Your Conference Audience Is Dead


It used to be that face to face presentations were one of the most important places people would go to get new, cutting-edge, critical information.

They would pay a conference registration fee, airfare, lodging and expenses to attend a conference just to get that new information.

But that has changed with the click of the mouse.

Information Is Ubiquitous

People no longer need to go to presentations to get information. They can “Google it.” Or “Bing it.”

They can get it from blogs, enewsletters, ezines, Facebook, LinkedIn, online reports, Scribd, Slideshare, Twitter or other websites. The thought that your organization has exclusive content that can’t be found elsewhere online is absurd and in denial.

Content is now dispersed across multiple platforms and our engagement with it is more fleeting. Our personal habits now control our flow of information. Our willingness to commit to 60- to 90-minute presentation to get a piece of critical information has decreased.

With the proliferation of information everywhere, audiences look for other things to do at your conference. They look for opportunities to become participants, to collaborate, to network and to share.

The Lecture Discriminates

The traditional didactic lecture is biased toward a specific subset of audience that wants to be passive. They want to listen to information. They have falsely believed that listening to a lecture is the best way to learn. Yet most of what they hear is quickly forgotten.

And the lecture dominates most of the conference schedule. Meeting professionals fill conferences with passive one-way dialogues where the person doing the most learning is the speaker. Organizers are prejudiced towards one-way information transfer, using an outdated model of yesteryear.

Most of today’s audiences aren’t willing to sit quietly acting as passive containers ready to be filled with wisdom from the stage. They are not singing, “Fill my cup, speaker. I lift it up speaker.”

The conference debate today does not center on whether the audience acts as active or passive spectators. Instead, the debate centers on the audience’s participation, their level of engagement, their contributions and their interactions.

Presentations Out, Participations In

People now pay a conference registration fee, airfare, lodging and expenses for the experience. They want to connect with others, share their know-how and learn from each other.

Today’s conference audiences want to be doers, not just consumers. They want to be active participants. They want to be part of the conference experience instead of watching from the sidelines.

Conference audiences ask, “When is the presentation, the PowerPoint monologue, the talking head, the panel dialogue the best fit for me? And when is the conversation, the two-way dialogue, the peer knowledge sharing better for me?”

They question, “Why can’t I have the best of both in my conference experience? Why can’t I have short conference presentations followed by conference conversations about that information?”

They are constantly adjusting their dials, their personal settings, their remote control from presentation to conversation, from passivity to engagement, from speaker-centric to peer-driven experiences.

As conference organizers, your challenge is finding the right balance between lecture-based presentations and audience participations.

Why do some audiences continue to sit and take it, even when they hate it? What steps should conference organizers take to balance presentations with participations?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
  1. Jason Hensel says:

    Great entry, Jeff. One thing I’d like to see more of is descriptions in conference guides letting attendees know if the session will be participatory or not.

    And why do they take it, you ask. Probably because for a lot of people, going to a conference is not only a chance to network, it’s also a chance to get out of the office. Sitting passively being lectured at is most often preferable to working.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I’m with you. Better education session descriptions that identify if the session involves audience engagement would definitely help.

      It’s also so sad that some people use their conference attendance as an excuse to get out of the office. I guess sitting passively, listening to a boring monologue does provide some type of escape to boring work. Just not for me!

      Thanks for reading and commenting Jason.

  2. James H. says:

    LOL at “Bing[ing] It”.

  3. Jeff Sands says:

    I totally agree. Facilitation fosters conversation and discussion and creates new ideas and thinking. Presenting only really “pushes” stuff out and doesn’t draw the listener in.

  4. Jeff, how I wish you were going to be joining the collaborative, participating particpants at Event Camp Vancouver in November – we are working to incorporate so many lessons from you and others and are so excited to see how this amps up the networking and ideally genders positive response from the participants. Thank you as always for your articulation of what is happening to and in our industry and how we need to evolve.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *