What is the purpose of a conference?


October 26th, 2015

IMG_2451“The best part of the conference are the breaks. I put up with all of the other stuff so as I can catch up with friends, and meet new people, during the breaks.”

I’ve heard variations of this over the years. I’ve even said it myself, though these days I’m less likely to spend the time and money, and ‘put up’ with the other stuff. I’ve attended, presented at and even organised different sorts of conferences from the tightly-controlled academic versions to experimental-type formats.

Asking people why they are not going to a conference – particularly if it is their annual ‘industry/professional’ conference, can be quite interesting. I’ve had this conversation with a few people recently and (recognising that this is not a legitimate survey and analysis, just some random thoughts) there’s a common theme emerging. It boils down to this: we want conferences to be radical, to challenge and to stretch us. We’re less likely to be interested in the conferences that reinforce existing practices and maintains the status quo.

And therein lies the problem – it’s risky, and if the (unexpressed) purpose of a conference is to get bums on seats and make money, then it’s better to give people what they expect, to not be too edgy.

This, of course, has been a dilemma felt by artists and performers forever. Continue to give audiences what has proven to work, or mix it up and take a risk with offending, or worse, alienating people? This is the challenge for performers – whether in the arts or in business or elsewhere – is around being liked. Everyone wants to be liked, everyone wants good reviews, awesome feedback, five stars – yet in the effort to achieve this, and please everyone, we do this by not taking chances.

Time, I think, to reclaim conferences as spaces for experimentation and discovery.

1 Comment so far

  1. Adrian Segar on October 26, 2015 5:38 pm

    I’ve spent the last 23+ years designing conferences like this, Viv. Conferences that are designed to support connection, discovery, and surprises that come out of process that turns the event into what the participants want and need. I described the process in my 2009 book “Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love”. Quite a few of these deisgns are being held in Australia (and many more all over the world which I don’t even hear about until, perhaps, years later.)

    I have a new book out — The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action — which provides a lot of tools and support for improving individual sessions, together. Its latest U.S. Amazon reviews gives an enthusiastic overview:

    “Let me start by saying this book completely transformed the way I organize, host, and participate in events. It’s darn near impossible to go back to the traditional, uninspired, and ultimately counter-productive event format after finding Adrian Segar’s far superior Conferences That Work and The Power of Participation models.

    What’s so great about this book and its philosophy? Well … once you get past the great historical context about how meetings/events got to be the mess they are, it’s pure practical gold.

    I love how Segar puts all the activities into the context of a conference arc – openers, middle, and closers – and breaks down when you’ll benefit most from a certain exercise, participant minimums or maximums before they become ineffective, and ready-to-use scripts that explain the exercises to a participant. From guidance on timekeeping, providing explicit ground rules (a.k.a. your “covenant”) for participants, how to facilitate and ask great questions, and more, this book really covers an amazing amount of ground.

    I put the framework and some of the activities to the test in a recent two-day SimpleREV event that I co-organized and co-hosted. My participants loved – *loved* – the opening Roundtable and the closing Personal Introspective. Our real-time feedback and event survey confirmed what we thought we were gambling on (but was really a sure thing): people felt more connected, better supported, and had outright more fun with The Power of Participation-sourced action.

    Whether you’re running a small corporate meeting or a large international conference, you’ll enjoy the planning and hosting better – and your attendees will be happily pushed outside their comfort zone – with the mindset and tools from this book.

    It seems unfathomable to me that anyone who reads this book and truly cares about a participant’s experience would ever organize a traditional meeting or event again. I know I’ll never look at events the same way … and I’ll certainly never run them the same way either.”
    —By Joel Zaslofsky on October 22, 2015 [no, I didi not pay him to write this]

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