Denise Graveline is one eloquent woman. In fact, she is The Eloquent Woman, bringing her good brain and her vast experience as a writer and as a communicator to her blog posts "on women and public speaking." I'm such a fan of Graveline that I've made her posts a regular part of Vital Speeches' website.
But recently Graveline advanced a gravely misguided but currently conventional idea about the future of business conferences.
She wants to transform conferences into the very flickering, helterskelter social-media shitstorm from which they are now our only port.
Et tu, E.W?
In a post titled "Remixing the conference: 5 cues for organizers," Graveline acknowledges that traditional conferences, allow attendees to "connect with lots of others with shared interests, interact with experts, get recognition from their peers, and find lots of high-quality content and plain old schmoozing opportunities."
That's a lot to do in two or three days! Alas, say Graveline and her cohorts in confab complication, it's just not enough anymore. That's because attendees are so used to social media, Graveline says, that "they are way ahead of [conference] organizers … demanding more and better content, audio-visual support for audience-members on the backchannel, and options for watching the conference from afar and for free."
Specifically, Graveline recommends that conference organizers:
• encourage and actually help facilitate audience live-tweeting of the conference
• indulge audiences' ADD: "audiences are looking for shorter speaking times, varied session length and even more content," Graveline claims without a durned bit of evidence
• elicit and pump in the reaction of far-flung audiences who are absentmindedly gazing at the sessions on video conference or glancing at handouts online.
Though there are some good ideas on Graveline's list (for instance, she points out that conference organizers can use social media to solicit and vet potential speakers) … mostly, the post makes me wonder when the last time Graveline and has really been to a conference.
Mentally, I mean.
Because in my conference-going experience both recent and past, a traditional conference is itself a tsunami of stimuli. Surrounded by one's peers in the flesh for the first and last time in a while, one is simultaneously struggling to absorb new ideas from speakers, and to imagine how those ideas might be modified and applied back at the office.
Hour upon hour, session after session, more ideas, more reactions, both intellectual and emotional. Notes scribbled, business-cards collected, hands shaken, social fuck-ups made and self-forgiven, bad sessions walked out on, good sessions walked in on, the exhibit hall slinked through, dinearounds signed up for, at the bar for one more, blinky breakfast roundtables barely made.
There are new people to meet, old colleagues to catch up with and random encounters to contend with and to integrate into the experience. All the while checking voice mail and e-mail to make sure a hundred crises haven't erupted back at the office. Oh, and speaking of the office …
… toward the end of the event, the pressure builds to sum up the conference for your boss who fought for the budget money to send you, and for your colleagues, who have been covering for you all week.
What did you get out of it? What did you come away with? Any ideas we can use?
By the time you get on the plane, your head is overstuffed with techniques, case studies, the odd-but-nagging opinions of others, half-developed theses of your own—and if it was a truly productive event, it's a little achy from booze, too.
And to this Denise Graveline wants to add constant tweeting and live-blogging, more and shorter sessions, a sense that Unseen Others Are Watching and Listening on the "backchannel," and erratic input from a global peanut gallery?
I read Graveline's list from the point of view of a conference organizer, too. I are one.
And as a conference organizer, I realize that one of the most important gifts I can give my attendees is a respite from the random. A conference, however overwhelming for those who are really interested in acquainting themselves with new people and ideas, is a comfort, because it's here and now and us and nobody else.
To make conferences better, we ought to make them not more like a schizophrenic Twitter feed, but less.
And not less of an intimate, shared experience, but more of one.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
At the risk of aligning myself too tightly with the youngest old person I know, I completely agree with you on this one, David.
Conferences are a great example of why social media are not the end-all and be-all. I use social media every day, but when I go to a conference, I’m looking for a respite from the constant checking of my Twitter feed, Facebook page and e-mail. I’m looking for that intimate, interpersonal experience that only face-to-face communication can provide. I want to hear the words of my online friends in their own voices and with their own physical nuances. I want apples where most days I get oranges.
My guess is that the right and proper place of social media within the context of a conference will shake out in a few years. A conference or other face-to-face experience is a unique medium that has a specific place among all the others. Some things you just can’t replicate online.
