Apart from just moving house (again) and waiting to get the utilities connected (again), I have been thinking about conferences. My thinking was instigated by an approach I received from a conference organiser to present at an upcoming conference in September on collective intelligence. Almost at the same time, another conference organiser contacted me asking about case studies in government that could be used to demonstrate effective collaboration. And, of course, there is the plethora of conference invitations and conference pamphlets that come across my email and my desk each week advertising future conferences with discounted early bird rates. The message is clear: Get in quick, folks!
As I thought about all these conferences I was conscious of the fact that essentially they were all the same. The conference organisers invite speakers to present under a particular conference theme. People attend the conference to listen to these presenters, network with professional peers, and hopefully find some useful information and learnings that will be of personal or workplace relevance. It is pretty standard conference fare.
Now that’s all very well and I am happy to participate in such events. But I am thinking there could be other ways to provide conferences with something different. I know there are un-conferences and the like but I am thinking of something else.
Firstly, I’d be interested in a conference where the theme was not so tightly regimented. I am thinking of a conference at which there are presenters speaking on different and unrelated topics but from which the audience could develop particular personal or collective themes themselves. The audience would therefore become an active participant by discussing these emergent themes rather than having the themes imposed upon them. I see strengths and weaknesses in this approach – my interdisciplinary preferences are also at work here. But at least there would be some active thinking, rather than what often happens at conferences is passive and sleepy acceptance.
Secondly, I’d like the keynote to be in the form of an interview. There would be an interviewer but I’d like the audience to be able to take part as well – perhaps providing some questions in advance from which the interviewer and conference organisers could put into some form of meaningful order (randomness would also work for me but I think effective interviewing relies on a logical progression). The interview lends itself more to a storytelling approach rather than a lecture. The Q&A format stimulates quetioning in the minds of the audience throughout the keynote – something that could be followed up after the conference as well.
Thirdly, I’d like conferences to have some follow-up. We go to a conference, hear some stuff, maybe feel pretty good about things, and then go home or back to the office. Why can’t we tap into the collective experience of people after the conference officially finishes? If the conference is interesting and participatory, then there is the opportunity to extend the discussion outside the formal conference environment.
And talking of follow-up, I’d really be interested in any game that could be developed to reinforce or stimulate further thought about the conference presentations. I am thinking simple card or board games, but more technical games on a website would be equally useful (if a tad expensive!). A “snakes and ladders” for effective knowledge management would be absolutely fantastic! Games are great information reinforcements and something worthy of considered thought.
And lastly, I’d like conference organisers to think more creatively about conference “notes”. A few Powerpoint slides from presenters in a drab folder doesn’t cut if for me these days, I’m afraid. It also makes it difficult for presenters since Powerpoint slides often become the presentation (the defacto content) rather than acting as a supporting element to the actual presentation. Powerpoint slides are not conference notes! I really like the idea of podcasts and I am a big fan of the podcasts that come out of the SXSW Conference each year. Great stuff!
Now if I can work out how to introduce African drumming into a conference I would be really satisfied…