Conferences are about frameworks and participation

Jeff Jarvis’ rant the other day about conferences strikes a chord for me as I’m involved in speaking at quite a few during the next few months (see the links in the left-hand column).

I’m hoping they do not have some of the characteristics of what I saw at one or two events I participated in during 2005, my experiences of which I can sum up by paraphrasing Jeff:

Too many conferences suck. They’re too expensive. They are filled with boring panels. They are all about speeches and not about conversation and argument and learning and meeting. They don’t capture the expertise of the crowd. They enrich the organizers at the cost of both the “talent” and the “audience” […] often, the problem is that the interests of those who make conferences work – the people who fill it – are not aligned with the interests of the money behind conferences – the organizers and sponsors.

That really does sum up far too many conference, the typical corporate-type event where I often wonder why people have bothered to gather together after forking out a fortune in attendance fees and travel costs when it seems to me that no one really is engaged, or even cares.

Yet the real dilemma as I see it is not only about conference organizers, vested interests and the other criticisms (valid ones, to be sure) that Jeff squarely levels. It’s also about the willingness of those involved – speakers/presenters and delegates – to actually engage.

I agree with nearly everything Jeff says about what the format or structure of a conference should ideally be – what Jeff calls the ‘unconference’ – where a prime responsibility of the event organizer is to create the most effective framework that facilitates or enables all the people there to make the most of the environment that’s been created for them. And this includes things like blogs, RSS and wifi as well.

If that’s the organizer’s responsibility, then the speaker’s/presenter’s responsibility is to use that environment as his or her own framework to provide the means to stimulate engagement with the people who have showed up at the event. So that means things like no boring PowerPoints, no panels full of talking heads just having a nice little chat with each other, etc. You know the kind of thing I mean.

Instead, it means speakers and presenters who really do participate with their audience, making that audience an integral part of the session. In effect, everyone there is the panel or presentation where the (so-called) presenter or speaker is a conversation leader and focus former. Now there’s a convoluted label!.

Those attending have a responsibility, too – actively participate, not just sit there like glazed-eyed mute dummies where you can see the bodies are physically in the room but the minds are absent.

All of these things need to happen if any conference could be judged as even halfway successful. But I’m actually quite optimistic, at least about most of those events I’m involved in over the next few months as I can see many of the framework elements already being built by those who are doing the organizing.

And I’m pretty clear on my own responsibility.

4 thoughts on “Conferences are about frameworks and participation

  1. Isn’t the average adult attention span 20 minutes or something? I agree with you (and apparently a lot of other people) that participation is the missing key to many conferences. People generally enjoy sharing the knowledge that they’ve acquired over the years. Why else would we blog?
    I think it’s about time someone took a look at this “sharing” thing and brought it into a different context, like conferences. Why should conferences be limited to the expertise of one speaker when the room is filled with experts?
    I am currently a student, so I’ve only had the privilege of attending a couple of conferences through internships and other organizations. The entire process seems inefficient.
    I would have been upset about the $500 as well. There are improvements to be made in this area. Hopefully we will soon know this as the “old” way of doing things.

  2. Neville – I am so glad that you emphasized the responsibility of the audience. (I am on a responsibility kick lately, mostly about readers…) Too many times, the attendees are doing something else while they are there. Email, mainly. Or they are jumping up every 2 minutes to take a phone call.
    If people are going to pay good money to go to a conference, they should get the most out of it. And, yes, the presenters and organizers need to play and/or facilitate that kind of framework.
    As a program designer for a conference (NewComm Forum) I was leery of leaving things too open. I have stressed the participatory (and no powerpoint) aspects, while providing a strong framework that more resembles traditional, tracked conferences. This is because my experience with conferences has highlighted a significant lack of interest (or maybe it is fear?) in actually participating by the audience. I feared that leaving things too open ended would result less in chaos than in boredom as people sit around waiting for what comes next.
    I suspect we’ll see more and more experimentation in conferences as we figure out what works and what doesn’t. One thing I am getting a little tired of: 300-500 people in a room having a “conversation.” Make it 10-20 people in a room — then you can have a real dialogue. At least that’s my hope for the Forum!

  3. Good points, Emily, which go to the heart of what I do believe is the point here – responsibilities.
    Elizabeth, good point about email. I find it a bit disoncerting when you’re leading a session and many in the session are doing tjheir email. Illustratuive of two things : 1) The presenter and/or topic are not worth paying attention to, and 2) those doing their email are just rude. Mind you, they could be blogging which in my book is absolutely fine 😉
    Also a great point re experimentation. We are seeing that – think about the backchannel at Les Blogs last December, for instance.
    I’m looking forward to the Fourm next month. I’m certain this will undoubtedly be a place that demonstrates all the good things discussed here.

  4. Britblog Roundup # 51

    Yes! Yes! we’ve almost made it to a full year of these things! (Actually, would it be the 52 nd or the 53 rd that marked a year?) Get your nominations in for next week’s to britblog AT gmail DOT

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