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Why I don’t need a Conference to Learn (Though I’d Still Like to Go)

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It’s official. I just got my third conference speaker proposal rejection this year. I’m not disheartened. All conferences are selective and, though I looked through the previous year’s speakers (where I could find them), I’ve never been to an elearning conference and so I suppose I don’t know the audience well enough to have chosen something sexy enough. Though I would still be excited to go (hint..hint if anyone is thinking of passing out free conference passes), I’m confident that I don’t need a conference to learn new things. Why? Because I make stuff.

What Conferences are For

Listen, party people, I get the allure of conferences. As I’ve said, I want to go myself and I’ve applied (and failed) to speak at several.  I know that attending a conference could introduce me to some of the incredible other makers I’ve connected with online (I’m looking at you, Mel!). Speaking or demoing would help me to practice my public speaking, help me share my ideas and gather feedback and critique; it could even help lead me to new job prospects. Conferences are great at helping you to build or solidify a community of people in your corner of the world or in your neck of the elearning industry. You can ask questions, view demos to get ideas, and hang out with other folks who are in the same field. It’s definitely a win-win.

What Conferences are Not For

But I fully understand that going to the conference is not in any way going to make me better at my job.

It strikes me that conferences, while super valuable, sometimes act as something we can check off for ourselves to pretend that we got some professional development and will get better as a result of. By all means, go to the conference, you lucky so-and-sos, but don’t kid yourselves: nothing you learn there will help you get better at your job if you don’t, you know, actually do it and do it consistently.

While some of the tips, for project management or SME communications, say, may be something that you practice on the job, many of the technical skill sessions that are so popular (graphic design trends, how to make your own graphics in PowerPoint, how to use x authoring tool, even rapid prototyping) those are not one and done types of things. They aren’t even 10 and done. That’s the kind of thing you practice over and over, again and again, until it becomes second nature (kind of like I’m doing with JavaScript algorithms right now, damn them).

You can kid yourself into thinking that going to the conference will inspire you and you’ll be able to create all kinds of awesome things after that, but don’t be disappointed if three months, six months, a year from then, you’re courses haven’t changed a bit. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, creativity and inspiration are a function of practice (creativity_inspiration function(practice){}).

The Other Thing About Conferences

I watched an amazing TED talk last week (embedded below) which illustrates something that maybe our conferences (maybe most conferences?) sometimes don’t give you, and that’s dissenting opinions.

Sure, a lot of what we do is not reinventing the wheel. We rely on what those with more experience have struggled through and distilled for us in the plentiful books in our industry. There is absolutely nothing wrong in that. It makes sense for us to learn from successful people with more experiences. But are we ever critical? Do we ever stop to check or challenge what we’re being told we should start doing? Gamification stands out to me as being one of the biggest things I have questions about. It’s the biggest buzzword of the year (gamification, now; not game-based learning) and everyone is touting how successful it is. But after reading Daniel Pink’s drive, and some great articles on the dark side of gamification, I can’t help but wonder, what happens when the novelty of gamified training wears off? What happens when Anna’s motivation to be a great sales person dies because Bart is always on top of the leaderboard? And, perhaps most pertinent to this post, where are the conference sessions on why not to use gamification, gamification failures? Or even where and why not to use games?

Another example might be flat design, which has gained a lot of popularity in our field as we try to teach ourselves graphic design skills. Where are the sessions on where and why not to use flat design?

How do You Approach Conferences?

I’d love to hear about how you approach the benefits of conferences and anything you’d like to see more of. Let me know if the comments.


  1. June 1, 2015 - Reply

    Kristin, start small. Is there a small conference, or a group of elearning people that meet near you? If so, start there. You will have an easier time being accepted to these events and you can experiment with your message, become more comfortable speaking and get credibility. Then you will have something to tell the people at the big conferences about your previous experience.

    Toastmasters is also a great way to get comfortable speaking and try out your material, plus you can also add that to your experience list.

    • June 1, 2015

      Honestly, Linda, the biggest barrier I face is that I’m two hours away from any metropolitan area with opportunities. Unless I was on campus as a professor, there really isn’t anything here. Travelling to other cities is time and money that I don’t have. I’m not too worried about it moving forward as I’m seriously considering a career change that will hopefully open up some opportunities to move.

  2. June 3, 2015 - Reply

    Interesting post. I’d like to add my two cents. In doing so I’ll try to balance out the two hats I bring to the conversation, those being my role as attendee and speaker at many conferences, and my current role as a person that runs conferences in the L&D field.

    The one overarching comment I would make is that your post is spot on, and at the same time completely off-base. I say that in the context of personalization. While what you describe may be accurate for you today, it that may not be the case for others. What makes a successful conference experience is different for many people. Some crave the social, some crave the content, others crave the opportunity to have their company pay for a three-day party. And those are only three of a host of definitions for “the ultimate conference experience”.

    I’d also add that what makes a successful experience evolves over time. When I first started attending conferences, I was all about the sessions. Over time, the value proposition shifted a bit. I still like to attend sessions, but a growing part of the experience for me now are the connections – the hallway conversations that extend my network, get me involved in projects, and form connections that enable me to learn and do interesting work throughout the year.

    Much of my personal and professional growth over the last decade can be directly linked to a connection or experience I had at a conference.

    When it comes to what conferences are and are not for, it’s not quite as black and white as you’ve described. What they’re for varies depending on what you’re hoping to gain.

