Rethinking conferences

by Jay Cross on February 17, 2009

When I signed up for Spaces for Interaction: An Online Conversation about Improving the Traditional Conference, I didn’t appreciate how timely the topic would become.

Conferences have traditionally provided foundation knowledge for instructional designers, trainers, CLOs, and others in the field. I’ve learned a whale of a lot from these events over the last twenty years. Through their presentations at conferences, Allison Rossett, Elliott Masie, Gloria Gery, and scores of other awesome teachers have shaped the thinking of the greater learning and development community of practice. Conference attendance have played a vital role in our professional development.

Nonetheless, the patience of those of us who have paid our dues in Orlando, Las Vegas, Anaheim, Chicago, and L.A. over the years is wearing thin. When the old hands gather at the bar in the conference hotel, you’ll find them shaking their heads while saying there’s got to be a better way. The basic structure of one-way presentations, flying to convention cities, blowing an entire week at a time, and vendors going through the motions but getting few sales is counter to the culture and M.O. of the network era. Scheduling twenty simultaneous sessions guarantees you’ll miss something you wanted to see. Wi-fi is always broken. Some of the certificate programs conducted before conferences strike me as low-grade diploma mills. There’s lots of room for improvement.

Note: The vintage photos in this post are from training conferences circa 2000.

As the Recession Waxes, Business Meetings Wane

According to a survey released last month that was conducted by the industry trade group Meeting Professionals International and American Express, 7 percent of business meetings already scheduled for 2009 have been canceled. And attendance is expected to be down by about 5 percent at those meetings that are still being held, the survey found.

…more often a professional event is canceled because the number of prospective attendees has shrunk as companies lay off employees and cut travel and professional education budgets for remaining workers.

One conference planner, who did not wish to be identified because of continuing hotel negotiations, canceled a two-day seminar a month before it was scheduled to take place when only 16 delegates had registered. The event had drawn an average of 125 people in years past. The organization refunded registration fees for the handful who had signed up, and offered a credit toward a future event to offset the expense of canceling their flights.


Last night I received an invitation to PresentationCamp.

It’s a BarCamp, the Open Source Version of a Conference

PresentationCamp is an ad-hoc gathering of passionate folks who want to share, interact and spread the love around the topic of presentation design and delivery. Come to learn, come to share: everyone walks away knowing a little bit more.

No More Death by PowerPoint

Spending your days and nights toiling away on a killer slide set? Need to develop one? Hearing about the new trends set by Nancy Duarte, Guy Kawasaki, Garr Reynolds and others? Wondering if the new trend toward visuals and storytelling are really going to take you to the next level? Did you see a fantastic presentation and want to emulate it?

Yes? Then let’s get together and talk about it.

Is it a Conference?

Yes. It’s your conference. Giving a presentation is open to anyone, and encouraged! Want to talk/present, or see who’s talking? See the Sessions and Schedule below for topics submitted by attendees (and add your own if you’re coming). The event schedule will be determined from 9:30-10:00 AM, and all attendees are invited to host a session. You do not have to present if you don’t want, but it is encouraged. Once the schedule is set, the fun begins! Expect to be engaged, educated, and hopefully entertained as well.

I’ll be there, and since it’s a BarCamp, I will probably lead a session on whatever springs to mind on the one-hour drive down to the Stanford campus.


surveyshare logo
In preparation for my conversation on PowerPoint is Tyranny midday Wednesday, I took an impromptu survey on what makes for a conference great… or a loser. 48 people have responded. Here are the raw results.

More than half of the participants are speakers, not participants, so you have to be careful interpreting the responses.

4) What makes a conference great? Give us a few examples.

