We are in a conference bubble. There are too many conferences, and not enough value being offered. New conferences are popping up every day. Niche conferences, large conferences, offshoot conferences, regional conferences. Further, many conferences are rapidly increasing in price far faster than inflation.
However, like many bubbles, the conference bubble has significant problems that presage the end of its rapid growth phase. Supply will soon outpace demand, if it hasn’t already. Attendance at some conferences has leveled off and even begun to decline. Some conferences, including conferences that have been around for many years, have closed down due to decreased attendance.
As a frequent conference attendee myself, I’ve found that not only is attendance down, but the quality of speakers has begun to wane too. The top 10% of speakers are better than ever and continuing to improve, which is awesome! However, more and more people want in on the presenter action, and not everyone seems to be putting in the work to create valuable presentations. Since there are so many conferences now, the best speakers are harder to land, which means many speaker slots are filled with panels and people who are brand new to the circuit.
Panels are the lazy person’s presentation medium.
At most conferences in recent years, a majority of sessions are panels. Unfortunately, 90% of panels are boring, narcissistic, and without value, in my estimation. Panels are the lazy person’s presentation medium. Panelists rarely prepare more than a simple introduction. Few moderators prepare or practice much either, so the discussions meander aimlessly. Sometimes the panelists haven’t even met or spoken before arriving on stage. Many panelists see panels as an opportunity to self-promote or to promote their business, which is not what people come to panels or conferences for. Also, often one or two blowhard panelists, usually men, will dominate the session, talking over the other speakers, rambling on about barely tangential topics, and not directly answering any questions. At best, each speaker only gets to talk for maybe a quarter of the time, and that’s often spent covering basic questions and material instead of offering deeper insights that the moderator might not know to ask about.
You’re not a thought leader unless you think.
Another problem is that lately it seems like everyone wants to be a “thought leader.” They see speaking at conferences as a boost to their career, their ticket to personal fame and professional success. While that can be true–if done well–simply speaking at conferences doesn’t make you a thought leader. First of all, what the heck is a “thought leader” anyway? I’d rather hear from people who are out doing things than simply thinking and talking about things. Second of all, no matter how you define it, you’re not a thought leader unless you think. Rambling about your company for 15 minutes in a panel does not qualify as original thought. Instead of agreeing to sit on a panel–that likely won’t offer much of value to the audience–create a solo presentation that offers real value and insight. Then, once you’re on a stage, don’t blatantly pitch a product or service offered by your company.
As for the new speaker problem, I’m not opposed to hearing newer speakers. I am one myself. I don’t require perfection from a presentation, and I really enjoy seeing a new speaker try hard and succeed. However, if you are new to the public speaking circuit, then you need to put in three times as many hours preparing for your presentation. I personally put in roughly 10-15 hours of prep for every 10 minutes of presentation time. Thus, for an hour presentation, I’ll put in 100-150 hours writing, creating slides, and practicing. I know this much prep sounds somewhat excessive, but I’m not going to waste one second of my invaluable opportunity to wow and woo potential members of my tribe. More, importantly, I’m not going to waste one second of my audience’s time either.
My prep time can be much lower if I’ve presented on a particular topic before, of course. But still, if a roomful of, say, 100 or 1000 intelligent, ambitious, and powerful people are giving up an hour of their extremely valuable time to listen to me speak, that’s 100 or 1000 total hours that I’m being gifted. I want to make sure I’m giving them something at least as valuable in return. When I listen to presentations at even the biggest name conferences, it’s clear that many presenters have not prepared their talks with this give-before-you-get mindset in mind. If you don’t prep like this, you are stealing from the audience. Unfortunately, most conferences fill many speaker slots with unvetted speakers and panelists who end up wasting everyone’s time.
Many of us have been to wonderful conferences and have seen many fantastic speakers over the years. We keep attending conferences hoping for more of those invaluable experiences. Plus, it can be fun to get out of town, see a new city, and network with other industry folks. There’s nothing wrong with that. I do it frequently myself.
However… All bubbles pop, and the conference bubble will pop someday too. Whether in one year or 20, at some point people will catch on and realize that most conferences aren’t worth the time and money. We’ll find other less expensive and more efficient ways to learn, be inspired, and network. Many conferences will go away. A few tried and true conferences (like SXSW) will weather the storm, improve, adapt, and emerge both stronger and more valuable. I’m personally looking forward to the time of post-bubble conferences. I hope it comes soon.