A weary traveler, down on his luck, comes to an inn.  He’s cold and hungry, so he goes into the common room.  There he sees a table spread with all sorts of delicacies and delicious-smelling food.

And yet, he notices right away that the people sitting around the table look hungry, sad, and frustrated.  Soon he realizes why:  they each have a spoon with a long, long handle, so long that when they try to feed themselves, they can’t bring the spoon into their mouths.  They’re starving in the midst of plenty.

So he leaves that place and continues down the road to another inn.  He’s so weary that he goes into the common room without much more thought, despite his bad luck at the first inn.  Here, he sees a table that looks just like the one in the first inn.  And the food piled high on it smells just as tantalizingly good.

But here, the crowd of people sitting around the table are laughing and smiling, and seem well fed.  And yet they have the same too-long spoons.  And then he sees why:  instead of vainly trying to feed themselves, they’re each reaching across the table to feed the person opposite them.

This old story about heaven and hell applies beautifully, in my mind, to the conference business and to public speaking.  A conference that simply offers speakers for their entertainment value, even great ones, and doesn’t do much to bring the attendees together, is like that first inn, a vision of hell.  Here we all are, and here the psychic food is, and yet we can’t make the most of it.

Conferences that realize, on the other hand, they are about networking just as much as they are about speakers, provide that banquet that everyone can feast at.

Similarly, speakers that realize that their primary role is to share their bounty with others – that it’s about the audience, not them – find the whole business of attending a conference a joy from start to finish.  Whereas speakers who are only in it for themselves and their own ego gratification find speaking much, much harder because they don’t get nourished along the way.

I was reminded of the story recently when reading about a psychological study of people that found that they tend to project their own qualities on other people.  Selfish people see other people as selfish, and generous people see generosity all around them, and so on.  This is hardly astonishing.  In fact, it confirms something my grandmother taught me. She said, long before I could figure out what it meant, “As you make your bed, so you must lie in it.”   She usually said it after I had done something to annoy her.

But that’s what science does, often:  it establishes in fact what we knew as a rule of thumb.  And in this case, there’s more:  people who regularly view others in a negative light are more likely to be depressed, and have various personality disorders.  Hell, indeed.

A conference is a banquet, spread out for all to enjoy.  But you won’t get much nourishment from it unless you are able to share the food with everyone.  That goes for the organizers, the speakers, and the participants.  We all get out of it what we expect, even as we project our own attitudes on the other people around us.

A shout-out to my buddy Jayson Gaignard, and his MMT conference, which beautifully realizes what I’m talking about.  I’ve both spoken at and attended his conference in the last few years, and every occasion has been life-changing.  That good.  

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