The good, bad, and boring of any conference

It is estimated that 40 million Americans attend a convention, trade show or conference each year. There are about 500,000 conferences, conventions and trade shows annually in the U.S.

Even so the odds are not in your favor that the next conference you attend will be engaging, relevant and life changing.

My story

I remember my first profession conference. The year was 2000, in San Diego. The conference was learning and development conference for Instructional Designer types. I didn’t have a clue what to do or why I was really there. I was told that I needed go to the conference and I was excited. I’m sure I was directed in some fashion to attend certain sessions and after the fact, I think, I was asked to share the information with my team. I had a good time, but I wasn’t sure what I was really doing.
The novelty of going to a conferences soon wore off and in many respects they are just work and to some extent not that exciting if you don’t have a urgent need, a plan or an outcome from the conference that will make an impact on your company or your career.
I’ve certainly got better at preparing for and executing plans at a conference to maximize my time. If you are attending an event to sell something your focus is much different from those seeking knowledge. I have been in both roles. When I have approached a conference to learn something I have had a wide spectrum of experiences. The conferences I attend seem to have a mix of exciting events, engaging speaker, all blended with boring content and boring instructors that at times makes me want to slip under the table and take a nap.

I’m not alone in this perception. According to one study the chief complaints of all conferences in the US is Price and Content.  Another survey…showed that only 2% of its 2,326 respondents find these [conferences] to be “useful and cost-effective”. Some 44% said that these conferences had “no perceptible impacts” on their research projects, programs or policies, while 26% found these conferences had been impactful, but not cost-effective. The conclusion from this data: many academic conferences are a waste of time and money.

So why do we still go and put up with this?

The fact is that attending conferences might be one of the best things you can do for your career. There is also the fear of missing out.  What if your competitors go and learn something that gives them an advantage in the market. The upside is also that you can learn about industry trends, gain some new skills, and make all kinds of new connections. You can in many ways increase your knowledge capital within your group or company.

Even so I can assume that if you are a frequent conference goer you have been disappointed at some level. The most common reaction is to blame the conference organizer and the presenters.
I’m not with sympathy.

Making good presentations is really hard, it takes a lot of work, and is non-intuitive to most people. By default, we don’t do it.

Professional speaker Michael Jackson offered this advice:

What today’s conferences need to offer is more opportunity for dialogue, not plain monologue, where the audiences become involved and not just preached at. Better speakers who deliver on point, precisely and concisely. Longer networking breaks in terms of agenda planning (people can’t eat, network and catch up with the office on a 20 minute break dammit!) A better overall experience is long overdue across the entire experience…
A conference needs to be seen as the start of a business process – where the theme and content becomes valuable, usually and affects the future, as opposed to the old-fashioned view which said after you’ve lowered the banners, added up the bar bill and sent the delegates home, that that was the ‘be all and end all’ of the exercise.

You can also find consultants that are willing to help:


I’ve spent a lifetime complaining about poor education experiences and I’ve come to the realization that while I may not have impact on the level or depth of instruction at a conference, I can have a tremendous impact upon my ability to wade through the pitfalls of bad instruction and learn something of value to me.
I started this realization when I research how millennials see the conference experience.

First… who are millennials? Millennials are the generation born between 1977 and 1992, currently placing them between the ages of 26 and 41.
Dan Schawbel, author of the New York Times best-seller Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success, wrote a white paper, “How Millennials See Meetings Differently,” he said, “Millennials are labeled as needy because they want to know ‘What’s in it for me?’ However, everyone wants to know what’s in it for them.”
The research suggests that 85% of millennials want Customize learning experiences and fun educational programs. How to make learning fun? Schawbel, suggests that meeting planners use mobile apps and gamification to heighten their experience.

I get suspicious when I hear the gamification argument for learning. It seems to defuse engagement for the purposes of active learning and places the responsibility of learning back to the design of the course or the charisma of the speaker. The fact is, creating a learning experience is an internal process as much as an external one. Why let those who organize conferences set the pace of your learning. We shouldn’t be giving away the responsibility to craft relevant learning experiences. We should own it. We should take back the ability to set a learning goal for each conference we attend. Learning at a conference is not something you should leave to chance.