Response 1 Great night life and scenery in host city. People and networks. A chance to meet famous people. Free wireless.
Response 2 Lots of “white space” = time between scheduled events
Response 3 Great speakers. Great chances for interaction. The right “vibe”. Wireless.
Response 4 Content / speakers / networking
Response 5 Relevant content and effective speakers
Response 6 Relationships established, Research/Rationale, Applicalbe to address needs for attending conference
Response 7 Interaction, fun events, co-creation of new ideas, doing stuff with other people. e.g. Writer-sports, Theatre-sports —- writing a play and acting it out at the same time – that focuses on what we could collectively become. Thinking Theatre, events using a team meeting system with wireless keyboards to collectively respond to a sequence of questions that helps the audience experience/learn how to think/act like the keynote.
Response 8 Great people Great opportunities to meet the great people Great food Great Technology
Response 9 Interactive sessions, opportunities for attendee networking, good mix of vendor, academic and peer led sessions, well organized schedules, opportunities for product demos, appropriate keynotes for the attendee audience.
Response 10 Lots of opportunities to break bread together and network in casual surroundings. One of the best was an oceanside bonfire roasting marshmallows. Patio buffets are nice. At another conference, we voted on topics and broke into small discussion groups.
Response 11 Enough time to get to know a few new people as well as to catch up with old conference friends. Presenters who work on the assumption that the rest of us are interested and competent. Interesting spaces – informal meeting and/or socializing space. Choices but not overwhelming number of events.
Response 12 Meeting intelligent, sharing people who are passionate about the same things I am
Response 13 Interaction; good web conferencing software, audio and video elements, whiteboards, diverse contributions
Response 14
Response 15 Engaging, interactive sessions; “white space”- time to ruminate and reflect on learnings (and not just shuttled from one session to another); sensible, structured, assisted networking (“I’m hiring” buttons or other ice breaker buttons, ribbons, tables, etc). Mix of short, interactive, discussion sessions with lecture with application sessions. A good social event one night (band, theme, etc)
Response 16 Relevant practical papers. Related papers grouped together. As a presenter, great guidance and specific information from organisers. Food is ultimately important
Response 17 The chance to learn something to improve practice. This usually means interactive sessions, rather than presentations. Good keynote speakers can give me new ideas that I can take with me and explore.
Response 18 Great treatment of speakers, great guides for speakers, great control of commercialism, free wifi, good receptions, great location (city you’d want to visit anyway), good lineup, good keynotes
Response 19 Clear administrative and logistical processes so I don’t have to worry about the details. Communication about events and locations so I understand what is happening and where I need to be. Enough variety to provide a wide range of options Enough opportunities for informal fellowship to allow me to meet others. I am NOT talking about structured networking, but more unstructured time and opportunity to mix and mingle. Good weather:).
Response 20 welcoming atmosphere, inspirational speakers, opportunities to share experience and network, good logistical organisation – e.g. practical things like parking facilities for conferences in Brussels – quite rare!! good food,
Response 21 High quality keynote speakers range of topics/discussion areas covered Presentation of new (to me) ideas Opportunities to think (away from the hubub of day to day work)
Response 22
Response 23 1. Enables participants to keep themselves up-to-date in their respective fields. 2. Provides an opportunity to interact with others and create collaborative work.
Response 24 Diversity of participants, not too big, space for a social program but no programming of the social program. Can’t think of any examples that cover all of these.
Response 25 Opportunity to meet like-minded people. Opportunity to promote our services to possible clients.
Response 26 Interactive presentations Meeting of friends and strangers New principles and procedures New concepts and ideas
Response 27 inspireing presentations good conversations in breaks
Response 28 Focus on just a few topic areas, thoughtful choice of speakers, someone competent handling logistics.
Response 29 networking–the mealtimes and breaks are where some of the best stuff happens.
Response 30 good presenters, new and interesting ideas to apply, new friends, great location, engaging experiences.
Response 31 high-quality participants with buying authority
Response 32 Interaction with peers and presenters. Brainstorming, discussion, engagement, a resulting feeling of energized empowerment and inspiration.
Response 33 Presentations about cutting edge developments in the field.
Response 34 The quality and relevance of the topics. Having the big names is nice too, but many times their sessions are about the same topic. So, if you went to so-and-so’s session at one conference, you probaby don’t need to bother with his/her session at the next conference. I really enjoy the sessions done by practitioners where they share their successes (and failures).
Response 35 Options…plenty of options for how to become involved with the content.
Response 36 Content, Networking
Response 37 Excellent presentations, lots of content, but plenty of guided networking activities. Not just free time that allows everybody to disappear, but time where people get to more or less informally exchange ideas about solutions to mutual problems.
Response 38 Lots of interaction between speaker and audience, and also between audience and audience. The more space for meaningful dialogue the better.
Response 39 Solid theme(s) and presenters that have prepared for the audience etc. Obviously the networking aspect are critical too – need to be close to the sessions etc.
Response 40 Engaging, motivational speakers
Response 41 Great content, networking, actionable takeaways, future possibilities
Response 42 Good schedule, great keynotes, social interaction
Response 43 Good presentations on a wide variety of topics
Response 44 good speakers good conversations with colleagues networking meeting new people
Response 45 interesting and prepared, on topic, dynamic speakers
Response 46 Organization, quality of speakers, multiple themes, EDUCAUSE ELI is by far the best example I have experienced for overall quality, service to its attendee community. (And I have MANY years at numerous conferences in different areas of emphasis from my academic discipline to compliance organization in higher ed)
Response 47 Connecting with like minded participants, engaged participation, discussion forums, active how to use tools/techniques, learning something new/refreshed
Response 48 Information that can easily be translated into action – solutions.


