Redesigning the Conference Experience

I’ve been involved with the Podcamp and the Podcamp Foundation from very early on, having attended the first Podcamp in September, 2006 and having helped organize four others so far. Most of you know this. What’s intriguing though, is the thought of redesigning the conference business as a whole.

I was bouncing ideas around with Chris Brogan this morning, talking about the benefits of small versus large, tracks, and what makes Podcamp special and different. How is an unconference, and podcamp in particular, different from other conferences, and how do we seed change in the stogey conference business to make it useful and engaging?

A couple of quick ideas, to get you thinking and maybe coming up with other ideas to add to the mix:

1. Heterogenous groups are much more interesting than homogeneous groups. People like differences and the surprises- it shocks our neurons and keeps us engaged. I like being a “hybrid” myself, not easily classified as just a geek, just a lawyer, or just an anything. This means I also feel I can learn something from just about any situation, and try to stay open to that learn whatever the kernel is from a new person or experience.

If we only associate with birds of a feather- people just like us all the time- we will share and learn some new things, but I think not as much as when we have people out of our day to day fishbowls along for the ride. Podcamp’s mix of business folks and hobbyists, audio and video geeks, developers and people who only have their geek training licenses brings the ability to cross pollinate, deal with real world situations, and solve problems that aren’t just theoretical. It’s sort of like creating a giant working group, where everyone can bring their issues and if they choose, throw the issue open for group think and dissection. Where else does this kind of on the spot trouble shooting happen with the best minds around?

And frankly, I am much better at taking a real problem and thinking up all different possible solutions, things to try, and different approaches to take than when something comes up theoretically. (I guess it shows that I had an engineer for a Dad, and I love to tinker and dissect things.) I have a “Let’s take it out for a spin!” mentality. But I do believe the mix of people is part of the spark, the secret sauce, that makes people sit up and take notice.

2. Architecture and Design Matter. I have a husband who loves architecture- we have books from Sarah Susanka and Robert Stern in the house, so we look at how buildings “work” as a hobby. Then you look at someplace like Pixar, where the creative people have been unleashed to create their own environments, yet work collaboratively, and you find out how much good design matters even more.

This means the more the environment works with people and does not create barriers between them, the more interactions you will have. Apartment buildings and hotels encourage us to retreat into cubes, not free associate. Even traditional conferences at convention centers have an infrastructure, as Chris Brogan noted, that is designed to have you in a specific place or to simply leave as soon as possible. It doesn’t say “Come hang out here!”

Contrast this with retail environments. What about the success of Starbucks and Borders, which have a design that says “please come hang out here!”? Even in the Best Buy Store, only the high end audio/visual encourages people to come and hang out to test drive the equipment for more than 10 minutes. The Apple Store, however, often provides chairs and an area for kids, along with an environment than encourages play and interaction. The Apple Stores near me never seem to be empty. CompUSA, in contrast, is often like a tomb.

Best Buy attracts a wide range of buyers based on its inventory, but there’s no hands on experience that is all that helpful. What if you could actually do a load of laundry and see if you liked a machine before buying? Saw a stocked fridge and got a better sense of whether it would work for you? It would be different, it would be remarkable, and I bet they’d sell a lot more stuff, as well as encourage the sales people to know an awful lot more about the widgets they are selling, instead of acting as a bricks & mortar catalog for things.

3. Leaving with Ideas and an Education.  One of the topics Chris and I talked about was the educational nature of the Unconference.  It’s like a weekend long college experience, often complete with some of the frat party atmosphere, for good or for ill.  There’s also been a compelling discussion about the value of a college education on Chris Penn’s Financial Aid Podcast  blog, and how it’s often the hands-on and real world experiences that provide the best education available, at any price.

Chris Brogan often talks about ideas having handles, those ideas that stick and you mull over long after they have been shared.  I hope one of the things we provide traditional media and PR types with at Podcamp are ideas and the ethos of the community- the spirit of sharing, transparency, and original voice.

I attended a traditional conference recently, and I am amazed at how many people still read their slides as their whole presentation.  Or read off of  a prepared speech, with occassional glances upward.  I spoke with relatives about this phenomena this past weekend, and they remarked at how their experiences were exactly the same, at University lectures, tech conferences, and continuing legal education seminars.

