Is the conference dead as a Dodo in the digital age?

Is the conference dead as a Dodo in the digital age?

This week I went to two conferences – the first one as an attendee and the second as co-organiser of Digital Innovation in Mental Health, an event delivered in partnership with Transform.

The differences of style, format and tone between each event had some strong parallels with social versus mainstream media, and it got me wondering about whether the traditional conference format has had its day.

I have found myself quite bored with the format of conferences recently – esteemed speakers, expert panels, questions invited from the floor. It majors on broadcast and hierarchy – people accorded status or expertise broadcasting information to a relatively passive audience. A conference hashtag attached to the event enables a bit of horizontal participation and you might be able to catch the speaker for a quick chat in the break.  But these are add-ons rather than core to the event itself. Sociability is around the perimeters and snatched at the margins.

Much more interesting to me is an unconference format – a participant-led day where a framework and structure is offered for people to have the conversations that are important to them at that time. I say the structure is offered because people can opt out at any point and do their own thing – which some people chose to do at various times during our event. There we no presentations or power-points, just a welcome and a supportive facilitator to guide people through the day. An unconference format is nothing new but its potential is a world away from a traditional conference.  People gather together around areas of common interest, and if it’s not working for them then they can wander away and join another conversation. It’s a great barometer of how much potential your idea has if everyone (or no one) wants to join the discussion. 

For me the learning is active because it is generated through conversation as well as listening. It disrupts hierarchies because everyone has space to contribute if they choose to. It is about building connections and relationships. A graphic recorder added colour and life to the day and participants enjoyed having their conversations shared with others through illustration. It was, in summary, a social activity.

But a one day event, however social, has its limitations. I’ve learnt that it can be valuable to set up a defined online space for people to begin the conversations beforehand, so that when they meet they are continuing a conversation rather than starting it. And people would have the option to continue the conversation afterwards as well if that worked for them too. The other important element is an expert facilitator who can support and guide people throughout the day – thank you to @mikechitty for being that person and for sharing reflections with me afterwards. And lastly, you need to work at getting the right people there – a mix of perspectives and positions to stretch the conversations.

Facts, figures and experts are important – but bring them into a conversation rather than putting them on a podium. For me, the traditional conference is dead. Social is the way forward.

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  1. When I heard that some corporations were banning powerpoint because of the timesuck involved in deciding whether the slide swooshed from the left or the right, I did a little dance inside. Meetings and committees with or without powerpoint really are the dullest way to communicate. Conferences with their top down politics are also didactic and patronising.

    Down with boredom and shiny suit pants; up with productivity and real communication!

    This from 2001!

  2. I completely agree that unconferences have advantages over traditional conferences. In case you’re interested, I blogged about some of them at:

  3. HOORAH! This is such a refreshing read – absolutely agreed that the future needs to be much more interactive and hands on – totally agree with Bill’s comments too. I may quote you when I next participate in public speaking and arrive with no power point 🙂 I guess this brings out my activist personality to the extreme! Best wishes, Emma


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