Posts about conferences

The unconference

I’m glad to report that the unconference worked and I just told unconference guru Dave Winer that in email.

The point was that the people in the room would set the agenda and they’d accomplish this via conversation, not lecture. I think it worked for a few reasons:
1. Everyone in the room wanted to accomplish the same thing. We had a goal. We all had different ideas about how to get there. But we came in wanting to move the peanut, not just chew on it.
2. There were the right number of people there: enough to give us varied perspectives and experience but not so many that people couldn’t be heard.
3. The organizers set the exact right tone. They made the essential opening points so everyone else didn’t have to. They set a high expectation for work and civility. Then they let the conversation happen.
4. We came in knowing what the unformatted format would be, so everyone knew what to expect: unconference rules. Thanks, Dave.
5. We had stellar leadership. Wendy Warren, an editor at the Daily News, is a star. When people tried to turn her into the teacher with their raised hands and plaintive-call-on-me-please looks, she tried to get people to just have a conversation. She joined in that conversation but never tried to take it over. When things bogged down, she raised the next subject. When things threatened to get a little citric, she lightened things up. Charm helps. These sessions still need leaders, just not lecturers. The unconference isn’t about anarchy but about empowering and that’s what she did. So if you unconference, pick your leaders well.

This makes me all the more exhausted and exasperated looking at programs for other conferences coming up with damnable panels — and I’m on some: 45 minutes of droning down the line followed by 15 minutes of questions from the audience, when the real goal should be answers from everyone. Almost as bad are the sessions where everyone get a “turn” but because they happen in order of hand raised, the discussion turns into a festival of the nonsequitor (well, I want to respond to the person who spoke three turns ago….). The goal should always be conversation.

There’s a meeting coming up about linking and I was quite obnoxious in my response to the invitation, pitching the Winer gospel of the unconference. I told the organizer to blow up the panels and tear down the essentially insulting distinction between panel and audience and get the people in the room to truly link. He should have told me to go blow but, to his credit, he said he’s trying to figure out how to do this. I know it looks daunting, but it’s really not. At the first Bloggercon, when Dave told me minutes before my session was to begin that the entire room was the panel, I turned into Phil Donahue and let it happen.

At the upcoming Syndicate conference, organizer Eric Norlin pushed me to be one of the keynoters. I tried to refuse; I said that I didn’t know as much as the room, accumulated. I finally agreed to do it only if I could turn into Phil and start the session from the end — the “question” period, except I’ll be the one asking the people in the room questions because they’re the ones with the answers. There will be too many people in the room and not enough time and not a clear enough goal to have an unconference like yesterday’s. Will this work in an hour? Will it be of any value? Will it be utter humilation? I have no idea. But it’s worth the risk to blow up the broken format of the conference. I’ll let you know how the unkeynote works: or better yet, you’ll read on the blogs of those there what didn’t work and why.

: OPML camp struggles with how to unconference.

So connect

The list of folks going to Freedom to Connect confab in Washington keeps getting better and better. So connect.

Broken conferences

Dave Winer now has a series of posts exposing how much companies pay to deliver keynotes at conferences. Gee, I thought it should be the other way around” speakers worthy anything get paid to speak. If the companies are going to pay to speak, maybe we should be paid to listen. Timeshares do it, why shouldn’t conferences?

The holy conference war

Looking at Scoble’s proper complaints about the cost of big venues for conferences, I wondered this morning about alternates. There aren’t any for the huge conferences with big display floors; they’re screwed. But for small and medium conferences, why not churches? Yes, the pulpit-and-pew arrangement isn’t ideal for conversation but there are plenty of breakout rooms (put the haughtier executives in the ones with the smaller chairs) and most churches need to make use of their space the other six days of the week when God worked and so do we.

Exploding the conference business

Too many conferences suck. They’re too expensive. They are filled with boring panels. They are all about speeches and not about conversation and argument and learning and meeting. They don’t capture the expertise of the crowd. They enrich the organizers at the cost of both the “talent” and the “audience” (a distinction that is usually random, meaningless, and essentially insulting). They are filled with commercial pitches. The large-scale conferences are too obvious; the high-end conferences are too often too safe. There are exceptions and conferences I do like attending because of the people they attract or because they are provocative. But often, the problem is that the interests of those who make conferences work — the people who fill it — are not aligned with the interests of the money behind conferences — the organizers and sponsors.

