January 27, 2015 by Jeff Hurt
The sound of a great conference is not the thunderous applause following an inspiring speaker.
It is the creaking of our mind’s doors and windows opening to fresh vistas and perspectives.
It’s the low hum of people talking to one another in pairs about their insights, thoughts, reflections, concerns and opportunities around short chunked critical content.
It’s our internal metaphorical brain-gears spinning as our aha-lights burn brightly.
Here’s the dirty little secret of conference presentations: attendees expect to enter the world of learning each time they step into an education session.
The speaker is the gatekeeper. The doorway is the presenter’s spoken word. And the speaker buzzes the audience in as the lecture begins.
Now, we, the audience, sit quietly. The magic of learning begins as we listen intently. The speaker states a final point. We rise to our feet with applause. Our brains now have the speaker’s expertise and wisdom.
We’ve arrived. We have reached conference learning nirvana.
What a joke! The problem is we actually believe that this works! We have spent decades in school listening to professors and experts tell us what to do. Yet do we have their years of wisdom and thinking from sitting and listening?
The joke is on us—the conference paying attendee. We paid for this stuff!
It is the height of arrogance to believe that the universe or a divine appointment has given speakers the words to give to the audience and that the audience doesn’t have their own discourse to share with others. (To paraphrase historian and Professor Leonard Sweet.)
Something has gone terribly wrong. The conference has no clothes. We need an honest look in the mirror.
It’s a shock when we honestly open our eyes as conference organizers and see our events for they really are. It’s embarrassing. Maybe even disgusting.
In the name of profits, membership, volunteer direction, and consumers, we have allowed metaphorical “sneaky fat” to take charge (reference to Biggest Loser contestant Jaron Tate.) It’s that extra flab that has appeared because of sponsorship pay to play, committee members’ personal agendas and misguided leaders’ direction.
As a conference organizer you wake up one morning and realize that the conference doesn’t really look so good. Especially when we put away the performance, pageantry and production.
It’s time for conference organizers to embrace the shift from production and performance to peer participation and co-creation.
We need to move away from a performance of other people’s thinking. We need to create conference experiences with interactive presentations. Even churches are moving into interactive preaching so why can’t conferences have interactive keynotes?
Many attendees are tired or being lectured to. In other words, “You as a conference host don’t ever care what I think or wonder about.”
More today, than ever before, people want to participate in discussion. Attendees want to engage in conversation. (Except those who refuse to question their traditional beliefs that listening to lectures=learning. They don’t want to work for learning.)
Just think how un-conversation-friendly our conferences are! Sitting in chairs, facing a stage, looking at the back of people’s heads. That’s rarely conducive to talking with others.
And it’s not just conversations. People have questions. They have concerns. They have doubts. They have experiences to share.
But a conference is rarely a place for their questions, doubts, concerns, stories or experiences.
Instead of meaningful dialogue and engagement, the most common conference experience today centers on the keynote’s presentation. His message. Her sermon. Her speech. His homily.
When was the last time you grew closer to someone because you both sat through a lecture together?
Hat tips to authors Thom & Joani Schultz, Leonard Sweet and Josh Packard.
What type of conference experience can we create so that paying attendees can be listened to and heard? How can we move from speakers that tell attendees what and how to think to speakers encouraging attendees to discuss, wonder aloud and explore together?
Filed Under: Event Planning
Actually, I did end up becoming good friends with someone after sitting through a lecture with her. We were both relatively new to that industry, and the lecture was truly awful–all jargon and acronyms and ridiculously over-filled slides. I gave up trying to take notes about halfway through. At the end, we turned to each other, and said almost simultaneously, “I didn’t understand a word of that—did you?” We ended up bonding over the badness of it all. Obviously, not something anyone would want to emulate, but since you asked, it can happen!
In trying to think what would have made that particular lecture more user-friendly, maybe a contest running throughout that would reward whoever came up with the right answer on the Twitter hashtag to what acronyms stood for as they came up? Acronym/jargon Bingo cards? Breaks for discussing the main points every 10 minutes or so amongst ourselves would have been nice. Almost anything that broke up the never-ending monologue would have been an improvement.
I think you proved my point. If the two of you had not spoken to each other, you would not have become good friends. Just sitting and listening to a speaker without communicating with others in the room does not build a relationships. It’s only when we reach out to one another and communicate through spoken or written word that the relationship can even begin.
All of this makes perfect sense to me. I was speaking at my first regional conference in 2014 on “How to Sell a Service (It All Starts with the C Word).” It was an MPI conference, so pretty much everyone there sells some kind of service, even though most event planners get kind of sweaty at the idea of making sales calls.
I led off by saying that I didn’t have all of the answers, but I have figured out a couple of things and I hoped to impart them. I left the last 10 minutes both for Q&A and to allow anyone in the room to share something they have learned about sales. Open mic. People did speak up and others took notes on their comments, as they did with mine. It was great.
The format and information must have clicked, since I got a lot of good feedback and have now been asked to speak a other MPI chapters throughout 2015. I’m just one person speaking from experience. How arrogant indeed to presume I have everything figured out.
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