How to Run a Useless Conference

I go to more conferences than you do.

I’m frequently amazed, but not particularly surprised, at what a bad job conferences do at their stated objective. What’s the problem? After all, these are expensive, professionally-run events that work hard to satisfy the typical attendee.

And that, of course, is the problem.

Facts don’t change people’s behavior.

Emotion changes people’s behavior.

Stories and irrational impulses are what change behavior. Not facts or bullet points.

If all we need is facts, then books alone would be sufficient.

When the Surgeon General announced that smoking was fatal, how many smokers quit right away?

Human beings are irrational. Change agents (like you) can fight that and obsess about presenting more and more facts, or we can embrace it and make change happen.

Conferences are designed to get average people to change their behavior. By “average”, I mean typical—the masses, the center of the bell curve. That’s a sensible objective. By definition, most people (in any given population) are in the middle of that bell curve. Change them and you’re golden.
If this group would learn, take action and make things happen with just a memo, you wouldn’t need to have a conference. But we end up being flown on average planes to average hotels to sit in average conference rooms and hear average speakers doing presentations filled with bullet points. And it’s all beyond reproach.

But it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work when you’re on a sales call either. Your facts and your service and your prices can be the best, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get the sale. And it breaks down at an annual review and it even happens in a one-on-one encounter with a policeman or a teacher or a clerk.

People are irrational and they usually make decisions that have nothing to do with facts. And yet we spend most of our time improving our facts and very little concerned with the rest.

Think about the most powerful learning moments you’ve ever had. My guess is that they didn’t take place in a darkened meeting room.

Conference organizers (and more important, their clients) spend virtually all of their time and money doing one of two things:
1.    Satisfying the center of the bell curve.
2.    Avoiding failure

That’s why the typical conference is… typical.

That’s why the food and the setting and the venue and the location and the chairs and the layout and the schedule and the refreshment breaks are… typical.

If you want to run a meeting (a brainstorming meeting, a board meeting, a zoning commission meeting) that is likely to perform as well as your past meetings, then the best thing to do is to run it the way you’ve always been running it, right?

Here’s the challenge, then: figure out how to do the atypical. How to change the interactions that people have with each other. How to change what they talk about in the elevator. How to create an environment where people walk in ready to learn and change and challenge, as opposed to getting that, “hey we’re in the Bahamas let’s get drunk and then sit through a session with the CEO” glazed look.

Sure, it won’t work on everyone. But that’s better than working on no one.