Radical openness and what it means for conferences

I had a surreal moment yesterday, while sitting in the audience at The New York Forum with my laptop open.  I had WiFi connectivity, so, out of curiosity, I logged into the live stream of the panel I was attending.  Indeed, there it was, exactly as I was experiencing it in real time, with just a 5 second delay.

The knowledge that I could have been experiencing that panel from my desk or from halfway around the world shouldn’t necessarily have made me wonder what I was doing (what we all, conference attendees, were doing) sitting in that room.  But it did.  We all came a long way to experience something that we could have experienced – at almost the same quality at almost the same time – without ever leaving the comfort of our homes or offices.

On some fundamental level, we know that it doesn’t make sense to get hundreds of incredible people together and then have them spend 80% of their time sitting in silence listening to panelists. We used to convince ourselves that it was worth it because of the illusion of scarcity and exclusivity: sure I can hear Maria Bartiromo any day on CNBC, but there she is, just 50 feet away from me, probably saying things she wouldn’t say on the air! 

The livestream shatters that illusion.  Anyone can (and should!) watch, so there’s no more scarcity.  And like it or not, scarcity equates with value.

So what do we do now?

Here’s a thought experiment, just to mess with you: wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to pre-record some or all of the “talks” at a conference, make them available (earlier?) to conference attendees and to the whole world, and do away with panels so you can use the conference to let attendees talk to one another.  Or better yet, if you want attendees to be able to hear the “panel,” have a Star Trek-like hologram of the “panel” playing in the front of the room for those who want the 3D experience.

Absent this semi-crazy notion, there really are only three options that really make sense for conferences:

Hold an un-Conference: the Tallberg Forum and the Opportunity Collaboration both have essentially no formal talks – they are gatherings focused exclusively on facilitating connection between the participants.  Note that both of these are held in remote locations, which I’m sure facilitates dialogue long into the night and makes it less likely that people will jump ship early (since normally the closing Keynote by some dignitary keeps people around until the end).

Copy TED: If you are going to have speakers, do what TED does – create a conference structure (who’s in the audience, brand, potential for your talk to be viewed zillions of time if it’s great) that makes it extraordinarily likely that most of the speakers will give the best talks of their lives.  And then build in big chunks of time for interaction amongst the participants – between panels, late at night, etc.  If you don’t want to do a TEDx (for whatever reason), there’s still no harm in borrowing shamelessly from the playbook – it works.

The fireside chat: I don’t know if anyone does this, but here’s a third idea which plays off the strength of going deep with individual “speakers:” an interview-style conversation that’s not a formal TED-like talk, one that feels intimate and is built around audience participation and really exploring the depth of knowledge of the featured guest.   You’d have to have great interlocutors who get the best out of the “speakers,” and would have to add special touches (room design, lighting, etc.) to make it feel really intimate. Or, you go completely in the other direction, SXSW style, and have great people do crazy things they’d never otherwise do (like battledecks, where people present a series of slides they’ve never seen before), so you really get a sense of personality and who they are.

You’ll notice there’s no fourth option, with an up-the-middle-of-the-fairway model in which you get 6 high profile people plus a moderator and try to direct them to have a substantive, meaningful conversation in an hour.  It’s structurally designed to fall short – panels are built to jump all over the place, to stay at a high level, to have panelists take up time explaining who they are, and never to have the chance to dig deep into a topic or a person’s expertise.  Yet despite these inherent shortcomings, it’s the natural thing to do  because that list of speakers is what fills your conference hall, the more you have of them the bigger draw you’ll be, and once you have them signed up, you may as well put them all on the stage together.

What’s interesting is that the radical openness that’s become the new standard for big conferences has done much more than democratize access to everyone who doesn’t attend the conference – it has also radically raised the bar on what is worth sitting down and listening to for 75 minutes (because there’s so much other incredible content out there, much of it generated by the very same people who are on stage at your conference).

The reason people pay between $500 and $1,500 for tickets to hear U2 isn’t because they don’t have access to U2’s music at 99 cents per song.  It’s because of the shared experience, the intimacy, the raw power of being there in the moment – it is an emotional experience that you’re not going to get in your living room, no matter how good your sound system is. (HT to Quentin Hardy for making this great point to me).

Emotional connection, human interaction, serendipitous connections with people you otherwise wouldn’t have met, and yes, doing real business that you couldn’t have done in any other way – these are things I can’t get live streamed at my desk, these are things worth flying across the country for, these are things that will always be scarce.

For everything else, I’ve got a great web browser and a broadband internet connection.

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9 Responses to Radical openness and what it means for conferences

  1. Eric Winger says:

    For everything else, I’ve got a great web browser and a broadband internet connection.

    I think another great advantage of a conference is the ability to put aside all the day-to-day trivialities of our jobs in order to concentrate wholly and fully on the new ideas at the conference. When I attend a web live stream event, I inevitably am only about 1/2 invested at best.

