Back in the day
Until about 140 years ago, the only way to witness something first hand was to be present. The only way to 'record' something was to be present, watch, listen, document, and print. Since then, technology has blown the doors to opportunity wide open with various iterations and improvements in audio and visual recording. It resulted in the first digital streaming in the mid-90's, and twenty-some years later, I can stay home and live stream or play on demand just about anything I would care to.
And that brings me to my thoughts on conferences in a digital society. I find myself searching for the value of spending a boatload of money and travel time to attend conferences. Not just for myself, but for you too. After all, that could be vacation time and money.
I know, I know...
"It's all about the networking," that's what you're thinking. Networking with attendees, speakers, organizers, and vendors. I'm thinking it too.
It's about the hallway conversations, doing research on who will be there, strategically running into people you're dying to have as clients, downtime and invites to coffee or cocktails on the side, excitement of the hashtagged pre-conference conversation on social media, and the swag. It seems the valuable and good stuff is all the other stuff. It's not the presentations.
I hear all that. After all, you can generally glean information you're looking for from a Google product (maybe even catch a presentation from another conference) in your jammies by your fireplace with your cat purring on your lap. Why does anyone want to leave home ever?
This is something I can't stop thinking about, can't get out of my head, because I organize and often speak at conferences. If I don't like how conferences are formatted, why do I accept offers to present at them, and why on earth do I perpetuate the agony by organizing them?
Stick with me please, this is cathartic and at the end I'll need your help.
Over the past couple of years I have become more selective about which invitations and offers I accept. It's a lot of work to prepare a custom presentation, and to think I have such unique ideas and information that isn't readily available by watching a video by some other intelligent engaging individual on YouTube would be rather assuming and quite illogical.
We're on the cusp of something...
An invitation to present at a conference has the tradition of being a professional honor (not to mention it's how many speakers, at least in part, earn a living). It's recognition that you are esteemed for your subject matter expertise, so much so that others want sit in uncomfortable chairs for 20 - 90 minutes to hear what you know. For millennia before us, it's what people did. They traveled anywhere from across town to across the globe to listen in person to revered experts and leaders speak golden tidbits of brilliance. They had little choice, but we do. It's just no longer necessary.
Why are we still doing it if it's the other stuff at the conference we're interested in?
I have participated in some online conferences over the years. When technology first supported the concept, industry conferences and online job fairs began to pop up everywhere, with top shelf sponsorship. "Rooms" were developed where people could meet and chat, exchange virtual business cards, and make appointments for sales spiels. Some of this still goes on today, but it doesn't get the same hype as it did even 5 years ago. And the conference networking and vendor experiences in those environments aren't anything to get excited over.
If in person conferences are passé and virtual conferences aren't engaging, what's left???
Talk to me
So, what's the answer? Is it just industry and topical meet ups, "unconference" style? Would you travel for that? Is it remote virtual presentations during networking and exhibit halls IRL? Is it something else?
What is the best conference format for 2017-18? Because I'm in planning mode and I need your input, I need to know...
This current Oxford comma frenzy has me paranoid about usage. What do you think?
Over at Joe Gerstandt's blog, he's got some great tips for conference safety. If you're a planner or anyone concerned about the attendee experience, check it out!