It Is Time To Revolutionize Conferences

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The traditional conference is in dire need of creativity, innovation and reinvention!

It has been stuck in an ancient, out-dated rut for too long.

Those planning and organizing conferences need to see themselves as creators and artists. As Seth Godin says in Linchpin, “An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status quo.”

We need more conference organizers that plan and program from a position of creativity and courage and not from a position of sameness and repetition. We need conference organizers to become artists that challenge the status quo.

Why Conference?

We need to build a new story about the why and how of conferences.

This new story requires us to ask the difficult yet crucial question: Why conference?

Hold on a minute. I’m not suggesting that we eliminate conferences. I’m suggesting that we need to think deeply about why we need conferences. Sure, you’re going to respond with “People attend conferences for education (learning) and networking.” So, more specifically, what’s the value of conferences now that opportunities for learning and networking are exploding all around us?

The World Has Changed

The world has changed since conferences first started. And it continues to change, rapidly and radically when it comes to the ways we learn, network, sell and buy.

Simply stated, the Web and technologies we use daily drive those changes. In this hyper-connected world, we learn from blogs, Google, YouTube and Wikipedia. We learn from our desks, our mobile devices and on-the-go. This causes us to have a very different expectation than the traditional university-style lecture for our conference experience.

Ten Key Changes To The Traditional Conference Practice

Click here to see the PPT slide deck regarding these ten changes:

What happens inside of conferences is going to change. Especially now that the Web connects us to information and people the way that it does. It has to change.

Conferences have to change in the following ten areas to remain relevant to our customers. These areas are the heart of conference revolution.

1. The Role Of The Customer (Paying Registrant)

Our conferences must become more customer-centered. We have to focus more on designing a specific experience for our target customer and stop trying to be all things to all people.

2. The Function Of Content

Too many conferences have put content at the center of the event experience instead of people. When conferences shift to a focus on being customer-focused, contents is used, not covered. We help attendees uncover the content necessary to succeed in their jobs.

3. The Process Of Education

In many conferences, education sessions are nothing more than didactic, dreary, mind-numbing, monotonous, monologues. The audience is to learn through absorbing the information from an expert, which is a myth! To be effective, conference education must shift from information transfer to designing attendee learning experiences. Education sessions are designed based on scientific evidence on what works in learning, not based on tradition or the past.

4. The Task Of Networking

Often conferences let networking default to happenstance. Or they think speed networking sessions without any structure or intention suffice. Conferences must move to more intentional serendipitous connections with peer to peer interactions.

5. The Job Of The Speaker

In customer-centered and learning-centric conferences, speakers act more as guides, facilitators and designers of learning experiences. They are no longer the main performer, the one who does the most talking and the one who works harder than everyone else to make it happen.

6. The Position Of The Sponsor

In customer-centric conferences, the sponsor transitions from looking for advertising opportunities to searching for opportunities to upgrade the customers’ experience. They want to position their name with thought leadership and unique attendee experiences.

7. The Part Of The Attendees’ Experience

In traditional conferences, the attendees’ experience is limited to being a passive consumer of prescribed encounters. There are few opportunities to customize the experience outside of picking which breakout to attend. In reinvented conferences, the attendee is a creator and participant of their experience. The conference organizer shifts from focusing on logistics to one of designing a conference experience with a variety of options for participants to customize.

8. The Balance Of Power And Planning

Conferences have to shift from aggregating call for speaker proposals and allowing a group or committee decide which content the audience should know to being curators that recommend and seek out content based on attendees’ needs.

9. The Perspective Of The Conference Organizer

In reinvented conferences, the conference organizer aligns the experience with the conference hosts’ goal. They are more of a business strategist and less logistician. They are also more of a curator and artist than a programmer of details.

10. The Responsibility Of Evaluation And Data

In the revolution of conferences, conference organizers dig deeper with evaluations and data. They are no longer just concerned with inputs and outputs. They are looking for deeper patterns, interpreting big pictures issues and comparing data to global trends.

Coming: additional blog posts that will dig deeper into the changes for each of these ten areas.

Hat Tips (HT) to authors Kerry Brown, Ruth Clark, Marcia Conner, Peter Feder, Seth Godin, Dan Pontefract, Will Richardson and Maryellen Weimer who have helped me congeal this thinking.

What other areas of the traditional conference experience need to change? Which of these resonates with your personal conference experience the most and why?

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  1. Justin Locke says:

    Dear Jeff,

    Well I guess I will chime in here, worst case I will get to read an enlightening refutation.

    You do realize that you are basically saying that the bulk of the entire United States education system is fundamentally flawed (not that I disagree with that argument) . . .

    And we are currently paying about a trillion dollars a year to put people in classrooms, not to mention we are living with the 100-year cultural legacy/ familiarity/comfort with that system of learning.

    Now, as an author and speaker myself, much as I love to be (as Adrian Segar puts is) the “sage on the stage,” i agree that there has to be that connection and interchange. At the same time, I have to package my services to suit the expectations of the gatekeeper owners of events and conferences. And there we run into the cultural stagnation. Even suggesting a departure from the safety of the same old same old is always met with resistance and fear.

