The Value of Conferences

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Was listening to this episode of the Working File podcast on the value (or not) of conferences. Specifically, the part where they were talking about reaching that point where speakers often do not attend events, but will speak at them. I have fallen into this loop where I just don’t have the time to also attend conferences that I don’t speak at.

I’m not sure when this switch happened. It probably has something to do with the fact that I went from speaking at conferences I’d attend anyway, to eventually pivoting from a “scene” to “different scenes” and eventually realizing that while there are events I’d love to participate in, there’s only so much time you can devote to such shenanigans. For me, the real truth is there’s a lot of anxiety with attending new events especially when you don’t know a lot of people. Being a speaker sometimes affords a status that sometimes makes it easier to talk to people without having to walk up to them and see what they’re into. It’s part of why I like speaking on the first day of an event, I find if people realize I’m a speaker and after they see me talk, they’re more inclined to chat with me and it saves me the awkwardness of figuring out who the ‘friendly people’ are.

As a speaker who is also an event organizer, I have spent a lot of time trying to curate the conference that’s welcoming, inclusive and warm. It’s not an easy feat, but it’s something I feel very strongly about and feel like we were able to accomplish with #GGRGT.

There are no easy answers, but there’s probably something of a conference bubble happening right now. The same 7 people get invited to speak at everything, depending on the industry. Smaller events do a much better job of providing speakers and attendees with a better experience. There’s impossibly difficult to cultivate new voices, because everybody wants to see people who have been vetted, but you can’t vet people without giving them a chance to flail (and possibly fail) on stage. I know there are events who do intensive pre-conference training that turn the speaking event into an almost full-time job, but that’s not tenable for most people.

It’s an issue that I think everyone is complicit in. Speakers, sponsors and organizers alike. More conferences need to be one-off events rather than sustaining communities that overlap. I like participating in conferences beyond just speaking, especially once my talk is done because it makes it easier to be involved. There’s a solidarity that often develops among conference speakers that add to the desire of participating to see your (often new) friends speak and shine. I really enjoy hearing people’s challenges, answering their questions and having my mind bent by someone’s unique perspective reinterpreting something I’d said with clarity I hadn’t considered myself.

On Cities & Building A Scene

The most interesting thing about living off-the-beaten path, is realizing that most people living in those places have some kind of tie to the smaller life. Whether it’s a family connection, a relationship or just a desire to “get away from it all,” I’ve encountered all types of folks with stories of their own on what motivates them away from “the big city.”

Yet, many of the narratives I hear from people building medium-sized cities like Bloomington (Indiana) where I live, revolves around startups, creating energy where it doesn’t currently exist and enticing 1) people who are here to stay and create jobs through some magic or 2) bringing capital (and people) from elsewhere to make our already good place a bit better.

Ignoring all of the challenges that comes with, I’ll just say that the most difficult part of building a scene is how much work goes into cleaning a particular corner of the sky. It can be vast, unnerving and frankly, a lot of patience. Most people seem able to invest in one or two pet causes and are happy with that. I find myself shocking close to the cauldrons of influence on one hand, yet often feel as distant from actual change as I’d feel in a larger place.

I like to say the biggest difference between say Brooklyn and a place like Bloomington, is the fact that in Indiana, there’s one of everything. In Brooklyn, I can find multitudes of organizations and overlap, but there’s enough space — somehow — to be involved in a niche or to craft your own lane if you have the right mix of money, time, relationships and whatever magic necessary to pull it off.

This isn’t a screed about why some places are better than others, it’s a reflection on the need for people making decisions about growing communities to be responsive and participating in the scene they’re trying to create. It doesn’t just rely on outsiders or insiders, it’s a mix of the two that combine to forge some kind of strategy that can propel a sleepy town into something better.

Every night, there’s a lot happening relative to a place of this size. Surely, having a Big Ten university helps tips the scales dramatically. The problem is, there are only so many people that you can engage. Students are a unique challenge due to their transient existence and other commitments┬áthat make them difficult to count in your total numbers for much of anything. That leaves the relatively small sliver of people who might be worth targeting.

I’ve been wondering aloud if I expended this same level of energy in a bigger place, what would the end result look like? There’s a lot to say for a critical mass. I wouldn’t be the first person to decide I needed something bigger, nor will I be the last. I have always been drawn to relatively small places, because the proximity and lack of pretense at times can give you an outsized ability to make an impact.

But across the board, I find that it’s a lot more difficult to penetrate whatever smallness pervades everything from the local politics to the ways people become close friends. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with dynamics of American life, and are present in other places. I’m quickly getting to a point personally and professionally, where I want to be intentional about what I work on, how I work on it and why. Especially extracurricular/passion projects, because I’m one of those people with lots of ideas and often feel like I’m “running out of time” to clear my own docket.