Our conferences need less information and more meaning!
Information is cheap and easy to find. Meaning is difficult to acquire!
Finding Answers Is Easy
Google created a program to crawl the entire Internet, collect data and index all the answers. They got us to ask questions. Then they created a map that connected those questions and the data they indexed.
Now finding answers and information is easy. The arduous part is making meaning of those answers.
Information Is Cheap
Conferences that provide information dumps are quickly becoming nothing more than outdated and expensive ways to distribute information. Attendees can find most of that conference content online. And usually it’s free.
For the majority of conference attendees, the point is not to gather information but to make sense of the information we already have.
Industry novices may try to gather as much information as possible to take back to their jobs. Unfortunately, they forget the majority of that information by the time they get on the plane to return home. After attending a couple conferences, they realize that gathering information by itself does not really serve them well. It needs to be the right information that solves their problems. And just because they have the information doesn’t mean they understand it. They need to make meaning of that information as well.
Meaning Is Expensive!
“We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives,” George Dyson.
Do you remember the 1980’s Wendy’s commercial starring the actress Clara Peller? She was given a hamburger that had a massive bun and a small patty. Peller then exclaimed, “Where’s the beef?”
Many of today’s conference attendees leave your event metaphorically exclaiming, “Where’s the beef?” They feel that they heard lots of information but didn’t extract any meaning from it. The conference content was severely lacking for them.
Your Conference Needs To Create More Meaning
The challenge for conference organizers is twofold:
- Does the content answer attendees’ tough questions?
- Are attendees given the time to make meaning from the content?
We have to curate the proposed content and align it to attendees’ problems. Then we have to design experiences to help attendees make meaning from that content.
Our brains are meaning-driven. In order for us to learn something, we have to be given time to connect the new information to our past knowledge and experiences.
We have to stop talking at conference attendees and allow them to talk to each other. This requires a fundamental shift in the traditional didactic conference lecture. We have to give more time to attendees reflecting, thinking about and considering the content before dispensing more information.
Shorter sessions are not the answer if they don’t provide dedicated time to discuss the topic. Longer sessions with more time devoted to audience participation can work. Ultimately, the conference organizer can no longer be a glorified scheduler of speakers. We have to become designers of meaning-driven experiences.
Why is meaning-making so important to the conferences? What are some things conference organizers can do to create more meaning-making experiences?
Traci Browne says
I’m 100 percent with you on this Jeff. I recently spoke at a conference where there were over 200 sessions available, yet the attendee could only go to a max of 13. I took a quick look at all the sessions available and there actually was very little variety. Topics were very general and attendees had only 1.5 hours to get what could only be an overview in that amount of time. Where is the value in that?
Big problems are not solve in an hour and a half. Big issues cannot be tackled in just one short sitting. I skip the sessions completely at these types of conferences if I attend the conference at all. I’m tired of feeling like a pinball being bounced from one topic or idea to another and not coming out of it with any new information.
Jeff, fantastic. You know I can agree more. What I would love you to do is to look at our trade body in the UK and see their annual conference. And then post a review of that? Would you be up for that?
justin locke says
well jeff i agree with you of course, but let me add “meaning” to that 🙂
in my view, the average conference replicates a familiar and even nostalgic experience of “going back to school.” i have actually seen people that I call “knowledge junkies,” in that they feel connection to the institution via their role as a consumer of textbook form information, as in “100 ways to [etc.]” (after 16+ years in classrooms, it is understandable that people might be homesick for it.)
one possible fix: in the dance world, while we have weekend “conferences” (actually multiple 1-hr workshops and massive social dancing), there is also something called the “weekend intensive,” in which one instructor does 12 hours of lecture/demo over 3 days.
as a presenter, you and i know that one hour is only enough time to effectively impart / process maybe one big epiphany, and most of that hour is spent establishing trust and common vocabulary. i would love a format where i could do one big intro show and then offer a series of session “intensives” for those drawn to deeper study of the content i offer. – jl
Jeff Hurt says
So much of conference content is about surface recognition and rarely deep knowledge. Veterans like yourself want deep knowledge and interaction.
Thanks for continuing the conversation too.
H-m-m…actually posting a review of a UK trade group? that might get me into trouble. 😉
Thanks for adding meaning and context to your comment. I think intensives and immersive events are one way to go deeper into content…they can be emotionally overwhelming as well. Thanks as always for reading and commenting.