Why Are Tech Conferences Disappointing?

That’s not what tech conferences look like — source: http://www.beyonce.com/oxegen-festival-2011-2/

I am disillusioned with conferences. And I once was a zealot of conference attendance. I can’t count the number of events that I took part of.

Yet, one day, the magic disappeared. It was the same faces over and over. They were telling the same stories. Using the same jokes. Taking the same exemples. Calling the same figures to mind, over and over. Speakers were lazy. Or I was bored. Maybe I had heard enough.

However, every day, I am listening to my favourite podcasts, learning, laughing, getting surprised and shocked. Why is the magic still working on me through this media? I had number of hypothesis: the length (most of the podcast I listen to last around 1 hour, when most panels last around 20 minutes), the atmosphere of a radio studio, the effect of being focused on sound…

But as I was speaking with a former radio journalist, I came to understand that what’s broken in current conferences might not be the behaviour of speakers but the way conferences are organized and moderated.

How Conferences Are Organized And Prepared

Organizing conferences is a tough job. Everything needs to be designed, from the tickets buying to the good-bye presents. You need to have good attendees and good speakers. You need to invest a lot in the experience design while keeping enough money to make profits after paying the production and the organizers. So you want to have amazing people but have to make them pay and want amazing speakers and want to pay them nothing or as little as possible. In the meantime, the cash is mostly coming from partners, who are looking for visibility, while organizers want the event to be as little promotional as possible.

In summary, you have many activities to plan — all of which could go wrong till the very moment of happening — and multiple stakeholders — whom incentives are not aligned between them and almost always designed with the organizers’.

If we can already glimpse the complexity of event editorialization, that doesn’t solve our problem, you would say.

Alright, alright. Let’s see it a bit closer. I have to confess I’ve done these mistakes over and over again as an event organizer before realizing that something was not working.

Event organizers are first looking for a theme. The event editorial will be sub-divided into smaller parts, linked to the bigger theme. To make sure the general theme and the smaller parts are working, they brainstorm for panels topics and potential speakers. When the team is satisfied with the theme, finding it relevant to the news and differentiated enough, they start pitching partners and potential speakers. Partners try to bend the topics and have speakers onstage. Speakers very rarely try to change the topics. It is not their conferences after all. They either accept or refuse. If they bargain, it will be about the speaking conditions (money, travel, accommodation, private events participation, promotion of their books or company, etc.).

When they accept, the moderator generally make a call to present the conference, the panel and its topic. They gather the speaker’s opinions about the topic. And hang up.

Everything is set to be very average.

The Recipe For Failure

Why is that a very broken way of operating? Let’s consider the fundamental flaws:

1. Speakers are mostly seen as baits to make people attend
“If Obama is coming, we will be oversubscribed instantly”. Good speakers = people attendance. And people attendances is bringing money from ticketing and money from partners who targets them with promotion. The direct consequence is that speakers are the ultimate VIPs of events.

2. The speakers have no time or incentive to prepare
Let’s be honest. Since organizers try to catch the (same) big names, the very people invited get invitations all day long. If they would accept every opportunity to speak they would literally spend all their days speaking on stage. You bet they don’t take additional time to prepare or debrief if they don’t have to. When your goal is having people say yes, you don’t ask them for more.

3. Sponsors long for speaking slots
Events can be very profitable, but for that they require sponsors. And when the people behind your main income stream are asking for something, you are at the very least considering it. Many events end up filling their stage with sponsors that make worthless products placement.

4. Moderators are not part of the planning stage
Most moderators are invited not long enough before the speakers they will moderate. They still can influence the panel a lot, with the questions asked and the way they moderate it, but they cannot help select the right people or adapt the topic. Also, oftentimes moderators are have very little or no experience in moderating, which is an art in itself.

5. Panels are too short
Since speakers are the baits, organizers try to gather as many as headline acts as possible, which end up to very limited actual speaking time. The tendency is especially strong since there is a myth about the attention span and the need to be fast.

Ok this article is whining enough. Now let’s figure out quick fixes, inspired by good event organizers.

How To Make Events Great Again

1. Cast speakers for content
Don’t look for the biggest names (or source of money) but for people having something new & interesting to say.

2. Make sure they have something to say
Look for what make the speakers excited. If that’s not the subject you have in mind, either change the topic or propose them to invite them in the future for this topic.

3. Share your expectations with the speakers
What’s make TED Talks this good is the level of expectation from speakers (you know you will have to prepare, if you don’t want to, you just refuse the proposition) and the clarity of their guidelines which help speakers do their best onstage.

4. Invite great moderators and empower them fully
Put them in the picture as early as possible and make sure they feel ownership of the panel they are in charge. Moderators are key.

When you talk to event attendees you figure out that conferences are not what they came for. They came for networking opportunities, having a great experience, free food and having a quick update of what’s hot and who you need to know.

So maybe you just need to play the game and look for big names. Or you can try to build your event around content. And if you chose so, you might want to read… our article focused on tips for moderators.

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