“Why are you going to that conference?” asks Jack.
“Just to hang out with the people,” says Jill.
It’s a cliche and nothing new. As long as I’ve been going to conferences, almost 30 years, that’s what people say, and do. Everyone’s in the room for the first few speeches and panels, but their eyes are fixed on their laptops. And after an hour or so, most of the people are out in the hallway.
So, when I was designing my own conference in 2003, I decided to do something different — I moved the conference out of the hallway and into the meeting room. Or you can think of it the other way around. I tried to imagine what a conference would be like if you held it in the hallway.
We reserved a suite of five classrooms and recruited Discussion Leaders (DLs), and tried to explain the format on the phone. I asked the DLs to think of the entire room as a panel. Two of them, well-intentioned, had recruited a few people they knew and asked them to come to the front. I rotated between the rooms, when I saw this, I asked the people in the front to take seats in the body. I made the DL stand in front, and lead the discussion. I remember the instant Jeff Jarvis, for example, understood what I was looking for — he ran with it, as far as I could tell everyone had a grand time (Jarvis is a fantastic DL). By the time the day was over, the format had been worked out, and get this — the hallways were empty! The conversations that used to happen in the hallway were now happening in the conference.
There’s so much to say about this. And at one time or another I think I’ve said it all, as have others. Why people continue to have the old kind of conference where the room empties out and the “good stuff” happens in the hallway is a mystery to me.
So why does it work?
Well, for one thing, the DL is encouraged to call on people. So you have to stay on your toes.
The lights stay on.
And you’d be surprised to find out that some people you’ve never heard of actually have something to say. You get to meet new people this way. That’s one of the reasons people go to conferences, no? Also there are people who conference promoters avoid because they upset sponsors. Why should you or I care about that? Wouldn’t you like to hear what they think? (Maybe we should just have a conference with only people who sponsors don’t like. Heh.)
When doesn’t it work?
If people in the “audience” feel they have a right to speak, to drone on and on, like a person on one of the old-style panels. No one has that right, the DL is fully empowered to pick the speakers, in real time, even interrupt people, cut them off, take the discussion in completely new directions. This often rubs people the wrong way, but it has to work this way, otherwise the discussion repeats in loops and gets caught in one of several traps that all open unstructured discussions die in. (The classic — “How do I make money doing this?” as if the only things worth doing are ones that you make money. We often choose to do things that cost money — going out to eat, buying a present for someone you like, filling up the gas tank, paying the mortgage, going to a conference, paying taxes, paying lawyers.)
It takes a lot of perseverance to make this new kind of conference work, but it’s worth doing. You can really solve problems this way. At the upcoming PDF conference in NY (starts tomorrow) they could have a DL-based session about the issues raised in the recent AP fracas. Or what becomes of campaign finance reform. What to do if Bush attacks Iran before he leaves office. These are just a few juicy political discussions that people might have opinions about.
The assumption behind this approach, which used to be called “unconference” before the name was usurped by a very different kind of conference, is that the eloquence and intelligence in the room are distributed not concentrated. People who usually speak at these things are not the only ones with something to say. If you want people to be bored and frustrated, put them in a seat in a dark auditorium and force them to listen to five people drone on about how they are great, have it tough, how the hard problems can’t be solved but we have to solve them anyway, or god knows what they’re talking about sometimes. As Marc Canter used to say “When you turn the lights out, someone just fell asleep.”
I think conferences can be places where people wake up instead of falling asleep. I’ve seen it happen. I hope we can do some more of these, I hope someday they become the norm in conferences.
Update: No lining up behind a mike waiting for your turn to speak, when it’s your turn, the mike comes to you. When people line up they expect to speak in the order they’re lined up in, and that ruins the whole thing. They also write speeches in their head while they’re waiting, get nervous, and you end up with the same kind of BS you get in panel discussions
Julia Allison: “Discussions are how I learn best.”