It’s time to disrupt the conference model

As originally published on Medium:

Enough of the conference pablum. Where’s the real meal?

Conference season is well upon us, and my advice is always this; choose wisely.

Seems that every industry, and every vertical is awash in the great calling of its pundits and practitioners to gather and….? Well, that’s just it. Do what, exactly? What is the intent of all of these conferences?

Wikipedia’s definition is that a “conference is a meeting of people who “confer” about a topic” and a business conference is “organized to discuss business-related matters”. Seem too ambiguous to you? Me too.

I’ve had it with conferences that have no real purpose or intent. There’s just too much talk, and truly, not enough action, especially for this action oriented culture. It’s time to put our collective feet down until conference organizers show us that there is going to be some tangible outcome from attending their thousand dollar shindig, rather than just:

  • hanging around with industry people that we mostly know already
  • hearing from speakers that are often irrelevant, we often know more than, or whose video we could view at our leisure because their exact same speech has been delivered umpteen times so far, and
  • being loaded down with a bunch of swag that will be immediately recycled, or handed over to our children for their imminent destruction

Even though I’m a huge proponent of the power of connecting with people IRL, and supporting the social in social media, my biggest lament about conferences is that they have become watered down, networking opportunities that serve no real value, besides perhaps the odd fan/icon photo op.

Far too often, these conferences are led by a fraternity of creators that keep inviting their closest circle of friends, or those that they’d like to be friends with, as keynotes (read: heavy male contingent on the speaker’s lists, even in female dominated industries). In their attempts to be everything to everyone, they end up really only being valuable to a small percentage of attendees, and often the speakers’ book publishers.

It’s even worse if the food is bad, the WiFi is sketchy and there are no charging stations, forcing those of us waiting for our Everpurse to arrive to stalk the seats by the walls or the back nearest the electrical outlets.

So, rather than entirely boycott, I’m choosing to engage, here. There needs to be a new approach to conferences.

I have a solution that I believe will actually provide real value and ensure that conferences do more than just provide an opportunity to over indulge in food, spirits and ego-stroking.

Let’s try this on for size, at least as a start. Instead of trying to be all things to everybody, why don’t conference organizers start creatingstreams in the following way:

  • FNG’s: this isn’t separating the wheat from the chaff. This is separating total newbies from seasoned practitioners, so we’re not all just a bunch of bobble heads in the room nodding approval at the most rudimentary elements of “how to do your job”. You want to keep people off their smartphones and laptops and truly engaged? Stop throwing us all in the same mix. Oh, and really, this is the ONLY place that you should ever be discussing “how to get in the industry” stuff. Otherwise, you’re just boring us to tears.
  • Practitioners: the meatier part of any conference should focus on developing the “middle managers” to the next level. After all, isn’t that the whole purpose of a good leader? Elevate the conversation, friends. Give us the thought leaders, show us the cutting edge technology, ENGAGE US for chrissake. Stop feeding us conference industry pablum! Go ahead, speak in acronyms, we get you!
  • Thought Leaders: let these events be a true gathering place for our industry elites. Let them gather, meet, and discuss the most pressing or topical issues. Ask them to actually tackle one real, tangible problem. Then, invite them to share those ideas and solutions with the masses. Let’s break down silos and hierarchical fronts. People are happy to do the work, as long as we give them a starting place. That’s what our thought leaders are for.
  • Purposeful Networking: help those that don’t know how to help themselves yet. Put investors in front of startups, newbies in front of practitioners, strategists beside creatives, creatives beside operations specialists. Bring the people together in the most purposeful way, instead of crossing your fingers that your hashtag will trend.

Conferences should be a place where we learn, network and connect, and then move forward in our chosen industries.

Oh, and if I have one last request, it’s this; no one, and I do mean NO ONE is allowed to ask any speaker, “what’s the one piece of advice that you’d give to (insert beginner in your industry here)”. No, no, no, no! I realized that I was even guilty of this recently when conducting an interview with a highly regarded, highly successful CEO. Reality is, it’s lazy interviewing and shows you haven’t done your homework. Shame on us if we hear that again…

and then let’s celebrate what we’ve actually learned and created with that over indulgence in food and spirits, because if we’ve done things right, then in fact, we’ve earned that right.