David Murray says
Thanks, Robert. (Now, have you seen my walker?)
The question to be asked in all situations is, “What is the unique opportunity here?”
Many of the things that happen at a conference can also happen online.
We should protect the things that happen at a conference that CAN’T happen online.
Bah! There is a big, intentional difference between Twitter and a conference, Duh!
While I agree with pretty much everything in your post, I glommed onto this in particular regarding Ms. Graveline’s perspective:
“… and options for watching the conference from afar and for free.”
So, I presume Ms. Graveline speaks gratis at any conference who invites her, then? Oh yes, and pays her own flight and hotel to get to the conference?
Come ON, people! Get real! This is the same nonsensical idea as these goofs who steal music online but would be INCENSED if their bosses expected them to work for free for a few weeks or months because they don’t feel like they should have to pay you.
Guess what? It costs money to put on a conference and people expect to get something from their participation. If it isn’t old fashioned money, then at least the potential to identify and connect with new clients, which is highly unlikely if most of the participatants are virtual.
Plus, I can barely manage to focus on a podcast that goes more than 15 minutes without getting distracted or losing focus. How much am I REALLY likely to get out of a conference session I “watch from afar,” probably sitting at my desk with phone ringing, email pinging and people coming into my office to ask me questions?!
I say again, Bah!
David Murray says
I’ll see your “Bah” and raise you one “Gah!” Good point: Remote “conferencing” isn’t conferencing. It’s a hideously boring TV show or a radio program, viewed or listened to in an office, surrounded by a hundred more pressing distractions.
There’s no substitute for going to the show.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
And not only is the resulting experience a bad one for the “attender from afar” due to the reasons you’ve given, but it also is a bad one for the participants and speakers who are “live” at the conference — because the “attender from afar” will end up asking irrelevant questions and making stupid comments brought about by his/her distractedness.
By the way, Kristen, while I agree with what you’re saying, don’t fool yourself into thinking most conference organizers compensate anyone other than marquee-name presenters, which are the minority at any conference.
Denise Graveline says
I, too, have admired David’s work here and elsewhere, and just yesterday, recommended it to thousands of people via Twitter. You’re welcome, David.
I find it difficult to craft a response to David’s post, as I said very little of what is recast here in absolutes that I neither wrote nor intended, starting with the headline and throughout the post. The dramatic overlay pushes my points to an extreme to help David make his points, but they are, in fact, his own and not mine.
I consult for organizations, and on the blog in question—which is not The Eloquent Woman blog—I highlight trends that people are discussing or which are emerging and give them other places to go to find out more. Then, being thinking people, they choose how and whether to implement those ideas or adapt them to their own uses. At no point do I mandate, order, or decree what should be done, and I don’t make the types of blanket recommendations implied here. I am sorry to learn that David, usually a fine and close reader, misses the tempered language. I would not survive long as a consultant if this were my real approach.
Audiences are “out in front” on this issue in the sense that they have moved sooner than organizers have, and it were ever thus, things being how they are. I attend conferences in every sense of the word, thank you, as participant, speaker, organizer and facilitator. I hear more audience feedback than most people do. It’s that to which I am responding, to give my readers a heads-up.
There are a few conference organizers, in the face of these trends, who have banned all electronica and made their sessions even more closed, for example (and I have blogged about them, too). That’s for you to choose.
It’s the prospect of changes, I find, that make people uncomfortable, whether that’s technology-driven or some other change. I see your discomfort, and hope in future you can distinguish between me and the trends when you want to level a critique.
Cheers and good morning to you.
David Murray says
Readers, I told you Denise was eloquent! Denise, thanks much for your response.
To your best point: I certainly do distinguish between your advice and the trends: except when they’re indistinguishable.
Here’s you, on traditional conferences, and on future conferences:
• “it’s a formula that needs to get shaken up like the glow sticks in that Blendtec blender”
• “to make sure your next conference blends smoothly with these new trends, here are five major areas where remixes are going on”
• “With audiences now expecting to use smartphones and laptops throughout a conference, it’s wise to reorganize your audio-visual and tech support so that extra outlets and surge protectors, as well as wi-fi, are standard offerings at your next meeting”
Your endorsement of these changes, with nary a word about about the merits of restraint in turning conference halls into blinking, buzzing casino floors, got me going.
