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2015 Conference Trends: Hat-tips and a Few Grimaces

Dec 15, 2015

Opinionated review of the good, the bad and the delusional trends I saw in conferences over the past year.

Oh, the year's almost over! I went to some conferences. I spoke at a few conferences. Cloud Four held our first-ever event, Responsive Field Day, in September. What follows are my own editorial opinions about the good, the bad and the "whatever, enh" cobbled together from my three types of involvement (attendee, speaker, organizer) in conferences about the web.

The Good

My Favorite: Shorter Talk Times

I've seen a rash of session times ranging from 15-30 minutes instead of 45-60. There are some self-evident pitfalls here—schedule management, content whiplash, inability to dive deep—but for many conferences, this works fantastically for me from all three (attendee, speaker, organizer) angles.

As a short-attention-span attendee, my interest is held well. Speaker energy tends to be more constant, and more focused. This leads to more interesting, denser presentations and allows for more topics to be included in a single event.

As a speaker, I adore shorter sessions. Please. More. I'm able to maintain intensity throughout without getting tired, and it forces me to focus my thesis. It also allows me to be more critical-precise in timing because I'm working on a tighter scale. The majority of my most-successful presentations have been delivered in shorter time slots.

And for organizers, it allows the ability to include more content and more diversity of voices in a single event.

More Hat Tips

  • An increased effort toward speaker and attendee diversity. This is a behemoth topic I won't dive into here, but it is emphatically front-and-center in our industry. I've seen some tactics (gender-blind RFPs, involvement in local community groups) to boost both underrepresented voices as well as giving newer speakers good opportunities.
  • More sympathy to the efforts of speakers. Non-profit and community events aside, most conferences are in a position to compensate speakers or at the least cover expenses. After all, the speakers are the conference.
  • More single-track conferences. Being able to have a collective experience minus the session-selection stress leads to a more cohesive feel for many conferences. It's not a fit for all types of events. But where it does fit, it leads to a stronger sense of a shared involvement without the need to miss out on any content.

Changing Backchannels

The role of Twitter is changing. For many it remains indispensable at conferences. But I've also attended a few conferences this year from which the Twitter traffic was virtually nil.

My attitude puts me somewhere in the middle. As a conference attendee, monitoring the feed from the hashtag for the event can be useful. As a non-attendee (i.e. my other contacts tweeting about conferences I'm not at), conference-related traffic is effectively useless. Twitter, as always, seems to be a matter of opinion.

2015 is the year of everyone falling in love with Slack. It happened to us at Cloud Four, too (we've been using Slack for quite a while now, for kind of everything). Slack's spike in popularity has led to its use as the backchannel of choice at several conferences I attended this year. On the one hand, it's an efficient and engaging way to communicate. On the other hand, it can serve as an inducement to futz around on devices during sessions and a disconnect or distraction. The jury's out on this one for me.

The Not-so-Great

  • Still, a lack of diversity. This concept needs no introduction.
  • Chaos and lackluster schedule control. Complex multi-track events and those with shorter talk times need the commitment and focus of organizers to make sure things flow smoothly. Speakers need to be apprised clearly of time constraints (I showed up for multiple conferences this year to find out—on the day of the event—that my speaking slot was different from what I'd been told in previous communications). I saw some fantastic schedule management this year. I also saw some trainwrecks.
  • No speakers' event. I went as a speaker to several conferences this year that had no event whatsoever for speakers. Let me clarify so that this doesn't sound terrifically entitled. I don't care if I have to pay for the event out of my own pocket or if lavish food and drink are not served. I just want to meet my (typically admirable and interesting) co-speakers. It's part of the appeal of accepting invitations in the first place. Not having a chance to meet and interact with other speakers and organizers makes me feel unmoored, disconnected from the event.
  • First-come, first-served activities. This is an odd and specific one. A few times this year I saw activities described this way at events—lunches, giveaways—and I cringed. Not only at the pushy-shovy nature this espouses but also in no small part because I have an immediate family member with mobility challenges and I think of her and I get a little bothered on her behalf. I understand that sometimes sessions overflow (however, another argument for single-track conferences!) but there's something that makes me twitchy about this notion overall.

A Great Year

As I recall my year of conferences, what floats into my head is happiness. Whenever I speak at an event, I feel honored to have been invited, and hope that I am living up to the high expectations of attendees and organizers. I've attended events with crackerjack content and energy. And now I've been fortunate enough to come full circle and see what it's like from the organizers' side.

Curious about other conference-goers' experiences this year!