Why I sit in the back row at conferences

Clay Hebert recently posted on the The Best Conference Hack, which is simply sitting in the front.

As a frequent speaker I like Clay’s advice. For speakers the empty front row is mysterious and frustrating. Speakers make a huge commitment, yet audiences who have little at stake show their lack of faith by staying back. Unlike a rock concert, somehow the 5th row is more desirable than the 1st.

I think better advice than Clay’s is to participate and speak about something. Many conferences offer Ignite or lightning talks, allowing many attendees to share their voice. This is by far the best conference hack: participate. It puts you in the middle of things. Volunteering has similar benefits without the stress.

But the surprise is, when I’m an attendee I don’t listen to all the speakers.

Sometimes I barely go in the session rooms.

Everyone has different learning preferences, and I know mine: I find it hard to listen to lectures, but I’m a tremendous reader. Unless the speaker is very good, which is rare, I’m better off reading their book or their blog which I can do at my own pace. As I wrote about in Confessions of a Public Speaker, lectures were never a good way to learn skills. They’re passive, non-interactive and rarely performed by people good at lecturing. I know it’s ironic that I have a low tolerance for lectures as I make a living giving them.

Conferences are a compromise: you get access to popular experts, but it’s broadcast access. This is a good deal if it’s your only option or your learning style matches what you get at the conference. But for me it’s conversations, which are two way, that I learn the most from. Conferences use speakers as MacGuffins, drawing attendees to come, but often the “side stuff” has the highest payoff.

Typically at events I do the following:

  1. For talks I’m excited about, I’ll sit in the front as Clay suggests. But this is rare. It’s not a judgement of them, it’s a judgement of how I learn.
  2. Frequently I sit in a back aisle, especially at a multitrack event. I’ll take aisle near the front if I can. In 7 minutes I can tell if the speaker has prepared well enough to warrant me staying. If I’m not convinced, I’ll move to another session – this is hard to do if you’re in front (unless you’re fortunate to have the aisle and brave enough to leave it).
  3. Often I’ll listen for 5 or 10 minutes to evaluate their credibility: then I’ll buy their book, or subscribe to their blog, and move on. Or stay if I think I’m getting something special I can’t get any other way.
  4. I regularly wander the halls and talk to others who are bored by lectures. They’re like me: better at doing than sitting and listening. I’ve learned great lessons from the conversations during sessions. The halls are not packed during sessions and it’s easier in some ways to start conversations.
  5. If I commit to blogging the event, my attention improves. At Failcon 2012 I reported on the talks and I found this helped me focus. But it changes how you listen: it’s a shallower experience in some ways as you’re rushing to get things down.  And to do it properly required far less interacting with other attendees. LukeW is the master of this: see his notes from 200+ talks.

But this is merely what I do. Unless your learning preferences match mine, don’t do these things.

If you don’t know how you learn best, experiment. Go to different kinds of events that offer different experiences. Better events invest in different kinds of learning, with things in the hall for people like me, and well prepared speakers worthy of all the attention the front row can give them.