Friday, May 27, 2011

Rethinking Conference Etiquette

As you know, I'm a student of etiquette, literally. I have most of the rules and protocol required for various situations stored away in my brain, try (with various levels of success) to conduct myself with decorum in public and regularly bemoan the "utter bloody rudeness of people today" to use a phrase from one of my favourite etiquette authors, Lynne Truss.

Once in a while, all of my notions of civility are challenged with pleasantly surprising outcomes. This week I attended MESH 2011, Canada's Web conference, where visionaries, experts, newbies, and people just desperately trying to stay abreast of trends (me) come together to connect, share and inspire. I'm here to talk about etiquette but let me just say off the bat that it was great - content, speakers, networking, venue, food - all well worth the price of admission.

So here's what I witnessed at MESH. When I walked into the morning keynote on the first day I was shocked to see the room doors were wide open, people were milling around and coming and going as they pleased. Almost everyone was engaged in something other than actively looking at the speaker. The iPads, laptops and smartphones on the tables outnumbered the people sitting at them.

The conference attendees were chatting, tweeting, eating, drinking and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Towards the back of the room, people were lounging on huge bean bag chairs so I decided to plop down on one and hey presto, I immediately became a "new etiquette" convert. Here's a photo of the Fat Boy bean bag chair which is the most comfortable thing in the world.

Over the next two days I continued to be amazed with this extremely relaxed approach to conference-going. While I eventually grew to embrace it, there were some people who took it a bit too far. A man slumped in the bean bag chair in front of me was so relaxed he took his shoes off, an etiquette no-no in any business situation. No one wants to smell your socks, no matter how informal the environment. And, chairs filled with beans are not always conducive to learning - a young woman to my right dozed off in her bean bag, Blackberry clutched in her hands. I even saw a woman knitting fervently during an afternoon session, which ironically, was more distracting than all of the electronic devices.

But overall, despite the casual atmosphere, everyone was very well-behaved. I didn't hear a single cell phone ringtone in any of the sessions. People formed orderly lines and behaved at the buffets, and most importantly, actively networked. Everyone was polite, kind and willing to share their business cards and their ideas.

I found myself thinking back to the hundreds of traditional conferences I've attended in two decades in business and if I'm really honest, there have been many times where I've sat on a hard chair, in a freezing, dated hotel conference room, bored by an uninspiring speaker and desperately needing to go to the washroom or refill my coffee (or both) but remaining glued to my seat out of respect for the presentation or a fear of being too conspicuous as I make my way to the doors. Likewise, I've signed up for sessions only to find out after a few minutes that I know more about the topic than the speaker and could have used the time more productively. MESH turns this on its head. They bring together the content, people and opportunities and provide a basic structure but its up to you to decide how you're going to make it work for you. If that means you want to be taking notes in the front row at every session, so be it. If you'd rather linger in the periphery sipping coffee, knock yourself out. If you only want to socialize and get the t-shirt, that's fine too.

The role of etiquette in society is to increase the comfort level of the people around you. Traditionally, this has assumed that the people around you are comforted by the same things that you take comfort in. MESH proves that's not necessarily the case and that, as long as no one is acting like a complete boor, and everyone is aware of the expectations at the onset, we can set up our own comfort levels. This etiquette afficionado takes comfort in the idea that the rules of civility are always a good way.