As they prepare for the Professional Speechwriters Association's 2016 World Conference next week, our social media team seeks guidance on how to create "critical mass" online for the conference. From on high, I reply that we want enough social media presence that the falling tree makes a sound. However, I add, we don't want to turn the conference into a "Twitter f***." And I send them this edited version of a piece I wrote several years ago about a consultant who proposed to modernize business conferences. —DM
Recently a Communication Consultant I know advanced a gravely misguided but currently conventional idea about the future of business conferences.
She wants to transform conferences into the very flickering, helterskelter social-media shitstorm from which they are now our only port.
In a post titled "Remixing the conference: 5 cues for organizers," the Consultant acknowledges that traditional conferences allow attendees to "connect with lots of others with shared interests, interact with experts, get recognition from their peers, and find lots of high-quality content and plain old schmoozing opportunities."
That's a lot to do in two or three days! Alas, say the Consultant and her cohorts in confab complication, it's just not enough anymore. That's because attendees are so used to social media, the Consultant says, that "they are way ahead of [conference] organizers … demanding more and better content, audio-visual support for audience-members on the backchannel, and options for watching the conference from afar and for free."
Specifically, the Consultant recommends that conference organizers:
• encourage and actually help facilitate audience live-tweeting of the conference.
• indulge audiences' ADD: "audiences are looking for shorter speaking times, varied session length and even more content," the Consultant claims without a durned bit of evidence.
• elicit and pump in the reaction of far-flung audiences who are absentmindedly gazing at the sessions on video conference or glancing at handouts online.
Though there are some good ideas on the Consultant's list (for instance, she points out that conference organizers can use social media to solicit and vet potential speakers) … mostly, the post makes me wonder when the last time the Consultant has really been to a conference.
Mentally, I mean.
Because in my conference-going experience both recent and past, a traditional conference is itself a tsunami of stimuli. Surrounded by one's peers in the flesh for the first and last time in a while, one is simultaneously struggling to absorb new ideas from speakers, and to imagine how those ideas might be modified and applied back at the office.
Hour upon hour, session after session, more ideas, more reactions, both intellectual and emotional. Notes scribbled, business-cards collected, hands shaken, social fuck-ups made and self-forgiven, bad sessions walked out on, good sessions walked in on, the exhibit hall slinked through, dinearounds signed up for, at the bar for one more, blinky breakfast roundtables barely made.
There are new people to meet, old colleagues to catch up with and random encounters to contend with and to integrate into the experience. All the while checking voice mail and e-mail to make sure a hundred crises haven't erupted back at the office. Oh, and speaking of the office …
… toward the end of the event, the pressure builds to sum up the conference for your boss who fought for the budget money to send you, and for your colleagues, who have been covering for you all week.
What did you get out of it? What did you come away with? Any ideas we can use?
By the time you get on the plane, your head is overstuffed with techniques, case studies, the odd-but-nagging opinions of others, half-developed theses of your own—and if it was a truly productive event, it's a little achy from booze, too.
And to this the Communication Consultant wants to add constant tweeting and live-blogging, more and shorter sessions, a sense that Unseen Others Are Watching and Listening on the "backchannel," and erratic input from a global peanut gallery?
As a conference organizer, I realize that one of the most important gift I can give my attendees is a respite from the random. A conference, however overwhelming for those who are really interested in acquainting themselves with new people and ideas, is a comfort, because it's here and now and us and nobody else.
To make conferences better, we ought to make them not more like a schizophrenic Twitter feed, but less.
And not less of an intimate, shared experience, but more of one.