Conference Experience Evolution and The Paradox of Choice

[fr] Mes réflexions sur l'expérience vécue lors de conférences comme LIFT08, LeWeb3, SXSW, BlogTalk, à la lumière de ma lecture du livre The Paradox of Choice. Surcharge cognitive et sociale, trop de décisions à prendre. Evolution également, entre les premières conférences où je ne connaissais presque personne, et où l'accent était mis sur "faire de nouvelles connaissances", et les dernières conférences, où je me rends compte que je ne peux pas passer du temps (ni même parfois dire bonjour) à toutes les personnes que je connais déjà.

There’s a lot going on in my head these days, and unfortunately I’ve been too busy/exhausted (that damn anaemia is still around, fwiw) to blog about it. Since a week or so before LIFT08, actually, I feel like I’ve been desperately running behind the train, and the distance between my hand and the handlebar that will allow me to climb back on is just increasing.

One book I’ve been reading these last weeks (months?) is The Paradox of Choice. If you haven’t read it yet, take a few minutes to order it now. It’s turning out to be a really important book for me, on the one hand for understanding a few things about how the world we live in functions and affects us in the areas of freedom, responsibility, and of course, choice — and on the other hand for understanding myself.

I suffer a lot from having too many options to choose from: I’m really bad at being a “satisficer” in certain areas (somebody who will be satisfied with an option as long as it meets certain criteria) as opposed to being a “maximizer” — wanting the best option available. In particular in my professional life and my intellectual pursuits, each choice is agonizing, because my brain wirings keep me very focused on everything I’m possibly missing out upon each time I pick a particular option over others. I do my best to tone this tendency down, of course, but it’s there.

There’s a lot I could comment upon in relation to this book and all it is helping me understand (it delves deep into the mechanisms of choice, and that’s fascinating), but suffice to say right now that it’s colouring a lot of my thinking in general these days.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is conferences. Obviously, as a conference organizer (Going Solo early bird price ends soon, by the way!), it’s on my mind, but I’ve also been attending quite a few conferences recently and reflecting of how my experience of these events has evolved (due to “burn-out”, increased network and public profile, and maybe other factors).

For online people like me, conferences are an occasion to see their usually scattered network of relations (friends or business contacts) coalesce in one single geographical location over the space of a few days. It can be very exciting, especially when you get to meet many of these people offline for the first time, but it can also be overwhelming. During my first conferences, I also got to know a lot of new people. People I wasn’t interactive with online. People who “grew” (ew) my network. People I liked and decided I wanted to stay in touch with. People who were interesting business contacts.

As conferences went by, I would find myself in a crowd of more and more people I already knew and appreciated and wanted to spend time with. I think FOWA last November was a breaking point for me — I realized that it was impossible for me to catch up with all “my people” there in the space of two short days. It was quite distressing to realize this, actually.

A few weeks after that, I was in Berlin for Web2.0Expo. A bit burnt, I took things way more lightly. Attended a few sessions. Didn’t even show up on certain mornings. Hung out with people I met there. Didn’t try to blog all the sessions I attended. It went much better.

Conferences are hard. There is a lot of intellectual stimulation (sessions and conversations), and a lot of social stimulation too. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I already feel life is simply too full of interesting things and people. In my everyday life, I struggle with the feeling that there is “too much out there” for me to “deal” or “cope” with — and a conference just concentrates this feeling over 2-3 days. Lots of fascinating (hopefully) sessions to attend. Great corridor conversations. Old friends to catch up with. New friends to make. Business contacts to touch base with. Dinners, lunches and parties. Take photos, blog, video the sessions or interview fellow attendees. To do all that well, you’d need to be superhuman.

I had two “different” conference experiences during these last six months, and they were LeWeb4 and LIFT08. Both times, I attended the conference with a rather clear business objective. It was tiring, but less overwhelming, because I’d decided in advance what I was in for. LeWeb4 (LeWeb3 actually, 2nd edition — don’t ask me why) actually turned out better than LIFT08 for me, because I simply didn’t attend any sessions (aside from half of JP‘s). At LIFT08, I had a press pass, so I did feel pressure to live-blog — and also, it’s my “home conference”, and I really like their programme. I was also giving a speech, so, although this conference experience “went well”, it was overwhelming.

So, what am I learning about conferences? They’re “too much”. So, you have to go to them knowing you’ll miss out (which brings us back to what The Paradox of Choice is about). The more connected you are, the more socially unmanageable it’s going to be. People you won’t see. Not saying goodbye. Not spending as much time as you wanted with certain people, but in exchange spending more time with others. So, I’ve come to accept that. I don’t know who I’m going to be able to catch up with. I know I won’t be able to catch up with everyone. I do my best not to plan — and if there is a small number of people (1, 2, 3) that I really want to see, I make plans with them, and that’s it.

