Why traditional conferences are dying and how unconferences and audience participation are the future of events

By Ross Dawson on February 17, 2009 | Permalink

For many, many years I have felt that the vast majority of conferences were very poorly run, continuing to apply ancient, didactic approaches. That’s one of the reasons that a few years ago I started running events, organizing the Future of Media Summit, which annually links Sydney and San Francisco, the Enterprise 2.0 Executive Forum (the second annual event is on next week), Web 2.0 in Australia etc. Earlier events including what was at the time the extremely innovative Living Networks Forum in New York in 2003, using social networking technologies embedded in the event. Even though the events industry is vastly oversupplied, the majority of them are crap, so there’s ample scope for something better, as the consistent success of our events has demonstrated.

Certainly the last few years have seen the beginning of a transformation in how events are run, with in the US, Europe, and Australia (less so in Asia so far) many novel and highly interactive formats. However there is still a massive opportunity to create immense value with face-to-face events, and we’re currently looking to spin off our events business into a new company that will grow aggressively. News on that soon.
I am unusual in that a large part of my work is as a keynote speaker, speaking primarily on the future of business (including sometimes the future of events), usually within a traditional conference format. However at the same time I endeavor to create (or help my clients to implement) participatory formats that transcend the talking head syndrome.

Now the issue is getting mainstream media attention. News.com.au has released an article titled: Networking trend: the ‘unconference’, which examines the plethora of interactive events that are arising, such as unconferences, Lightning Talks, Ignite, and Pecha Kucha, and drawing on an extensive interview with me on where the space is heading.

The entire article is well worth a read. Below are excerpts of the direct quotes from me in the article.

“In a world of instant access to information and videos of the world’s best speakers, it makes no sense to sit in a darkened room and watch a series of talking heads all day,” says Mr Dawson.

“Usually the best ‘networking’ opportunities at traditional conferences are during coffee breaks, where you have to hope you’re standing next to someone interesting in the queue.”

“There are many forms of unconference, however the basic idea is that participants create the agenda on the day,” says Mr Dawson.

“This leads to highly interactive discussions, and the topics reflecting the interests of the people there.”

“Over the last year or two Australia has been catching up with some of the world’s most innovative event formats,” says Mr Dawson.

“Offering many opportunities for people to keep up to date on new trends and ideas, plus benefit from being able to connect with their peers. I believe and hope that traditional conference formats will struggle in coming years.”

“Traditional event formats are dry and stultifying. People like interacting and conversations. Unconferences create unparalleled opportunities to meet and engage with like-minded people.”

“In a world awash with information, it is critical to be exposed to many diverse perspectives and insights,” says Mr Dawson.

“A very few speakers and presentations merit 45 minutes. Most other ideas can be highly condensed with little loss, creating a far more dynamic and stimulating experience for the audience.”

“Online social networks now allow us to find and connect with people who share interests with us,” says Mr Dawson.

“Very importantly, they also make it easy to keep in touch and develop relationships that people we’ve met.
“Since networking is not about exchanging business cards but building relationships, online social networks are invaluable.”

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