The conference format is old. It’s been around a long time. It works a little less effectively every day. More people are tuning out the linear format in exchange multiple streams. Cable use is down. Internet use is up. Wikipedia at our fingertips and hashtags in our stream deliver instant clarity. If a conference speaker’s carefully planned illustration of a subject crescendos on a point, after a hashtag describing everything they said has been created, that presentation is already fractured and made less effective. It’s worse than redundant by today's standard because vintage has little value in the stream. The swarm of social media never flies backwards.
An audience is too smart in 2015 to need a linear format for information. Why use the library when Google can find an answer. No need to wait for a new semester to start, you can learn that on Youtube, EdX, Code Academy, Yummly, Khan Academy or Maker Magazine today. When smart people want to tune in and learn something they expect it to arrive cross-pollinated, socially validated and instantly. Anything without interaction is DOA for the modern audience. If you have to wait, it’s onto the next one. The stream isn’t patient and it doesn’t sleep. It’s trained it’s faithful to bend to it’s will and behave as it does.
Is there an example of a successful format that gets to a planetary level? TED Conference is the closest thing to that. But it’s really far away in the big picture. It reaches millions of people. The fact talks are available for free is amazing and the channels of distribution are rich. Many talks represent the Zeitgeist of progress for years. The messages transcend the stream by offering great value. No doubt, Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, is a visionary producer. But not even TED has broken free of the chains that are holding conferences back because of it’s linear delivery.
A speaker, at this moment, somewhere is failing at a conference. They just opened a powerpoint presentation for a conference room and started a talk they rehearsed in front of the mirror, in the shower, for their dog, or peers. No matter who they practiced for, no matter how great their data is, how valid their unique perspective, their delivery, the staging, the time, the place, they will fail in my opinion. Even if they get a standing ovation. They will not be nearly as relevant as they could be. The failing started long before the powerpoint presentation became a choice. Powerpoint should never be a choice - but that is another article. It started the moment someone asked them to be a speaker and gave them a format.
##Conferences need an interface
The same way your Android, iOS or whatever mobile device is constantly seeing improvement in the UI (user interface), conferences are dying for one. The fact Tweeting is a first class citizen at conferences from a social media perspective says a lot. It says we don’t have one, so use Twitter.
I love Twitter. I love hashtags. I love things where I can reach loads of people for good conversations and debates. I’m not knocking Twitter. I’m just pointing out the best place to talk socially online about a conference is Twitter using hashtags. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to point out that Twitter has a really two dimensional and limited notification system for live talks right now. We can do way better.
“Next slide, Jim”, said the stage manager. “We’ve got the best stage techs in the business”, said the venue manager, who proudly displays a poster of an organ grinder in her office. “Five-minute countdown”, cued the stage manager, as five front row guests returned from the bathroom and headed down the centre stage aisle. “How many of you know what I’m talking about?” asks the speaker, as half the audience hooks up trending conference hashtags into their Tweetdeck app.
The moment passed. The moment never came. The moment is coming. All of those are true, for someone, somewhere, at any moment, past, present and future. Because, in 2015, none of us should need to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. We don’t have to wait for someone to spell it out, we can Google it. It’s impossible for us to miss it because of a lack of sleep. We can sleep in and catch it on Youtube later. If it was worth being there in the first place, we’ll know because the never-ending stream of social media will trigger a reminder every time it’s liked, retweeted, pinned and tagged.
If the audience is tweeting, you’ve lost them, right? No, and yes. It depends. The type one, aka planetary, internet technology took the conversation to a new plain a speaker can’t reach from stage with a microphone alone. When the talk started it was the beachhead. The moment the audience took the moment and shared it in the stream the talk itself became a grain of sand on that beachhead. The sound engineer can’t turn up the volume on this plain. Only the audience can. The longer the speaker stays on an analogue and linear path, like being on a stage with a microphone to a closed room, the further they will drift.
“If we had a really big screen, would that help? Maybe a better screen? What about three-dimensional holograms to wow them?”, asks the stage manager. “What about a Twitterwall?”
Most technology we’ve used can’t save a drifting room. Not a toy microphone audience members can toss around. Not a guided streaming social media interface. There have been many noble attempts at keeping people in their seats. It won’t work because we have forced a conversation to stay in a room, in the world which lives in a planetary live stream.
The important question is - Why do we need to keep them in their seats, again? Is it because we don’t want to interrupt? We want them to focus? Because they paid for it? Is that it? Will the speaker get distracted or disheartened? We need them to learn what is happening? An empty room sucks?
What if I told you that you might already know the right answers to all those questions and because I used the word “conference”, it threw you a curve ball. The connotations and the current expectations of a conference are both negative and limiting.
##Let’s throw out some things we expect at a conference.
Start times? Gone. Talk times? Gone. We are going to work like the “stream”. Audience seating? Gone. Who are we to tell people to sit or where to watch from? Venue? Nothing we’ve ever used before. We are going to use every single thing we’ve used before because we are going planetary. Screens? Several for every person, billions if we are popular. Stage technicians? Yup, but not the guys we used to use - we need new skill sets and we are going to borrow from the gaming, hacking, VR and film industries. Marketing budget? Zero. We are going to educate on the stream and we’ll expect speakers to put themselves in it - more specifically, we are going to try an get speakers that trend in the stream, who are validated by the stream, and help the few with good information that haven’t to be in the stream. We are spending the marketing budget on content and development - marketing can be a byproduct of good content, that is desirable, not filtered out. Production budget? One-hundred percent focused on content now. Conference tickets? Get rid of those arcane things, we are going to sell much larger numbers of subscriptions, at a far lower cost, to make things more inclusive and accessible, and frankly, more profitable and effective. Merchandising? I’m pretty sure you get the trend here - there is no need to exit through the gift shop, the audience is voluntarily in it and the products on the shelves are not dumb guesses, they are only the things people want and need.
