POSTED 05 Apr 2016
Centre for Workplace Leadership, University of Melbourne
“Hello ladies and gentlemen, or Summiteers, as you’ll now be called, welcome to Conference Base Camp, my name is Sonia, I will be your Sherpa as we make our ascent to the plenary, the pinnacle of today’s fully immersive, vertical -learning expedition. Please stay connected to the guy or girl…sorry… ropes, we’d hate for you to drop off half way through the key note. If you do get lost remember our hashtag #conferenceclimbers select the GPS locator function on your conference app, and only use flares as a last resort. Do have your dongles at the ready as the WiFi can get pretty thin at higher conceptual altitudes. Don’t forget your branded keep cup, you’ll find it in your complimentary conference back packs, (nearly empty so you can be fully lean and agile) and ensure to stay adequately caffeinated and hydrated at all times. We will be stopping shortly for nourishments and networking at the base camp 2, just outside break out room 7, the barista is setting up the coffee cart and scroggin now. Finally, just a reminder that we take all care but no responsibility, so if you do fall, be it on your own head! Ok, summiteers belay away, let’s go and look out below. “
This is the verbatim transcription of an introduction that did not actually happen. At least as far as I know it didn’t, but it may well happen in the very near future. [Hint: if you’re a conference organiser, feel free to use my idea and send my royalties in unmarked bitcoins.] The point I am trying to make in a somewhat oblique way, is that while some conferences are now breaking the mould and attempting to bring together and engage people in different, interesting and dare I say it innovative ways, most are not.
So the aim of this blog is… eventually…to prepare you, the unwary conference attendee, delegate, speaker or organiser, with a few little tips or tricks for surviving your next conference experience *. Tips or tricks which you can either use, or throw away quicker than the take-away goodies in a conference show bag!
For every one ‘Unconference’, where participants collectively shape the agenda and participate in open discussions, there are still over 1.9897 million**of the traditional mega-talking- head fests with a ‘stale-pale-male sage-on-stage’ downloading megabytes of arcane information into our neck-top computers, most of which to be instantly erased from memory. TED, that’s Technology Entertainment Design for those of you who have been living under an internet embargo, has shaken up things a bit, emphasising the importance of storytelling and relative brevity (I will be sharing my General Theory of Relative Brevity in a future blog) ; all talks are limited to 18 minutes, (convenient for both f2f and online formats). A step in the right direction, but by no means perfect i.e. this format is 17.95 minutes longer than ideal for listening to Bono for example, even if he’s not singing. It is also completely transmissive, and audience interactivity is limited to two options; either clap politely (or to heckle a hack question if you’re game ***) or post a comment on the online discussion board, each of which will remain as unanswered as a journalists question at a political press conference.
Ok enough preamble, now some practical advice, drawn out one at a time, in no particular order like… goodies in your conference showbag, (yes I know, I’m just being sustainable by reusing my similes ok).
Surviving your next conference tips
TED is dead, well it’s a bit tired anyway. Why not replace TED with FRED, Facilitated, Relevant, Educational, Discussions. Speaks for itself. The F can also stand for Flipped (don’t you just love an adaptive acronym?) Flipped Conferences. Just like flipped classrooms, where the bulk of the transmissive didactic content is delivered before the conference, so that the face-to-face time can be optimised for deeper discussions rather than being talked at. This also allows the conference experience to be extended to before and after the conference.
This is related to point one, but with more jokes and a reference to an ancient Chinese philosopher. Confucius, who by the way would have given a really excellent TED talk, once said something along the lines of; “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand. … Get me up doing an embarrassing networking ice-breaker with a bunch of strangers and a little part of me will die on the inside.” Apart from the last bit, there is some wisdom in this for conference organisers and speakers. Rather than just presenting at participants, allow them to interact and engage with you. You know treat them like they might actually know something and have something to contribute, I know rocket surgery-esque?! It’s otherwise known as action learning- learning by doing and then reflecting. Also called double-feedback learning, there’s even a formula for it, for you academic types. L= P + Q + R W Memorise it!
This is disruptive in the traditional sense, not in the Uber sense. In a long, boring ‘transmissive’ presentation, feel free to respectfully hack a powerful question and don’t just wait for the Q &A. (See point about TED above.)
See this as your chance to guide your learning and contribute to the conversation. To really disrupt, you could even ask a question of someone else in the audience, or even the whole audience i.e. ‘does anyone here actually agree with this boring dingbat?!’ This is mandatory if you are trapped in a room with a MANEL. Whatever you do though, don’t be that questioner who doesn’t actually ask a question, but instead gives a long winded, pompous off-topic comment. Remember a question has a question mark at the end of it, one of the quirks of the English language I guess. If you’re asking it in Spanish you’ll have an upside-down question mark at the start of the sentence too. I’ll take that as a comment.
