Five Questions For 21st Century Conferences


I believe that questions are the currency of today’s world.

We should all be embracing questions like: What’s next? How does that impact me? Where do we go from here? What will it take to make this happen? Why and Why not?

Five Questions For 21st Century Conferences And Their Organizers

With hat tips and a nod to NMC that recently posted 20 Queries for 20 Years and Beyond that came from their Summer Conference, here are five questions for 21st Century conferences and their organizers.

1. In the 21st century, what do experts, speakers and panelists bring to the conference experience?

As access to knowledge becomes ubiquitous, the role of the expert and speaker is quickly changing. These experts and speakers are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge. Experts, speakers and panelists need to become facilitators of learning experiences, coaches of inquiry and champions of learning.

2. What is the role of the conference attendee?

In the past, the conference attendee was to sit still, be quiet and politely listen to the expert on the stage. The conference attendee was a passive spectator and consumer of information.

In 21st Century Conferences, the attendee transitions to a participant. Participants become active doers in planned learning opportunities. The participants are seen as the SME, the subject matter experienced each with their own knowledge, experiences and stories to share.

3. How can we take the emphasis off of content delivery or the transmission of information from the expert, and help attendees become participants in their own learning?

The presenting-as-transfer-of-information model is obsolete. Instead of focusing on delivery of information, we should focus on designing learning experiences. What activities can we put in place that will help our audiences retain knowledge and learn? Then the conference experience becomes about our attendees’ learning not experts presenting.

4. What is the role of content in conferences today?

Our strong commitment to conference content is actually a barrier to helping attendees become participants in their own learning. Keeping content at the center of conference education is the incorrect focus. The goal of covering content influences and often dictates the decisions by presenters. More is not better.

Instead we need to shift to a focus on our attendees as learners. The attendees should be the center of our conference experience not content. No, we don’t want conference education that is content-free; we need to think about the function of that content. Our aim should be not to cover content but to help our conference participants uncover parts of it so that they can make sense of it and apply it. We use content as the vehicle to help the audience develop their own learning.

5. Who should control the design of the conference experience?

Too often we place the control of designing the conference experience, securing its presenters, and selecting its topics in the hands of volunteer committees. Attendees are controlled by the decisions of conference organizers and volunteers. Why do we give that power to volunteers and leaders? Ultimately, we believe that attendees cannot be trusted to make the right decision.

We need to shift this power and put it into the hands of the conference participants. They should be empowered, confident, self-motivated learners. Conference organizers should chose speakers and topics that solve attendees’ challenges as well as help them get ahead.

What questions would you add to this list for 21st Century Conferences? Why is the role of content a priority in conferences often at the expense of the attendees’ experience?

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  1. Tanya Clark says:

    Thank you Jeff. Especially for you answer around the topic “Who should control the design of the conference experience?” We enjoy working with conference organizers and speakers to bridge differences and find creative AV solutions that communicate full intent and experience for event attendees.

  2. I suspect the largest barrier to the advocated change remains the learning paradigm which constrains the imagination of the CEO/CFO who signs the check to pay for registration/travel. Much like social media, learner-centered education threatens a loss of control that makes the C-suite uncomfortable.

    As Cheryl Steighner queried in her NMC keynote, “How do students show what they know?” The corollary here is “How do attendees show what they’ve learned?” If we can answer that question convincingly, maybe the C-suite will begin to demand, rather than resist, these changes.

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