Staying Relevant in the Great 2020 Conference Shift

Have you ever stopped to wonder why there are thousands of conferences produced every year? What role do conferences play in our society?

At the most basic level conferences fulfill an innate human need to connect. They create an opportunity for people to discuss, interact with and ultimately address the uncertainties of the changing conditions of virtually any subject, be they related to social, environmental, legislative, business, political or technological developments.

In 2020, huge changes took place on a global scale.  Macro issues like the pandemic, inequality, racism, climate change and international political disputes all seemed to peak simultaneously. With sweeping issues that quickly affect broad populations, such as major new technologies, disasters, conflicts or social issues, the need to discuss these topics at forums such as conferences tends to increase.

This has significantly influenced the topics being addressed at conferences this year. Themes such as the future of work, leading a remote workforce, innovations in healthcare to address the pandemic, building a sustainable business, inclusion and equality, and emerging technologies such as 5G and AI have dominated the conference scene.

Here are a few examples:

  • Diversity & inclusion discussions moved from #Metoo, to action, to now looking at social justice issues and how that reflects on the workforce. Leaders also put a spotlight on brand new issues like how the pandemic affects working moms more.
  • Inequality, both financial and social, was a significant topic in 2019, but the pandemic has made these divides even greater in many ways this year.
  • The future of work was also an important conference topic last year where the main concerns revolved around AI displacing workers. And while this topic is still pertinent, today’s discussions have shifted toward the issues around working from home and the future of the centralized office.

Comparing the 2019 and 2020 agenda of a major leadership conference like The Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live conference illustrates this wholesale shift. In 2019, the conference focused heavily on analyzing leading technology companies, such as Amazon and Facebook, and emerging technological developments like robots, AI, and drones.

But in 2020, that all shifted dramatically.  Not only did the conference itself move from a physical to a virtual gathering, the topics significantly shifted to reflect the year’s uncertainties.  So instead of the typical focus, the 2020 agenda covered issues such as pandemic investment, redefining the home in the COVID-19 era, Zoom’s unpredictable rise, how w shop now, climate change, the digital divide and the road to tech equality.  These were major pivots.

This may make intuitive sense, but so what?  How does this apply to you?

Here’s why this shift matters.  If you’re a thought leader, and you’re hoping to earn a speaking opportunity at a major conference, it is critical to ensure that your discussion topic correlates to the macro trends being discussed at conferences.

For example, one of our clients is in the pharmaceutical industry and focuses on remedies for certain cancers and rare diseases.  When we recommend this CEO to conference organizers, they want to hear about what he’s doing in the fight against COVID-19.  While this company isn’t directly developing a vaccine, they have formed and joined coalitions that are fighting COVID-19.  By simply re-framing the discussion points to align with the current “hot” topics of interest, this speaker can relate his content to the current macro trends. He can then use that approach to circle around to the thought leadership points he ultimately wants to make with audiences, namely that broader access to medicines is a real problem that the whole industry needs to band together to solve.

This same trend is taking place with most of our clients. Our technology clients are now reshaping their discussions around how technology is being used to solve issues related to the pandemic. For instance, a cybersecurity leader is spending much more time explaining to audiences the best way to extend corporate networks to employees’ homes and relying even more heavily on secure cloud services. Another client who talks about effective leadership is now re-framing her content to address how to effectively lead remote teams.

In this time of extreme change, it is imperative to keep your pulse on the macro trends being discussed.  Truth is, the conference business is a bit like the fashion business.  Trends move in and out of style- sometimes overnight!  But if you can find a way to align your subject with a big trend that’s “in style”, you can dramatically increase your chances of winning an earned speaking opportunity on a major conference stage.