5) What are your biggest gripes about conferences you attended? How can organizers make things better?

Response 1 Same old people presenting year after year. Same boring approach. No indicators of best speakers; people pick by title or topic and lose out on good speakers. Work me too hard. Hold in one location or close proximity if multiple sites.
Response 2 Not enough time to meet people
Response 3 Figure out how to get WiFi Figure out how to make a readable guide Don’t let speakers sell from the stage Plan some group events Integrate social media
Response 4 Wide but not deep / deep but not deep enough
Response 5 Content that is not right for the audience (too technical or not technical enough) – organizers should know the audience Speakers who do not have good presentation skills – orgainzers should review speakers or get references Presentation that is not well designed –
Response 6 Relevance, Interactive, Offer interactive distance learning opportunities when appropriate rather than traveling, follow up with blog/wiki/elearning opportunities.
Response 7 Boring talking heads..Blah, Blah, Blah..not enough focus on the audience as a participant in the knowledge creation process. Imagine how powerful TED would be, if after the speaker, everyone participates in a process of inventing new stuff….
Response 9 Too many panel discussions, not enough practical application advice provided in sessions, poorly laid out conference locations, not enough time for expo floors
Response 10 When you are in sessions all day and then on your own for meals – no events targeted at mingling and interacting with other participants.
Response 11 Presenters who sound like they think that their experiences and opinions are the only correct ones. (We may just have to live with this one.) Early morning quasi-compulsory activities. (let such things be voluntary or repeated later in the day if they are really important.) Too many activities packed into a short time. (Don’t try to do everything) Presenters in early stages of doctoral work who have not been well mentored (organizers could have postgrad sessions for real beginners or hold an early conference workshop on presenting for first timers.)
Response 12 Outrageously expensive or non-existent technology, expecting presenters to take up the slack
Response 13 Crap software, terrible comms ie having to load software like webex and then make an international phone call. Monologues from speakers. No interaction
Response 14
Response 15 See above. I really like Masie’s events, except he always has it at Disney world.
Response 16 Keeping to times. Consider the length of days – conference should try to be only two days more than that is difficult to take in. Better to have less and better quality.
Response 17 Too many sessions. Organizers try to squeeze so many different presenters in that the quality of many is low.
Response 18 not having free wifi throughout venue, meals not included
Response 19 Getting way too hooked on the latest “buzzword” or trend. Not having a clean logistical flow. Too many sessions and tracks – one-person shops can only cover so much. Having too many short presentations – not enough time to really get into discussions or learn in-depth about the topic. How to make better?: Fix the above.
Response 20 speakers turning up with a file of ppts and then just reading their points off the slides, poorly prepared and moderated discussions, bad time-keeping,remote presentations when I am expecting to see the speaker in the flesh,
Response 21 To liitle interaction Trying to cram too much in to the programme/not giving keynote speakers enough time & the audience opportunity to engage in discussion
Response 22
Response 23 As far as offsite conferences are concerned, due to time differences one cannot access live programs. Hence individual programs must be made available to participants so that they should be able to choose the ones they want.
Response 24 Lack of variety, being organised on autopilot.
Response 25 No time for people to look around the associated exhibition. No time built in for networking.
Response 26 Lectures Hypocrisy of people who lecture on why lectures are evil
Response 27 cut down on opening addresses of powerful, but boring speakers
