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Conferences Are About People

(I originally wrote this blog post in January 2013. Below is a slightly modified version.)
Most of the time, I really like signing up for conferences. The idea of being physically surrounded by smart, motivated people who are interested in the same themes as me for hours and hours is incredibly appealing. I dream about the interesting people I'll connect with and the engaging conversations I'll get inspired by.
But most of the time, I really hate actually being at conferences. That's because the things I dream about actually happen very rarely. At the vast majority of conferences, what you have is a large group of smart, creative people who have traveled far and near to be co-located for a couple days for some shared interests — but then they're all piled into crammed rooms where they have to sit for hours and listen to one person after another read from their papers or read from their presentation slides. For most of the duration of the conference, most people aren't doing anything other than being forced to stay in the same stationary position in silence while being talked at. The things that actually excite me about conferences — meeting and bonding with people who care about what I care about, discussing ideas with people from different backgrounds, forming real relationships — happen only rarely if at all, and if they do happen then they happen in stifled, dissatisfying doses. What's worst is that I'm often so mentally numbed from being talked at for hours and hours that I feel drained and antisocial when it's actually time for some rare, controlled socializing (like during the tightly-timed lunch hour or awkward reception).
I think all conferences should try to stimulate rather than dull people's creative energies and conversations among attendees. It sounds so obvious but it's clearly not being practiced enough! At the minimum, I think all conferences should:
  • Get rid of the one-person-at-the-podium-lecturing-at-a-room model, maybe with the exception of explicitly demarcated keynote speeches and panel discussions where everybody goes in wanting to be talked at, and which should only take up a tiny minority of conference time;
  • Fill most conference time with interactive workshops, open discussions, hackathon-like activities that are hands-on and collaborative, and informal social events — basically arrangements where most people in the room get to talk (and ideally use their limbs too) and the outputs of the session are collaboratively generated by the people in the session;
  • Dedicate at least a small portion of the conference to the "unconference" model, where attendees get to decide the discussion topics and facilitate the sessions themselves; and
  • Require everyone who plans to lead a presentation or session to read some simple guidelines beforehand, including "don't talk to your slides while keeping your back to the audience," "don't make fun of other people," and "make it interactive."
I try to follow these rules for all conferences I organize. And I really, really hope more and more conference planners will soon realize that conferences are actually about people and people's experiences at the conference.
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