A few notes on conference organizing (or “What I should have said at #PCMAEC”)
Earlier this week, I bombed a talk at the Professional Convention Management Association’s Education Conference. This is actually fairly rare for me: because I love the science, it is normally easy for me to talk fluently and authentically. This week, though, I just couldn’t get it together. So I’m going to do something I try not to — write what I should have said.
Before I melted down, I did a pretty decent job of explaining at least the basics of competing pressures. But I missed a few key points that are worth surfacing.
First, because of the natural tendency to focus on promoting pressures, there is a great deal of whitespace on the inhibiting pressure side. But it is not just because of our focus that this remains true. In my M&M example, you’ll notice that the promoting pressures tended to be heterogeneous: one person wants to eat M&Ms because their blood sugar is low, another because they are delicious, another because they’re a bit sad and need a delightful moment. But the inhibiting pressures tend to be homogeneous: we are all affected by cost, availability, etc. Thus, while strengthening a promoting pressure may help a select few, weakening an inhibiting pressures tends to help everyone. Thus, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, the money you spend making things easier to do will have higher ROI than those you spend on making people want to do things in the first place.
Another benefit of focusing on inhibiting pressures is that it helps move away from a nuclear arms race for attention. To a behavioral scientist, the limited resource in the world isn’t time or money but mental energy. So when we go the traditional route of trying to maximize share of mind (“If you only attend one conference this year, it should be X”), we force all conferences to compete with each other for a fixed and limited resource. On the other hand, if instead what we do is make things easier and more mentally efficient, we actually unlock greater potential. If I can provide the same value, but at half the mental, then that creates new focus that can be used to attend another conference or take another action at the same conference.
In many ways, this is really a plea for focus. Conferences have become choice overloaded, a sort of fear-of-missing-out hell where everyone feels like everyone else is getting more value than they are. I’m not saying any of the following products should exist, but imagine if they did.
What if, instead of making me try to find friends and make dinner plans, your conference app automatically set me up for dinner with people you thought I might enjoy? This might sound a little crazy but let me tell you about an experiment I did once. We built an app that advertised itself as doing one thing: sucking in all your personal data, then recommending the absolute best place for you to have lunch. You logged in with Facebook and got a recommendation, but on the backend, we didn’t actually personalize at all. We simply pulled randomly from a list of restaurants with good ratings that were nearby.
People loved it. They said it knew them so well, marveled at how much it could tell just from their Facebook data (this was a few years ago, so people might not be surprised now), and how much better it made choosing food. We can so often get obsessed with the idea that if we can’t do things perfectly (deliver on those promoting pressures), they aren’t worth doing. But sometimes, just holding value constant and making things easier is worth it. Everyone has to eat. Don’t make them choose where and who with unless they want to.
Another example is around increasing representativeness of speakers. So often, I hear from organizers who say “Well, we just don’t get that many proposals from women” or “There just aren’t that many underrepresented folks that want to talk”. Bullshit. There is a huge difference between not wanting to talk and not feeling like you are the right person to do so. What if you ask your existing speakers (particularly if you’re paying them) to run a quick speaker training for attendees who might want to try speaking next year? Or create speaking slots with lower barriers to entry, like lightning talks of two minutes, talks that are responses to a prompt, etc. There are a million ways to reduce inhibiting pressures here and you’re the real experts — it simply starts with not accepting the status quo.
Conference organizing is a tremendously difficult creative endeavor. And as with many such things, those who are responsible for it frequently resist the notion that data can be helpful, in part because it feels like it may destroy the creative impulses that take a good conference and make it a great one.
I want to bring a different perspective. As a behavioral scientist, data is one of my primary tools. And yet my job, which can be summed up as the designing of interventions that change behavior, remains highly creative. Rather than removing the need for ingenuity, data allows me to spend more time actually doing the creative work I like doing.
First, data tells me where to look, not just for behaviors that can be changed but also at what levers might be most effectively pulled to do so. For example, let’s pretend I have a behavioral goal around connecting (a frequent topic at PCMAEC), something like “All attendees will leave the conference having met three new people that they talk to at least quarterly for the next eight quarters”.
