Autreat signal badges

I was thinking some more about how often we miss the opportunity to help the people we bring together connect with each other.  Then I heard about Autreat, a a conference run by and for people with autism.  As one of the many things they do to make the conference helpful and productive for participants, the organizers give them the option to wear red/yellow/green “Interaction Signal Badges.”

Red = I do not want anyone to approach or interact with me.  You can reply to questions I ask you but that’s it.

Yellow = I will interact with people I already know but not with unfamiliar people (“we’ve met online” = unfamiliar)

Green = I’m interested in interacting but I find it difficult to initiate interaction, so I’d be happy if others initiate interaction with me

The badge is just one of a zillion oft-overlooked elements we control when we bring people together, one of the things we could pay attention to if we really want to help people feel comfortable and create the kinds of connections they’d like to create.  The TED conference has massive badges with names printed in 32-point (I think) font, giant pictures, and “talk to me about” conversation starters.  Other great conferences go in the opposite direction, inviting a tiny number of attendees, having no one wear a nametag, and getting the social juices flowing with singing and poetry and time at the pub late into the night.

The problem with most conferences is that they do none of these things.  The organizers act as if putting on a conference involves packing the agenda with high-profile (often concurrent!) speakers and having people sit through those talks, with opportunity to randomly “network” in huge, personality-free reception halls.  The organizers spend 98% of time on the “program” and 2% of time on the steps (big and small) that would make it twice (or 10 times) as likely that people would interact.

Susan Cain recently reminded the world that there’s nothing particularly normal or special about being extroverted and about feeling totally comfortable in a massive crowd of folks and striking up new conversations.  So here’s a hint to people who bring people together: almost everyone would rather have more substantive, productive and fun conversations with almost everyone else, and almost everyone finds it difficult to start brand new conversations.  Help them!

The other 364 days

You just landed the big invite to that (conference / meeting / working group / brain trust) that’s been your dream.

(Woohoo!!)

The big day arrives.  You go.   You engage in important and meaningful conversation.  You really connect with people.  You feel like you’re really part of something important.

(Woohoo!!)

And then what?

We celebrate the fact that we got in.  We feel exhilarated by the experience of being there.  But what comes of it all is the result of how we engage with our new community the other 364 days of the year.

The test is: the conference / meeting / working group / brain trust invites you to the next meeting. Before jumping back in, ask yourself, “How have I engaged with the group since the last meeting?”  If the answer is “not at all” are you willing to pull the plug and not go back again?

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.