A Journey Down Conference Street

Google Street View - Pan-American Trek - Downtown Banff

So go downtown
Things will be great when you’re downtown
No finer place for sure, downtown
Everything’s waiting for you*

*Downtown as sung by Petula Clark.

Take A Mental Stroll

It’s time to take a nostalgic journey downtown on Conference Street.

Visualize yourself walking down a traditional city lane. Both sides are lined with the usual buildings. Each structure houses a long-established institution.

What do you see? Think of your conference experience as one of these various buildings. Which of these buildings might be the perfect metaphor to describe your conference?

Perhaps your conference attendees are not connecting with your event because they view it like a jail, a boarding school, a theater or something similar.

Hat tips to authors, gurus and business owners Thom and Joani Schultz for their thoughts about experiences and how experiences mirror downtown buildings.

The Theater

Now staring at a theater near you is: (enter your conference marquee name headliner).

Theater goers love theatrics. The stage. The lights. The production. The excitement. The stars. The story. The escape. The entertainment.

So many conferences deliver a dazzling, over-produced, well-orchestrated, crowd-pleasing, ovation-standing, highly-scripted, over-rehearsed show. It’s predictable. It has pomp, circumstance, pageantry and performance.

Yet has the theater of conferences ever grown your relationship with other attendees? It may be entertaining. It’s certainly not relational. Or even with learning opportunities.

It’s only when we talk with others after the theater experience that we begin to connect. Otherwise it falls flat.

Attendees are tired of performance, production and pageantry. They want to participant, not spectate.

The Jail

Rules reign in police department/jail conferences. Volunteer leaders and staff make sure people follow the proper procedures. The long list of dos and don’ts ranks higher than the attendees’ experience. Everything revolves around letting others know the rules. Don’t leave the room after the session begins or you won’t get credit. You have to get your paper stamped to get continuing education units.

The general session begins with the Prison Ward’s message (the President) followed by the jail’s vendor’s (sponsor) message followed by the correctional officers (the Board of Directors) followed by the inmates that have been awarded privileges (the award recipients) followed by…you get the picture. Their most visible priorities are obedience to their self-imposed laws and decrees.

Sure rules are important. They keep order and provide safety. So what’s the message these statute-governed conferences send to attendees? Are they about the correct way to do something? Is it all about enforcement?

Does your conference signage only tell people what, when and where to go? Or does some of it tell the audience how important they are?

Your conference needs to be a haven for building relationships and learning. Not confronting attendees about rights and wrongs.

The Rigorous Ivy League College

Colleges and universities serve a vital role in education and learning. Or at least they are supposed to provide learning experiences. They are a citadel for dispensing information. A fortress of facts. A stronghold or academic rigor. Professors lecture. Students listen. Academic scholarship and indoctrination.

Colleges and universities strive to enshrine and program accuracy of every miniscule detail of right and wrong. They drill intricacies of traditional knowledge.

Is your conference’s primary role to transfer information? Of course part of your conference’s role is education and learning. Yet does learning happen because the audience sits still and listens to a monologue of details?

Conferences have taken the role of the expert, the professional speaker to an unhealthy extreme. Telling facts has become more important that learning and living the facts.

Information is not the destination of a conference! Attitude, behavior and skill change is the destination. Learning, not distributing facts, figures and information, is the end goal. Conferences should focus on what it takes to grow learning and peer relationships, not dissemination of data.

What other conference building metaphors would you add to this list? What type of metaphor would you prefer for your conference to have?

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  1. How about the Keynote Kandy Shoppe? Lots of pretty, shiny, yummy-seeming nuggets that give you a quick sugar high, then leave you hungrier for knowledge than you were before you came. I’ve stopped in that one a few too many times.

    I think I’d like my conference to be more like an Apple store, where people come in with problems and questions, get individual or group instruction as needed, get to hands-on work with what they learn so they know they have learned what they needed to learn, and mingle with other like-minded folks to see how they’re hacking their problems. And maybe they even buy a few things while they’re there because everything in the store is directly targeted to what they do, and who they see themselves as as consumers.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I love that idea! Now to find some courageous, bold conference organizers that will create the unique Apple-Store inspired conference experience!

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