Conferences: Entertainment, or Learning?

Whether you are in business or education- everyone enjoys a conference. It’s a day off and a chance to catch up with some people that either you know, or an opportunity to network. It might be in a new city, with new restaurants and shopping centers and attractions. And let’s not forget about the sponsored events at night! Who doesn’t love free food and drinks? Right?

But wait… back to the conference.

This past year I talked to quite a few people at conferences (both education and business related) and the vast majority had the following insights:

  1. The keynote was usually someone famous, often times outside of their genre, and had a very basic, almost cliche message.
  2. The breakout sessions were usually where you received some meaningful insights.
  3. Most attendees were there to “get away” from the daily grind of his/her job.
  4. Many reported on skipping most of the sessions, and preferred to talk to colleges in the bloggers cafe/commons area.
  5. Networking with others was the most important reason to come.

Does this top five list sound accurate? Do we attend conferences that has a vanilla message to simply to get away and network? Is that necessarily bad?

In looking at this list and talking to several friends, I’ve started to wonder if conferences had “jumped the shark?” The point about the keynote hit home for many reasons, but it reminded me of some specific example. A couple of years ago I attended a large educational conference and the opening keynote was an actress. It didn’t go over well. The speech was deeply personal and added little insight into education. It was neither educational or entertaining- it was just really uncomfortable because many attendees were running for the exits before the speech was over.

Conversely, I’ve been to several conferences where the keynote was extremely entertaining, and made you “feel good.” However, this fits into the “Whitney Houston” realm of speeches- a really broad, heart felt message that I’ve heard again and again. “I believe that the children are our future- teach them well and let them lead the way… show them all the beauty they possess inside.”

On the business side, you get the “Against All Odds” story of success. The speaker had a business idea that nobody believed in. Through trial and error they got some lucky breaks, worked hard, and achieved. Phil Collins would be proud… take a look at you now. (Again with the 80s references).

We get it. Teachers should love and respect their students. We wouldn’t be at the conference if we didn’t take our jobs seriously. And the entrepreneur’s journey of “risking it all” is all too familiar.

So why do these keynotes keep following the same pattern? I realize that the keynote sets a general idea/focus in motion, but what happens when the message has been heard over and over again? I think most entrepreneurs know that they should takes risks, and teachers realize that we should love our students, connect on social media, and use technology. Can we hear something new?

2. The breakout sessions were usually the most informative, yet many reported skipping these as well. Why? I think the answer in that lies in item #3.

3. The conference seen as the “get away from the daily grind” is an honest account of what conferences are great at: an entertaining retreat. However, I see this as a positive. Many teachers (and business types) are over-worked and stressed. I have zero problems with conferences being seen as a “fun getaway,” as long as learning new skills is a part of the fun. This leads to points four and five.

4 & 5: Connecting/networking are THE most reported reasons to attend conferences. Rather than sit quietly through a session, many choose to pull up a chair outside the breakout rooms and talk. I understand this completely and have been guilty of this myself. Even when I attended the breakout session (if it was good) all I wanted was a one-on-one conversation with the presenter. Last year I attended an awesome session about artificial intelligence with the department head at Carnegie Melon University, and was blown away. So when the session was over, I rushed the stage to ask him some specific questions. The problem was that several other people did the same. I’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you.

It’s worse at business conferences. When the presenter is done, they are bombarded with business propositions masked as questions, and “call me” statements as they thrown business cards.

So, from what I gather, educators need a fun break, yet we still want to learn. The opening keynote usually sets a tone that is general- I get that. But from what I keep hearing from most people is that we just want to connect. It reminds me of why EdCamps keep growing- it’s less about “the sage on the stage,” and more about just getting together and sharing.

Will the big conferences start taking notice? Will they eliminate the keynote all together? I doubt if ISTE, ASCD, (fill in your favorite “big” conference name here) just book some conference space and say “have at it guys…” So that leaves me answering my first question. Are we there to be entertained, or to learn?

I think that the answer is yes, not either/or. We need a reprieve from the daily grind, but many of us still want insights to polish our craft. I also have to admit, for all the eye rolling I do when I hear the cliche keynote, there are many in the audience that might be hearing these messages for the first time. Or, we might need that inspirational story to remind us that we have an important job to do, and we should share best practices on social media. (But please no more single-focused “get on Twitter” keynotes… that’s jumped the shark). However, I’ve also found that the people chosen to go to conferences are usually the same people that are chosen to attend conferences. Thus many of the attendees have heard the same message over and over.

So, if you’re a educator, and suffer from conference fatigue, might I suggest a local EdCamp? The people there really want to learn, and you usually avoid the cliche keynote message. If you long to “get away” and explore a new town’s restaurants, hotels and shopping, might I suggest an EdCamp that is out of town, or even out of state? I also suggest that you attend some business conferences, or “pitch nights” for young entrepreneurs. I am convinced that teachers and students can learn a TON from the startup culture. Conversely, I think many people in business could benefit greatly if they attended an EdCamp or “Unconference” event.

*Shameless plug, I started an organization that provides insights and lessons from the startup culture into the classroom. These resources are for teacher PD AND student lessons to get them thinking like an entrepreneur. If you want, please check out StartEdUp.

What do you think? Do you think conferences need an overhaul? Do you like the current format? What do you like (or not like) about conferences? Please leave comments below, or email me at: don@startedupinnovation.com.

Thanks for reading.