First published in Pro Bono News.
Unless they’ve just started out in business, most people have been to a few conferences in their lifetime. But do they represent value for money?
If you’re the type of person who goes to lots of them or all of them and you think, “I’m going to get something from each of these,” here’s the truth:
If you go to a lot of conferences or all of them but you’re not implementing anything in your business, then all you’re doing is just wasting time.
There are over 1.8 million conferences, incentive events and other meetings in the US alone, according to the Events Industry Council. Conferences are a great way to introduce new employees to an industry and they offer those established in the industry a stage for their expertise.
However, there are a number of issues to consider when attending conferences.
Firstly, the focus on one-way presentation. Sitting in a session room with 75 other people listening to a presentation might be interesting, but chances are you’ll find yourself watching a dull PowerPoint slideshow explained with too much jargon and not enough charisma. You can’t really have a conversation about the topic, unless you can corner the speaker afterwards, and you are unlikely to connect with that other person across the room who asked that great question and then disappeared at the end of the session.
If your goal is to network and bring back new tactics you can apply to your organisation, the crowds and the spectacle of presentation-focused events can get in the way.
Secondly, people frequently refer to conferences as “shows”, but I would argue that a show is antithetical to a conference. Literally speaking, a ‘conference’ means a place for people to confer, a meeting of people to have a conversation about a certain subject. A show, on the other hand, implies a separation between the performers and the audience – and it’s this separation that people are losing patience with.
Thirdly, session descriptions inaccurately or poorly written because they were submitted months ago in hopes of being glittery and catch-wordy enough to be selected but when selected, it’s “oh crap, now I really have to DO something about this idea that I pitched months ago”.
Can we just have video promos for each session that will give clues about how dynamic the presenter might be, and how good their materials & ideas might be? Better yet, just make all of the sessions available on video/podcast the day the conference opens, then make their sessions the Q&A/takeaway stuff that people really want anyway.
What does it say about a conference when there are approximately 40 sessions, and in 15 or so of them, there is a consistent cast of characters much like in the Marvel Universe — people crossing over, pairing up, sharing panel speakers — does that mean that they didn’t have enough session applications?
So before deciding whether to attend the next event, ask yourself these questions:
- How much of the program is devoted to presentations? The most valuable part of a conference is the time between the presentations, when you can spend time discussing with colleagues and developing new partnerships and collaborations.
- How strict are the entry criteria for attendees? Selective, invitation-only events tend to be more valuable, focusing on quality over quantity.
So, are most conferences a waste of time, money and efforts? It really depends on your expectations and what you want to achieve at the conference. You could have several motivations like presenting something because you have promised it in a proposal, meeting old friends and catching up with them, engaging stakeholders that you could not approach in a different situation, meeting the great names in your field.
If you make sure that the conference will be able to provide you with what you expect, then they are a good thing – if not, they might be a waste of money and time.