The Real Value at Conferences

Jan 23, 2018 | Conferences and Speaking

Marketplace Weekend interviewed MIT economics professor John Van Reenen in anticipation of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. What struck me was that this Forum was just like most other conferences that you and I go to. Reenen observed: “The interesting stuff all happens in between the kind of formal meetings, the random chats which go on outside in the corridors and walking around and maybe in the evening.”

This reminded me of a similar sentiment about conferences expressed by Wharton professor Adam Grant in his book Give and Take: The Hidden Social Dynamics of Success. Grant quotes David Hornik, among other roles the curator and host of The Lobby, an unconference-style event without pre-selected speakers or panels: “I discovered that I stopped going in to hear the speakers, and I would spend all my time chatting with the people in the lobby about what they’re working on. The real value of these events was the conversations and relationships that were created between people. What if a conference was about conversations and relationships, not content?”

As I remarked in this post four years ago, “I don’t know why anybody does go to a standard conference anymore. There are so many ways to gather information of the sort delivered at conferences, yet there are so few meaningful ways to “gather” relationships. Relationships inherently require a behavior that is at odds with typical conferences, which is why relationships with genuine connection and belonging arise in conference lobbies, hotel bars, and breakfast rooms.” 

The truth is that we would do just as well – better, I think – if we just read the books, watched the TED Talks and perused the long-form media articles in advance of the conference and then, while at the event, engaged with other thoughtful people in more expansive, unpredictable discussion. Imagine, for a moment, being at a conference where, rather than sitting side by side facing in one direction, we all looked at each other instead. Indeed, it gets easier by the day to get information, but so much harder to get together. Why would we not capitalize on how special that is?

Again, noting Reenen’s observations: “The formal set pieces are less interesting than the more informal stuff which goes on; the main educational stuff can often be a little superficial.”

In coming together, we each can bring our knowledge and transform it into wisdom. In that spirit, let’s not call the next generation of events conferences, but perhaps gatherings? What gatherings are you excited to attend this year?


Photo credit: Media Evolution on Best Running / CC BY-SA

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