A Different Kind of Conference

© 2003 Sherry Heinze

Many of us at some point in our careers attend conferences or workshops. Sometimes we are sent by the companies we work for. Sometimes, as independent consultants or contractors, we send ourselves on before tax dollars (at least in Canada). If we really want to go and no one else will send us, sometimes we send ourselves on after tax dollars. That may indicate a real dedication to lifelong learning, a serious belief that this conference / workshop is important to our professional and/or personal growth, or the need to get a life. (Check all the boxes that apply. Write in any other options.) I believe that this is more common with unusual conferences than with the standard ones. I have been lucky enough to find one where it is quite common.

Technical conferences and user conferences have a lot in common. The format is nearly always the same, although the focus is slightly different. At the front of the room is a speaker with overheads. A few years ago, they used an overhead projector. Now it’s a laptop and an MS PowerPoint presentation. The speaker comes to teach and everyone else comes to sit quietly, listen politely and be filled with information, like pouring water into an empty cup. Pity the poor speaker who tries to illicit a human response! We are not there to participate. Each session is a brief brain dump on a different subject. Even the information junkies tend to overload the second day.

Technical conferences cover late breaking technology, much of which will be out of date by next year’s conference. There is usually a trade show attached, where you can watch demos of the latest tools and collect freebes. I have an acquaintance who gets all his t-shirts from conferences. User conferences focus on one packaged application, but the format is the same. Both frequently offer full day tutorials either before or after the conference. The information in most of the sessions is valuable. The session notes, frequently hundreds of pages long, are often provided at the beginning of the conference and are sometimes for sale to people who do not attend. That fact speaks more clearly than anything else can. Your presence and participation are not actually required.

We come to conferences for a variety of reasons. Some years ago while taking courses in educating adults, I was told that there are three types of adults in any class. There are the vacationers (hooray, I don’t have to go to work today. I can sit by the pool instead!), the prisoners (my boss made me go. I will hate it and I refuse to learn anything), and the learners. At conferences, we get all three types, plus people who want to sell something or network to build their businesses. The speakers come for the same reasons.

When I started going to conferences again after almost a 10 year break, very little had changed except the material. I am an information junkie. I burned out part way through day four the first year. The second year, I paced myself, but grudgingly. By the end of the second conference of the second year, I realized that, while the information offered had value, I was not learning as much as I expected. My brain does not deal well with rationed information. I will learn something from any format, but I don’t retain a lot from lectures. I did learn what information I had and where to find it when I went home. But I felt like something was missing.

That same year, I was fortunate enough to hear about a different kind of conference. The AYE (Amplifying Your Effectiveness) conference was advertised as a conference for people who were out of the box, or who wanted out of the box, a conference to bring your whole team to. I came back to work and tried to convince my boss that she should send someone, preferably a whole project team. I never got a flat NO, so I kept bringing it back up. Eventually, I was asked if I wanted to go to the conference. I jumped at the chance. It may have been the smartest thing I ever did.

AYE is a very different conference, somewhere between a standard conference and a workshop. The sessions are all 3 hours long. The one firm rule is no PowerPoint slides. All sessions are experiential. Some are simulations. Any handouts available ahead of time are likely to be a cover sheet and a bibliography. (I like that. The quality of my professional reading has gone way up.) AYE comes with a WIKI, a collaborative online forum open to all registrants and hosts. Virtually any day of the year, a few of us have something to say. In the last year, the only times I have missed reading the WIKI for more than two days in a row were times when I did not have internet access. While handouts for sessions are brief or nonexistent, session descriptions are available online. Sessions sometimes evolve online, with hosts, potential attendees, and conference attendees from earlier years all discussing the topic off and on, sometimes for months before the session. Notes taken by the hosts or guest speakers are posted on the WIKI after the conference. Notes taken by people who attend the session are often added. Between us, we take good notes.

I find most conferences a little overwhelming. I feel isolated. Usually, we are literally isolated from the speakers. The number of people is often large, but even the small conferences may treat keynote speakers, speakers and attendees as three different groups, and isolate them. At AYE, we have full contact with all hosts and speakers, and any attendees who want to connect with others. AYE is small enough that you can build ongoing relationships, which are often maintained (and sometimes begin) on the WIKI. AYE is inclusive, connecting, ongoing; it opens doors. Those of us who eat breakfast usually just keep filling up tables. If you choose to be alone, you are welcome to be. If not, chances are you can join a table or start a new one. The whole conference is like that. You are welcome to be as involved as you want to be.

The topics at AYE are different as well. Every serious study I have ever seen says that the problems we deal with every day are caused by people problems, not technical problems. Yet we spend our time and our money learning about technical skills. AYE sessions all deal, at least in part, with the soft skills that are so often ignored or avoided. By definition, experiential sessions give you an opportunity to practice those skills.

When you sit down to decide what to spend your training dollars on, think about what your problems really are. Then check out the website and decide if you want to join us.

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