Confessions of a Conference Planner or the Shelf Life of an Epiphany

I am sitting at a conference that I have spent over 9 months helping to create. The event is about accelerating the good economy – how we all can consider our social impact when investing, consuming, and working. Like most conferences, if you boil it down, it is about changing the world. It’s also about cute little scones and lanyards.

But as I sit among these 1800 attendees I can’t help but wonder, did this really matter? Were the 6 months of planning, thousands of people hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth it? Did the world actually change? Did anyone change?

As I check my Twitter feed I see that I have friends in Cabo, Atlanta, New York, Boston, and San Francisco for conferences. Others are posting speaker lists and even lanyard designs (THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER!) for conferences in Chicago, Portland, and Los Angeles. If you are a “missional” church planting Christian, a female social entrepreneur, a right-handed juggler, or an over 50 transvestite Hairy Potter fan you have MULTIPLE options for conferences to attend. The conference world is saturated. Why? Because people attend and will pay for it. And why do people attend?

I have planned them, spoken at them, attended them, paid for them, and even longed for them. I usually really enjoy them. There are many positive reasons to create and attend conferences. There’s energy, momentum, and powerful story telling that can inspire, challenge, and introduce new patterns of thought. But is that why I go and keep coming back?

A recent UW study suggests that large church services do a masterful job of creating an “oxytocin cocktail”. The same could be said of many conferences. Oxytocin is a chemical in your brain that is released during periods of social bonding.  It is often stimulated during romantic contact, breast-feeding, or even a casual hug. REMINDER – next time I hug someone, step back, look them in the eye, exhale like a yoga teacher and say “ahhhhhhhhh…you make good oxytocin.” Conference rituals such as lanyards (seriously), group applause, and media that show people similar to us all release some amount of oxytocin. Oxytocin is often the beginning of connection, but as researchers point out, the flip side is that it creates an in-group bias and can limit our ability to think rationally as an individuated self. In other words, when we attend conferences what tends to stick is our connection to the group not the individual ideas, presentations, or strategies that we need to return home with.

We attend conferences because we want to be better leaders, dentists, teachers, and sales people. But is our capacity to do X really going to increase because we went to a 90-minute breakout session with three experts (they do write for the Huffington Post!!) leaning over a long skirted table?

What bothers me is not that conferences exist and people attend. They have their place. What bothers me is that so many talented people seem to believe that the key to starting a movement is these convenings. While it may be well informed strategy and a good allocation of resources, my hunch is that the conference world is saturated because it is easier to create three day epiphany machines than it is to the dirty work of entering individual lives, neighborhoods, companies, and industries. After all, it is easier to paint a room with one of those spray painting roller guns than it is to get in there with a single brush.

The epiphany circuit, as I am coming to call it, does not get into the corners of our lives. It does not help cover the trim and the other hard to reach places. It’s a broad stroke and we should treat it as such.

Dee Hock, the founder of Visa (he left in ’86) says that most information is not internalized because we live in a noisy world. I would argue that the conference world (like cupcake stores, trendy burger restaurants, reality shows with hillbillies, etsy stores, and political Facebook posts) is noisy. In order for any of the information at a conference to be internalized it has to go from noise to data. And in order for something to move from noise to data it has to be differentiated from the noise.

Once the information is differentiated then, and only then, can we internalize the data. Once it is data it still has to be contextualized to become knowledge, then practiced to become understanding, and finally joined with a purpose to become wisdom.

All of that deserves its own post and more thought. For now what I am suggesting is that we need more conference leaders (and university professors, preachers, and consultants) who make less noise and actively invite people to move from data to wisdom.

The shelf life of an epiphany is shorter than a carton of milk. I want to create learning environments, conversations, and relationships that are nonperishable. Are epiphanies bad? No. But behind every epiphany that “stuck” is the steady hard work of a small group of people working to make their changed world view a reality. There is contextualization, practice, and purpose.

If you are a conference leader, a coach, a therapist, a pastor at the pulpit, or any leader with a microphone or pedestal and you are looking to simply surprise, provoke, or shock – you are wasting your time. If you are trying to generate epiphanies you should know that your events often fall, not on deaf ears, but on full ones.

I understand the irony of writing this in the middle of a conference plenary and posting this on a blog. Is there anything more noisy than the millennial bloggerdom? But I write it for myself. I post it because I believe it needs to be said. And I will try to live it because it feels like what the world is asking of me. And maybe you too.


4 Comments on "Confessions of a Conference Planner or the Shelf Life of an Epiphany"

  1. Thank you! This is one of the best things I have read all week. So refreshing to hear this perspective from someone on the inside – someone who has a seat at the table. So challenging! I have saved this post and I’ve no doubt I’ll be referring back to it many times over the coming months as I begin to explore what it might mean to allow people to have a forum to outwork their epiphanies – not simply have them!


  2. Dani says:

    Nailed it, JS.

    I’ve felt the same way after 4 years of attending nonprofit conferences when I worked at JB. Although, I do not regret attending Wild Goose Fest in June… but it wasn’t the talks, it was community space it created. By all camping together I spent my hours and meals with the same group of 30-40 people, and was forced to create connections (well, forced by my extroversion). I can’t really remember much of the talks, but I remember the conversations and connections, and the follow up hang outs after the festival.

    Amen particularly to this part “it is easier to create three day epiphany machines than it is to the dirty work of entering individual lives, neighborhoods, companies, and industries.” Have you read “Theirs is the Kingdom” by Lupton? I’m reading it now, and it draws similar conclusions for the social work field. Anyways, you aren’t just another noisy Millennial blogger, only blogging for yourself. I’ve been repeatedly encouraged and challenged by your words, so thank you!

  3. in my circle and context… conferences are about economy…in other words selling shit (books, curriculum, etc) and i believe it’s what both bolstered the youth ministry boom in the 90s and killed it…

    i’d like to think this demonstrates the stuff jesus talks about when he tells the parable of building your house on sand and rock… christian celebrity, jesus orgasms, and relevant hype… became the foundation of our ecclesiology and it broke… like our previous fictitious economy built on numbers invented by banks so they could sell more loans…people’s expectations are delirious… people expect youth ministry to look big, bold, and cool, just as they expect everyone in america to go back to owning a $250,000 home…

    this is the problem with all this conference fan fair… it’s a bubble… and when it bursts the question usually goes how do we make another bubble to prove our worth to everyone else…

    in my experience the real stuff is intangible and humbling… and the stuff i can show off and post on the internet to fabricate some oxytocin is a distraction…

    good stuff my friend… i smell formation in this post… my only complaint is it confirms my cynicism and grumpiness… but that’s my problem not yours… love you!

  4. Sarah says:

    Jarrod, I think that we asked ourselves the same question after SOCAP…now what? Elton and I have been to a GAZILLION conferences and often wonder what came of it? What now? I think that I rather journey in a space where there are people that are in the trenches day in and out with us. THAT is where the work is done. We must talk MORE about what this means for the future of us social entrepreneurs and kingdom minded people!