Five Reasons to Change Conferences

Here’s my article Five Reasons to Change Conferences, published in the December 2018, NSA Speaker magazine.Five Reasons to Change Conferences


Five Reasons to Change Conferences

Peer sessions provide greater connection around content

The most important reason 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. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members and no connection around lecture content. Here are five reasons why.

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It became necessary to destroy the conference to save it

It became necessary to destroy the conference to save it

Destroy the conference to save it

When mistaken beliefs about methods and outcomes harden into dogma, harm follows. The professional meeting industry largely believes that:

We don’t have to make the same mistakes we made in Vietnam. We know how to design conferences that maximize just-in-time active learning, productive engagement, relevant connection, and successful outcomes.

But if we continue to try to save conferences by keeping them the way they’ve always been, we’ll continue to destroy the conference to save it.

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!

Conferences need to be flexible!

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Conferences need to be flexible!

We are informed about conferences by email, we arrive by airplane, and we gaze at fancy PowerPoint presentations, but, year after year, over a hundred million people experience a conference process that has changed very little since the 17th century.
Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love

We need to make our conferences flexible. We need an exercise program for our events. Why? Here are three reasons.

1) Broadcast-style presentations are moving online

We spend over one hundred billion dollars every year on conferences. And this figure does not include the value of attendees’ time. We routinely spend these huge amounts of money and time to bring people together to meet face to face. Only to feed them a program that was determined six months before. What is the point?

These days, real-time content can be shared online as soon as it’s available. It’s no longer necessary to waste time and money flying people to a common physical location where they then sit and listen to predetermined presenters. Online videos and webinars can handle known and/or mandatory content distribution efficiently and at much lower cost.

So what can we do at face-to-face conferences that we can’t do well online? Provide on-the-fly learning and connection opportunities that take maximum advantage of the people in the room!

2) Human knowledge is exploding

The current explosion of knowledge and, hence, associated conference topics, is driving a need for flexible conference approaches that can handle the increasingly complex and faster paced real-time needs of today’s attendees. This is just-in-time learning. Surprisingly, there are effective and tested ways of putting attendees in charge of what they wish to learn and discuss. But you cannot give conference participants opportunities to determine what they wish to learn and discuss if you freeze your program before they arrive.

3) How we need to learn has changed

The final significant trend inexorably shaping adult learning is that adults now only learn about ten percent of what they need to know to do their jobs formally: in the classroom or at meeting presentations. Ninety percent of relevant adult learning today is informal; supplied through on-the-job experience and practice, connections with our peers, and self-directed learning.

Conferences—where attendee peers come together at one time and place—are the perfect place to create a rich environment for informal peer learning. We can’t continue to waste this opportunity with the rigid pre-determined sessions of the past. Instead, we need to set up opportunities for relevant peer learning to flourish in the sessions themselves.

Exercise flexibility for a healthy event

All conference organizers know the truism that to keep people coming to your events you need to provide an experience that meets their needs. Unfortunately, many believe that this is just a question of providing the “right content”. Not any more! Truly successful events these days need to provide the right environment and formats for desired and appropriate learning and connecting to flourish.

You can respond to this challenge by adopting participant-driven and participation-rich meeting formats and techniques that adapt to the unpredictable, individual, and constantly changing requirements of today’s attendees. This exercise, while perhaps a little painful to start, will keep you and your events flexible. Remember, the quicker you start, the healthier your events will become!

Photo attribution: Flickr user theloushe