Why do you go to conferences? A break from work? The chance to meet new people? Want to learn something? Got a project you’re working on that you need help with? A trip on the company dime? Looking for a job? Just want to have fun?
Now, think about what the conference is designed for. What is the purpose of the conference? Organizers have different reasons for putting on conferences, and those reasons may or may not line up with your own. Great conferences have a very clear reason for being, and organizers of great conferences will be transparent about the purpose of the conference and help you determine if the conference is a good fit for you.
Innovation & problem-solving
Talking about innovation is not the same as doing innovation, aka figuring shit out. If you really want to work on solving problems, make sure the conference format provides opportunities for you to meet and discuss with your direct peers in small groups, and that there is enough unstructured time on the agenda to allow for this to happen. One of the best ways to achieve this is with the “unconference” format where participants can propose topics and convene discussions on the fly.
Best practices come from problems having been solved a few times, in different but similar situations. Best practices are not the cutting edge, but they are far from industry standards. Best practices emerge most often from facilitated discussion amongst direct peers. If you are interested in forming or learning about best practices, make sure the conference format allows for that.
Standards and policy
Once an industry has been doing something for a relatively long time, it starts to make sense to set formal standards, and also to think about regulation and legal frameworks. Standards always come after best practices, which of course come after a whole lot of innovation (both successful and otherwise). Standards and policy typically emerge through a democratic process, and democracy is slow. For that reason, among others, standards-setting and innovation don’t play all that well together. If you’re in the big leagues and want to be part of the standards and policy processes in your industry, those conversations will probably take place at a trade association conference.
Buying and selling
Many conferences and trade shows exist for the primary purpose of providing a showcase for products and solutions for interested buyers. Conferences and trade shows often get lumped together. If your main interest is gathering sales leads, closing deals, or checking out products and solutions, make sure the event is set up for that.
All conferences provide some opportunity for networking, but this varies widely. If the schedule is jam-packed with concurrent sessions, you may not have enough time to get to know your fellow participants. The best conferences include specific formats designed to help you meet new people, ideally people that you should know, but you don’t know you should know.
TED pioneered the edutainment conference model, where the main point is to “spread information” and be inspired by great speakers. This does often make for a lot of “wow” moments, but wow often wears off quickly due to a lack of active participation by the audience.
There are lots of events that are primarily focused on fun – Burning Man is the classic example. Fun can be very educational, and all conferences should be fun!
Putting it all together
Of course, most conferences combine several or all of the above aspects. To make the best use of your precious time, make sure that you are clear about your own reasons for going to a conference – and make sure that the conference has a clear reason for being, and that it’s structured so that there’s a good chance you’ll get what you’re looking for. While a bit of a boondoggle might be fun now and then, you don’t really want to waste your own time, do you?