The 21st Century Conference Attendee Bill Of Rights

Image by szczel

Here is the heart of why most people attend conferences: learning.

Learning about others. Learning new ideas through collaboration and problem solving. Learning what has worked. Learning solutions to our problems. Learning current trends and research to further our careers.

Learning is the heartbeat of today’s world. Stop learning and you stop progression, and business is dead in its tracks. Stop learning and you become stagnant like a cesspool.

Learning is also the pulse in business: doing it better, faster, cheaper and disrupting the old ways to find new business. It is the drumbeat for entrepreneurship and growth.

According to ASAE’s research for The Decision To Learn, people rate professional development and education, second only to access to up-to-date information, as the most important role the association plays in their industry profession. Learning is what drives people to join an association.

What Drives Adults To Learn?

According to The Decision To Learn, the driving extrinsic motivation for adults to learn is to increase their job status which then increases their income and social standing in their chosen profession. Knowing the latest research and how to apply it opens up new opportunities for career advancement. Learning is important to a better life.

The driving intrinsic motivation for adults to learn is a general sense of accomplishment. In order to feed their personal passions about subjects that they have limited knowledge or experience, adults want solutions to their real-world problems and issues. And they want those solutions provided in provocative learning formats, not the standard boring talking heads.

Unfortunately, sometimes conference programming gets in the way of learning. Poor content, bad speakers, outdated information, lack of engagement can all be barriers to learning.

The 21st Century Conference Attendee Bill Of Rights

We invest money, time and energy to attend conferences. We arrive with a set of specific expectations. Since learning is the driving force behind conference attendance, and our extrinsic motivation is to move up the employment ladder to a better life, we expect the best from our conference experience. Here is the new 21st Century Conference Attendee Bill Of Rights to embrace learning and meet our expectations.  

1.  The Right To A Social Learning Experience

Learning is social. Learning is about more than the process of acquiring knowledge. It requires that adults get the chance to reflect, think and discuss new facts, figures and pragmatic applications. Requiring adults to sit in education sessions for three- to six-hours a day and only listen to talking heads lessens the social experience and learning.

2. The Right To Choose Freely

We have a right to free choice among conference learning opportunities. We prefer a variety of options of topics and speakers. If the scheduled education content does not fit our needs, we have a right to choose to talk with others in the hallways instead of attending the sessions.

3. The Right To Participation And Engagement

The depth of our learning depends on the depth of our engagement. Information dumps pass through one ear and out the other as our brains can’t retain it. Engagement is joined at the hip with empowerment. Force us to sit passively for six- to eight-hours and we lose our ability to learn and feel a lack of empowerment.

4. The Right To Be Problem-Centric Instead Of Content-Oriented

We come to conferences with a set of real-world problems and issues we need solved right now. We don’t want content and information that might be needed in the next six months. We have pressing issues now. Planning and securing conference topics eight to twelve months before the conference helps you be efficient for planning but does not suffice. That ensures that the content is outdated and has expired, unless its evergreen information that is the same from year to year.

5. The Right To Decide How To Learn It

We have a right to decide if we want to sit passively and listen to a talking head, engage in round table discussions or participate in informal learning by talking to others in hallways and lounges. Give us options, sometimes even about the same topic but provided in different learning formats.

6. The Right To Take Our Own Learning Into Our Own Hands

If we are not learning through the conference programming, we will take learning back into our own hands. We no longer feel that we must sit quietly out of respect for your choice of poor speakers or content. We paid to be there. We will not let poorly delivered content, bad information or sour speakers hijack our learning. Our learning is too important. We will leave the room if it does not meet our needs.

7. The Right To Embrace The Law Of Two Feet (Also Known As The Law Of Motion)

We have a right to exit education opportunities that don’t meet our needs. We have a right to seek learning elsewhere. The mass exodus from the room is a clear sign to the speaker that they something missed the mark.

When we purchase a ticket to a movie or play, and it is poorly done, we leave early. If the sports game is going south and our team is being creamed, we leave early. If the restaurant food is bad, we complain to the manager and if they don’t fix the problem, we leave. We are consuming your conference experience and if it doesn’t meet our learning needs, we will leave…and may not return next year.

8. The Right To Exciting Content And Speakers

Our brains are hard-wired to not pay attention to boring things. We can’t change that. We have a right to expect that you are providing stimulating content from electrifying speakers.

What other attendee rights would you add to this list? Which right resonates with you most and why?

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  2. Lisa Junker says:

    Great post, as always, Jeff!

    I do have one quibble/motion to amend, though: In item 7, you say “The mass exodus from the room is a clear sign to the speaker that they missed the mark.” I agree that sometimes that’s the case–but sometimes the problem isn’t the speaker so much as the description of the session provided to participants. The speaker may be doing a great job, but if you really wanted information on basketweaving and in fact the speaker is talking about pottery, you’re likely to get up and leave.

    Of course, the fault for a poor description can lie in several different places. But from the event organizer perspective, I think we need to reign in the natural tendency to try to bring in the widest possible audience and instead focus on session descriptions that bring in the right audience for that speaker.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Totally agree with you and I like your amendment! Perhaps I should have written that the mass exodus from the room is a clear sign that “something” missed the mark. The description, the speaker, the content. Excellent point and thanks for adding it.

      Thanks for reading and adding your insight. I would say the exciting content and speakers is actually in the eye of the mind. As neuroscientist John Medina’s Brain Rule #4 says, We don’t pay attention to boring things.” Since it is a proven, researched fact that our minds ignore boring things, I think we have a right to expect exciting content and speakers. I do not think it is setting up a conference organizer for a failure at all. It can be done. We expect movies, plays, meals and other items we consume and pay for to be exiciting. I think we have a right to expect it a conference too. IMO, if it’s not exciting, I’m not paying to attend.

  3. Adrian Segar says:

    Morning Jeff!

    Super content, beautifully expressed.

    One nitpick. I agree with your bill of rights——but #8 doesn’t fit with the rest.

    #1-7 are powerful rights that are freedoms given to attendees. They are freedoms concerned with conference process. My Conferences That Work design gives these freedoms through explicit ground rules (see

    #8 is obviously desirable, but exciting content and speakers are in the eye of the beholder. I may be riveted at a session, while the attendee next to me is completely bored. Positing a “right” to exciting content and speakers is invariably setting up every conference organizer for failure.

    I was in a Twitter chat yesterday, where the subject of Southwest Airlines’ “chief apology officer” was discussed. Some people on the chat ridiculed the idea, saying that SWA should prevent problems from arising in the first place. That’s an unrealistic position, just as a right that a conference will always have exciting content and speakers is going to be an unrealistic expectation for some (hopefully a small minority) of attendees, some of the time.

  4. Solid post! Now it needs the “responsibilities of the learner” list. If in fact we agree with the statement “the driving extrinsic motivation for adults to learn is to increase their job status which then increases their income and social standing in their chosen profession” then learning is truly a partnership. We as attendees must assume responsibility for our role as learners. To me that means I must also challenge the speakers, participate fully in the sessions, respond to event evaluations, actively engage in crowdsourcing and input on the front end, come into a room with an open mind and active desire to find that useful bit in the session.

    Helping learners understand their resp I think is a right. So maybe I’m also thinking there’s a #9 to your list something like #9: The right to be coached on getting the most out of a conference.

    But then the list would need a #10 ‘cuz 9 is just well unfinished feeling 🙂

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great addition to the list Peggy: The right to be coached on getting the most of the conference. Now about number 10? 😉

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