As I’ve pondered the problem with boring learning events I think what is missing is sharing the instruction load of presenting, by asking attendees to set their own learning goals. This will increase investment of the learner, channel responsibility where it belongs and empower learners to create meaningful conference experiences.

What is a Learning Goal?

Learning goals are typically for presenter or instructors in the context of a lesson, a lecture or a training course. They have a narrow focus and help the instructors define the reason for the event and how to evaluate your learning. If students set learning goals it turns this around and empowers you as a learner to set your own goals and objectives.
A learning goal is the fuel for a Learning. Most people have never set a learning goal before they attend a conference or seminar.

Here is why you should!

Psychologist and Professor Carol Dweck’s research concluded that “Learning goals trigger entirely different chains of thought and action from performance goals. A focus on performance instead of on learning and growing causes people to hold back from risk taking or exposing their self-image to ridicule by putting themselves into situations where they have to break a sweat to deliver the critical outcome.”
leaning goal table

How to write a Learning Goal?

You can use the SMART method for goal writing, but frankly the learning goals for a conference can be a small to medium level goal or a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). The learning goals defines and creates a system of thought alignment and behavior change that will help you engage thoughtfully with the conference content. Keep the goal simple and make sure it articulates your destination in terms of what you want to learn.
It will be hard to fight the instinct to set achievement goals, but trust the science of setting learning goals first and foremost; then let the Learning goal guide you toward success and achievement.

With learning goals created you can now frame the conferences with more meaning as you organize tactical elements of getting ready for a conference.

Answer these question before you attend:
• Why do you or your company care about this conference?
• What area are their gaps in your knowledge and gap in understanding for you company?
• What is my plan to maximize my time and achieve my learning goal?
• How will I gage what I learned? Be clear about how you will know if this conference experience is successful for you and for your company.
• How will I share insight? Consider how you will share what you have learned focus on key information that matters to your learning goal and your companies mission.

Here are some other tips and pointers that when combined with a learning goal, will empower you to own the learning experience at your next conference.

From the Harvard Business Review:
Frist and foremost, change your mindset

Principles to Remember

• Shift your mindset by focusing on how networking is good for your career
• When choosing which sessions to attend, consider whether you’ll learn something or meet someone new
• Take the initiative to create networking situations where you feel comfortable

• Spend all of your time with coworkers you see every day — draw clear boundaries
• Burn out — give yourself time to rest and rejuvenate during the conference
• Try to be someone you’re not — putting on a false persona is stressful and tiring


Kate C. Farrar recommends these steps:

Before the Conference
1. Gain Visibility
2. Build Stronger Relationships

At the Conference
3. Get Briefed
4. Choose the Right Sessions
5. Remember What You Learn
6. Connect With the Speakers
7. Schmooze at the Social Events
8. Put Away the Smartphone

After the Conference
9. Friendly Follow-up
10. Pay it Forward


In an effort to help me make conferences more meaningful I created a Learning Tool kit, which allows me to think through and articulate my expectations through a learning goal. As a result my mindset changes.

This kit allows me to:

  • Reframe learning to maximize my conference experience
  • Ask the best questions
  • Take notes effectively
  • Prepare for post conference discussions and share new and difficult concepts with co-workers in a way that increases my knowledge capital
  • Build a framework for active learning and continuous improvement for all future conferences, seminars, workshops and work meetings




In conclusion

I agree with Patri Friedman’s comment on Quora about the quality of conferences:

I’m seeing this [problem with boring conferences] change with the culture of TED – great, engaging talks that are shared widely online.
The standard for presenters seems to be going up – and the number of books & consultants specializing in great presentations is rising as well.

While this is encouraging, don’t default to passive learning.
We can petition the conference Gods for better conferences, engaging speakers and fun experiences. This of course didn’t work in High School or College and as such, I recommend that we as conferences attendees own the problem and take steps to change our mindset and plan how we are going to engage with the content and then define what and how we will learn.





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