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One of the most common questions asked of conference organizers goes something like this:

“How do I justify this conference? Why should I attend it?”

The short answer is: no conference can provide justification. None. Even if some conference marketers make “justify your trip” collateral.

Why? A conference by itself is just a gathering of people, and while it would be amazing to deliver everything to everyone, the reality is that a conference is more like a mirror than anything else.

What do I mean?

Stephen K. Hayes tells a wonderful story about the innermost shrine of the Togakure village temple. In this shrine is a source of enlightenment and power like no other. Every year, the priests of the temple conduct grand, elaborate rituals to honor this holy power, and aspirants come from around the world to catch a glimpse at it. When the pilgrims are all assembled before it, the doors are opened and the power is revealed: a simple round mirror.

We are our own sources of power and truth.

When it comes to conferences, we determine its worth, not the conference, by what we hope to achieve. “Is this conference worth it?” is the wrong question.The better question is, do you have a burning question you need answers to, and if you do, does this event move you closer to answering it or further away?

If you don’t have a burning question, the blunt and honest truth is that you should expect to get nothing out of a conference or any other event, no matter how good, how flashy, how A-List the keynote speakers are, etc.

On the other hand, once you have a burning question you need an answer to, figuring out whether the speakers and attendees of an event are likely to help you move forward towards an answer will be relatively straightforward.

Look at who’s discussing the conference on social media; do fellow attendees have similar questions in advance of the event?

Examine the speakers’ backgrounds on LinkedIn. Will these people help you answer your question?

A small conference or event with 50 people, of whom 25 might have the answer you seek, will be far more valuable than a 150,000 person conference where 5 people might have the answer you seek. Until you have a burning question, you will not be able to judge the difference between the small event and the giant one.

You will know only the worth of a conference by the questions you have.

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