Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Are We Conference Sheep?

I've been at several conferences this fall and have at least one more to go--and I'm a bit discouraged by my conference-going.  What's discouraging?  That the least interesting method of presentation is still the most prevalent.   We know that museum-goers don't want to sit and have people lecture at them--but why do we still think that's the best conference presentation format?  

It often feels as if the speaker part of a session is a sort of holding room until we can get to the part that we really want to do, which is talk--whether it's about the meaning of memorials, the concept of radical trust, the way collaborations work--whatever it is.

My least favorite sessions are those where the presenters talk about their project, not about what was learned in doing their project.  We don't need to know all about those gardens and the history of the house, I, at least, want to know about how you, just for instance, involved young people in those gardens.  As an exhibit developer and interpretive planner I find it sometimes challenging to get people deeply immersed in their subject matter to step back and think about the big picture and about how to relate their work to an audience that's not as steeped in the subject matter.

What would make me a happier session attender?
  • The easiest one but the one I find often not put in use.  Have a timekeeper and be really, really, firm with presenters that go over time.
  • If you're presenting a specific project from an organization or collaborative effort, ask an outsider to serve on the panel to critically comment and reflect.
  • Think about your session as you might an exhibit.  Make sure it has a big idea (as per Beverly Serrell's invaluable chapter in her book Exhibit Labels).  That means your session should have a subject, verb and consequence!
  • Reconsider using that Powerpoint.  But if you do, put it online afterwards.
  • Think about speaking about failure.   One of my favorite training moments ever was when my colleague Christopher Clarke, as an add-on at a session for new directors, shared his 5 things he did right as a new director and 5 things he did wrong.  Failure is far more interesting to discuss than a session of mutual congratulations.
  • Of course, without saying, make room for discussion.  But consider ways to have conversation throughout the session, not just jammed at the end (and a big shout-out to the presenters from the National Gallery of Art at MAAM this week who presented one of the best sessions ever--they not only talked the talk about learning they walked the walk).
And lastly, have fun!  It's serious work we do, but there's no reason we can't have fun doing it.  Museum sheep of the world, unite and rise up!  Imagine a new world of interactive conference-going.  What would you change?


Jasper Visser said...

Hi Linda, I cannot agree more with your post! Especially when there's talk about "whatever 2.0" it's almost embarrassing to have to sit and watch and not... participate!
More thought-provoking statements and honest lessons and less project/product presentations, I say.
The best conferences I've been to always revolved around unconference sessions, workshops or structured brainstorms. Especially if you're doing something about innovation, do not fear to have others voice their experiences. I don't think it's bad if a conference doesn't offer great keynote speakers when it offers great discussion between participants.
I guess a great line-up of visitors/participants is more important than a great line-up of keynote speakers.

Linda said...

Thanks Jasper--and I'm beginning to think that perhaps I need to be more directed in my conference attending and I've been considering whether some in Europe just might be different enough (although from your comment perhaps not). Which ones have you found really great?

Heather Widener said...

Thank you Linda, this is a great post. As organizers of a large conference each year, we plan and organize our sessions into different "types" to avoid falling into these pitfalls. We'll be linking to your blog from our next post ;)

Heather Widener
Communications Director
Virginia Association of Museums

Linda said...

Hi Heather--have to say that although I've never attended the VAM conference I've had so many people tell me it's a great one! (no kidding, they do). Must be I'll have to get there one of these days.
Thanks for the comment and link.