What makes a conference useless?

Seth Godin says that so many conferences fail to inspire people to change their behavior because, in trying to reach the "average" attendee, they rely on just teaching the facts. Godin says, “Facts don’t change people’s behavior. Emotion changes people’s behavior. Stories and irrational impulses are what change behavior. Not facts or bullet points… Human beings are irrational.”

While I agree with Marc E. Babej's contention that the whole rational/emotional thing is a lot more complicated than Godin's post suggests—that there's a whole continuum of rationality and emotionality, with a lot of overlap—adult education theory tends to back the idea that what you care about sticks with you. Or what you fear, or what you [insert emotional state here]. And attendees who are emotionally connected to the conference content also have more reason to take action based on what they learn, because it'll make them feel better in some way, and we all want that.

Why wouldn't you want to encourage that connection to the material? Why not elicit a little emotion? All too many conferences rely on some motivational speaker to do all the emotional heavy lifting, and when it comes to the real learning part, it's all droning and PowerPoint. Hence, average experiences at best.

How do you inject emotion into an event? Get attendees involved. Make it their meeting, not yours, not your CEO's. Do something radical. Give up some control (yes, I hear your teeth grinding at the thought!). Instead of throwing facts at people, let them inspire each other—that's why all those surveys say networking is among the top reasons people go to a conference.

The rub, of course, is that when you do get them involved in their learning, attendees then get upset, saying that "they're making us do all the work?" and "I came to learn from experts, not Joe Blow"? Why? Most of us, including your attendees, say we want one thing when we really want another. Tom Asacker has a great post about all this. One snip:

    Marketing experts continue to advise getting rid of the hype and, instead, providing more depth. For example, if you're running a business event or meeting, give people content. That's what they want: content and connections, which will help them improve their businesses and their lives. But the information says otherwise. That's why the highest fees go to the biggest celebrities, and not to the most insightful presenters. Don't believe me? Look it up. Halle Berry receives $100 -$500k for corporate appearances. Wal-Mart paid her six figures to appear at its 2004 shareholders meeting. Trying to get paid attendees to your next event? Who do you think will draw more people, the Desperate Housewives or Peter Senge? Be honest.

Which circles us back around to the emotional/factual scale. We may want to learn how to do our business better, etc., but we really, really want to see that celebrity. So, how do we make the factual end of the scale have the emotional pull of star-gazing? I'm not sure, but I'd start by making it fun, making it real, and making it theirs. (See 10 Ways Not to Have a Boring Meeting, by speaker and futurist Jim Carroll, for some more ideas.)

P.S. Tradeshow marketing expert Rich Westerfield nails it when he says of all this blogo-talk about conferences: "I care less about whether Godin or Babej is right and more about the fact that we're having the conversation at all. In the tens of millions of conversations happening in the blogospehere every day, discussion about the role and value of conferences in marketing and continuing education is virtually non-existent. So if top bloggers and thought leaders are bashing conference organizers... as they say, all press is good press." I'd add: Now, let's give them something a little more positive to talk about.

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