Adrian Segar is Intent on Changing Conferences
Why today's conferences need a makeover
Conferences have become downright dull, tedious and expensive affairs that ultimately amount to nothing more than a waste of time, money and effort. So, let’s call it like it is: conference fatigue is real.
Think about the keynote speakers from the last conference you attended. Can you remember their main points? Can you recall anything of substance they said? If you can’t, you’re forgiven. The fault isn’t with your memory or even with the speakers or the conference planners. It’s bigger than that.
We’re suffering from the “conference-in-a-box” syndrome. Today's conferences have devolved into glorified content-lecturing, networking and personal branding events. Attendees ask questions not to learn information or discover a fresh perspective, but to show off their knowledge. Conference planners load the agenda with speakers who are there to promote their own brand and add yet another conference keynote to their LinkedIn profile, not to engage the audience. There’s a reason the back row of most conferences are packed while the front row remains an empty no-man’s land.
Adrian Segar is changing this. Over the last 35 years, Adrian Segar has designed, convened, and facilitated hundreds of conferences. He understands what works and what falls flat. Now, he’s on a mission to revolutionize our approach to conferences by turning them into events that truly engage and capitalize on the attendees’ collective wisdom and experience.
I recently spoke with Segar about why traditional conferences fail and how to design a smarter, better conference. Here’s what he had to say.
Attendees —Think dozens, not hundreds
Conferences are all about connections, but it can be hard to make any meaningful professional connections when you’re crammed into a room with 500 other people. That’s why Segar is embracing the trend towards targeted meetings that are capped at 100 like-minded people.
“Most people call targeted meetings their best meetings,” says Segar. “I’d much rather hang out with my tribe than spend the entire conference trying to figure out who my tribe is.”
Yes, most professional conference planners would prefer to be responsible for the 500 person conference rather than the 100 person. After all, the bigger the conference the more lucrative it will be, right? Traditional conference planners have a vested interest in large conferences, but Segar is working to change this by shifting the focus to what’s in the best interest of conference attendees, not planners.
While a higher number of attendees can increase the possibility of knowledge and perspectives, higher numbers also decrease interactivity. The best conferences strike a balance by carefully targeting a group of peers who can learn from each other and intentionally keeping attendance low, which greatly enhances the attendee experience.
Crowd source the agenda
Conference planners traditionally set forth a strict plan with little to no feedback from attendees about the keynote speaker, panelists, or discussion topics. Segar argues that this organizational hierarchy creates different classes of attendees: those who speak at the front of the room and those who do not, those who ask questions or socialize with the presenters and those who do not. These conference roles tend to be self-reinforcing, reducing the opportunity for interaction and connection.
“It’s hard to create deep relationships if some attendees are in awe or dismissive of others,” warns Segar.
Segar advocates for “peer conferences”, which minimize these distinctions between presenters and the audience, and facilitate interaction and connection. Smaller, structured peer conferences start with a roundtable to identify attendees interests, topic suggestions and needs. Peers then lead smaller breakout sessions that may include workshops, discussions, panels, and presentations. Unlike traditional conferences, these are informal ad hoc events with an emphasis on dialogue and communication. These sessions facilitate the building of group and individual relationships, which leads to the creation of a conference community.
Peer conferences end with a personal introspective and group perspective, which encourage attendees to reflect on the experience individually and as a group. Peer conferences build community through genuine interaction and the elimination of self-reinforcing conference hierarchies.
Deliver real value based on need to know
When Segar first started facilitating conferences in the 1980s, much of what individuals learned happened in the classroom. Today, he’s quick to point out that this paradigm has shifted – and that conferences need to deliver real educational value.
“These days you learn in the workplace what you need to know mostly through self-instruction or from your peers,” says Segar. “So it’s important for conference designs to mirror how we learn professionally, — allowing attendees to share with each other what they want and need to know, and match it to their collective experience and expertise. The conference then delivers real value: what participants actually want and need.”
For real learning to occur, Segar says it’s critical to create an environment that encourages participants to ask the tough questions they’ve never asked before. Peer conferences promote outside-the-box ideas because people feel comfortable speaking and engaging in exciting, innovative ways. These conferences take away a fear of appearing ignorant or the need to impress.
Conferences that connect peers and answer questions
People go to conferences to get questions answered and to build genuine professional connections. Whether you’re planning a conference or considering which ones to attend this year, keep Segar’s approach to peer conferences in mind. Smaller group conferences are inclusive and deliver real value to all participants. That's a win-win-win for planners, participants and speakers.
About Adrian Segar
Adrian Segar is a former elementary particle physicist who has organized and facilitated conferences for over 30 years. Dissatisfied with traditional conferences, and realizing that he loved to connect with people and to create spaces for them to connect with each other, he created the first peer conference in 1992 and has been refining Conferences That Work process ever since.
He is the author of two books “Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love” and “The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.” He is the founder of Conferences That Work, Marlboro, VT. You can contact Adrian on Twitter @asegar and LinkedIIn at www.linkedin.com/in/adriansegar. Find his blog at conferencesthatwork.com.