Why Your Conference Rots: It Is Just Like School

Pommes pourries - Rotten apples

What’s wrong with your conference? It’s just like school!

Most conference education has adopted bad baggage from America’s education system.

Every conference organizer was brainwashed for twelve or more years that our education system works. Every conference host is convinced that education only occurs with a subject matter expert at the front of the room lecturing to a group of silent passive listeners. Every conference executive thinks that their customers learn the same way they do.

Unfortunately, they are dead wrong!

What’s Wrong With Traditional Education?

What’s wrong with traditional education? It’s failing miserably. America’s education system is lagging terribly behind the rest of the world. It is a remnant of a long-gone era.

The result? Upward social mobility is declining. Participants of Occupy Wall Street protest because our inequality gap widens. Climbing the social ladder is no longer the American dream.

Consider the following outdated education methods:

  • The factory model reigns with students treated as products on an assembly line where information is dumped in their heads through their ears resulting in learning. (Not!)
  • Hearing is the best way to learn. (False!)
  • Subject matter experts (SMEs) are the source of all right answers. (So wrong!)
  • Critical thinking and group problem solving is considered cheating. (It’s how today’s work gets done.)
  • Schools are in a safe bubble, protected from the real world guaranteeing that they are out of touch with reality. (Disconnected relevancy.)
  • Teachers coerce students to memorize facts to pass standardized tests instead of motivating them to learn. (What’s in it for me?)

Unfortunately, our conferences mimic traditional education.

Time For Conference Change

It’s time to break out of the traditional conference education mold. It’s time to focus on what it takes to foster real learning!

It’s time to:

  1. Conceive education experiences that are multisensory where attendees take in information through hearing, seeing, writing, discussing, imagining, reflecting, participating and teaching others. Not just passively listening.
  2. Enable attendees to connect with and learn from each other.
  3. Dedicate time for reflection, thinking and discussion on the conference schedule.
  4. Design education experiences for meaningful peer conversations about specific relevant issues.
  5. Move beyond the traditional “grab as many business cards, meet as many people” networking sessions to engaging, structured, intentional peer connections.
  6. Devise learning experiences where people work in small groups to problem solve together.
  7. Create engaging education experiences that capture learners’ attention.
  8. Move from monologues to facilitated education experiences.
  9. Hire experienced professional educators to create meaningful, education that sticks.
  10. Provide simulations where attendees can practice new skills or review the knowledge they have acquired.
  11. Construct sessions where attendees can summarize what they have learned, evalute it, celebrate it and create action plans for how they plan to use it.

What would you add to the list of things conferences should change? Why are conference organizers resistant to change?

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  1. Adrian Segar says:

    Jeff, of your list of 11 good conference changes, 1-8 & 11 perfectly describe EventCamp East Coast, which I’m returning from (sitting at gate B62 at IAD) as I write this.

    I haven’t found that #9 is necessary. For traditional presentation-heavy sessions, yes, but that’s not what happens at a peer conference.

    I love simulations (#10)—they are a great way to provide an effective learning environment—but, of course, they need to be prepared in advance so are rarely seen at Conferences That Work.

    As I think you know, my #12 would be giving the conference participants the power and support to create the conference sessions that they want, not ones that “experts” think they want. But I’m not sure that you and I will ever agree about this addition-though I wish you’d come and experience this approach at one of my events rather than dismissing it—I think you’d love how we do #11.

    Best wishes, as always,


  2. Great insights here. Question for you:

    How can your average Conference Content Programming Director feel comfortable proposing an event to his/her company if:

    a. There is no guarantee that people will register. (We already have solid registration now).

    b. Your sales team isn’t sure how to sell it without marquee names. (This is especially problematic if the content organization is separate from the sales team), and

    c. Without seeing marquee names of equal stature, why would c-suite attendees sign up to come? If you are a c-suite person, don’t you only go if you feel certain other c-suite people will be there?

    Thanks for considering my questions.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and commenting. Research by VCC and Tagoras in Fall of 2011 found that two-thirds of meeting professional respondents do not believe that marquee names sell conference or event registration. If you are trying to sell a conference to your boss, you need to do your homework first. Questions to consider are: Who is the audience for the conference? What problems are you helping potential attendees resolve? Who are the potential competitors? How large is the market for that conference? Who are the economic buyers for the conference–the attendee or their boss? What are the goals of the conference?

      Ultimately, you should marketing the conference according to what potential attendees value. You can’t use a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy here.

      C-suite executives don’t judge conferences based on marquee name speakers. They judge them based on the learning outcomes and what attendees will learn.

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