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129. In Favor Of Changing Conference Programs To Consisting Of Titles Only

Yes, I admit it. It’s a pretty narrow subject. On the other hand, there are millions of people who have lives that involve conferences on a regular basis. And while most people probably don’t care, they might.

I want to propose that we shake things up, but this time, I’m not going to adopt an attack helicopter perspective, but more of a front-line soldier one. Both want to destroy the enemy. One is about overview and vision. The other is slugging through the mud, and only sees what’s directly in front.

Ok, I got carried away by the analogy a bit. Back to conference programs.

Now, disclaimer first. I’m not a professional conference-goer. I DO go to conferences, though. I don’t have hundreds of the suckers under my belt, but I have my (un)fair share. And if there’s one thing that I would love to change, it’s how conference programs are presented.

It’s a (maybe digital) booklet with text snippets and “teasers”.

I was recently at a conference organised by some lovely people. During the event, we talked about what part of program organising took time and effort. One part was finding interesting people and actually closing deals with them. Another was getting them to deliver the necessary material to the program organisers (titel, requirements, teaser-blurb, etc).

And their program was good. There was cool stuff going on, and there were nice, handy descriptions available for those who were interested. Business as usual.

Now, I suggest that we try to do it differently.

Don’t give the participants that info. Don’t require it of speakers/contributors/what-have you. Don’t try to fill the program booklet. Don’t think in those terms.

Just keep it bare bones and put energy into the titles. Sure, people can get a schedule, but no explanatory text. Ask program hosts to supply a title. That’s it. No more. Cut to the chase.

“But what if I can’t explain my talk in just the title?” you might ask. No, of course, YOU won’t, but someone might. And it’s a fair question. The answer may not be fair, but it’s simple.

Then “you” need to get better at crafting titles. Yes, it’s a skill. No, I’m not sure the title of this blog post is a good example of that skill. Blogs are not program items at conferences. The selection process is different.

Anyway. Back on point.

Now, WHY is this a suggestion that I feel makes sense to spend time on?

  • It is not industry-specific. Everyone in every field feels that their field is too complex to simplify, yet people manage all the time. Let’s train them, and change the standard.
  • It changes the workload of the organisers AND the program contributors. Gone are tug-of-wars about getting those pesky 125 words that describe whether AI: Advanced is actually about intelligent killer robots or next-gen hand-held calculators.
  • It is easy to implement, and can have major impact. It requires LESS work from people, not more, and will give conference participants less information overload, while (hopefully!) providing them with better overview info.
  • It makes contribution easier. Suddenly, a workshop engagement goes “Hey, do you want to do this? You have this time and space at your disposal. How about this title? Cool? Cool. See you there.” instead of involving informative writing.
  • It rewards interesting-sounding program items. I know this may be an unpopular opinion, but I’ve found a reasonable correlation between people who can hook me with a title and people who can reel me in with their content. It’s not 100% but it’s far from zero!
  • It means people have to lie less, and I see that as positive. Admitting you haven’t read the program but just skimmed titles and names? It’s quite common, but not socially accepted. This way, it becomes entirely legitimate, leading to more honest discussion about the program. It may sound like a strange point, but it’s one I’ve seen in action time and time again.

You may not agree with this. You may like your paper (or digital) program, your endless stream of 100-word descriptions and your information level. But the more I go to conferences, the more I find that people pretend they read the program much more than they actually do it. By removing the extra layer of information, you change the social environment surrounding the program.

And if you MUST keep the old school blurbs, could you at least keep them behind a wall of opt-in? Tell me that if I want more info about “Ethics In Space: Animal Astronauts” (I don’t, it sounds awesome!), I can mail/call/contact this and this person. So even if you collect all the info from the program hosts, you keep it from me unless I actively ask for it.

Maybe it won’t change a lot. Maybe it won’t be more than a one-off experiment at your conference. But can we try it? Can we try out a controlled paradigm shift?

If you’ve gotten this far into the blog post, my guess is that conference programs are as dear to your heart as they are to mine, and if that’s true, then maybe you’re open to take a walk on the wild side?

And if you’re honest, didn’t you get most of this post’s point just from reading the title?

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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