How many times have you read a blog post or seen tweets over the last two years arguing that conferences have no value? That all conferences are good for anymore is networking? Or, my personal favorite, speakers are bringing old, stale content to audiences instead of fresh ideas. There is a shred of truth to all of those comments. Conference attendees typically see the same speakers at every show who utilize very similar content in their presentations. What is interesting is that you often hear these charges levied by those who do a lot of the speaking. Interesting, huh?
Over the course of 2012, I will likely speak at over 10 events across the country. When I am speaking at events I often have very little time to pay attention to the other speakers. I try my best to focus on speakers before and after my talk, but it is hard. Before my talks I am focused on the key talking points I want to convey, and after my brain has shut down after being “on” for an hour in front of a few hundred people. If you speak at a lot of events, I am sure you can come here and confirm that feeling.
Last week I had an opportunity to attend an event in Knoxville, Tennessee called Social Slam. I wasn’t speaking, but I had heard enough good things about this event from people I trusted that I looked into it. With the good fortune of a few open days on the calendar I booked my ticket to Knoxville. This was the first time I was attending an event and not speaking in quite a long time so I was looking forward to soaking up the content. Let me tell you right now the content did NOT disappoint. A few things I am taking away:
- Tom Webster makes volumes of social data approachable – Tom and I come at analytics problems from two different backgrounds, but I think we eventually come to the same conclusions. That said, Tom is much better than I am at making data approachable. I have seen him speak on a few occasions, and yes, Tom speaks at quite a few events, but I don’t think I noticed just how approachable he makes this subject until I had an opportunity to truly listen.
- 50 huge ideas in 50 minutes – There is very little variety in session formats these days. Either we have a solo speaker, a keynote or a panel. At Social Slam Mark Schaefer put together easily the most innovative conference session I had seen in a few years. The 50 huge ideas in 50 minutes concept was five speakers each with 10 minutes providing big ideas on their area of expertise. For example, Stephanie Wonderlin gave 10 fantastic ideas to make video marketing more approachable. During the same session, Stanford Smith gave some great ideas for how to improve your blog. Bottom line was that these sessions were great for the audience and the speakers. A number of people came up to each of the speakers afterwards asking for additional advice. As a speaker, there’s nothing better than getting follow-up questions after your talk.
- Breakout sessions appealed to all audiences – Right after lunch, there were three different panel sessions all focusing on varying levels of expertise. In one session, D.J. Waldow, Stanford Smith, Stephanie Wonderlin and Marcus Sheridan provided useful tips for getting started in social media. In another Sam Fiorella, Eric Pratum and Sean McGinnis dove into the interplay between social and search. Finally, Jay Baer, Amy Kenly, Clinton Bonner and Gary Schirr talked about using social media to drive product innovation. Any conference organizer will tell you just how difficult it is to appeal to the varying skill levels of an audience. These three sessions did just that. There was literally something for everyone.
Before I go any further, I wanted to give kudos to Mark Schaefer, the volunteers and all of the speakers for putting on a spectacular event. Social Slam opened my eyes to the value of conference content again. As a result of this experience I know I will be looking for more opportunities to attend events and not speak. This field is too new for us to stop learning and only speak. I would encourage you to do the same by finding the Social Slam equivalent in your area.