I’ve been chatting recently with speakers, clients, managers, speaker bureau people, meeting planners – the whole universe of people who are involved in public speaking and conferences.  It seemed time to update the trends I’m seeing in the professional speaking world.  Please note this is an unscientific survey, based on anecdotal evidence.  But also some of the best people in the business, so I stand by my idiosyncratic observations.  Following are the top five trends I’m seeing and hearing about.  And thanks to everyone I chatted with…

1.Speeches keep getting shorter.  No surprise to anyone here, but a disturbing trend that derives ultimately from TED and TEDx.  With the success of that juggernaut, conferences everywhere strive to imitate that popularity and offer 30-minute and 20-minute speeches.  I say disturbing, because, while many topics do lend themselves to a quick treatment, not all do.  What would you say about the 20-minute version of Game of Thrones?  If the story is compelling, a 20-minute cutoff is just as arbitrary and uninformed as a 60-minute cutoff.

2.Conferences are packing more and more in.  Hand in hand with the first trend, I’ve seen conference schedules with fourteen, fifteen, even sixteen speeches in a day – and not concurrent speeches, either.  All main stage.  Just because the speeches are shorter doesn’t mean you can absorb more topics, people!  Let’s get real, here.  The human capacity to absorb and remember ideas is exploded at, probably about 7 – 8 topics per day.  Of course it depends on a number of factors, and people can self-select out, but what’s the point of designing a conference during which you’re forcing the audience to tune out some of the time simply for brain rest?

3.And they’re allowing for less networking. Value, value, value. That’s the buzzword of the moment.  And who can be against it?  But when you ask conference-goers afterward what they want to see different next time, no one EVER says, “Less networking.”  They don’t ever say it.  They almost always say, “More networking.”  There’s a pattern here.  As the world becomes more virtual, and we can watch most of the great speakers of the day on YouTube, the real purpose of conferences is networking – getting people with similar interests together face-to-face because things can happen when humans get together for real that don’t happen in the virtual world.  Besides sharing germs, I mean.

4.Fees are going up. This is mostly good news for speakers, but it’s not unalloyed good news. It also means that more and more conferences are opting for internal speakers rather than paying for outside (high-fee) professionals.  If you’re packing more and more in, you’ve got to save somewhere, I guess.  Mostly, the conversation goes like this, “We can’t afford (Famous Speaker A) – his fee is just too much.  Can you recommend someone at a lower price point?”

5.Cycle times are getting shorter. By this I mean that people are dreaming up, staffing, planning, organizing, and putting on big conferences in as little as 2 or 3 months. This trend is astounding for one particular reason:  it takes a while to advertise a public conference – to get people to attend – and calendars still fill up in quarterly cycles in many industries.  Can you really get people to a conference in October you first thought about on a slow day in August?  We’ll see.

What trends are you seeing that I haven’t mentioned?  What’s top of your list?  Weigh in, please, in the comments.

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    1. Thanks, Sebastian — I thought that particular trend had peaked, but you may be right. It’s certainly a cost-effective, no-travel way to put on a conference.

  1. Nick, I’m seeing a lot of demand for ‘online’ conferences…some way for people to plug in without coming in person. This is probably not a new trend, but it seems to be increasing in my world. For the conferences I design, I keep resisting putting this in place because I firmly believe a significant part of the value of a conference is the spontaneous meets and discussions that occur when you are there in person. Certainly some ‘networking’ and ‘meet/greets’ can happen virtually…we all do that all the time. But in my view, it’s a slippery slope. To allow one person to listen in on a remote line one time opens up the door for others to do the same and eventually people won’t want to put the effort into travel..they all want to come in virtually. Wonder if others are seeing this trend/demand and how they are managing it.

    1. Thanks, Keri — that is indeed a trend that’s been around for a while. I first started seeing them a few years back when video streaming got easier and better as bandwidth improved. And of course MOOCs are the academic form of that in some ways. I too resist the trend because I think it’s wrong to cut out the opportunity for face-to-face cross-fertilization of ideas, which is the most powerful thing about conferences.
      The other issue is that if you’re only ‘attending’ virtually, your investment psychically is much less, which means you’re less likely to pay attention, ask questions, and generally not be a waste of space.

  2. Face to face conferences are a luxury many can’t afford. Unless your employer is paying for the expenses, many can’t afford the cost of flying, hotel, meals and the conference. Single parents have challenges with regard to their kids. Virtual conferences are more inclusive and more affordable. Why not improve them so that participants will be able to interact, ask questions, etc. in a more engaging and meaningful way? With he help of technology, participants can join different groups based on their needs, expertise, interests, and interact with others after presentations. Virtual conferences can make it easier for introvert or shy participants to network by just posting their info and getting together with others on-line. I’m a baby-bomber trying to start a speaking career, and it’s easier for me to start doing it on line before doing it in front of a large audience, even though I’ve been a trainer of adult seminars for more than three decades. Finally, virtual conferences will provide the opportunity for new presenters to get into the business.

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