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My Love/Hate Relationship With Conferences

Mark Busse – 5 Comments

I’ve been to dozens of conferences in my career, speaking at some and even chairing one myself, and while I love being challenged to consider new ideas and perspectives while meeting likeminded colleagues from my industry and community, I am growing to hate the standard conference format.

I’ve attended events hosted by GDC, AIGA, How, Icograda, SIGGRAPH, APDF, InterlinkIxDA, F5 Expo, and others. And after recently spending a long day at TEDx and two full days at Design Thinkers, I left both conferences wanting for more, essentially frustrated by the experience. I enjoyed past versions of these events, so much so that this year I convinced my business partners to take days off work, and spend thousands on registration fees and travel costs to attend with me.

Once the keynotes were done, social events over, and post-conference reality settled in, I realized that yet again the conventional conference had ended up mostly a waste of time, money, and energy for my colleagues and I.

Discourse, not download

According to Miriam-Webster, a “conference” is a meeting of two or more persons for discussing matters of common concern, usually involving a formal interchange of views. This definition certainly doesn’t match the experience I’ve had at conferences lately. But is the format the problem? Or is it me?

At this stage in my career I long for learning and face-to-face discourse about subjects germane to my business and find the “sage on the stage” format flawed. Speaker presentations and workshop descriptions are often misleading, and most speakers come off as self-aggrandizing, unoriginal (regurgitating past material), and are even surprisingly poor presenters. I’m a fan and supporter of RGD and know how hard they worked to produce this, their largest conference in 14 years, but we won’t be returning unless there are significant changes to the format to increase value.

Networking is not learning

Despite the promise of “learning, inspiration & networking” at conferences, the traditional profit-driven conference format demonstrates little regard for creating an environment conducive for dialogue or idea exchange. And a convention centre filled with two thousand people is not a networking-friendly or intimate community experience.

I have opinions, insights and perspectives I’d like to share, but without the opportunity to engage in Q&A with speakers (as is typical) or participate in discourse with other attendees while the ideas are still fresh, I do not leave feeling inspired. I left a conference such as Design Thinkers having not been motivated to write a single note; for me, there wasn’t anything worth looking up later or worth remembering.

Many often say the real value of conferences comes BETWEEN the speakers or at social events at night. That may have been the case when I was new to the industry, but of late I have diminishing interest in merely drinking or socializing with young members of my industry, preferring instead to engage in some sort of experience and idea exchange together.

New ideas, not portfolios

Conference material seems often outdated and unoriginal these days, and by this I mean that the ideas presented are things that may have worked well in the past, but can easily be found online in white papers or video presentations. So few industry experts share truly innovative or cutting-edge new ideas at conferences. Are they keeping them for themselves?

Well, you say, if I’m interested in better value and use of my time, then could I just be going to the wrong conferences? Sure, you might be right. I certainly don’t need to hear another speaker success story. I understand that speakers feel the need to talk about their company, their work, their career success, but is that why they were invited in the first place? A brief intro for context is all that is required.

Some conferences, like the recent TEDx in Vancouver, are not industry-specific learning events necessarily, but about “ideas worth sharing” as their tagline promises. However, despite slick presentations that seem to emulate classic TED talks, I couldn’t help wondering if topics like the benefits of Botox, value of gossip, and power of seduction really are ideas worthy of that stage.

And for all the promises of inspiration, learning, and networking, isn’t there a better way to select speakers and format? Let’s stop letting endless anecdotes and self promotion overshadow the bigger ideas, new ways to approach problem solving, or practical tips and methods for attendees to take home and apply in their own lives and careers.

Content should be clear, relevant, and consistent

Organizers of any conference have an obligation to clearly express its position and level of content for attendees. It’s fine to create a lineup of speakers aimed at juniors seeking inspiration, introductory ideas, and exposure to industry experts, but please make that clear.

Don’t describe a workshop as an exploration of new and interesting ways to generate new business leads with dignity and then have a presenter offer basic concepts like how to use LinkedIn and write a good sales email, followed by an offer to learn more by purchasing the speaker’s book. As directors of an established business, our needs are different; then again, producers of conferences like Design Thinkers should focus on vetting speakers and content to ensure an adequate mix appropriate to all attendees. Again, just make this clear so we don’t end up disappointed.

A good conference is also about offering consistency from year to year. If one year presenters are dynamic and well-prepared, with highly relevant and informative content, followed the next year by a very different experience—as was Design Thinkers for us this year—then the chances that attendees will return drops dramatically.

Attendees paid to learn, not be entertained

None of the above is a direct reflection on the hard work of the folks promoting these conferences, but I have to wonder if they get this response from other people as well. Organizers mean well, invest tons of time, and take on financial risks when producing conferences, but when profit is more a motivator than the value of content for attendees, they tend to fall short.

Conference attendees (like us in this case) pay hefty registration fees, take time off work, and travel great distances to learn new ideas, processes, and consider different perspectives and approaches in their own career. And while all speakers and all tracks or workshops won’t be for everyone, they should be aimed at the transmission of new ideas suitably described to attendees.

Promotion or desperation?

