Monday, November 14, 2005

Useless conferences

Seth Godin posts about running useless conferences.  He goes to a lot more conferences than I do, although I do attend quite a few throughout the course of a year.  Here are Seth’s points on why most conferences are useless:

  • Conferences seek to satisfy the typical attendee; they are looking to satisfy the “average” person that resides in the center of a bell curve.
  • Conferences seek to avoid failure.

The 2 points above lead to a typical (and useless conference) — typical transportation, typical hotel room, typical conference room, typical presentations, typical everything.  The problem is that humans don’t generally react well to typical.  As Seth says:

Facts don’t change people’s behavior.  Emotions change people’s behavior.   Stories and irrational impulses are what change behavior. Not facts or bullet points.

Lots of people will tell you that the most valuable time at conferences is when they are in unstructured environments getting to interact with people that they rarely get to interact with face-to-face; most people will tell you that drinks and dinner are by far the most valuable part of a conference.  I would then question why conferences don’t devote more time to what everyone knows to be the valuable part.  Why not spend an entire day in a cool setting where everyone has the ability to interact?  Sure you could add some small amount of structure or suggest some topics that would be important to cover, but otherwise just leave everyone to interact.

A lot of the reasons that conferences are boring is that there are a few forces at work behind the scenes.

  1. There are lots of people that want to tell everyone else how good they are.  These people feel that is their job to present as much good information as possible to prove that they are doing something worthwhile.
  2. There are lots of people that are worried that they will lose their jobs if they don’t get up and present something.  Honestly, if you feel like you have to do this, perhaps you shouldn’t be in the job that you are in.
  3. Meeting organizers feel that they have to fill every available minute with someone presenting.  Inevitably someone will be presenting something they don’t understand why they have to present or something they don’t want to present (or both).

An unintended (hopefully) consequence of a lot of the forces that Seth and I describe above is really long meetings — meetings that feel like marathons and make you feel exhausted even though all you’ve been doing is sitting in the same room from 8AM-6PM with a working lunch.

Seth talks a lot about being remarkable and there’s no reason why your conferences can’t be remarkable too.


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