The sessions are also “too much”. You can’t sit in sessions for the whole day, take notes, blog about them (or whatever you do) and then do the same thing the next day. Well, you can, but chances are your brain will fry at some point. I know that I can’t do it for two days in a row. At SXSW, I decided at one point to officially give up on attending sessions. I felt bad, because there were lots of them which sounded interesting, and lots of people I wanted to hear, but I also felt relieved because all of a sudden the pressure of making choices had been removed. If I happened to be hanging out with people who went to a panel, or if I stumbled into one — well, good. But I wasn’t going to make decisions about them other than on the spur of the moment. That worked out pretty well.

I did the same for the parties. Too much choice => I refuse to agonize on decisions before the last moment. All open. Go with the flow.

So, bottom-line: very little planning, lots of improvisation, and setting low expectations about doing precise stuff or hanging out with precise people.

To change the subject a little, I noticed at LIFT08 how at one point, there seems to be a physiological limit to taking in new people (certainly some relation to the Dunbar number department). At LIFT08, I was just so socialed out (or over-socialized), between running around promoting Going Solo and being the object of some attention after my speech (watch video), that I realized at some point that I was doing horrible things like:

  • trying to hand out moo cards twice to people I actually already knew (in this case, it was Robert) in the space of a few minutes
  • asking people for their name 3 times in a row
  • forgetting I’d talked to people, even when they took the trouble to remind me what we had talked about a few hours before
  • and of course, totally not recognizing anybody I’d been introduced to recently or at a previous conference

In this kind of situation, you can do two things. “Fake it”, as in “oh, hi! how’s business, blah blah blah” and hope that the person will drop enough info to help you out, or just fake it till the end. To be honest, I hate the idea of doing that, and I can’t bring myself to do it (plus, I’m sure I’d be quite bad at it). So, I prefer the second option, which is being honest. I apologize for not recognizing people (mention that I’m hopeless with faces — people who know me can attest), explain that I’m over-socialized and have simply been meeting and interacting with too many people. In my experience, this approach works out fine.

There’s also a lot to be said about “micro-fame” — the first couple of conferences I went to, the number of people I “didn’t really know” who were interested in talking to me (as in “walked up to me to introduce themselves”) was close to zero. Today, people show up out of nowhere, know me, want to speak to me. Friends want to introduce me to people they know (which is good, by the way!) My first conferences involved a lot of just meeting a nice person or two, and hanging out with them for the whole conference. This is more difficult today (except maybe at small conferences like BlogTalk) because I just know too many people (or too many people know me).

There also seems to be a subculture of highly-travelled, highly-conferenced people I’m suddenly finding myself part of — and I’m sure it would be worth taking a closer look to what’s going on here (hmm… a conference, maybe?)

I’ll stop here, after dumping these thoughts in this not-very-organized post. It felt good to write all this down. If you have comments or thoughts, agree or disagree, experiences to share — my comments and trackbacks are yours to use.

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This entry was posted in Books, Connected Life, Event Musings, Travels and tagged attendee, blogtalk2008, book, Books, choice, choosing, cognitive overload, conference, connectors, decision, dunbar's number, Events, experience, fame, fowa, friends, leweb3, leweb32007, lift08, microfame, networking, Online Culture, overload, Pieces of Me, Psychology / Sociology, social overload, socializing, stress, sxsw, sxsw2008, the paradox of choice, Thinking, Travels. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Conference Experience Evolution and The Paradox of Choice

  1. Pingback: Going Solo: an Intimate Conference « Going Solo

  2. steph says:

    I apologised profusely for walking past people because it does get overwhelming even for someone who’s good with faces, and quite often I’ve apologised to other folks if I had previous lunch/dinner plans – it’s not because I don’t want to spend time with them, but more that I already scheduled something else – I think the protocol is well understood.

    I believe how you deal with the information+social overload depends on what you want to get out of a conference. At SXSW, I was simply interested in spending time with people. If I go to a panel it’s only because it’s an issue I care strongly about (and don’t already know much about) – or if I’m going to act upon it some time throughout the year. [As a result, for most of the panels I chose to go to this year, I usually only recognised one or two faces.]

    And I treat panels rather like how I take reading a book, reading a newspaper article or listening to a podcast – some things are worth remembering, most things are not. I tend to note things I want to remember later, and am okay about forgetting the less important things. After all, that’s what memory’s for – filtering out what’s not important :)

  3. I completely get it. Sometimes managing people and new connections takes a lot of brain power. Plus, when you’re a speaker and you’ve spent time prepping to speak, after your panel you are still pretty wound up and flocks of people want to trade business cards. I find I can’t even write on their cards what the follow up is, if there are too many people. So, perhaps a strategy for a future conference you create is: More time between panels/events specifically for networking, with a ‘slow and time to talk’ theme?

  4. Stephanie says:

    Howard: I’ve thought about that, and actually, iirc the second edition of LIFT was in that spirit. There were really long breaks, which was quite cool. With this kind of formula, I’d be a bit worried as the conference organiser that people would think they aren’t getting their money’s worth — or that the programme isn’t “juicy” enough for them to justify attending. So actually, I think it would be a very good solution, but I’m wondering if it’s marketable and how people would react.

  5. Pingback: Climb to the Stars (Stephanie Booth) » End-Of-Travel Musings

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