Stranger on the Airplane. And, of course, they were my Strangers on the Airplane, and sometimes I told them intimate things as well.
The Stranger on the Airplane during Conferences That Work
I’ve seen a similar thing happen at Conferences That Work. The intimacy is not as deep initially, because, I think, attendees are aware that they may meet another time if the conference is held again. On the other hand, if they do meet a sharer again, attendees have an opportunity to go deeper. I find it strange, yet enjoyable, to meet people once a year and expand my connection on each occasion in unforeseen ways.
In my experience, the majority of people (on airplanes and at conferences, at least) enjoy talking quite freely with strangers who they trust. Because the ground rules support a confidential, safe environment this potential of intimacy is present at Conferences That Work. I like that. How about you?
The first weeks of rehearsal of a new piece are not much fun. I don’t know the music well, and I’m not a great sight-reader. I usually spend a significant amount of time creating a soulless electronic version of my part. Precise tones with precise timings, which I share with my fellow tenors. I attend at least one two-hour rehearsal each week. All this work adds up to a large commitment of time and energy to the two, sometimes three, annual concert performances.
So, given the many other interests in my life, and the large number of attractive opportunities I reluctantly turn down, why do I choose to sing with the Concert Choir year after year?
Why I sing
Part of the answer is my pleasure, as the performance dates approach, of my ability to sing increasing competently at points in the music. Sometimes I experience singing beautifully. Even if it’s only a portion of a phrase that suits my vocal abilities. And feeling in harmony with the musical moment is emotionally satisfying.
But the major rush I, and probably all my fellow choristers, feel is the joy of creating. And being a part of, and sharing a beautiful musical experience with others. No one person alone, however talented, can bring our performance into being. To do so, our musical director, our soloists, our choristers, and our orchestra are all needed, and must collaborate effectively at many different levels.
At both performances this weekend, there were times when audience members were weeping.
The conferences I design and facilitate are not rehearsed, and what happens does not flow from a central musical score. But what the BCC performances and Conferences That Work share is the joy of connecting with others to create experiences that are meaningful, and sometimes profound.
I love being a part of both of these worlds.
And I hope you are lucky enough to be able to experience this connectedness in some way in your life.