Without data, I have no idea how close or far I am from that goal. But more importantly, data isn’t just a scorecard. A data-driven perspective on what is already happening allows me to spend more time on the why and thus on the how of change. For example, by understanding who is already meeting the connection goal at my conference, I can investigate what is different between that group and those who aren’t connecting, and then design an intervention that bridges the gap. But to do that, I need a data-driven perspective on what is already happening.
Data also unlocks new features and products that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Think about trying to address the frequent manager question of “Where should I send my employees to get professional development?” In a world without data, the best we can do is persuasive marketing: employees get sent to whoever tells the best story. But with data, the story can itself be driven by verifiable truths. A manager can decide what variables matter, like where their competitors are sending people, the ratings, novelty, and diversity of speakers, average seniority and background of attendee, etc. and then make a decision based on their priorities. That’s powerful and it will make for better conferences.
Even if none of that convinces you, data is here: Sponsorshipped, Feathr, and others aren’t going anywhere. Conference sponsorship and attendance is the last unmetriced frontier of marketing, and as we’ve seen across other industries, you can expect that sooner or later, everyone will be using data to evaluate this spend.
But if you’re confident that you’re producing a great conference, that should be empowering. The only people who should fear data are those who are actually bad at what they do. In every industry where data has been embraced, spend has gone up for those who do it well. Think of it this way: Google would never have built Google Analytics if they thought it was going to drive down spending on Google Ads. Putting clarity into the value of both sponsorship and attendance is an opportunity to show how importance conferences actually are.
So when the startups come knocking, give them the right feedback to control your own data destiny. Because you can influence how this all plays out but only if you lean in rather than out.
People are often surprised to learn that I don’t belong to a speakers bureau or charge speaking fees (don’t judge me by my PCMAEC appearance; I’m normally providing more value). But I want to argue that not only will this becoming increasingly common, it will also become the dominant norm, and it will change the entire conference industry.
Before trying to prove this, it is important to first clarify my policy. I do allow conferences to pay for my travel, so that speaking doesn’t actually cost me money. And if they already have a budget and are paying all speakers, I’ll ask them to donate the money to a domestic violence shelter in that market, as Sanders/Wingo recently did for me in El Paso. So there is still some budget changing hands here, although I’ll pay my own travel if the audience is important or unique enough.
I also have to own some privilege here. One of the reasons that I can afford not to charge for speaking is because I choose not to make speaking my job and have had financial success in other areas. I build things for a living and that is literally the only thing I allow people to pay me for. And as a white dude, I don’t have to make conferences pay me in order to have them take me seriously.
This is real and important. Many of my underrepresented speaker friends have had horrendous experiences, from being denied a private space to nurse in to being asked to write extensive blog posts that white male speakers weren’t to extra “content vetting calls” before they were allowed on stage. Nobody should have to ask to be paid simply so they can be taken seriously and the speaker community is small; when conference organizers engage in these kinds of activities, they lose both access to premium speakers and risk potential public exposure and the corresponding loss of attendance and sponsorship.
Issues of respect aside, there are several reasons I see speaker fees going away. Let’s start with a logical axiom: all things being equal, the speaker who doesn’t charge can make more appearances than the speaker who does, simply because more people can afford to put them on stage. And now more than ever, getting on stage has downstream monetizable effects. As the working world moves increasingly away from execution-focused tactical work to knowledge-focused strategic work, demonstrating an ability to be strategic and thoughtful is what gets you a high paying job. Even if I charged for every speech I did, it would pale in comparison to my actual salary, which is in part based on demonstrating the competencies that I show on stage.
So there is a simple economic motive to not charge for speaking, if getting on stage elevates the chance that you will take some other higher value action, like booking someone for consulting, hiring them into your company, etc. This is different from a stage action in a non-monetizable field. For example, if you want me to dance, you do have to pay me, because dancing doesn’t lead to Chief Behavioral Officer.
More than just speaker economics have changed, however. In the traditional conference format, you were paying a significant amount of money specifically to gain access to a speaker. But this was developed in a pre-internet era, where people were unable to get free, high-quality content with the same ease. Fifty years ago, the only way to understand my view on a competing pressures model was to attend a lecture in which I spoke about it. Now, you can just go watch a free YouTube recording of one of my talks or read my book due out next year, and you can get access to my knowledge easily and for a fraction of the cost.