And as I mentioned in an e-mail to you, I may feel more strongly about these issues than I ought to.
But I guess it upset me especially that YOU–someone who I believe understands communication deeply and well–would recommend, in on however tempered a style, introducing more distractions to the three-ring circuses that conferences already are.
To answer your last point. I am not made “uncomfortable” by change. I am made sad and deeply worried by a society that’s increasingly connected by electrical cords alone.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that “online communities build nothing.”
I don’t quite agree with him. But I would say that online communities build nothing of real permanence–and that eyeball-to-eyeball meetings between human beings (the meetings that DO help us build great things) require peace and space and quiet and privacy and time.
Come to think of it, why should I apologize for feeling strongly about that?
Denise Graveline says
Thanks for pointing out that my post got stuck in your craw, although I think that was apparent. Damned uncomfortable place to be, I say.
I actually was not advocating piling on of distractions at conferences–but they are going to happen, and it’s good to anticipate, manage and learn to accept them, which is all part of what I mean when I tell clients “don’t get caught.”
Connections can be deepened at conferences between people who’ve connected via social media. In my experience, we are more eager rather than less to meet in person, not just via cords. I even feel that way about you, still. Mostly.
And I don’t recall asking you to apologize, so save the high dudgeon for when you really need it. Again, a pleasure to “speak” with you.
David Murray says
I’ll look forward to our in-person meeting, Denise. It’s overdue.
Bill Sweetland says
Graveline doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Like all consultants, when she, through absentmindedness or simply from distraction brought on by too much listening to trend-makers at conferences she hasn’t paid to attend, repeats the bilious maunderings of half-drunk habitual haunters of these conferences as her own considered opinions, she’s naturally surprised and offended when someone she’s regarded as a “contact” and “supporter” takes exception to her amateurish prognosticating.
Remember, David, you are not nearly as attuned to the ADDults (or should I say the ADDolts who loiter at conferences and long for something that’s free, just like their kids who download, free, bad music illegally) as Ms. Graveline is. Like 95% of all consultants, when she’s caught saying something that might conceivably be construed as either a real positive or a real negative, she backtracks immediately, and blames the artless person who took her words literally and sincerely. How could he fail to read between her lines the nuance that was there all the time?
And so The Eloquent (but supremely modest) Woman is innocent of holding the decisive views you attribute to her, David. How COULD you be so insensitive?
All she was doing was to offer you a few pearls of crowd wisdom. She is sniffing out trends like we haven’t seen since the halcyon days of Alvin Toffler, and you come along with your porcine insensitivity and just ruin her third cocktail with “key” conference trend-setters who want free Twittering and no conference registration fees. HOW DARE YOU?!
Oh, David, David, in spite of all my warnings you’ve learned nothing about crowd-sourcing! I shall never be ashamed of you, but I shall forever regret the bull-in-a-china-shop attitude you adopted with regard to The Eloquent Woman.
Do me a favor. Apologize this instant.
I do like some of the social media meanderings at conferences I cannot attend and I do tweet or blog a little while I am there.
The conferences I attend usually have the proceedings on-line. So, I can comment that, e.g., Rodriguez talked about the new Bayesian options in SAS 9.2. Anyone interested in Bayesian probability will want to check this out. Or, there may be someone new and young I hadn’t heard of before who gave a crystal clear definition of spline regression that I want to steal and use to explain it to students. When I see comments like that on a blog or twitter I am likely to follow up and I try to return the favor.
The advantage to the presenter is that he or she (and the company) get higher visibility, which is one reason most people present at conferences, because unless you are the keynote the pay isn’t usually worth it.
I do attend one conference that does not publish proceedings and charges an even heftier fee than most. Even for that one, though, I think the free publicity of posting about good ideas from the conference may encourage people to attend next year.
Besides, all those tweets and blogs let whoever is picking up the tab see that I really did go to the sessions and not spend all my time drinking cocktails!