In this age of overload of information, what is the value of a conference? How much do they really benefit their attendees? People who are interested in a particular topic are quite updated and that gives them a false sense of expertise (and therefore an underestimation of the value that can potentially be derived from the speaker’s insights) and those who aren’t interested, are, well, aren’t interested. They look for better things to do and they have plenty of choices. 

Conferences have been serving one of 2 purposes for its attendees – a) Consume information/knowledge b) Network with other folks from the industry.

It has now been reduced to a singular activity of networking.

Workshops have come to being in conferences which are engaging and participative but they are mostly time and effort intensive and too specialized with a particular subject. 

The unconferences, barcamps and dcamps type of conferences try to alleviate this issue to some extent and have a certain sense of democracy in them. But aside from the novelty, they suffer from the very same fundamental issue – of too much information with not enough value. 

May be its time to re-imagine the experience of a conference completely? What is the future of a conference? 

From presentations to performances: As Parimala Hariprasad has remarked in her reply to my earlier post, there is always a place for an inspiring authority on the subject. That said, overall, there is a need to move from “presentations” to “performances” where the speaker becomes a “performer”. See below Don Norman’s much acclaimed Ted Talk about Emotional Design. Its not a presentation but is a “performance”. He uses props and seamlessly weaves his story through a lot of action on the stage. 

Look at the way how Dimis Michaelides takes the audience through a great “performance”. He uses illusion and the tricks he has learnt to keep the audience engaged while delivering a powerful message about process of innovation – much like a magician who keeps the audience glued through powerful storytelling, breathtaking art and clever use of props. Of course, it helps that Dimis is a magician himself.

And how amazing it would be if the participant is able to interact with a speaker almost one to one. In today’s world of connectedness, one could leverage the conference app to interact with a speaker either in real time when he is presenting (or “performing”) or otherwise. 

Converge the Physical with Digital: With HoloLens, Google Card Board and IBeacons, and many other evolving technologies, physical devices and spaces are going to be completely different from what they are now. The days are near where we could choose to be surrounded by a real-like beach or a forest with birds singing, at any point and at any place. Imagine a venue that leverages screen-less digital interactions that guides them, anticipates their need, converts from one state to another as desired and you can imagine the possibilities.

Move from Demos to Immersive Experience Zones: Experience Zones are now standard aspects in a conference but unfortunately, they are nothing but glorified “stalls”. They give demos of their products and nothing beyond. What if there were actual “experience” zones? For example, where a presentation is about the topic of future of retail, how wonderful would it be to have a store out there that completely recreates this experience for participants? Couple this with digital art installations now making their way into airports and malls and one can give it an extra edge.

Reimagine Networking: Intelligent grouping and seating of people based on similar interests, helping people attend the sessions they are most likely to apply in their real world, gamification and network activities, and wearable bands that when touched with another shares contacts instantly are some of the ways to rethink the most basic of human need – to create human connections.

All of the above are glimpses of what a great conference could be and are being done in pockets but when combined, they become powerful game changers and make conferences of tomorrow much more meaningful and tailored.