A conference manifesto

As we look forward to another conference “season,” I contemplate anew the long-term viability of in-person information industry conferences. The traditional conference is going away, because it is no longer serving its purpose. We are no longer willing to shuffle zombie-like from one conference session to the next, passively listening to speakers talk about what they know.

I am reminded of the iconic Apple Macintosh “1984” ad, in which a Big Brother-like figure is speaking on a large screen in a darkened auditorium. As he drones on, a runner emerges, throwing a hammer through the screen, shocking the spellbound audience and introducing them to the new age of liberated information technology. Fast-forward 33 years, replace Big Brother with any boring conference speaker, and you get the same desire for liberation of learning.

To the dismay of conference organizers, learning has become open sourced. Knowledge is not scarce; it is abundant and free. From online universities and MOOCs to MeetUp and Facebook groups, we are finding new ways to share knowledge and gain new skills that don’t involve several thousand people meeting together in a convention center. While I may not be able to throw a hammer through a projection screen, consider the following my invitation for the liberation of the professional conference.

We are active learners, not passive information absorbers. In any conference room, the speaker is just one brain among many. Engage all the participants; give us opportunities to share our perspectives with others. Encourage social media engagement, not just social media marketing.

Address what we care about now. Make the conference relevant to me today. Some professional library associations have their conference programming planned 12-18 months out. How can a conference be relevant when its topics were set a year and a half ago? Remember, you are competing with every other medium I can use to get new ideas and learn new skills. You have to earn our attention with what I care about today.

Lectures and panels are deadly. Attendees want to be provoked; we want to think, and participate. We are not paying a registration fee because we to hear “someone from Google”. We want to hear someone who will get us thinking differently. Bring in someone who will disrupt things, not just someone from a leading company.

No speaker needs more than 45 minutes, and after that, we want to start talking. Get speakers who can turn 45 minutes into an amazing experience in which everyone learns. Bring speakers are willing to challenge their audience, to get them to change their thinking and their actions.

Expect more from your speakers. Just because they know something doesn’t mean they are able to inspire an audience. Can they provoke comment? Do they invite participant involvement? Do they encourage learning from each other?  Will they interact with your audience afterward? What do your attendees say about how they benefited from the speaker?

Make it worth my while. We are paying several thousand dollars to attend your conference. We have to justify that cost and our time. We want something that we can take back and put into action. Who did I meet and talk with? How did this conference change how I think and what I do?

I have no illusions that the conference world will change dramatically over the next few years. The planners who understand today’s world of liberated learning will continue to create great conferences. The rest of them may want to look into other lines of work, as their jobs here are done.

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