Some Observations on Conferences

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The coffee breaks are the best parts of the conference

I stole this remark from Harrison Owen. His observation was that the traditional way people come together to discuss issues was not very effective, but that they all thought the coffee breaks were the place where all the action happened.

I do believe there is room for a traditional conference model. I will definitely go listen to an expert or someone with unique experiences. This dissemination model works well if there is a highly educational quality to the content or if there is good entertainment value to it.  George Dyson for example is someone who is fascinating to listen to over and over again. But there are other non-celebrity speakers that are equally interesting because of the story they have to tell. I normally like an extensive Q&A session, because it show what other participants are thinking about. I like it especially if it is an experiences presentation or something really extreme, but I have also walked away from a presentation needing to think first before making up my mind. Giving the ability for your audience to follow-up is important.

I have not seen many successful panels. The main cause is that the selection of panelist is often very incestuous. Nothing more boring than a panel of experts. The real interesting panels I have seen or that I have participate in were those where people were willing to take shot at the other panelists.  Some passion and emotion will go a long way in making things interesting. If your competitor is on this panel, be polite but go for his throat; show the world why your product is the best. I was on panel last year with Jon Crowcroft where we on forehand divided up the roles; we would both take a complete extreme point of view and defend it, even if these were not our positions in real life. Nothing more effective to get a discussion going than two mad dogs on a podium going at each other.

The “work-in-progress” approach allows for a high bandwidth communication. In short time a diverse set of off-the-wall technologies parade bye that often triggers a deeper follow-up later on.

Beyond this the conferences that focus on participation are best served by the Open Space approach. I don’t think the “unconference” hybrid model is as effective as Open Space. Unconferences still rely on big names and predefined topics to restrict the conversation. In Open Space all the participants come together on the first day to define the topics to be discussed and anyone can propose a topic within the theme of the conference. Participants then go to take part in the discussions they are most passionate about.  There is some additional structure around the process to make sure everyone learns about the details of every topic that was discussed. The outcome depends a lot on the theme or the goals of the conference, but in general I have found that the participants feel extremely empowered by this approach.

The goal of Open Space is to make the whole conference one long coffee break …

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