The conference business is ripe for revolution. If newspapers, TV, magazines, books, reference works, telecommunications, entertainment, retail, real estate, recruiting, and countless other industries are exploding thanks to the internet and the direct connections it enables, then so should conferences. Why shouldn’t we organize our own better conferences on our own terms?

Take, for example, this week’s SIIA conference in New York. I already bitched that these bozos wanted to charge me $500 to attend their full conference after speaking on their panel. The speakers are the content for these unevents, and to have the chutzpah to try to charge the content providers appalled me. I tried to drop out of the panel, but the guy who organized it — unpaid and paying to attend the event himself, the poor shmuck — would have been left holding the empty chair. So I’m doing it. But I’ll do it growling and fomenting revolt.

Look at the basic economics of this conference:
* 400 are attending at $1,100 to $1,700 each, which adds up to $440k to $680k. So let’s average that out at $560k.
* The 14 sponsor slots bring in $20k-$5k each for the privilege of handing out junk mail sans postage. That adds up to $140k (though one $15k slot is still open).
* The total: $700k. (And that doesn’t include membership fees to the organization that range from $850 to $125k per year.)
* So let’s give them $100k for the venue and coffee.
* That leaves $600k for content.
* There are 50 speakers. That means $12k per speaker. Hell, $5k would be nice. $1k would be something. $500 payment instead of a $500 fee would at least be polite.
But, no, the attendees and speakers are foolish enough to enrich the organizers to the tune of $700K, gross because they are a captive audience.

It is time to explode the conference and convene the unconference.

Dave Winer wrote recently complaining about creeping commercialism in conferences. He’s right. And he explains how he has dealt with this. But commercialism is only one issue. And Winer himself holds the keys to solving more problems than just that.

At the first Bloggercon in October 2003, which Dave organized, I was assigned a session on politics. Beforehand, I said something to Dave about “the panel” and Dave jumped down my throat, saying with a forcefulness that cannot be ignored: There is no panel, he decreed. The room is the panel. Well, he was right. Better yet, he was visionary. So I took that direction to heart, which is usually the wise thing to do with Dave’s advice. If you don’t, you’ll miss blogs, RSS, OPML, and podcasts.

And so I decided to become Phil Donahue (I used to say that I became Oprah, but considering my recent rant about her, I’ll change media metaphors). I saw it as my job to draw out the wisdom of the room, for that room was filled with wise bloggers who had widely varied experience. Luckily, I knew enough of them that I could hear a point and then go to someone else for a counterpoint. And the goal of all that was not argument or lecture but instead, a cooperative effort to try to get to a point. That was the form for the next Bloggercon and other such conferences to follow. The convesation was the content, the hallway was the room. They were open events whose aim was to share, not annoint; to listen, not lecture.

Why shouldn’t any professional community be able to gather to share best practices and toughest issues and meet to see what ensues? What holds us back? Conference organizing is a pain. So what would it take to solve that? Here’s an idea: conference concierges who hold no vested interest in the industry but merely manage the venue and the organizational details. What if we could gang together to find a critical mass of people who want to meet — all welcome — and we use online tools to agree on agendas — or not — and when we hit critical mass, we pool resources to hire a concierge to rent the room and bring in the lunch for us? What would that cost? A hulluva lot less than $1,700 for two days of blather and another chintzy bag, that’s for damned sure. The group could decide to have sponsors cover that cost, though see Dave’s cautions about that.

And once we’re together, we can gather in new ways that emphasize conversation over lectures, meeting over merely sitting. We can use online to organize birds-of-a-feather sessions and to address common problems. We can pool information and resources on wikis. We can have sessions that are about nothing but exploring what we don’t know.

Dave has another vision for a commercial hypercamp.

Whatever. The conference structure and industry is ready to be exploded.