March 20, 2024

Are conferences worth it?

Sara and I just returned from SXSW. By every measure it was a success for Ei. We were one of only ~30 workshops that were accepted out of over 400 submissions. That was possible because of hundreds of votes from our community (thank you)! Then, on the day of our workshop, there wasn’t enough room for everyone who wanted to attend. We literally had to turn people away. Afterward, people said it was one of the highlights of the entire conference. One participant even shared that the workshop helped her decide on a Leap to pull out of her exec MBA and use that money to design her own experiences. Talk about a life change!

Ok, younger Victor would have stopped this post there.

But something has changed about how the Ei team and I experience conferences and similar gatherings.

Attending Differently
Experience Institute is in its twelfth year(!) of leading learning programs, designing offsites, and helping people work better together. Although we always have room to grow, I can safely say that we’ve put in the time and practice to be masters at the crafts of learning design and facilitation.

So we review events very differently today. What did we learn? What would we have done differently? And was this worth our time?

Of course, we want to balance analysis with enjoying the moment and celebrating other facilitators, too. We've just made room for both types of reflection.

So here are five lessons (and nudges) as we look back at last week's experience with one of the world's most well-known conferences:

1. If you’re invited to facilitate, put in the time.

Attention and time are incredibly scarce. If someone hasn’t put in the work to facilitate a session well, we can spot it. And to us, that’s a real miss. Each conference takes thousands of hours to create. People spend thousands of dollars to attend. The best thing you can do (for everyone) is to prepare well.

Sara challenged us to have our workshop prepared one month ahead of time. We even hired a designer to freshen our deck. Then, we practiced pieces of it multiple times with our team. We knew it inside and out, and it showed.

2. No more Conference Catfishing.

I learned this phrase from a newfound friend (thanks Fleur Horner!). In short, it seemed like a lot of people got creative with ChatGPT to make their session sound irresistible. But in too many cases, we arrived at a session that had very little to do with the thing that was shared in the description.
We’d then leave and try to find another session that would be worth attending.

3. Celebrate, don’t sell.

There were two kinds of Business Development people in most rooms — people who were just selling their products and services. And people who were there to celebrate and share their work. The latter was way, way more fun to be around. And those people were magnetic. I wanted what they were celebrating.

4. Make it about them, not you.

Undoubtedly part of the entire point of a conference is for people to share their ideas. At SXSW, the stage is for artists to executives — from NASA scientists to NBA players. And attendees want to hear about their work. But the most wonderful sessions were when someone took the time to flip it back to the audience — guiding us to consider where their lessons might intersect with our work. In some cases, the audience was included through conversations, activities, and even shared time on stage.

We made these 10-packs of stickers to share in lieu of business cards. People loved them — they sparked the best conversations!

5. Play.

This is more of a reminder to myself. Conference schedules are usually so stacked you hardly have a moment to process. Add a full inbox, project work, personal commitments, etc and it can be a daunting affair. It took me a few days to remember that it was ok to just have some fun! Sara made me stay up for my first-ever movie premieres (A documentary about the Black Keys, and a new film by Dev Patel). The concerts and surrounding venues were absolutely soul-filling. Yes, we have a stronger eye towards excellence, but we never want to lose our sense of wonder, awe, and joy in what people can create.

What presentations are coming up for you?

Are you preparing to present your work anytime soon? Or are you attending a conference in the coming months? What do you hope to give or get — what's "worth it" to you?

Whatever your answers are, take the time to prepare. And if you’re organizing a conference, set a high bar for facilitation, not just presentation. If you want help preparing your team to take the stage, let us know — it’s part of

Thanks again to the people who voted for us, joined us, shared their work, and continue to consider ways to take or foster Leaps.

PS: As a small thank you, we’d love to send you one of the sticker packs we made. Just leave your address here and we’ll send them out within the next few weeks ❤️

Sticker link:

*image by Priya Mistry for Ted

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