    I will, however, say that I think your comment about conferences not making you better at your job is inaccurate. I can say first-hand that conferences can enhance your knowledge and skills.

    Emphasis on *can*.

    Simply attending a conference isn’t enough. You need to engage in the conference. You need top participate in conversations. You need to contextualize what you’re learning and think about how it can be applied to your work. You need to reflect. Most importantly, you need to prioritize how to apply what you’ve learned to your work before you get back to the office Monday morning and try to catch up from being away for a few days.

    There’s tremendous learning taking place at conferences that can help you grow as a professional. But it’s a two-way street. Like many things, you get out of conferences what you’re willing to put into them.

    As for the lack of dissenting opinions at conference sessions, there may be some truth to that. It’s also a bit more complex in practice. Any session exploring a topic can look at multiple angles. Going with your gamification example, a session could easily share examples of appropriate applications, and examples where gamification does not apply. As someone personally interested in games for learning, I sit in lots of sessions on the topic and see this balanced structure often.

    I will extend the general question of “are conferences sharing balanced content” a bit further. It’s not just about choosing a conference; it’s about choosing the right conference. I know when I program an event I try to balance what attendees need today with content that they will need tomorrow. I try to program content that helps attendees stretch. That’s not right or wrong, it just matches what we’re trying to do with our events. Finding the conference whose program most resonates with what you are looking to engage in is critical. It’s also challenging.

    I want to close my comments with a few suggestions and thoughts around ways to improve the chances of a proposal being accepted by a conference.

    The first thing I try to remind people – including myself – of is the fact that a rejection of a conference proposal is not a rejection of a person. There are a HUGE number of factors that come into play when building a program, one of the biggest being supply and demand. I’ve been involved in a number of conference events (even before it became my full-time job) and most of them get considerably more proposals than there is room for on a conference program.

    Submitting a strong proposal often isn’t enough, as there are lots of strong proposals. But there are things you can do to get past the numbers and help your chances.

    For example, I make myself available to people that propose sessions, both before and after calls for proposals. Before conferences I talk to people about what they might propose, and give them feedback on how their stories fit with the conference. It helps them submit a stronger performance, and our conversation helps fill in the gaps that often exist between what one person writes and another person reads. I also make myself available to anyone whose proposal was not accepted that would like to talk about why. It often helps make the next proposal stringer, and helps me better know and understand the individual. In short, the more I know about an individual and their story, the more context I have with which to vet their proposal. I can’t say every conference organizer will participate in a conversation like this, but I can tell you none of them will if you don’t ask.

    Another thing to keep in mind is a simple question to apply to any proposal you’re considering: “What makes this proposal unique?”. If I propose a session exploring the Best Practices in Instructional Design, it could be a really good session. How is that session different than one like “10 Tips to be a Better ID”?
    Find a unique hook for your proposal adds value. In a sea of hundreds of similar proposals, the unique stories often stand out like a ketchup stain on a white shirt.

    I also completely agree with Linda’s comment on starting small. Almost all of the regular speakers I see at conferences, including myself, started at smaller events. My first few speaking sessions were at local ATD & SHRM Chapter meetings. Those sessions not only helped me improve my craft and build my confidence, they also gradually raised my platform and visibility as I proposed for larger events.

    I’ve written a couple of posts on “proposal tips” that you may want to check out:

    OK, so I lied. This isn’t my two-cents; it’s more like my three bucks. On the plus side, I’ll probably re-purpose much of these comments into my next tips post, so again, thanks for the conversation.

    • June 4, 2015

      Howdy David! Thanks for your comment.
      I think that you may have misconstrued my post as a rejection of conferences based on the fact that my proposal was rejected. That isn’t the case. I can completely understand why conferences are valuable and, as I confessed, I still really want to go to one. My only point was that I really don’t think that conferences do help anyone do their job better unless they go back and consistently practice the things that they learned. No amount of this is how to use authoring tool x or these are best practices is going to help me make better elearning unless I consistently practice using authoring tool x in a way that meets best practices. Inspiration, too, is not merely a function of going to a conference seeing all the cool demos and then being able to be inspired at a random point in the future. While those cool demos may prove as a starting off point (I often collect cool demos from all kinds of disciplines) it’s the consistent practice that allows me to continue to grow my own creativity.

      Thanks also for your comments about how to improve my proposals. As I said, I fully recognize that, having no experience, my proposal probably wasn’t sexy. I need to improve. I get that and I’m not offended by it.

  3. June 13, 2015 - Reply

    Two quick comments:

    First, I think you *can* learn stuff at the conference that will improve you. Some things you will have to practice, but at conferences, you are a practitioner and the conference is a reflection opportunity. There is some non-trivial likelihood that there’ll be that ‘aha’ moment where you see how one thing you’ve struggled with can be solved in a simple way. Or there’s that one new concept that changes how you look at things and provides a new perspective that illuminates everything you do.

    Also, *please* don’t submit ‘sexy’ proposals. Unlike David, I don’t run conferences, but I attend *many*, speak at almost as many, and review conference proposals under a number of guises. And I see too many tarted up buzzphrases covering up the same old thing. A good conference shouldn’t accept sizzle without substance. As David said, have a unique perspective or an important but ‘underseen’ new idea. It’s the novelty of what you’re presenting combined with quality in the value to the audience.

    • June 13, 2015

      Howdy Clark, can you drop an example? When I’ve looked through conference sessions, I usually see many of the same things: how to use video in x, how to use authoring tool x, graphic design for instructional designers, gamification for x.

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