Another aspect of conferences that spawned this rant is how conferences promote themselves. Conferences produced by for profit event companies like The Art of…, who are bringing their marketing conference to Vancouver this year, had each of us in the office receiving multiple emails and phone calls. It was a bit of a turn-off, to say the least. The speakers were of high quality, the topics looked fun and inspirational, but we knew that we weren’t being treated as anything special—they were broadcasting and selling the event to all companies in the Lower Mainland, with no regard for “fit”. In a time when we preach customization and personalized service, this didn’t have it.

The fact is that the keeping back of innovative ideas until after for fear of “giving things away” (thus nothing revelatory comes out), the relentless cold-calling, and the old-school format leaves people feeling like they could have better spent their time elsewhere. This makes me believe that we won’t be seeing this much more of this in the future, that perhaps something will change in the way these are handled.

Not all conferences are the same

It’s not fair to lump all conferences into the same basket, and I do love the smaller conferences produced by APDF and look forward to the next one in Santa Monica in a couple weeks. My experience at an IxDA conference has also been positive, both of these events presenting valuable content tailored to their audiences and highly driven by participation and dialogue.

Maybe I’m just grumpy from overdosing on conferences. Perhaps I’m getting old and they just aren’t well-suited to me anymore, leaving me more interested in local, grassroots, profit-free, community-building events. I helped produce and presented at a couple “unconferences” but they didn’t feel organized or professional. I still believe there’s value in a well-produced conference.

Were conferences like TEDx, Design Thinkers, and others to adjust their format to be more in-line with the definition of the word “conference”, ensuring speakers were presenting new ideas without self promoting, offering discussion and an interchange of views, especially if the content were customized for multiple streams to better suit my personality, career stage, learning goals, and needs, then I might be more eager to engage.

Do you love or hate conferences? Share your point of view in the comments below.

5 Responses to “My Love/Hate Relationship With Conferences”

  1. Mark Woo

    Awesome post Mark! This really got me thinking on the event I’m organizing: Vancouver’s first annual Social Media Awards in March. We will have speakers as well, but that won’t be the key focus. The focus would be the networking and recognizing aspect of the event. The tickets won’t be outrageously expensive as well as we’re focused on students as well as the Vancouver community. I’d like to pick your brain further on how we can improve the event :).

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  2. Mark Busse

    Thanks Mark, appreciate the comment. Glad to hear you are considering betters way to embed learning, dialogue and community-building into your conference. I’d be happy to have my brain picked further. Fire me an email or call the office and let’s chat soon.

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  3. Greg Ryder

    Great Post Mark. Again speaking the truth people need to hear. I have spent thousands of dollars attending conferences all over the West Coast and in most cases leave more impacted by the few minutes of dialogue w/ fellow attendees after the it’s done or during the breaks. I can only sit and take notes for so long before my eyes glaze over and the speakers voices turn to a blurred monotone of boredom. You said it – the most beneficial conferences contain tailored content for their audience and are highly driven by participation and solid dialogue. Engage the audience or don’t expect them back next year. We don’t have the time and money to waste on pure profit-driven formats with notably self-promoting and lousy speakers.

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  4. Laurie Ashley

    I think you hit the nail on the head “Not all conferences are the same” and that should go to say that not all attendees are the same and each will walk away with (or require to be presented with) an unique experience.

    My background is on the internal corporate conference side mainly. I believe there is a trap planners could fall into if they do not consider target groups of the audience. Yes, there will be first timers, and regulars and the expert group members.

    I think first timers may be interested and wowed by the stories of professional portfolios but for those looking for meat – real topics, real people and real discussions must be offered.

    I cannot dispute your post. I agree. I do think that an individual hits a certain stage where conference selection can really be narrowed to those that offer engaging, change driving sessions.

    I’m just thinking out loud here but… by droning on about ones portfolio conquests and company profiles we risk to lose brilliant conversations that should be taking place and will be forgotten before the attendees even walk away. They will be focused highly on the negative experience alone.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about.

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  5. Brenda Sanderson

    Mark – your post made me think – not only about where I chose to spend my own conference dollars but also about how I approach conference planning as part of my job.

    I do have a ‘love/hate’ relationship with conferences.

    I tend to agree with Laurie about portfolio presentations – I’m not personally interested in them at this point in my career, but know many who find ‘the story behind the piece’ a talk they willingly line up for.

    For what it’s worth, my current favorite conference this year was CUSP – the design of everything – in Chicago. I’ve had friends onstage, behind the scenes and in the audience before and only heard great buzz.

    On the surface, CUSP is a pretty standard format – groups of 25 minute talks, with breaks and lunch. Evenings have a few parties. There is no formal Q+A sessions. It risks being a ‘talk fest’ in that sense. The experience, however, is something completely different.

    CUSP worked for me because it pitches to my current bias – a small(ish) event that puts provocative, wide ranging presenters on stage (their only brief is ‘be interesting’) and brings together like-minded people who are willing to invest in active listening over 2 intense days and aren’t shy to introduce themselves to each other whether sitting in the audience or grabbing a snack during the break. The speakers are equally engaged and accessible. The thematic link is that everyone show ups prepared to be surprised, challenged, and willing to entertain new ideas.

    The insight – and the point you started with – match the conference content with the audience. When the two are out of sync, someone will go home disappointed. But when the stars align, everyone gets something out of it – and we create a dialogue that contributes to making designing a richer profession for it.

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