Blog > Why do you go to conferences?

June 10, 2012

What does the word ‘conference’ conjure in your mind? The man sitting next to me on the couch is a scientist, so his view of conferences and mine vary enormously. As a facilitator, I get to attend many different types of events, and experience the different ways in which people interact. I also attend events as a participant, sometimes as an organiser, sometimes as a workshop leader, and facilitator, and occasionally as a keynote speaker.

Some of these events are called conferences, a word that seems to now to mean all things to all people – from the traditional academic conference with refereed and pre-prepared papers and posters through to the more recent trend in un-conferences, participant-led content and delivery. A conference then is not one thing. A common question on looking at conferences to attend or contribute to is ‘what type of conference is this?’

The ‘type’ of conference makes all the difference.

The latest trend is TED-talk type conferences – not only are there fully sanctioned TED conferences and TEDx conferences, organisers are providing opportunities for TED-type talks for all or part of the conference. And there’s conferences offering breakout sessions, master classes, deep conversations, interactivity, hands-on workshops, panels, hypotheticals, drumming – you name it.

There’s also Open Space Technology, Trampoline, and Barcamp type conferences – all grouped under the term ‘unconference‘ where the emphasis is on the participants and the style encourages participant-led discussions and workshops.

And everything in-between!

These thoughts, and many more, are on my mind as I prepare to host a conference here in Melbourne called Thriving In Uncertainty. It’s much easier to attend a conference than host one. Yet there are also benefits to hosting – for me, it’s an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of what a conference can be, to explore new ways of being together as a group under the banner ‘conference’, and to build new connections.

It’s 12 months this weekend since I attended Gathering 11, hosted by David Hood. Only 12 months. Goodness, so much has changed since then. Little did I know that that three-day conference in Melbourne would lead to all sorts of new directions, new friends, and new opportunities. A sliding door moment? Maybe.

Gathering 11 would be hard to categorise, and it’s to David’s credit that he’s willing to continue pushing the boundaries for this year’s Gathering 12 (September 21 – 24).  Get there if you can! (Sadly, I have another commitment on the same dates in another continent – can’t expect the planets to align all the time!)

Gathering 11 was the beginning of my little experiment to Show Up. Let Go. Jump In. based on my belief that the best way to approach anything new is to first of all turn up, then let go of expectations, and jump in – become involved in some way.

And I’m also reminded again and again of the very wise principles from Open Space which fundamentally influences my approach to conferences: whoever comes are the right people; whatever happens is the only thing that could have; when it starts is the right time; and, when it’s over, it’s over.

These principles remind me that no matter how much organising and preparation we do, fundamentally we’re dealing with people – living, breathing human beings with all their varying needs, wants, expectations and idiosyncrasies. Trying to please everyone is impossible.

So I’ll work on giving them an experience they’ll remember and creating opportunities for meaningful connections.

What are you looking for in a conference?

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