But despite MOOCs and other methods of potentially accessing knowledge, people still go to college in droves. Why? Because self-motivating is hard. You could go watch a YouTube video of me giving a talk but it won’t be affective in the same way watching it live will. Because speakers respond to audiences, every live talk I give is different. And there is still an important part of learning that requires human interaction, not only during the speech but after.
To put it differently, at PCMAEC, people identified the two dominant reasons people attend conferences: learning and connection. On YouTube, you can’t ask me a question or grab a drink and introduce yourself. You can’t walk out shaking your head and talking to someone you just met who was sitting next to you about how terrible I was, then exchange business cards. Yes, YouTube has commenting and I could do a Q&A video, but there is a very real difference between computer mediated interactions and the ones we experience in person. Indeed, as one person so eloquently put it on Twitter, because they are a remote worker, they now go to conferences just to be around people.
But what does this have to do with the death of speaking fees? Well, if we accept that the movement is away from conferences that are simply about providing access to knowledge and toward a more interactive form of both learning and speaking, the monetary value of speakers will eventually decline as the conversations we have before, during, and after, and the corresponding connections we make around those conversations, become the primary value driver for attendees. If you think of speakers as simply the fodder for that connection, then their individual attractive power lowers.
Now that doesn’t mean speakers are valueless; in the way that a star professor can attract students to a university, a star speaker can certainly drive ticket sales. But if the value of each individual speaker to do so is going down, and the ancillary value that speakers harvest from simply speaking is going up, at some point those cross over. Couple this with the fact that more people can actually be trained to become better speakers as equitable access to education continues, you’ve got a recipe for the end of speaker fees.
To look at it differently, think about sponsored speaking slots. At the moment, companies pay big money to essentially buy mainstage speaking time, because they recognize the brand halo that it has: not only can your smart exec talk about your product, people also respect the company for employing said smart exec. But companies could easily pursue an alternative strategy, like we did at Microsoft. One of the smart folks on my team had the brilliant idea of simply removing inhibiting strategies to grabbing the speaking slots we didn’t have to pay for, by training smart people to be better speakers, helping them apply for slots, and then paying for their travel costs.
So if the many smart people get trained on better speaking and you end up with a plethora of amazing speakers who are willing to do it for free because they can find other ways to monetize, why would any conference organizer reasonably pay speaking fees? Instead, they can use that cash to democratize access by paying for travel and double-down on actually respecting speakers’ time and effort.
A Final Note
It is important to end by recognizing the graciousness of the PCMAEC audience. As is my habit, I was entirely authentic onstage and noted that I was having trouble — after asking for an extra round of applause to give myself a moment to recenter, the crowd graciously obliged and afterwards many of them said they thought it was just shtick because the talk itself wasn’t bad.
But trust me…it isn’t shtick. The talk wasn’t good. But hopefully at least some of what I would have said came through in this article and we can all go make better conferences. Because that’s what really matters. Now more than ever, people need to come together, to debate and learn and connect and just generally cause trouble while opposing the status quo. As conveners, conference organizers are far more than functionaries — making sure the drinks are cold is table stakes, but the real work worth doing is the behaviors that remain changed days and weeks and months after attendees go home. Done right, conferences can change the world.
Side note: As everyone is painfully aware (because I won’t shut up about it), the lack of representation on stage pisses me off. I’ve tried a variety of small experiments to tackle this, but I’m ready to step it up a notch. Using some of the advance money from my book, I’ve hired someone to manage a small project we’re calling Speakershipped. The idea is very simple: if you are an underrepresented speaker, we will essentially act as your free speaker bureau. I will personally help you uplevel your speaking skills, we’ll construct a bio and several proposed talks, and then we’ll actively pitch you to conferences. This will come at no charge to you and you’ll be in complete control over where you want to speak, what your acceptable parameters are (they have to pay for travel, main stage only, etc.), and how you want to appear. It is my hope that by taking a more active role than the traditional “let’s make a list of underrepresented speakers” approach, we can see much faster change. If you are interested in speaking or are a conference organizer willing to accept pitches, please email and we’ll get started.
Originally published at Matt Wallaert.