Last year I attended a two-day conference jam-packed with presentations, panels, and break-outs. I learned a lot and walked away with a deeper understanding of the topic (digital marketing) that I didn't really understand previously. I also enjoyed catching up with some old friends and making a lot of new contacts that have now become part of my LinkedIn network.
One thing I couldn't help but notice, however, is just how packed the agenda was. While there were the requisite "bio breaks," there really wasn't a lot of time in-between sessions for longer conversations. I prefer one-on-one conversations with people. When I'm talking to just one person, we're both able to open up and share far more than when we're standing in one of those circles that are so ubiquitous at conferences.
This has to do with my personality: Between the two end-points of the introvert-extrovert spectrum, I tend to lean toward the introvert side. Some people have started to use the term "ambivert" to describe people like myself who express elements of both personality types. (Frustrated by the misconceptions plaguing the word "introvert," one writer friend of mine even invented a new term to replace it: He calls himself a "power thinker." I like that!)
There was also almost no time built-into the agenda to allow me to break away from the crowd and just be by myself. One thing I've learned about myself is that I really do need to set aside time alone to recharge. Being in a large group setting like a conference for extended periods of time can drain me of energy. It's a phenomenon I wasn't really conscious of until recently.
The other thing I noticed about the conference was the one-way nature of the presentations and panels. I was engaged in many of the sessions --but I almost never had the chance to share my thoughts or ideas. Most sessions were dominated by the speakers on stage, and they offered little if any opportunity for members of the audience like myself to ask questions.
Maybe this is the extroverted side of my personality speaking: At large meetings and conferences, I do feel compelled to ask questions or offer my own perspective.
Conference organizers need to take into account the roughly 50 percent of people who consider themselves introverts (or "power thinkers," per my friend). They should consider making the following adjustments to their agenda:
1. Include more --and longer --networking breaks.
Getting exposure to new ideas is one of the primary reasons why we love to go to conferences. But so is the opportunity to network. Making new professional connections is probably far more valuable than the content being presented --especially since much of the content is usually available online afterwards anyway.
Conference organizers should tilt the balance away from the content-heavy sessions and more towards free-ranging networking breaks.
2. Include rest breaks with no preset programming.
In addition to carving out more time on the agenda for networking, conference organizers should set aside chunks of time for attendees to do whatever they want --grab a snack, get some fresh air, or even take a power nap.
3. Don't pack too many parallel tracks into the agenda.
One very large conference I attended a few months ago included several parallel tracks. The problem was, they scheduled very famous speakers (like Tim Cook-famous) to speak at the very same time as a series of panel discussions. Can you guess which session was packed, and which ones were half-empty?
4. Give more time back to the audience for questions.
It's not that conferences don't allow for questions from the audience. Many do. But most are still dominated by the people on stage. I get that --people are paying to listen to thought leaders and influencers. But by making sessions more interactive, the engagement level will surge, and more people will walk away from the event feeling they got a lot of value from it.
And that's what conferences are all about, right?