Is Your Conference Wounding Its Attendees?

Why so serious, Gordon?

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?

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  1. Jeff,

    This post is spot on. Especially when looking at corporate events, organizers and event managers often do expect guests to follow their carefully laid-out plans. And you definitely hit the nail on the head when pointing out that room layout often discourages interaction and mobility among attendees.

    I, however, do believe the industry is slowly heading in the ‘right’ direction. Step by step – baby steps maybe:

    I see an increase in organizations that are more and more trying to facilitate interaction at conferences, and smaller corporate events. Focus is not only networking among attendees, but also interaction with speakers – the experts ‘from the front of the stage’ you mentioned.

    When I look at the work of colleagues, and read posts in industry groups, I do see creativity when it comes to new ideas for interactivity: break-out sessions, integration of twitter walls for Q&A sessions, Facebook competitions, a picnic with strangers during lunch breaks, virtual goodie bags, immediate feedback opportunities via integrated apps, video walls, etc.

    All these measures require interaction of attendees that can’t be dictated by event organizers or by the hosting institution. Interaction in these instances can and should merely be encouraged.

    I believe the notion of interactivity has come to the forefront in the past few years, on the heels of hybrid events and social media integration taking off not only in the US but worldwide.

    In many cases the desire to increased interaction, and immediate feedback circles is not ignited in the sponsoring organization by the realization of the vast advantages allowing attendees to interact and share their views brings. Often if is simply the general notion that today no event can be successful without a social component.

    For us event organizers, that’s where our job begins. We have to point out the importance of two-way communications to our clients. We have to show the value a relationship that is built by an organization listening to their target groups has. And we have to make clear that pretending to listen is different than providing active and immediate feedback during a face-to-face interaction that’s possible at meetings and conferences.

    I believe that when we succeed, we will see 15-minute presentations followed by 45-minute discussions; Rather than the other way around.

    When we succeed, we will see comments contributed via social media being acknowledged by those on stage. Immediately.

    And above all, when we succeed, we will see conference attendees feeling good about the conference experience they helped shape.

    Again, thanks for this inspiring post!


    Founder Event Management Blog “Mona’s Event Dos & Don’ts”

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks Mona for reading and adding your thoughts to this discussion.

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