About (un)conferencing

For some time now, the Man and I have been talking about writing a new and improved version of the guide we wrote many years ago, called How to unconference your birthday. This plan was not high on our priority list for many reasons, but lately I sense it’s moving up on the list.

The vision in our household is that the traditional form for conferences bring very little value compared to the combined investment of all attendees. Imagine a thousand people travelling to a city in Europe, from all over the world, booking hotel rooms for the duration of the event, spending a lot of money on an entry ticket to sit on their butt most of the time and silently listen to a person the organisation deemed worthy to pay a fee (or not) to tell a story (of which you probably can find an earlier version of on Youtube). If you’re lucky it’s a good story, a lot of times it’s not a good story. You probably come home after the event, telling your colleagues or spouse about how wonderful the event was. You spent a lot of money on it, so what else could you say. Admitting that it was a waste of time and money? Your mind will always give a positive spin on your experience. The conference was OK, but I really enjoyed being in another city for a few days. I didn’t learn anything new, but I got to meet two people and we had a lot of fun during dinner.

The Man and I made a different choices early in our carreers. We didn’t want to spend large chunks of our modest budget on such events. Instead we chose very specific events to attend which embraced the collective intelligence of participants. We got so inspired that we organised smaller and bigger events ourselves. All those events had one common theme: connect the people in the room. Not that we skip the role of someone presenting entirely, but we aim to maximize the time for people to interact. That’s what makes travelling to another town, another country, another continent worth it. Talk to each other and you’ll learn.

Post-pandemic travel will commence soon enough. Perhaps not this year yet, but 2022 will most definitely be packed with conferences and other business meetings to make up for the time we couldn’t shake hands. Conference organisers will most definitely continue to pay (or not pay) speakers to receive the sole centre of attention, while a hundred or a thousand people listen, at best processing their thoughts on Twitter, at worst taking a nap in the semi-dark. Imagine thousand people taking a plane to take do this: sit in a chair for eight hours a day, listening, taking some notes, meeting a few people (if they’re lucky). That is what going back to normal looks like when we talk about conferences. What a waste of resources, in the broadest sense of the word.

I guess I feel the urge to inspire others to reimagine the concept of conferences. The Man and I have shown how to do that many times. Some who visited our events, created their own version to connect people in their own community. We know many people who are doing a much better job at organising these type of events than we do. Perhaps now is the time to translate all our combined experience in words for others to read. So if you happen to read this, and have been an event organizer at some point in your life, expect an invite from us to talk about this topic.