On Conferences

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I wish I had time to help run a conference (again). I have a lot of opinions.

I’d love to run a small conference where the rule was, everyone had to present in some form (30m presentations or shorter show and tell style talks). This would obviously cap the event at a small number of attendees but I think it would level the field in an interesting way.

For a slightly larger conference, I’d institute a no laptops / no phones policy in the conference hall. If you want to go back to your hotel room and take a call that’s fine, just don’t bring it to the hall. The hall is for socializing with the other speakers and guests. I know this might annoy people who like to take notes on a laptop/iPad but pencil and paper should suffice this time.

It’s summer conference season and I’m getting a little burnt out of the standard full time STAGE –> AUDIENCE format. We are in an age of YouTube, blogs, Twitter, newsletters, FaceTime, iMessage – and we don’t need to wait for the yearly conference to express our fresh ideas, we are doing it all the time.

In my opinion, a conference’s main goal is about using presentations to spark the fire of discussion amongst the attendees. Sadly many of the conferences I find myself at don’t do this and instead the attendees spend 90% of there time sitting silently in a dark room, everyone looking forward, no communication, no talking.

Some basic tips for conference organizers:

  • Make sure to plan lots of socializing time in-between talks, like for every 1 hour of talks and then there should be 1 hour of socializing.
  • Consider limiting individual talks to 30 minutes and have a section for shorter lightning talks. The goal is to get as many ideas out there as possible. Different ideas will stick with different people. The more the better.
  • Use circular tables. Yes this requires more floor space but it keeps people facing each other during breaks and naturally let’s other people break in to a conversation.
  • Make people change their seat every so often. A forced lottery seems harsh but you could also use topical tables, like one table is a “spaces” table and another is a “tabs”.

Notable conference behaviors I’ve seen and enjoyed.

  • Release Notes Conference breaks people into teams for dinners around town at different style restaurants.
  • CocoaLove conference embraced its hosting city with morning walking tours and site seeing.
  • I like the concept of pre-conference workshops. I think it allows those who are new to a platform to get a lot of hands on time before experiencing talks that usually don’t cater to them.
  • I loved the feel of old school MacHack. It was a 24-hour, 3-day conference where the opening keynote was at midnight. We took over the hotel lobby and worked on our hacks for the contest / presentation at the end. In between coding, in side rooms, people gave talks of all shapes and sizes. There was a movie night where we bought out a full theater and watched as a group. It was a real community building event.

I’d love to hear others stories/thoughts. Email me: mike@mikezornek.com or post a blog post on your own site.