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Education Or Propaganda At Conferences

Anyone who uses social networks for business will tell you that you get a high percentage of conference posts in your feed. A high percentage.

You know what I'm talking about — the random, expert quotes from people attending sessions or panels. We get these pithy little comments posted on Twitter like, "Such and such just told us, If you're not participating in the social space, you're invisible." Or, "She's telling us now, If it's not driving business, don't do it." Or even, "Wow! People are eager to engage with your brand. They just need you to let them. He's rockin' it!"

Now admittedly, these are often just snapshot impressions and not truly representative of the entirety of the presentation being viewed. But overlaid with my own impressions from conferences, they do highlight three problems for me. First, that compressing complex topics into hour-long presentations often leads to misunderstanding of the subject or even places focus on the wrong things. Second, that far too many conference presentations are thinly veiled sales-pitches for a point of view or business offering. And third, that too many conference attendees are satisfied with the sound-bite quotes, despite the loss of context.

Let me explain.

The Trouble With Making It Accessible

Taking any marketing subject and dropping it into a conference program is rife with difficulty. Not only are you simplifying what is usually a pretty complex topic, but you're also taking it completely out of context. Add to this the need to be exciting or funny or entertaining in some way, and pretty soon we've boiled away the nutritional value and are left with just the sugary sweetness.

I know I shouldn't be the one pointing this out. Whereas most presenters do this maybe a dozen times a year, I'm guilty of it nearly every week with my show. Still, it bears mentioning that maybe we should stop treating these topic snap-shots as "education" and start emphasizing them as "explorations" of a subject.

When I give a presentation, I'm trying to get people interested enough in a subject to want to ask more. That's it. I can't educate people on how to use response metrics or how to craft their particular brand or how to use Twitter. All I can do is get them excited about it and want to seek out real consultation or education. And basically I've just describe the functions of propaganda. So if you listen to me, take note: Don't check your critical mind at the door. Keep asking questions.

Crossing the Sales Pitch Line

Now my next point is a bit grayer. Because the whole reason people speak at business conferences is to somehow expand their wallet. Whether they receive a speaker's fee or they do it for contacts, they are there to grow their business. So please understand that I am not knocking the ulterior motives of speakers. That's how the game is played. However, far too many presentations I've sat through completely place the focus on the company presenting or a proprietary method, rather than on ideas or best practices.

The trouble with sessions like this is that they not only don't educate, they actively skew the topic into philosophical rhetoric. The difference between sales and engagement can be razor thin. Sales is about making you believe. Engagement is about stimulating thought and conversation. And in the conference circuit, it's pretty darn easy to cross that line.

So again, be warned. As a participant at a conference you owe it to yourself to keep your guard up and remain skeptical. Ask those questions and challenge what you see, even if sounds good. The best presenter does not always equal the best solutions.

The Complacency Factor

Which brings me to my last point, that participants have to take responsibility for what they take away from a conference.

Those made-up, but all-too-real tweet examples I used above make obvious what we've know for years before the social networking craze. People gravitate toward the sexy sound-bite. It's easy to use these catchy phrases as a means of explaining the conference to others. It's a repeatable insight that can be used to help justify the expense of going to the conference in the first place. It may even help prove out a person's own business agenda. But it almost never informs a process of action.

Our willingness to accept platitudes before processes, makes for great memes, but lousy marketing. That's why we have so much enthusiasm for social media or digital marketing or the-topic-du-jour, but such lousy implementations and follow-through. It's because we hear the hype at a conference or on a blog post, but don't do the hard work of digging deeper and getting to best practices.

Frankly, if we take time we find that many of the things being said on some of the hottest marketing topics are actively contracting each other. In fact, sometimes a sound-bite taken out of context will even actively contradict what the speaker himself would advocate. (Like being quoted about how social drives business, but in practice knowing that it builds advocacy, which in turn can increase business.)

So for a third and final time I emphasize the need for critical thinking. Don't let star-power or an exciting presentation convince you that you're received an education at a conference. What you're really seeing is propaganda. Which can be valuable in identifying what you need to learn more about, but is no replacement for actual learning about a subject.

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