    It’s easier to turn off my blackberry and listen to a live person, than to ignore all the pop-ups and pending work on my computer while listening to an image and a voice in one of twenty windows.

    My 2 cents.

  2. GREAT POST!! I hate it when I travel long distances and spend a ton of money to learn what I can read from a book or watch on PBS. And, now with 24/7 connectivity everywhere, I end up multi-tasking anyway, my laptop open as I pretend to take notes. I might as well stay in my hotel room where the room service is better and the air conditioning works. Hahahaha.

    Conferences are tribal gatherings, like inaugurations, ceremonial unveilings of community centers, etc. We should hold them when they serve to bond and bind us together, to inspire us, to create communities of action. For that, we need to meet in person.

    P.S. I do like it when I get to give a speech, but I can’t imagine why anyone in the audience does.

  3. In my experience as the COO of the Opportunity Collaboration, the “un-conference” way of convening people not only lends itself to higher quantitative value for almost every participant ~ i.e. more resources are allocated and shared more readily ~ but there is also a less tangible and more qualitative outcome for our Delegates…they inevitably come away from the Opportunity Collaboration having formed life-long friendships, and in some cases, a life-changing experience of re-evaluating not only why they are involved in the social sector working to fight poverty and create social justice, but who they are as people, as human beings on this planet.

    While we have created a specific programmatic element called the Colloquium for the Common Good focused on providing a forum for personal and professional reflection, it’s the simple notion of bringing people together on an equitable playing field ~ i.e. no plenary speeches, no power-point presentations, no organizations listed on name-tags ~ that ultimately lends itself to, as you say, “Emotional connection, human interaction, serendipitous connections with people you otherwise wouldn’t have met, and yes, doing real business that you couldn’t have done in any other way.”

    My two…well, maybe my three cents…for what it’s worth.

  4. Pingback: A few thoughts for conference organizers « KM on a dollar a day

  5. joe says:

    Thanks for these insights! Panel discussions can be effective – in my experience, it’s depended on how well they are moderated. In effect, a panel discussion is sort of like a dinner party – where people talk about something, feeding off of each others’ thoughts. I’ve seen panel discussions delve deeply into a single issue – but it was because the moderator was very effective at keeping the speakers focused on that issue. Not all speakers are equal, I’m afraid; so a good panel discussion puts the most interesting, knowledgeable people on a given subject together to discuss it – the audience gets to hear that conversation directly. Unfortunately, participating via internet is not the same or even close in some cases. I live and work in West Africa and our bandwidth just doesn’t allow it yet. But I hear you!

  6. Sasha says:

    Joe, thanks for your comment. I agree it is possible to overcome the structural impediments that panels present IF one has an outstanding moderator who knows the panelists and has their collective permission to really moderate. But in my experience it’s so rare that this actually works out in practice, and yet panels are the predominant approach – so I’d love to see us make a shift and then realize that if we’re doing a panel, there’s LOTS we have to do differently to make sure we get it right.

  7. I agree with Sasha on this one. Having just moderated a panel (at which I did a so-so job), my takeaways: Panelists should not be in a row like birds on a wire. They need to talk to each other, not the audience. Panelists should be selected for their articulate, positional views, not because their orgs are sponsors or “names” in the field. And, finally, I think Q&A from the audience, which radically changes the conversational dynamic, may give the allusion of involvement without the reality of it.

  8. Sasha says:

    A few other replies to the various comments here:

    Jonathan, I agree re: birds on a wire. Audience participation? In principle I’m 100% in favor, in practice, about half the time those who speak up often pontificate / make a statement, rather than asking a question or furthering the dialogue. I wish this weren’t the case and don’t know how to handle it without having a filter (e.g. private twitter stream and someone picks out good questions…but then your audience is tweeting and might not be 100% engaged).

    Eric, I agree, if you’re there you’re there, if you’re on your computer you may be pulled away. Of course you can decide NOT to be pulled away; you can decide to host a “conference party” with 10 people watching and then discussing; etc.

    But it does feel like something has fundamentally changed and that the opportunity cost of getting lots of people together and NOT either (a) Delivering content that’s so great they really couldn’t have heard it somewhere else; or (b) Helping them make meaningful connections with each other (great parties, structured activities, a physical layout and schedule that facilitates openness and interaction; breakouts over meals; etc.) then you’re doing less than you could.

  9. Arlene says:

    I am just finishing a two year research leave from my university during which time I have had the privilege to travel to several different countries and to participate as a speaker and participant at many conferences. What no one has mentioned so far is the value of personal connections that you make with people at conferences whom you, but for the conference, would never have met. Following a panel or presenation, the presenters as well as the audience have a common language and shared experience from which they can begin conversations, and build, in my case, some long lasting professional relationships. There is a role for streeming, internet, etc, but it will never replace the need and benefits of the human connections that come only with face to face meetings.

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