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

transmit pre-planned content

Planners of traditional conferences assume that the primary purpose of conference sessions is to transmit pre-planned content.

The 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 can create interactive sessions with significant audience participation, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Presentations and panels are appropriate when we are training, and have expert knowledge or information to impart to others. But today we have a rich variety alternative methods to train adults. For example: reading books and articles, watching recordings of presentations, and searching for information and downloading answers on the Web.

What can you you not replicate at a face-to-face conference? The spontaneous conversations and discussions! So why do we still cling to conference sessions that transmit pre-planned content, employing 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

3 thoughts on “Unquestioned traditional conference assumption #2: Conference sessions should be used primarily to transmit pre-planned content.

  1. Adrian:

    You asked a great question: So why do we still cling to conference sessions that employ the one communication mode (one-to-many) for which a variety of alternatives can substitute?

    I think there are several reasons why:
    1) Status quo
    2) That’s the way we’ve alwasy done it.
    3) It’s easier.
    4) We are trying to control the audience and the message.
    5) We don’t know how to do it differently.
    6) We are usually taught and well trained regarding logistics, not effective communication strategies and human nature.

    In today’s world of Web 2.0, social media networking platforms, people want to engage with each other and engage with the content. We, as conference and event professionals, do a great disservice to our attendees by trying to cram them into one-to-many ballroom and breakout sessions all day. We need to learn new ways of being a connection catalyst and conduit for our attendees instead.

  2. Jeff’s comment when you first posted this remains relevant. I would add, a bit cynically, another option which I see in Australia. There are people who go to a conference with low expectations and little commitment, mainly because they see it as a good excuse to be away from the desk. They get the permission to take paid leave because they will be exposed to some speaker (the same unquestioned assumption that ‘exposure’ is somehow good for you, unlike radiation). For these folks, being talked at is kind of OK. If you took away the pre-planned talk (which I support 101%) they are not necessarily going to turn up. This is sad but also true, at least round where i stomp.

    1. Right Stephen, I describe this response in my book. There will nearly always be conference attendees present who are there as a respite from their work or because they are expecting the traditional “education” they have been exposed to in the past. What is cool about the Conferences That Work format is that many of these attendees get turned on to participant-driven event designs once they’ve experienced a good one. Based on many years of evaluations, about 2% of attendees do not like participant-driven formats. I’m happy that ~98% are in the very satisfied – ecstatic range.

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