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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

What should a conference look like in 2017?

Karla Porter:

I find myself searching for the value of spending a boatload of money and travel time to attend conferences. Not just for myself, but for you too. After all, that could be vacation time and money.

If you read my blog you already know that I see value in attending events. I write about it and mention it time and time again.

Karla values events too. I mean, she helps organize them! You need to stick with her piece all the way to the end to understand where she’s coming from and that what she’s ultimately asking is this: if so much of the value in attending events is in everything that happens around the event (conversations, networking) then how can we bring that value back into the event format itself?

In 2007 when I attended my first *Camp style event (or, unconference) in San Francisco I learned that unconferences give the attendees the power to steer the discussions and that the organizers do not get to set what topics are important. Whatever is important on those days and for those people gets discussed. It is great. The attendees feel like they’ve contributed and that they’ve gotten something they wanted out of the event. You can read more about BarCamp on Wikipedia.

Unconferences can be, well, uncomfortable for some. Especially introverts. Because people aren’t always willing to stand up and suggest topics. Or, even write them on the wall. And many technology conferences have people that are a little more reserved that attend them. However, in 2013 when I attended Greenville Grok I learned about 10/20s (go to that post to read more about those). These gently motivated the audience to randomly split into smaller groups. This helps a lot. Then the smaller groups can bring that value back to the whole. Greenville Grok also had presentations, competitions, and activities associated to the multiple-days long event.

I believe my first suggestion to Karla would be; find a comfortable way to give the attendees more power to steer the bulk of the discussions. This will help them to leave empowered and feel as though they’ve contributed to the event and were not just spectators. They will feel also like they came away from the event with information that was tailored to them.

My next suggestion would be to focus on putting together a killer Keynote presentation. One per-day for a conference is typical. A great Keynote presentation will help set the mood for the entire conference, give people motivation to go back to their work lives and do something radically different, to aspire to do better or bigger things, or gain perspective that they don’t have it all that bad. I’ve seen Keynote presentations by severely infirm person’s that made a huge impact despite their circumstances, by driven people that have helped tackle incredibly tough challenges, and stories of failure that showed it was OK to not always get it right. Getting a good Keynote speaker with a great topic is worth the effort and it should start the day not end it.

I would also suggest to vary the format wildly throughout the day. Speaker, break, speaker, break. No good. One runs into another or you end up wanting to skip one because you don’t like the title of the presentation. So vary the format instead. A few weeks ago when I attended SAIL there was a survey given to the entire audience on the first day. On the second day the survey results had already been tabulated and we discussed the results as a group. It helped to break up the day.

I would have two main goals regarding the varied format; keep the audience from feeling like they are sitting in one place for too long (no longer than 20 minutes all day) and that the audience be involved as much as possible. Here is what I think a schedule could look like

  • Short, short, short introduction that mentions sponsors and the hashtag for the conference
  • Keynote (15 minutes) w/ Q&A (20 minutes)
  • short in-seat break while attendees fill out a survey online or paper (saves some on the tabulation headaches)
  • short video (5 minutes) w/ comments from audience (alternatively, if no video is available, play an applicable and short TED presentation)
  • break for refreshments (5 minutes) w/ a chance to set up the 10/20s (attendees choose numbers out of hats)
  • do the 10/20s (60 minutes)
  • have lunch (ask attendees to write questions of the audience on sticky notes and write them on wall)
  • discuss the 10/20s
  • have a practical presentation
  • a short workshop on something practical (example, creating an editorial calendar for their web site or business or personal brand)
  • break for refreshments (5 minutes)
  • review survey results and discuss as a group
  • A demo/presentation of an applicable product, perhaps a sponsor (5 minutes)
  • Q&A based on sticky notes with attendees answering the questions

Karla is right. Most of the value comes from the attendees and networking not the conference. I like to think of it more as an energy exchange than a knowledge exchange. So the way you can bring that value back into the main conference format is to turn it inside out and have the attendees be part of the entire thing.

Greenville Grok was different and better

This past week Kyle Ruane and I drove to Greenville, South Carolina for the Greenville Grok – a half-week long string of events and activities put together by the great folks at The Iron Yard.

Grok is unlike most conferences in a number of great ways. Most conferences focus on providing headline speakers to bring in a crowd. The crowd is usually separated from the presenters by a stage and dark lighting that doesn’t allow the presenter and the crowd to interact. The Grok doesn’t run this way.

There are times when there is a single speaker and everyone else is listening. But those talks and demonstrations were sprinkled into the schedule as a way to break up the core part of the event; talking to each other in small groups.

The main feature of the Grok are called 10/20s. All attendees are given a random number at the beginning of each day which denotes which group they are in. I pulled 10 twice and 9 once. Each group has 15-20 people in them. The groups go off into their own area of the spacious building in downtown Greenville to discuss whatever topics they would like.

A group may consist of a designer, an entrepreneur, an architect, the CEO of a relatively large successful corporation, and a freelancer trying to decide if she should learn HTML and leave Photoshop behind. No one person has the stage. Everyone’s attention is on the person who happens to be speaking. Topics can be provided by anyone willing to raise their hand and if the group would like to chat about that they will. If any one person thinks that the topic being raised is boring they only need to sit through it for 10 minutes before the alarm sounds and the next topic is suggested.

It is like group therapy. And it works really well. How else are you going to get a ton of feedback from so many people that have dealt with or will deal with the same pressures and circumstances as you have? It is a great mix and a great platform for people to grow.

The Grok was held on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Each day has a very slightly different feel to it and a slightly different schedule. But each day seemed to be part of the same conversation; how can we all do better? Do better work. Be better people. Build better things.

I’ve left many conferences motivated to make more money or to capture a market or to squash the competition. But once that wears off I usually return to wanting to work on something fun with a team I really like and, hopefully, others will like what we build too. After leaving the Grok we felt motivated to improve at every level. Improve our industry in our area by donating our time and resources, improve our product and business and team, and improve ourselves, our skills, and how to interact with the people and world around us.

There are a lot of conferences that happen every year. If you’re looking to have a relaxing few days in a gorgeous city chatting with people that are smarter than you and want to leave wanting to simply do and be better… to go the Grok.

 

Related links: Matt McManus of P’unk Ave., photos of Day 1Day 2, and Day 3 by Jivan Davéthoughts from Allan Branch of Less Accounting, and some thoughts from Elyse Viotto.