After all from a UX (that’s designer speak for user-experience) perspective what is the main point of attending a conference? Ok apart from getting an all-expenses paid day or two away from the office, in a fancy hotel in an exotic location, with all the free post-plenary networking booze you feel inclined to consume. Of course the aim of a conference is to connect with ‘like-minded’ and ‘not-so-like-minded’ people, and to come away stuffed with ideas, inspiration and yes if you must, a little bit of information. In short you want to meet people and learn stuff. So what’s stopping you? (This point is deliberately ambiguous and ‘open’ and the question rhetorical to allow you, the reader to insert your own answer- sensemaking.)
This is like the point above but with some useful ideas in it. I recommend pro-action learning. The best way to ensure you get the most from your conference experience is to take things into your own hands. Treat your conference as a critical mission and prepare accordingly. Work out what you want from your experience. Research the program and find out who is talking and if you can who is attending. Work out who you might want to connect with but also allow room for change, for synchronicity, serendipity and the risk of meeting an ‘ask’ murderer. (Someone who says axe instead of ask!)
Generally the most ‘useful ‘people for you to meet at a conference are not the guest speakers, who will most likely have stepped in the helicopter awaiting them on the rooftop before you‘ve had the chance to leave the conference room. (Politicians don’t seem to use this option so much anymore). No, the most useful people for you to connect with at a conference are your fellow delegates. It almost makes you wonder why the speakers are there doesn’t it, oh yes as drawcards that’s right?!
In meeting someone for the first time, don’t just thrust a card into their hands and run! Or conversely chew their ear off about yourself and then expect that they will sign up to partner with you and fund your next start up. That’s like expecting to receive a marriage proposal on a first date… now there’s a reality TV show in the making, oh right, it’s already been done.
After that last comment this is probably a really good time to pause this blog and insert something meaningful and rigorous. As this blog is being written for a prestigious academic institution which rightly values evidence-based insights, I am going to insert a quote here from an article in a prestigious business ‘grey literature’ publication.
According to Greg McKeown in the January edition of the Harvard Business Review,**** “99% of networking is a waste of time.” He interviews Rick Stromback, also known as Mr Davos (World Economic Forum) who claims that people are not looking for networking conversations. “They are hungry for real conversations and real relationships.”(McKeown, 2015). He might also have added ‘and decent canapes.’ Interesting points worth pondering…cue the thinking music…
In the right hands social media is a powerful tool. In the wrong hands it’s just well…annoying… as this blog post illustrates. This is being covered much better in an upcoming post so stay tuned…on twitter!
There is only one thing worse than a MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra) and that’s a MANEL (an all-male panel) which sadly are all too common. I have even had the misfortune of attending a conference where there was a MANEL of MAMILS… Merchant Bankers… but thankfully that is extremely rare. Organisers, MANELS are simply not acceptable and will be called out by a heckler/ questioner, see point 3! And no, it is not acceptable to have a token female panellist who is required to spend her whole time speaking from the female perspective and justifying her position! 50/50 no less!
If you’re lucky the conference speaker lineup will so good that you will be spoilt for choice. If that is the case you can pretty much guarantee that at least two of the presentations/ workshops that you really want to see will be on at the same time. This is known as Felby’s Law of Conferences number 3. How to get around this? Aha there is in fact a way to be in two or more places at once, it’s called Twitter. (See point 7) Connecting with the presenter afterwards also works, or just roll a dice, there’s a lot to be said for serendipity, so give chance a chance!
Organisers. Tech doesn’t need to be fancy but it has to work. People are generally ok with having someone beamed in via Skype, rather than appearing in the flesh (so to speak), but you need to get it right. There can’t be drop outs and don’t neglect the audio, the sound is actually more important than the visual. At least until the 4D hologram arrives, which is not that far away.
Oh and another suggestion. Make Human-Powered Powerpoint compulsory! If a speaker wants to inflict a PowerPoint presentation on the audience, he or she will need to pedal to turn the slides.
This is another one for the organisers and relates to point 1. Get good facilitators. This is a critical role and can make or break a conference. Rather than paying a keynote speaker to plug their latest book or some D-list semi-celebrity as an MC who may provide limited drawcard value, think about investing in some high quality facilitators who may not be known before the conference, but will be more likely remembered afterwards for the way they conducted the session and brought the best out of everybody.
And on that note, I will draw this blog to a close and open the floor up for questions. Oh wait sorry I have to dash, my helicopter awaits!
*The owners of this blog do not endorse the validity of this or any other claim to helpfulness made this this blog.
* *The author made this figure up for affect .
***The owners of this blog do not condone heckling at TED conferences, nor condone the criticism of Bono Vox or any other rich, verbose, ageing rockstars/ political activists. They distance themselves completely from the author’s comments.
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