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.

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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