Something is rotten in the state of meeting industry education

Something is rotten in the state of meeting industry education

Over the last five years I’ve heard increasing concern from the meeting professionals community about the deterioration of the quality of our national industry conferences. A recent thread on the MECO community (a great resource for meeting professionals since 2006) describes numerous recent basic logistical failings, and points to what I see as symptoms of fundamental problems with meeting industry associations at the national level.

In a nutshell, I think that our industry associations have become too focused on justifying their continued existence financially. They are neglecting their core mission of supporting and representing their members and association meeting attendees.

I’ll illustrate with the area where I have most experience: providing education at these meetings. In my opinion (and many other event professionals with whom I’ve spoken) the “educational” content at the national meetings these days is sub-par. I suspect it’s because the processes for choosing it are seriously flawed and completely opaque.

I’ve lost count of the conference session proposals I’ve made to meeting industry associations that have wound through multiple months-long steps only to be rejected at the last possible moment with no explanation and a boilerplate request to submit more next year. Meanwhile, it’s clear from a review of industry conference programs that employees of sponsors or trade show exhibitors give large numbers of presentations. Also solicited/accepted are keynote/motivational speakers. These folks get paid large fees and provide exciting presentations with, in my experience, little or no content of long-term value to the meeting attendees. (Think back to the big-name speakers you’ve listened to in the past and — be honest now — how many of them have changed your professional life in any significant way?) But their inclusion looks good on the promotional materials.

In my case, the demand for the meeting design and facilitation services I provide has been exploding. (In the first quarter of 2018, I’ve booked more business than all of 2017.) Most clients and meeting industry professionals have yet to experience how effective participant-driven, participation-rich design and facilitation can radically improve their meetings for participants and stakeholders alike. So there’s plenty of work yet to do, and not enough people experienced enough to do it.

Our industry conferences are the obvious places to provide this education.

My contributions to meeting education are Participate! workshops I design and lead which provide experiences that significantly improve how the participants design their meetings. They are, in my opinion, fundamental education; certainly on a par with the sessions we see at the annual conferences every year on “hot event items”, F&B trends, and meeting management. Yet experiential meeting design is not acknowledged at meeting industry conferences as an overlooked fundamental competency that needs to be offered on a regular basis. Rather, it’s seen as a “hot topic” that can be covered once and subsequently ignored.

In addition, industry associations have essentially given up paying for professional education at their events, preferring, it seems, to spend money on the big name players I mentioned above. These days, someone like me is lucky to be offered event registration and expense reimbursement. (Let alone any kind of token fee for the hours it takes to design and prepare a great session.) This further biases session submissions in favor of sponsors and corporations who are attending the event anyway for marketing purposes.

Many other independent meeting professionals I know who love our industry, are great presenters, and have unparalleled expertise on important perennial meeting education areas have told me about similar rejections. Most of us have pretty much given up submitting sessions as a result.

Some may see what I’ve written as sour grapes. I’ll only add that I’ve been an educator of one kind or another for forty years. There’s a large unmet need for what I and other experts do. And I’m frustrated that meeting associations, whose purported mission is serving our industry, stymie our offers to share our expertise with our fellow professionals.

What most schools don’t teach (and should)

First, watch the video above.

I learned to code at school when I was 15. No big deal? It was 1966. Learning to program a computer changed my life. Far more important than nearly everything else—facts I have long since forgotten—that I was “taught”.

Learning to code didn’t change my life because I could then make big bucks writing software—though my fourth career, as an IT consultant, was very kind to me. And the important truth of the video’s opening quote by Steve Jobs “Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer…because it teaches you how to think” isn’t the main reason my life was changed.

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Expressing Our Feelings In Public

A play, like a straight line, is the shortest path from emotion to emotion
—George Pierce Baker

Of course it’s O.K. to express your feelings at weddings and funerals. But when was the last time you heard someone talk about his or her feelings at a conference? When was the last time you did?

Last weekend I went to “Raising Our Voices”, a local theater gala by children, youth, and adults with disabilities. I got goose bumps and a little teary. And I finally figured out why this invariably happens when I watch kids theater.

Expressing Our Feelings
You see, when I was growing up my education emphasized thinking. Learning important facts and concepts and being able to apply them to solve problems led to high marks on tests. Getting the right answers, preferably quicker than anyone else, got me listed at the top of the graded class roster, displayed publicly on the school notice board twice a semester.

By contrast, time for understanding or expressing my feelings simply wasn’t allocated on the educational agenda. The only kinds of grading that occurred as a consequence of my emotions were the dramatic reprisals taken when I infrequently misbehaved. All of us in school had feelings, of course, and they greatly affected how and what we did. But we were never encouraged to talk about or explore them. It was repeatedly implied that being near the bottom of the class list would be shameful, without ever giving us any insight as to what shame was!

Over the years I’ve learned to be more in touch with my emotions. And so, when I see kids in a play, encouraged to display joy, anger, fear, guilt, shame, grief and all the subtle variants of these basic human emotions, I’m taken back to my youth, and the little child in me both rejoices and aches for what I missed out on: the childhood opportunity to express and share integral aspects of who we are that were part of the human psyche long before the development of analytical thought.

A wise therapist friend of mine once told me that he believes when you feel that ache of simultaneous joy and pain, healing is going on.

I think it’s important for conferences to offer a safe environment for attendees to share feelings that may come up during the event. Conferences That Work are designed to do this. The safety comes from agreed ground rules that explicitly give participants the right to speak their truth while promising privacy for anything that’s said.

I don’t want to give the impression that Conferences That Work are full of emoting attendees who rush to share their deepest feelings with anyone they can buttonhole. Far from it. I think I’ve seen more joy and passion at our sessions than at most other events I’ve attended, but, by and large, sharing about emotional issues doesn’t happen often.

But when feelings do surface, for example when people talk about difficulties they’re having in their workplace or their uncertainties surrounding a potential career or job change, I feel happy that our event supports and encourages them to do so. And from the feedback I’ve received, I know it’s important and empowering for the attendees who have the courage to express how they feel.

Have you felt safe to express your feelings at a conference? Do you think it’s appropriate and/or important to be able to do so? Under what circumstances? And what factors make it safer or harder for such sharing to occur?