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!

TED and introverts part 2: Structures or Incentives

Commenting on my post last week about TED and how introverts can work the room, Joey Katona asked what incentives TED creates to get people to socialize and network.

The answer is: none.

What they create are structures that facilitate social interaction – everything from the composition of the attendees, the physical space, the food provided, the agenda, everything.

Let me give a concrete counter-example of another conference with equally impressive attendees.  The amount of socializing that occurred (especially between people who didn’t already know each other) was very low, and it was because of the physical space: traditional hotel ballrooms in a giant hotel.

The vastness of the “not in the conference hall” space resulted in people naturally dispersing at every break; there weren’t many chairs or food in the hallway so it wasn’t easy to find a comfortable way to talk; the amount of unprogrammed time was limited; and on and on.

We are naturally social creatures whose behavior is hugely influenced by our physical environment.

If you want to create spontaneous and productive socialization at a conference, the first step is to actually decide that doing this is one of your goals.  That means that you spend as much time and energy thinking about the “non-programmed” time as you do about the program (the speakers, the official program, everything that your conference appears to be about).

By way of example, some of the zillions of structures that TED puts in place to make socializing more likely:

  • Significant non-programmed time for socialization
  • Numerous places to get food during breaks, so that groups sizes are manageable and you don’t wait too long for food (but you talk a bit while you’re waiting on line)
  • At least 12 “social spaces” designed for sitting and talking….
  • ….with simulcast of the main stage event so that you can keep on talking if you’re having a great conversation
  • Lots of nooks and crannies to explore, sponsored by various companies, where you’re likely to find someone else interested in something you’re interested in (even if that’s paddleball)
  • Giant name tags with pictures, your name, and three things to “talk to me about…”
  • An out-of-this-world, curated audience, resulting in huge positive feedback every time you meet someone new – because folks are so amazing
  • Etc.

Your conference doesn’t have the resources that TED does, but that doesn’t matter.  The moment you decide that getting people to talk to each other is important you’ll start seeing things differently.  Then it’s up to you to have fun with the physical environment, how you use time, the food you serve, the music you play, what you do with the lights….everything really.

You won’t get it right the first time but have 10 attendees you love and care about and 10 young people on your staff spend the whole conference watching how people do and don’t interact, what spaces and what time blocs worked and didn’t, and debrief that after the conference.  You’ll be amazed what you discover.

The other 364 days

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


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.


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.

TED 2010 postscript – conference tips

I’m still getting my feet back on the ground after spending last week at TED2010.  I left the conference with a much broader sense of possibility and a renewed commitment to thinking big.  Many of the talks were dazzling, and while there was no one “best” talk,  the most significant one may have been Bill Gates’ talk about the need to think seriously about nuclear power as a way to address climate change.

So what makes for a great conference?  While TED is unique in its ability to bring together some of the smartest, most influential, most groundbreaking thinkers, there’s still a lot that TED does as a conference that others can and should borrow.

Here’s what I would copy if I were running any other conference:

  • Single speakers talking – no panels. I’ve come to believe that the best way to waste the skills, talents, and insights of four great speakers is to put them all on the stage together with an inexperienced moderator.  One person sharing a compelling vision beats out four people tripping over each other.  (Caveat: a panel is not the same thing as an interview or a debate, which can work…but even those should be used sparingly).
  • No parallel tracks. While TED2010 (including TED University; TED Fellows; audience speakers; and the main TED talks) probably had more than 100 speakers, there was one single track that everyone participated in.  This focused attention and energy, gave people a common experience, and optimized the use of the conference space.
  • Intersperse music and dance. No matter how great your speakers, by the early afternoon, energy will be waning.  TED2010 put fabulous performers on the stage (the string quartet ETHEL; dancers from The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD); Natalie Merchant; David Byrne; and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro).  The music was transcendent, and it reenergized the audience and brought life to the conference (and to the post-conference parties).
  • “Radical openness.” is one of the most-viewed video sites on the web.  In addition to fulfilling TED’s vision of “ideas worth spreading,” the knowledge that a great TED talk could be seen tens of millions of times raises the bar for all of the speakers.  While most  conferences won’t get global visibility, each conference has a core constituency that cannot be in the room.  Making talks available to those who couldn’t come does two things: 1. It spreads the message; and 2. It pushes speakers to improve the quality of their talks, because they’ll compete for attention.
  • Giant-sized name tags that everyone wears. Pretty self-explanatory and easy to execute.  Make the first name bigger than everything else.
  • Cocktail parties and buffets, not seated dinners. When the sessions end, people want to meet each other.  Sitting people at a 10-top table so they can only talk to two or three people for two or three hours is a no-go.

