Making Traditional Conferences Better

I was asked to provide some assistance to a U.S. conference last week. A gathering of 280 or so good folk who are doing work to increase energy efficient in industries. Their normal conference is multiple parallel sessions where juried papers ACEEE2are presented; they asked me to bring in just a little bit of participatory process. Nothing complicated. We began with a World Cafe to connect people with each other and with their purpose in being present. We ended with an Open Space to explore the questions they were taking home.

Since I wasn’t a participant, I didn’t get preoccupied with the annoyance I’ve felt when I’ve sometimes attended academic conferences of this sort. I had some space to actually think!

Why, why, why are we still using this form that was started I don’t know how many years ago? Why do we persist in putting speakers in the front of a room where they try to pack everything dear to them into a 30 minute shell? Why do we typically ignore so much that’s been learned about how we actually learn? What stops us from being more creative in use technologies that have become readily available in the last 5-10 years?

We’re trapped, I think, in an antiquated way of convening. It also seems, sometimes, that we bounce from one extreme to another. We either organize to maximize delivery of huge amounts of content that is organized in advance, or we use participatory methods to try to do everything in real time.

Let’s get smart and start blending:

  • Use wise processes to identify useful content in advance. The ancient process of juried papers is actually one of those. It’s just that those papers don’t need to be presented as papers!
  • Bring on the coaching. Limit any presentation that will be given to 8-12 minutes — including keynotes. I’ve had really good coaches in the TEDx presentations I’ve made. At first I grumbled about the time restrictions. But they moved me away from trying to tell people everything I knew about a topic and towards discovering what I thought was most essential.
  • Blend different kinds of spaces, continuously. Have a few — no more than 4 — short presentations followed by well-hosted conversation with questions pertinent to the presentations. Have time which is purely social — and bring in music, mime, street theatre. Have time that is completely participant driven — use Open Space well and often.
  • Do graphic harvesting and keep showing the whole group what’s going on in the parts of the group.
  • Design the whole event with a conscious, generative flow which sets up clear ways for people to continue their learning after they’re back home. Include within this attractive access to the great papers people submitted for peer review for presentations — and include those papers which didn’t lead to presentations but which are nonetheless informative and useful


These are, of course, just some initial ideas. My main point is that it is so very easy these days to start getting creative. Enormous sums of money are spent for conferences — travel, food, lodging, facilities, participant and staff time. Let’s do them better!

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