Response 28 1. Speakers who are only hawking their wares. 2. Lately there is ALWAYS some issue with handouts: speakers told to submit them weeks ahead of time, then conference does not tell attendees to print them ahead of time. 3. Incompetent staff at registration desk. This is first person you encounter and can set a bad tone for the whole event. They need to know how to read conf brochure, offer basic directions to places(expo hall, shuttles, speaker ready room. 4. Overall: conference doesn’t know what it’s about. You can’t be everything to everyone.
Response 29 People who read PowerPoints and don’t leave enough time for Q&A, discussion.
Response 30 poor organisation, few good papers, bad memories. Organisers to ensure smooth registration and wonderful memories that include site visits, local tours, unique cultural experience, great food, etc.
Response 31 inefficient way to get new business
Response 32 1) Lack of opportunity for feedback. 2) Speakers who take question from un-mic’ed audience members, but are not mindful enough to repeat the question on mic before answering the question.
Response 33 Scheduling five presentations at the same time on Saturday afternoon, with almost nothing scheduled for Monday. Waste of time and money to stay over, but there’s always somethings you have to stay for on Monday, yet you wind up missing important presentations due to too many things being scheduled for Saturday.
Response 34 Having to pick and choose amongst the concurrent sessions. So many times there are great topics I want to hear about at the same time, and I’m forced to go swipe a handout from one (and hope it’s helpful by itself) and go participate in another. Or, I try to divide the time, which doesn’t ever work very well.
Response 35 Large luncheons or dinners. Speakers who are off-topic for the event/audience but are supposed to provide “inspiration” or “motivation” or “organizational skills” that may be translatable to your group’s work. If I want to go to a general business or higher ed conference I will. If I want to learn about tech in higher ed or Moodle then don’t pay big bucks for a keynoter who hasn’t a clue what the issues are for us!
Response 36 Useless Stuff, Disorganization
Response 37 Getting good tracks so there is enough breadth to keep everyone interested and yet not so much overlap that you end up having to miss presentations that you really wanted to see.
Response 38 Venues that are pre-designed for a traditional “pulpit-congregation” paradigm that are inflexible and don’t allow for interaction. The most flexible space is a “holodeck” — a cube with no preconceptions.
Response 39 When presenters don’t seem to have considered the theme/audience – delivering a standard speech!
Response 40 Non relevant discussion topics, clear attendee instructions
Response 41 It’s really an event with more one-way push of content than meaningful interaction and ongoing dialog Oftentimes, the speakers/content you’d like to attend have overlapping or conflicting time slots.
Response 42 Schedule doesn’t allow for social time, bad session choices, amateur keynotes, vendors being paraded around by conference organizers as experts
Response 43 Too expensive. Pre-Conference workshops are too expensive as well.
Response 44 allow more time for people to talk to each other
Response 45 sloppy, unprepared speakers. lousy food.
Response 46 I personally don’t need or want “social” events…especially at large conferences where “herding” is necessary. I don’t believe in the “wisdom of herds.” Personally, given travel and time cost of attendance, I’d prefer to “work into the night” rather than breaking for such events. This could be accomplished in a variety of less taxing ways, but ditch the tours, etc.
Response 47 passive presentations, 10 minutes for questions, treating participants like cattle who know nothing and are just herded from session to session, no opportunities to find out what other people are doing, no discussion groups, no post conference forum to continue discussions, no post conference PowerPoint links.
Response 48 Often boring PowerPoint focused, with few easily adaptable ideas. Make sure that the speakers are engaging and have useful information to share.

