This provocative posting from Allyson Kapin got me thinking. On one hand, I feel the same way about male dominated panels and conference line-ups. It feels horribly old fashioned and tone-deaf to have an all white male review at a conference.
On the other hand, I have a problem with conferences overall, and it has less to do with gender and more to do with the way we approach conferences content. Let’s be honest: most conferences are boring beyond words. It’s the dirty little secret that transcends industry, race and gender. Unless we’re talking about attending TED, I think this is something we can all agree on.
I recently read another article, forwarded to me by adult learning specialist Dennis Hungridge titled 30 Things We Know For Sure About Adult Learning, and was struck by this obvious truth: most adults seek out learning experiences because they are trying to cope with change. Think about that. Anytime grown-ups are gathered in a room to hear someone speak, it is because they’re trying to deal with change. It could be technological change, economic change, change in the way we teach, administer medicine, you name it. Yet instead of approaching conference content from a place of empathy for that person in row 5 trying to make sense of a changing world, people tend to approach it from a place of “What do I want to say? What would serve ME? How do I get MY (or my company’s) message across?”
Something else we know about adult learning, according to the article is that “adults bring a great deal of life experience into the classroom, an invaluable asset to be acknowledged, tapped and used. Adults can learn well -and much - from dialogue with respected peers.” Yet, our conferences are essentially long speaking tracks with dead silence from the audience. In fact, most conference attendees will tell you the best parts of the conference were in between sessions, when they could talk with other attendees.
My question is this: How might we design a conference session or discussion if we were to honor the fact that a) attendees are there for the purpose of coping with change and b) attendees learn well by interacting with others and by doing, by practicing.
To all of the women reading this… let’s start suggesting fresh ideas for connecting with the audiences we are presenting to. Chances are, these experiences will be powerful, and the audiences will beg for more of us to speak.