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Dan Jacob

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Is the Business Conference Dead?

Posted: 09/22/11 10:09 AM ET

On Sept. 23, I'm helping to organize the TEDxToronto Conference. Our theme this year is "Redefinition."

Conferences are an integral part of modern business. They're intended to facilitate learning, consultation and discussion. And if an employee of yours is attending one, the ultimate objective is usually for that employee to bring his or her enhanced skills, knowledge and contacts back to the company or organization he or she belongs to.

Unfortunately, depending on who you talk to, the word "conference" has developed bit of a bad reputation as of late. Rather than enriching one's expertise or facilitating networking, many contemporary executives, CEOs and community organizers have begun to think of the word "conference" as being synonymous with "boring," "tedious" or "unoriginal."

And they're right. In our age of social media and digital video, the way we take in information and relate with others has changed completely. Unfortunately, conferences haven't. With all of the tools and technologies available to organizers, it doesn't make sense that so many conferences are still designed such that delegates sit passively in an audience for most of the day while they are spoken at.

I believe that within conferences, an opportunity exists to bridge the online and offline worlds, deepening the connections made between delegates and beyond. We need to challenge ourselves to redefine the traditional conference structure. The following are three ways I believe a redefinition of the conference experience can be achieved:

1. Marry online tools to real-world experiences

Pre-connect delegates: Connect attendees in advance online using Facebook or Meetup. This allows you generate excitement for the upcoming event and facilitates advance discussion amongst attendees and ideally speakers, as well.

Go beyond the traditional "program": Create a mobile app with a full event schedule, speaker bios and other information and experiences.

Create and facilitate online "buzz": Develop a live Twitter feed that allows people to follow -- and participate in -- online discussion. Encourage location-based "check-ins" for greater digital amplification.

Broaden your reach: Make your event freely accessible to everyone through online providers such as Livestream.

Get feedback: use online tools such as Rypple and Yelp to get valuable post-event feedback.

2. Curate Your Audience

A major way to redefine the conference experience is to change the way that people obtain access to the event itself. The most common way attendees are selected -- ticket buying -- does nothing to assess the potential value that each delegate brings to the event. Instead, why not consider administering an application process? While more labour intensive for the organizer, this deters less passionate individuals, leaving room for others who are. It also enables an assessment of the qualities and credentials of prospective attendees, thus enabling organizers to curate an audience more rich in knowledge and experience.

Another idea is to have perspective attendees obtain access to the event by offering something other than money, such as a commitment to volunteer a certain amount of time to a particular project following the conference. This works well for initiatives such as Timeraisers, where instead of money, people bid volunteer time to local organizations in order to receive the product they want to "purchase."

3. Experiment with the event format

Another way to redefine the conference experience is to experiment with the way the event is programmed. To increase attendee engagement, try and move away from your conference being just a full day of speakers talking directly at your audience. Instead, look to include more participatory activities where attendees can feel involved in the experience. One example of this that has become popular in recent years is the "unconference" model, used regularly at BarCamp events. BarCamps are participatory, workshop-style events, where participants provide the content. These events are largely organized through the web, and attendees typically propose agenda topics on-site.

Another model that has recently received significant attention is the conference designed by Richard Saul Wurman, the original creator of TED. By design, the event would pair up world-renowned thinkers and prompt them with a question that will generate a conversation. The goal is to create a setting whereby, through improvised conversation, new insights and truths about our world will be revealed.

Ultimately, the objective should be to create a more engaging experience, broadening the reach of the conference beyond the people in the room, and ensuring delegates talk about the conference before, during and after the event. Over the past three years, our organizing committee at TEDxToronto has used many of these aforementioned strategies, resulting in great growth, success and feedback from our delegates. I am proud of what we have achieved and I encourage other conference organizers to keep pursuing a redefinition of norms.

Dan Jacob is Co-Chair of TEDxToronto 2011. He has attended over 100 conferences, producing a fair share of them.

The third annual TEDxToronto conference will take place on September 23 at the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning in Toronto. The event will be available on free live streaming at www.tedxtoronto.com.