    Anyway, I will see your point and raise you this idea: To begin, radical tho it may sound, I would like to see all schools, even elementary schools, start with the concept of divining each individual student’s own purpose in life, and then becoming a partner/facilitator to that. Kids who have desire to elarn always do better, yet this fact is endlessly ignored. When I suggest cultivating desire instead of plotting curricula, I am always told that little kids can’t be given that much power and responsibility, it is up to us much wiser adults to tell them what we have decided they need to learn. And my reply is, “Well, at what point do the kids get to act on their own purpose?” For most, not at all until they get out of school, and by then the opportunity is missed altogether.

    So I will cut to my conclusion for all event owners to hear: Before assuming I know what a group wants to hear, I always love to have some insight as to what the attendees are looking for. What is their purpose? What is their biggest issue? “Where are they at?” Right now it is very hard to start that conversation, because right from the get-go it is assumed that we the event owners and teachers know best what everyone ought to be learning. The fundamental change we are are seeking involves giving up the power of owning the event, and history teaches us that people seldom give up power voluntarily.

    So again the Drucker question becomes, who is your customer and what do they find to be of value? IF they can’t articulate that themselves, then it becomes our job to figure it out . . . but not to assume what it is.

    I have seen major national associations that do not allow comments on the articles in their newsletters for fear of negative feedback from members. It is difficult to open one’s vulnerable self to the potential negative feedback that is generally felt toward management everywhere. And if schools became “student focused,” the teachers might have to learn a whole new way of doing things. And don’t get me started about the medical profession being forced to be “patient centered.” (“What else could they have been centered on before?” I always ask 🙂

    I am eager, as a speaker, to meet my audience half way, but that 2-way communication is often hard to get in the current system. It can be done in smaller workshops, but big gatherings, yikes, to make it go one has to do a lot of “pre-listening” before one goes out on stage. Can’t just proceed on an assumption that we know what that audience wants. But many times I am expected to do just that.

    Now I come from a show biz background, and I do believe there will always be a place for someone to come out and “do a show.” I do think there will always be a need for someone who can get up in front of a crowd and manifest that “around the campfire” story-telling experience for the group, not to mention providing and inspiration. Millions of people go to church every Sunday to hear a good sermon. And I love to just sit and hear a true expert share their wisdom. But there are far too many people who seek that pulpit, not because they have a true gift to share, but because they enjoy the attention and power it gives them. And for event owners, it is a big leap of courage and faith to leave the respectable safety of accepted form and tradition, and dare to risk embarrassment and failure in trying something totally new. What to do? Well fortunately we have social media, and I invite others to offer solutions 🙂 – jl

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and for you lengthy reply. Perhaps in the future, you may want to respond with a long post like this on your blog…just sayin…;) That way you get the traffic to your blog and you can link it in the comments section here. Not a complaint…just a recommendation.

      IMO, your argument is intentional to try to spark discussion. Not sure that’s a good practice.

      Just a couple of flaws in your comments:

      1) Less than 20% of Americans regularly attend church.* It is a declining institution. *Rebecca Barnes & Lindy Lowry (Remember, people don’t pay to attend church, you’re comparing apples to oranges)

      2) People do not pay to attend conferences to be entertained. MPI, PCMA, ASAE and a host of other associations show that people pay to attend conferences to learn and network. I can’t imagine a supervisor approving a company’s dollars for an employee to attend a meeting to be entertained.

      3) All education is undergoing major disruption and the science and evidence is supporting that the past education methods did not work the way we thought they did. We all learned despite our institutions.

  2. Elaine Fogel says:

    Well said. It’s time to add some fun as well. People learn when the experience is interactive and entertaining. Plus, the expectation to have speakers without paying speaker fees is getting thin. You get what you pay for.

  3. […] This is part 3 in the series: It Is Time To Revolutionize Conferences […]

  4. Marcel says:

    Hi Jeff,
    I fully agree with what you are saying and I believe that many conference producers are aware of paradigm shifts around them happening at more or less the same time. I also see that many are struggling with this.
    Yet, I am just wondering whether you can point to a conference that is a good example of “the new age conference” or at least one that starts to look like it.
    Let mad know, Marcel

  5. Thanks for sharing.
    2 years ago we started in the Netherlands with our Red Line project which was an instant success.
    All the important ingredients that you mention are in it.
    We are seen as innovative. Maybe the most important reason for our success lies in the fact that we ask questions and believe that nog how far you look there is always a way..
    Best! Martijn

  6. Debby Raposa says:

    Jeff: What are some examples of off-the-charts conferences that included all of your points above and were a smashing success?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Great question Debby and thanks for asking (&reading)! I think Experient’s e4 conference, NASSP’s Ignite, PCMA’s Convening Leaders, CoreNet’s Global Summit North America and ASAE’s Great Ideas are some examples of revolutionary conferences adopting some of these principals. TED’s International conference is another good example…just search the TED lounges to discover how they are creating participatory experiences revolving around the 18 minute TED talks.

      Readers, what are some other conferences you’ve seen or experienced that you would consider a Revolutionary Conference?

  7. Debby Raposa says:

    Sorry – I wasn’t quite clear – I was speaking about client conferences or meetings (as opposed to global conferences or association meetings) – where a particular client was thrilled with the outcome.

  8. […] Conferences are changing. Especially now that the Web connects us to info and people. Here are ten changes that must occur to revolutionize conferences.  […]

  9. […] This is part six in the series: It Is Time To Revolutionize Conferences. […]

  10. Stacey says:

    Reading about area #9 made me smile. Starting in 2012 I re-named my title to: Chief Curator of the Be Blogalicious Community and Conference. The title often gets strange looks because it’s not common in our industry, but I truly see myself as a curator.

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