Building the right conference

IMG_0982In 2005, spec homes—homes that builder start, and sometimes finish, before selling them—made up a quarter of the homes being built in the United States. Today, in the aftermath of the bursting of the housing bubble, almost no spec homes are being built. From 25% market share to 1-2% in just four years.

A traditional conference is like a spec home. The program is designed and built for you based on what a program committee thought people like you would want.

I don’t think the traditional conference market is going to implode like the market for spec homes. On the other hand, I’ve found during my eighteen years of experience running Conferences That Work that the best program committees predict only half the topics that participants at attendee-driven conferences actually request.

If conference organizers continue to believe they can predict what their attendees want to share, learn, and do at their conferences they may, at some point, experience the bursting of a bubble of their own.

Housing data from

Image attribution: / CC BY-SA 2.0

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: / 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.