Are you perpetually wounding your conference attendees with a one-way controlled experience that demands obedience over engagement?
Do you view your attendees as a threat that can disrupt the controlled conference experience that you have designed?
Enforcing Obedience Over Engagement
I was reading the March/April 2012 Harvard Education Letter on school culture by Meira Levinson. Her words stung deep and pricked my soul. The more I read, the more I felt her words were prophetic about conferences as well. I’ve paraphrased what she wrote and applied it to the conference institution.
Many conferences, especially those that are programmed and run by committees, leaders and staff that feel the need to control the experience, model civic disrespect. They demand that their attendees practice submissive obedience by sitting down, shutting up and keeping their eyes on the speaker at all times. Attendees are only allowed to ask questions at the end of the session in a very small time frame. Conference hosts and organizers require this submissive obedience over empowered engagement.
Conference hosts and their leaders enact a continuous series of civic microaggressions against their attendees as they demand this obedience. These regular but unacknowledged mini-invalidations of conference adults as civic persons worthy of respect are often barely noticeable to their victims–and usually totally invisible to their perpetrators.
Together, these infractions against engagement and for obedience can cumulatively erode the self-confidence and self-image of those that attend the event. Attendees experience an ongoing parade of microassults as they learn “their place” and “what’s expected of them from the conference host organization.”
The conference hosts model that attendees are seen as interchangeable, just one of a mass. They distrust multiple voices and diversity outside of their selected and approved speakers. Attendees therefore develop habits of self-preservation and practice disempowering relationships, norms and behaviors.
Conference hosts and organizers try to minimize transition time and frown upon speakers who request more collaborative room sets that allow attendees to interact and move about in the room. We line up attendees in theater room sets like cans on grocery store shelves. We supervise their actions and give them the mean look if they use mobile devices, move their chairs or disturb the order we create.
The Conference Civic Empowerment Gap
We have sent silent messages to our conference attendees that we distrust them by fostering one-way conference experiences to be consumed. In trying to control our attendees, we are telling them how much we doubt their ability to self-regulate and deny their potential to add to the experience.
As long as our conference organizers and hosts think that calling a person to serve as a speaker is how to plan education, the more we demand attendee obedience over engagement. As long as our conference leaders think education design is about securing several panelists to talk to at our attendees the more we do our attendees a disservice. This MUST stop! And if you think providing conference education is just about scheduling speakers, you are 100 percent wrong.
We have been caught in vicious cycle planning each conference the same way we did last year. We have exacerbated the beliefs that our attendees are not responsible civic persons able to engage with others effectively to discuss content and issues.
In short, we have fostered the civic empowerment gap. We have told our attendees that their views don’t matter and to accept as truth the view from the front of the stage.
It’s time for conference hosts and organizers to be more intentional, reflective and transparent. It’s time to flip this outdated conference model. We have to authentically realize that our attendees bring a tremendous amount experience, knowledge and wisdom to our events. And we must design experiences where they become participatory and have empowered engagement!
How can we help organizers and conference hosts realize that their need to control is actually an infraction on attendees’ civic engagement? What steps should we take to encourage attendee empowered engagement?