Jeff Jarvis' rant the other day about conferences strikes a chord for me as I'm involved in speaking at quite a few during the next few months (see the links in the left-hand column).
I'm hoping they do not have some of the characteristics of what I saw at one or two events I participated in during 2005, my experiences of which I can sum up by paraphrasing Jeff:
Too many conferences suck. They're too expensive. They are filled with boring panels. They are all about speeches and not about conversation and argument and learning and meeting. They don't capture the expertise of the crowd. They enrich the organizers at the cost of both the "talent" and the "audience" [...] often, the problem is that the interests of those who make conferences work - the people who fill it - are not aligned with the interests of the money behind conferences - the organizers and sponsors.
That really does sum up far too many conference, the typical corporate-type event where I often wonder why people have bothered to gather together after forking out a fortune in attendance fees and travel costs when it seems to me that no one really is engaged, or even cares.
Yet the real dilemma as I see it is not only about conference organizers, vested interests and the other criticisms (valid ones, to be sure) that Jeff squarely levels. It's also about the willingness of those involved - speakers/presenters and delegates - to actually engage.
I agree with nearly everything Jeff says about what the format or structure of a conference should ideally be - what Jeff calls the 'unconference' - where a prime responsibility of the event organizer is to create the most effective framework that facilitates or enables all the people there to make the most of the environment that's been created for them. And this includes things like blogs, RSS and wifi as well.
If that's the organizer's responsibility, then the speaker's/presenter's responsibility is to use that environment as his or her own framework to provide the means to stimulate engagement with the people who have showed up at the event. So that means things like no boring PowerPoints, no panels full of talking heads just having a nice little chat with each other, etc. You know the kind of thing I mean.
Instead, it means speakers and presenters who really do participate with their audience, making that audience an integral part of the session. In effect, everyone there is the panel or presentation where the (so-called) presenter or speaker is a conversation leader and focus former. Now there's a convoluted label!.
Those attending have a responsibility, too - actively participate, not just sit there like glazed-eyed mute dummies where you can see the bodies are physically in the room but the minds are absent.
All of these things need to happen if any conference could be judged as even halfway successful. But I'm actually quite optimistic, at least about most of those events I'm involved in over the next few months as I can see many of the framework elements already being built by those who are doing the organizing.
And I'm pretty clear on my own responsibility.