This way of presenting provides a security blanket for the speaker, but it is a big ZERO on the engagement scale with the audience.  I would rather see someone speaking from the heart, talking TO me, not AT me, any day of the week.  The same goes for any marketing campaign whatsoever.  And I hope we can teach people in the traditional business world the fundamental skill set needed to implement the Cluetrain Manifesto is all its glory- that the community, the connection, the being just plain old honest and accessible, the treating the “market” with respect and as intelligent humans, is the way to win in the end.  People want what you have, but you need to approach them in a way that is welcoming.  Like family.

(This is why I think Martha Stewart, HGTV, and the Food Network are so popular- at the heart of it, it’s about creating welcoming experiences to share with family and friends- everything from the napkin rings to meals is about doing something special and remarkable, to bring people together and let them know they matter.)

So what does this have to do with conferences? I have clearly digressed, but the point remains that people interact with an environment based on its architecture- both physical and organizational. If you can organize conferences in a phsycial space that says- “come talk and interact” rather than “Hands off- we’ll tell you where to go and what to do- Don’t step on the grass!”, you’ll get a dramatically different experience all the way around.

This will mean giving up perceived notions of “professional” and “business-like” – it will require a willingness to stop preaching and start listening. But can you think of anything that would be more interesting and compelling? I have seen “stiff” people come to Podcamp, totally relax and get the wild eyed look of a religious convert after the event, realizing conferences, and unconferences in particular, are a different animal, but what a difference! It’s like finding a zebra in your living room- quite a surprise, but perhaps a good pet in the end?

Time will tell, of course. But in the end, I think we’ll find design and organization, meeting up with heterogeneous groups will radically change the usefulness of conferences, making them worth the money spent far more than ever before. But it means willing to try the new and not be satisfied with the old and traditional. And that’s a radical notion whose time has come, especially when money is tight and business needs to maximize the results of mass gatherings more than ever.

What do you think? Am I crazy? What is your version of the perfect conference? What matters most to you?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Redesigning the Conference Experience

  1. Great post. I love the experience of involving the audience in my How To Videoblog presentations, which are not really presentations, but are a joint exploration of a way to get from A to Z. They are involved in what’s happening, they learn, I learn, WE end up getting to the end of the presentation together. Love that.

  2. Fantastic post! I’ll say amen to the idea of heterogenous groups producing cooler outcomes (my paraphrase!).

    There’s a group here in New Zealand called the 4 Million Dream project who are trying to elicit a positive vision forward for the country. Their solution – conversations. As part of it they’re having random dinner parties where complete strangers from diverse backgrounds share a meal and talk about anything they please. Talk about building bridges.

    About architecture – check out Alan Bertenshaw’s paper the Future of Work, available at http://www.matissefutureoffice.com … he’s got some really interesting things to say about what they call the “New Office Landscape”, designed to facilitate creative collisions and greater collaborative use of space.

    It’s angled towards office furniture and the working environment, but I’m sure there are some things you can glean for conferences.

  3. My version of a perfect conference: I’ll take somewhat messy and slightly unpolished over well-rehearsed and slick any day. When it’s authentic, I mean. A few “umms” never put me off.

    In other words, there’s a lot of the “unconference” approach that I like — and a lot that “conferences” can learn from it.

  4. Thank you for this timely post. I am beginning to solicit help for a small “camp” this next year (the intersection of indie art/craft and Web 2.0). Definitely unconference-like in structure. One thing we need to find is a venue; your thoughts on architecture and design will stick with me.

  5. I wish my employer’s once-every-two-years company symposium were an unconference. What a blast that would be! As scientists and engineers we are meeting together to share ideas and network. Its coming up in a few months, maybe there’s time for a few suggestions…

  6. Very thoughtful post. I really love y our thinking on how you consider yourself a hybrid. I can really relate to that thinking.

    This post has started me thinking about my current expertise and how I can contribute to those fishbowls. Until now I have only been paying attention to the new media space and communicating with all of you. I feel that has been a necessary step in my own process. I was relearning how to communicate and the power of community.

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