Five Things You Must Know About The Future of Conferences


The NSW Government recently announced a trial of in-ground “traffic lights” at key intersections in the CBD, to warn pedestrians on mobile phones who don’t look up while crossing the road.

It’s been interesting to see the reactions to this idea on social media. Many people are saying it just discourages bad behaviour, and that pedestrians (or “mobile phone zombies”, as they derisively refer to them) should just look up! In fact, in Idaho in the USA, authorities have the power to fine people $50 for walking and texting at the same time.

I don’t want to start a debate about traffic lights. But I do want to point out what the NSW Centre for Road Safety executive director Bernard Carlon, said, defending the new system, “In our society, things have changed”. In other words, yes, it would be nice if all pedestrians stopped looking at their phones and focussed on their environment, but they don’t! So it makes sense to change the environment to adapt to their new behaviour.

The same principle applies to conferences. Despite the growth of videoconferencing, online meetings, telepresence and virtual reality, in-person conferences still have a place. We still want to get together, face to face, and belly to belly.

But the role of the conference has changed, and smart conference speakers know it. Good speakers adapt to these changes, and great speakers embrace them and see them as opportunities.

Here are five key changes to the role of the conference – and how you can embrace them as a conference speaker.

1. From Skills to Shifts

One of the main benefits of attending a conference was to learn new skills, but that’s no longer the case. There are so many channels available for learning new skills, and a conference is no longer near the top of the list.

If you’re a speaker, focus on shifting thinking rather than teaching skills. For example:

  • Focus on how to change the audience’s minds, get them thinking differently, and inspire them on “how to get there from here” (without going into gory details)
  • Encourage fearless conversations on controversial topics
  • If you do want to teach skills, offer a breakout session or a longer keynote/breakout combination

2. From Networking to Connections

People have always attended conferences for the chance to connect and reconnect with peers and colleagues. In fact, for many people that’s one of the most valuable benefits of a conference.

If you’re a speaker, yes, that means they want to connect with you as well. So make it easy for the conference organiser to make this happen. For example:

  • Give out your contact details – especially e-mail, Web site and social media – for use on the conference Web site and in the conference app
  • Create opportunities to connect online before the conference
  • Hang around for at least the next break after your presentation to chat with the audience

3. From Event to Journey

A conference isn’t a one-off event; participants and clients now expect it to be an integrated part of their entire journey.

Help participants get more value from the conference material after they leave the room, and create ways for participants themselves to keep the learning alive. For example:

  • Suggest and provide post-conference activities that keep the learning alive after their sessions
  • Offer to help the audience create mastermind groups or “buddies” to keep each other accountable
  • Host follow-up online sessions such as webinars, videoconferencing, and mastermind groups

4. From Physical to Hybrid

Online events aren’t the enemy of in-person conferences. They can enhance and extend the overall experience. Help the conference organiser turn this event into part of a continuous learning journey. For example:

  • Provide additional online resources in a variety of formats (written, audio, video, interactive)
  • Collect your key takeaways and drip-feed them by e-mail to delegates post-conference
  • Encourage participants to create their own “Personal Learning Network” for ongoing actions

5. From Closed Door to Open Access

In an increasingly open, social, and public world, participants and clients expect – and sometimes demand – access to share, Like, rate, review, comment on, and mash up the conference material.

Help the conference organiser encourage this among participants – both inside the conference and by extending it to the outside world. For example:

  • Use the conference Twitter hashtag to spark conversations, ask (and answer) questions, and invite input and feedback – even from people who aren’t at the conference
  • Allow your presentation to be recorded or live-streamed
  • Selectively share your material – such as extracts from your slide decks, handouts, and other resources

What Will You Do?

If you want to be fit for the future, understand that the role of the conference has changed.

Of course, you have to work together with your conference organiser. Good conference organisers are open to these ideas, and great conference organisers proactively ask for them. But if they don’t ask, be willing to offer them – they will love you for it!

What Next?

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