6) Anything else you’d like to share? A horror story? An inspiration?

Response 1 Some conferences forget to test the equipment with the speaker until it is too late or provide minimal speaker support.
Response 2 For the most part, conferences are a waste of time, so I go to fewer and fewer. However, I attend and participate in a lot of online conferences.
Response 3 Look for speakers outside our field.
Response 4
Response 5 I don’t think PowerPoint is terrible it’s how it’s used!
Response 6 Sometimes the travel is well worth the time and expense. Most “meetings” are not.
Response 7 Best ever keynote was a guy from Ideo had 500 people inventing an environmentally-sound wastepaper basket for Al Gore’s film maker (whose office and waste paper basket were an environmental catastrophe)…using design principles presented during a 10-minute introductory talk/with pix and examples…using scraps of paper, timber, plastics etc. from Hallmark’s waste collection.
Response 8
Response 9 One conference I went to last year had ALL panels, and all vendors on the panels…nothing but posturing. Another conference had exhibitors spread across two different floors…absolutely horrible. There were no sessions AT ALL that I attended last year that were structured as learning sessions. I’m tired of learning conference sessions that are structured like lectures…don’t we know better?!?
Response 10 Towns where everything shuts down after 5 pm are horrible for conferences – unless the planners also hold evening dining/social events. The entire point of spending money to go to a live event is to mingle with others. Conference planners do a disservice when they don’t facilitate ice breakers and open discussions.
Response 11 Maybe we just need to lower our expectations – I always like to take a ‘shopping’ break away from the venue.
Response 12 I’ll share in my own presentation at the conference you’re presenting at, cya there
Response 13 One session, the speaker kept going for over an hour without catching breath (about 50 PPT slides). Every 15 mins she would pause and ask if there were any Qs, wait a millisecond and then plunge on!
Response 14
Response 15
Response 16 I am about to attend a conference that commences at 8.00am each day and finishes at 6.00pm each day (and its also a 3.5 day conference across 4 days) Too long! I am already working out which sessions to skip (rather than which I should attend) to keep my sanity.
Response 17
Response 18 bad venue in Vegas: long walk from one end to other, food not included and a LONG way away
Response 19
Response 20
Response 21
Response 22
Response 23 An encouragement by Prof, not known to me directly. After my participation in SITE, a University prof. from Neveda contacted me through his research student and asked me to present papers in Interactive Learning, which was hot topic then. This encouraged me to focus my research and paved way for further enhancement of my carrer in e-learning. The instructional designs I created after his suggestion were later on submitted to AACE Ed Media conf, IADIS Mobile Learning conf.
Response 24
Response 25 At the best conference I attended last year (as a speaker and a vendor) the exhibition was set up in the dining area. People were able to eat their lunch and browse the exhibition at the same time. As I’d just presented, it was a great opportunity for those invaluable follow-up conversations.
Response 26 I use ppts for giving instructions to interactive activities. I seldom use them to provide substantive content.
Response 27
Response 28 Smaller seems to be better. Worst conference I ever attended was 8,000 — very hard to get any sense of community, common interest, figure out what topics right for you.
Response 29
Response 30 Make the participant feel welcomed and taken care of; right from the time he/she lands at the airport to the time he/she leaves the conference venue. Happened with several conferences in Malaysia.
Response 31 …but we would have never met Jay Cross and gotten our name in Internet Times in 2001 if we hadn’t attended a trade show…
Response 32
Response 33 Scheduling conferences in cities in off season to save money on hotels, which results in going to Ghicago, Denver and Boston in January, and Miami and Orlando in June!
Response 34 I’ve participated in the Online Learning Trends online conference that past two years, and I really took so much from those sessions. If I missed one, I could still view the recording, and the price was more than right (free!!).
Response 35
Response 36 Nope
Response 37 A big challenge I see is in providing enough backup information such as proceedings, podcasts, etc., to help participants take home and apply the ideas they garnered at the conference, but yet not so much that people are discouraged to physically come to the conference and participate in the future.
Response 38
Response 39
Response 40 pre event learning, create an intrest beffore the event
Response 41 Establish ongoing collaboration forums to take content/ideas to next level and ongoing ability to network.
Response 42 I really starting to get peeved at all the keynotes who simply have written one book and all of a sudden they are experts. Or a keynote who has done something with a hot topic but no one has ever heard them speak and they are TERRIBLE.
Response 43
Response 44 help maintain the momentum generated in the conferecne so that some of it at least will continue after the conference ends
Response 45
Response 46 Be careful when you select a conference site to bring 2000 or so of your closest friends together for a meeting, and you don’t plan to provide a lunch for them that the selected mega-hotel actually does have more than one lunch sandwich wagon to serve all of them (assuming of course they won’t all go to your $$$$ onsite restaurants for sit-down meals in the middle of the day); else your afternoon sessions might be a bit delayed. An inspiration? Look at EDUCAUSE/ELI as exemplars. They know how to do conferences right, including continuing connectivity and resources after the conference.
Response 47 My horror story-10 minutes for questions and 30 people put up their hands because this was a really important issue, I left $6,000 poorer and didn’t have an opportunity to have any questions answered. My inspiration – Post conference wikis where people can share ideas, questions, resource links on each topic presented.
Response 48


Old habits die hard. I’ve spoken at ASTD, ASTD TechKnowledge, TechLearn, Learning, eLearning, Online Learning, Online Educa, Training, ISPI, CLO Symposium, eLearning Guild, I-KNOW, Research Innovations in Learning, Emerging eLearning (Abu Dhabi), Quality in eLearning (Bogota), LearnX (Melbourne), Learning Technology (London), and others, often year after year. It’s time for change. I’ll offer three words of advice for conference organizers and participants to take to heart: go on line.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: