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“The conference model is broken,” he says, dismissively.
I roll my eyes so hard I think I might have permanently flipped them in their sockets.
It drives me crazy when people say conferences don’t work, that conferences no longer work. As if, years ago, there was a more rudimentary conference attendee, a primitive executive whose time was plentiful, whose budget was infinite, or who was simply dumb enough to expect less of a return on his investment of time and money.
The concept of conferences — a gathering of people to deliberate matters of common concern with a view to resolving them — is by no means new. The word comes from the Middle French word “conférence” and has been around for more than half a millennium.
The conference is one of the most valuable forms of professional human interaction.
There is a certain magic that happens when we step outside our daily routine, spend time with peers in an unfamiliar environment, and pool the group’s experience to attempt to resolve a common challenge. Seriously, it doesn’t get much better! Conversations sparking new ideas, people riffing off other’s suggestions, benefiting from free ranging discussion with equally passionate people that can continue for years — it’s priceless!
So why are we so down on the idea of conferences? The problem with conferences is not with the concept, but with the execution. All too often, we see organizers sacrifice the potential of the conference experience for the moolah. Does size matter? Of course, it does, but big is not always best. Too often, organizers vaunt the numbers of attendees like stadia do before a big ballgame. Unwittingly though, speakers, sponsors and attendees have been influenced by this mindset. They show up at smaller meetings lamenting, “There are only 70 people here,” as if they have a superpower that allows them to personally connect with 10 people per second. About 70 of the right people in the room are better than 7,000 irrelevant ones.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that all the small meetings are inherently valuable either. Commercial event organizers are under pressure to churn them out, so the content is often poorly researched and superficial. Formats are familiar and boring. At a time when our human attention span has literally dropped to less than that of a goldfish, organizers still insist on sitting people in rows like so many planted shrubs, which is how most of them feel after being talked at for hours on end. Sponsorship is king. Vendors are permitted to control the agenda, taking every opportunity to promote and pitch, rarely understanding that the best promotion is the customer testimonial shared in a thought-provoking interactive session. Self-proclaimed, easy-to-secure thought leaders rule the podia, quickly becoming overexposed and racing offstage and on to their next engagement as soon as they finish their presentation. Panels are crowded with ‘experts’ who may, in fact, be experts, but we will never find out because it is hard for them to say anything truly meaningful in the 90 seconds allotted to them.
And amongst all this, harried business folk shuttle in and out of hotels and convention centers, snatching snippets of plenary sessions, keynotes and panel presentations that yield little value beyond the occasional pithy tweet. Having lost the faith, they spend more time clearing their inbox in their hotel room than they do interacting with their fellow attendees — finally making it to the ubiquitous cocktail reception to shake a few hands before heading homeward already thinking of the next item on the to-do list.
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