Who are we to tell people to sit or where to watch from?
##Traction and Distribution
None of what I’m talking about is the future. An Oculus Rift Virtual Reality or Hololens Augmented Reality device can be used to develop for right now. CastAR isn’t bad, it’s great. Google cardboard is here for the masses and it’s cheap. Netflix is there and making a Roku channel is easy. Websites are simple to make. Youtube will stream for the big things.
The great news is, these are only the obvious and already adopted solutions to making conference events planetary. We are working on our own disruptive solution and I’m guessing we are not the only ones.
The connotations and the current expectations of a conference are both negative and limiting.
What about the parties? The human touch? Is that gone? No, that is the new value, but a party is never going to fit into the same format it used to. The parties, the social events, the human touch is going to get far better.
“What just happened?”, asks the stage manager. An automated email arrives on her phone. “Your services are no longer required”, it reads.
There are some exclusive formats in the conference world. The kind where executives gather and mingle with leaders. Where industry shaping agreements start and end. Not just anyone can get in. These are perhaps in the ripest need of change. Sooner than later, even blue-suited decision makers will have to come around, because not coming around will look slow, become obsolete. It’s fool’s gold to imagine they won’t change. Time is valuable to executives and so is the human touch. An upgrade would be much appreciated by this executive audience.
##Conferences should be run like tech companies The web has taught us that being in an alpha release is better than being an idea. Many conference planners use words like “perfection” and claim their success is built on “lots of preparation, relentless attention to details, and industry leading practices” to describe their service. Do they even know how schmaltzy and old that sounds in a tech led and minimum viable product world? Full, complete, thriving products can thrive in Beta release for years and being in Beta is almost expected at most tech companies these days. Forget trying to be perfect. Being there, being early, being active is far more important. Ideas don’t need a release date. Ideas need to be released and ready for fluid engagement. Perfection is neither real or required.
I’m not discounting prep work and I love rehearsals. What I am discounting is the fact we can ever be totally ready anymore. I’m discounting the idea of perfection. To me perfection is now making progress through disruption. That should be the goal of a speaker. Make something meaningful. Try to be the fish that swims and survives in the stream the longest by giving life to something valuable.
Conferences will evolve so much in the near future that historical skillsets will be obsolete. A team made up of people with the same skills is useless. Tech companies know this. A conference Dream Team should consist of a hustler, a hipster and a hacker.
###Change is inevitable Necessity is the mother of invention. Internet-based technology is not the only thing pushing change in the technology that is destined to evolve what a conference is. In fact, it serves as major incentive and motivation to start exploring planetary conversations, but that isn’t the same as necessity. Planetary problems are. Climate change, energy, population, food supply, poverty, security and the general globalization of all things is behind the necessity.
Make something meaningful. Try to be the fish that swims and survives in the stream the longest by giving life to something valuable.
To solve profound problems on a planetary scale like climate change, we need to engage and inform on a planetary level. Profound problems that challenge our species can’t be scheduled for resolution if they expect and demand an immediate solution. The doors must be left open. In fact, the fewer doors, the better. Open source problem solving works. It’s not very capitalistic, but the future isn’t capitalism or socialism - it’s just a choice between better or not at all.
Technological advances are making entire industries obsolete and we need to adapt. There are those who believe we’ll have spare time. Some are making small adjustments. Some believe it could go badly. Between robotics, distributed manufacturing and 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and longer lifespans the fact mass unemployment is coming sooner than later becomes apparent.
We can’t stop change, nor should we want to. There is a lot of room for improvement in the world.
If technology is advancing faster than society can adapt, it’s because we are letting it, not because we are not smart enough. Conferences are part of the answer in my opinion. Conferences can be used to bring the world up-to-speed and to improve the discourse. I believe they can be used to bring generations of people up-to-date if we distribute them on a planetary scale. I believe conferences can spawn a new renaissance of design and innovation by creating a unique language for every topic for entire communities and industry.
Somewhere, at a Madison Avenue PR firm, an executive with Ferragamo loafers rubs his palms together, feeling he has weathered the storm of change. Numbers are up. Somewhere, in San Francisco, some Google engineers with craft beer head in their beards, are complimenting themselves on the awesome implementation of their code which will be making vehicular traffic history. Somewhere else, the roommate of someone just wrote the neural network that replaces the function of not only the PR executive and his firm, but all of Madison avenue. Somewhere else, a socially orphaned nerd just polished a neural network to replace the author of it’s code, and all code to be written from this day forward.
Somewhere, someone found a way to fix the planet. Somewhere else, someone created warp drive to leave the planet. The future is impossible to predict. It’s only possible to make it.
##What is the technology Conferences should be using today? Virtual Reality. Digital Distribution. Subscriptions to channels. Wiki style presentation building. Audience validation and review. Mobile devices and social media interactions. Fit five hundred in the conference room or 5 million in their own living rooms.
##The conference format is going to change. We are just a couple of the people that are going to make sure it does because we know if we do this right, we can make the world better.
Have we produced great events? Yes. Have we produced the event we are dreaming of? Not yet, but we’d like you to join us. If you want conference producers with planetary goals and vision, Get Pulledin.