On conferences

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…


7 responses to “On conferences

  1. Brad, are you familiar with the BarCamp way of delegate generated programmes – if it can be called that. A model that allows constant development and answering of question from attendees or even those outside of the actual event.


    I think some of the elements of this format are similar to what you mention here, but interested to know your thoughts?


    • Adam,

      Yes, I have been meaning to check out a BarCamp. From memory, Stephen Collins from Acidlabs here in Canberra organised one last year. I must look out for it again. Matt Moore in Sydney also had some involvement with a BarCamp in Sydney when I was there too.

      I think the BarCamp works pretty well with a common theme. I realise that within the theme, people’s experiences and presentations can be pretty varied.

      I am thinking more along the lines of the Gel conference held in New York and run by Mark Hurst of Good Experience. While these conferences have a theme, about good experience, the presentations are from a wide and divergent range of people. Extending this further, my interest would be in the audience working out their own common themes and discussing them at the end of the conference, facilitated if necessary.

      Last year I also talked about delivering workshops within a conference structure. I think workshops have a role to play, especially where conferences have relatively small numbers of attendees, allowing for more discussion afterwards.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. The idea of “unconference” is interesting (BarCamp being a prime example). Essentially, the attendees decide what to discuss when they get together.

    I imagine one could do this with a specific topic area in mind just as easily. I’ve attended variations on the conferences that Matt Homann and Dennis Kennedy put together the LexThink moniker (http://www.lexthink.com/), and they have been quite well-done AND provided ongoing food-for-thought in terms of lasting connections to the attendees. One time there was a commitment from attendees to contact one another after a month on a specific topic that was covered at the conference.

    • Jack,

      My understanding of an “unconference” is that although the audience decides what they will speak about, there is an overall common theme (e.g. social media). I might be wrong about that. I did send out a Twitter yesterday asking if BarCamp was going to happen in Canberra or not this year.

      Perhaps what I am looking for is not possible. Let me construct an example: I organise a conference and will have eight presenters/activities/workshops. I have eight interesting people with rich content, with good presentation credentials, to speak. On the surface, the eight individuals have nothing in common. Let’s say we get someone to talk about the circus, another on climate change, another on how children learn, another on levitation, another on rail transport, another on grids (heard a great interview recently with Hannah Higgins about her book (called “The grid book”), another on gourmet cooking, and another on communities of practice. These topics don’t seem to have any commonality other than the the presenters were handpicked for their quality presentations and quality content. I don’t make the connections as the conference organiser, but the audience will think and develop common themes or overlap as the conference goes on. Perhaps I am naiive to think that people will find patterns this way so maybe I will relent and have a facilitator (I’d prefer not too but perhaps I am being unrealistic in my expectations). The whole conference process is about having something interesting to say on a range of completely different topics and then trying to work through the learnings from those presentations into a common or more cohesive or patterned rearticulation by the audience, who are now equal participants with the speakers.

  3. I’m one of the LexThink organizers that Jack Vinson mentions, and I do a lot of facilitated kinds of stuff you’re talking about. I’m happy to chat to share some ideas and best practices if you’d like.


    • Matt,

      Maybe you could share with us some of the outcomes from the LexThink conferences and compare them to traditional formats. Thanks.

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