There are a million other things that make TED special, but applying just these core ideas would make almost all conferences so much better – enough so that people might come to attend the conference talks (rather than just to meet the other attendees).

And if we’re not willing to raise the bar here, we may as well just get people together and only have them talk to each other.  Publish who else is going to be there and hold a massively parallel conversation, not a conference.

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10 ways to save conference panels

It’s really astounding how poor most conference panels are.  The biggest problem is the expectation that if you get four smart, interesting people together on stage to have a conversation, that they’ll automatically have an interesting conversation.  Most of the time, they won’t.

Great conversations grow out of shared norms and trust between the actors – in this case, the panelists, the moderator and the audience.  Trust is often hard to build, so let’s start with norms.  Here’s what we can do right, every time:

  1. Start with a great moderator. Moderation is a skill, and it requires asking tough questions and a willingness to cut people off.  The moderator also has to know the subject area to be able to direct the conversation effectively.
  2. Empower the moderator. No matter who’s the best-known person on stage, it’s the moderator’s show.  The moderator is the master of ceremonies, not a sideshow or “nice to have.”
  3. Don’t have panelists from wildly diverse fields. No matter how impressive the names you can pull together, most of the time you’re trying to have a conversation focused on a (bounded) topic.  A civil rights lawyer, a CEO, a cabinet member and a movie star talking about “women’s issues” are going to have a very hard time getting past generalities.
  4. Prepare the group. Have the moderator talk to the panelists before the presentation, and set the ground-rules: no responses greater than 60 seconds, I will cut you off.  You can’t have a great panel if everyone shows up the day of the panel without having talked first, by phone or email (but preferably by phone).  Having a few of the panelists know each other is a big plus.
  5. Set goals. Your panelists are likely not improve artists, so don’t expect spontaneous insights without some map of where you’re going.   Decide in advance, and share with your panelists, points you’re going to make sure you hit in the discussion.  You can do this in a way that keeps the conversation organic, but gives a sense of milestones and a destination.
  6. No powerpoint presentations. Self explanatory.
  7. Short introductory remarks. Tell panelists they have 2-3 minutes.  They’ll still take 5, but probably won’t take 20.
  8. (in the Q&A) People must ask questions. Questions from the audience are great.  Speeches from the audience are not.  Insist that questions be one sentence long, and be willing to redirect, restate, or take a pass on a question that’s off topic.
  9. One question, one response. The norm should be that only one panelist responds to each question – and then make an occasional exception.  With a lax moderator, each panelist feels like they’re supposed to pipe in, and this can be deadly.  If each question gets 4 responses, and each response is 1-2 minutes, that’s 5-8 minutes per question asked.  Yawn.
  10. Go deeper, not broader. Whoever is asking the question (moderator or audience), the moderator should be ready with follow-ups that start with “What did you mean by….”  “I didn’t follow you when you said…” “Doesn’t that contradict…” The goal is to uncover things that are surprising and delightful, which only happens when you break through the stock answers.

Until we get this right, the main function of panelists will be as names on a program to attract conference attendance, and as validation of the stature of the panelists themselves.  This is fine as far as it goes, but it takes so little to do a whole lot better.

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