Conferences without the conferring are a con

Stephen Citron says conference speakers should stop preaching to the bored and get the crowd involved. Otherwise, more and more delegates will choose to walk away.

I cannot stand conferences that send me to sleep or PowerPoint me to death. But I am inspired by those that allow delegates to contribute to the event and to talk to each other, and involve themin speaker presentations.

A speaker who has “written the book” on the subject and simply delivers a lecture is giving little more than a talking version of the book -but with less depth, and at a higher cost. You might as well watch the presentation on video.

Surely the point of being together in the same room is to generate interaction? A creative speaker would use the presentation to engage delegates in discussion, and incorporate their feedback in the rest of theirtalk. In short: speakers should listen as well as speak, and presenters should actually be present.

Nowadays, I can only bearconferences that encourage conferring, conversation and interaction with the speakers and fellow participants, so that we can exchange real experiences and communicate with each other.

How often have we heard it said that the best bit of a conference is the break when you get the opportunity to talk with other delegates? How much better to have some formal time scheduled for these informal conversations? Then you couldchat with many peopleyou would otherwise never meet, and have unrushed exchanges with those that share similar interests.

We can learn a great deal about successful group activity from the Web 2.0 revolution on the internet, where sites focus on contributor-supplied content. For instance, Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) is an online encyclopaedia, based onthe principle that the knowledge of an interested group whichuses and maintains the informationis greater than that of an individual specialist. Itallows most articles to be changed by almost anyone with access to the website.

Another is Myspace (www.myspace.com), a social networking website offering an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, groups, photos, music, and videos.

Similarly, conferences couldraise their game by allowingall present to participate,contribute, express themselves and be listened to. Some have already taken this delegate focus to extremes, withunconventional and bold ‘unconferences’, and ‘open space technology’. These are group sessions that run without prior agenda or speakers, and look to the delegates to create content on the fly.

I favour a hybrid somewhere between the two:top speakers to attract interest, alongside a focus on delegates engaging in a facilitated discussion.

The conferences that compel me to stay include:a blend of ‘unpresentations’,where speakers encourage delegate-to-delegate discussion questions and ‘unanswers’, in which the standard, rather passive, Q&A session expands to a more vibrant group interaction that includes answers from delegates ‘unplugged’ sessions, in which speakers talk without using PowerPoint as a prop ‘speed meetings’, in which delegates who would otherwise not meet engage in short informal dialogue and finally, ‘facilitated roundtables’, where a handful of delegates talk openly.

I never bother staying at the conferences that talk me to sleep or PowerPoint me to death. Like many other delegates, I walk.

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