There are fascinating parallels in the ways that journalism and events are evolving. Listen to the first minute of this interview of journalism maverick Jeff Jarvis by David Weinberger.
Here’s the relevant quote:
“What the internet changes is our relationship with the public we serve…What is the proper relationship for journalists to the public? We tend to think it’s manufacturing a product called content you should honor and buy…That’s a legacy of mass media; treating everybody the same because we had to…So we now see the opportunity to serve people’s individual needs. So that’s what made me think that journalism, properly conceived is a service.”
In parallel fashion, events are moving away from broadcast formats that treat everybody the same and evolving towards designs that allow individual participants to learn what they individually want and need to learn, as well as connecting with peers and peer communities that have real value for them.
Seeing your conference as a service that can provide what people want—rather than what you’ve decided they want, like the journalists of old—is key to keeping your events relevant, competitive, and successful.
“Things are the way they are because they got that way.” —Quip attributed to Kenneth Boulding
The hundreds-of-years-dominant paradigm for sessions, conferences, and meetings is broadcast: most of the time, one person presents and everyone else listens and watches. Why?
I think there are two principal historic reasons: one shaped by technology, the other by culture.
How technology shapes our system of education
Perhaps you’re thinking: Technology? Isn’t technology a relatively recent development? How could technology have influenced how we learnt hundreds of years ago?
“It’s been clear from the beginning of the Web that it gives us access to experts on topics we never even thought of. As the Web has become more social, and as conversations have become scaled up, these crazy-smart experts are no longer nestling at home. They’re showing up like genies summoned by the incantation of particular words. We see this at Twitter, Reddit, and other sites with large populations and open-circle conversations.This is a great thing, especially if the conversational space is engineered to give prominence to the contributions of drive-by experts. We want to take advantage of the fact that if enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert.”
—David Weinberger, Globalization of local experience
This is exactly why the Conferences That Work format works so well. Peer conferences allow participants to discover the experts in (what was formerly known as) the “audience” they want to meet, connect with, and learn from. Instead of restricting teachers to the few folks at the front of the room, peer conferences allow us to tap the experience and expertise of anyone that’s present.
In other words, Conferences That Work extend the effectiveness of the online conversations that David describes above to face-to-face meetings.
I feel irritated when I see so many event professionals focusing on “new” event technology while ignoring existing technology that, in many cases, could greatly improve their events at a fraction of the cost.
There, I said it.
Every year there are plenty of conferences where you can go and see the latest and greatest mobile and gamification apps, attendee tracking systems, registrant analytics, mobile networking, video streaming platforms, etc. Vendors are happy to sponsor these events. They use them to showcase their wares and, hopefully, convince attendees that their new technology is worth buying.
Let me be clear—I have nothing against new technology per se. (If I was I’d be a hypocrite, given that I spent twenty-three profitable years as an information technology consultant.) What’s sad is that too much of event professionals’ limited continuing-education time is spent investigating shiny new toys and apps while overlooking inexpensive and proven ways to provide effective learning, connection, engagement, and community building at their events.
Why does this happen? Here are two reasons:
We fixate on the new
“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”
—Alan Kay, from a Hong Kong press conference in the late 1980s
We are enveloped by so much rapidly changing technology that we fixate on what is new. What was new quickly becomes taken for granted and largely invisible. As David Weinberger remarks: “Technology sinks below our consciousness like the eye blinks our brain filters out.” Although technology in the form of human tools has existed for over three million years and we’ve had books for over half a millennium, the first history of technology wasn’t written until 1954. Flip charts, 5×8 cards, comfortable seating, room sets, healthy food and beverage, and hand voting have been around for a long time. They are old-fashioned technology to event professionals, so we don’t pay them much attention (unless they can be reframed in a sexy way, e.g. “brain food”). But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Far from it.
Technology isn’t just manufactured goods and software
Our definition of what is and isn’t “technology” is far too narrow. We tend to think of technology in terms of products and embedded implementations (e.g. software). But this is an incredibly restrictive viewpoint. Kevin Kelly, in his thought-provoking book What Technology Wants, lists three of the most important human technologies:
Language: A technology that “shifted the burden of evolution in humans away from genetic inheritance…[allowing] our language and culture to carry our species’ aggregate learning as well.”
Writing: A technology that “changed the speed of learning in humans by easing the transmission of ideas across territories and across time.”
Science: “The invention that enables greater invention.”
Once we start thinking about technology with a wider lens like this, all kinds of possibilities arise.
Re-examining process—the key to re-envisaging event technology
Language, writing, and science are outside our conventional, narrow-scope technology. The conventional technology we use to instantiate the sounds, symbols, etc. that they use is secondary. Language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.
When we expand our perspective on event technology to include process, many unexamined aspects of our events come into view. A few examples:
Why do we open conferences with a keynote?
Why do so few people speak during conference sessions?
How do we know if the sessions we’re providing are what attendees actually want?
Why do we provide entertainment during socials?
Are socials the best way to meet other attendees?
Why do we close conferences with a keynote or dinner?
When you start honestly investigating issues like these, instead of simply repeating things the same “safe” way you’ve previously experienced at conferences you’ll discover all kinds of human process technology that can fundamentally improve your event in ways that a new gizmo or app cannot.
So I urge every event professional to re-envisage event technology to include the process used during your events. Concentrate less on improving logistical processes: registration, decor, A/V, F&B, and so on. These are secondary processes, and we know how to do them well. Instead, focus on improving the human process you use throughout the event venue and duration—how you structure and script its flow, how you maximize useful connection between attendees, how the content and form of sessions are determined—this is the event technology that counts.
Do conference sessions have to be serious to be authoritative?
There was a time when the wisdom was that a speaker should start with a joke to relax his (invariably his) audience. Thereafter, relaxation achieved, the remainder of the talk would be deadly serious, saturating the audience with the extent and depth of his knowledge.
There was a time when knowledge came in encyclopedias and was communicated by the pronouncements of authorities. Knowledge was essentially immutable, occasionally updated, a reassuringly solid basis for our worldview.
Or so we believed.
Today we are starting to see that knowledge no longer resides neatly in our books, computers or brains as a discrete collection of clear, unambiguous facts and theories. Knowledge has become a networked multi-brain entity, born in the gestalt of a group not an individual. And, charmingly, as David Weinberger says, it has taken on a quintessential human characteristic.
Knowledge has lightened up.
“…the only knowledge that is dead serious is in the posts that emulate prior forms. The article in an online scientific journal is likely to be very much like articles in printed scientific journals, but the post on the same topic perhaps by the same scientist on her blog is far more likely to exhibit a light touch.
…the humor of knowledge does something far more important than the trivial quip itself. It announces that the author and the reader have something more in common than their interest in the topic under discussion. It says that knowledge is not enough, that knowing is a human activity, and that humans are embedded in a shared context that is always far wider than that of any particular topic…
…Knowledge is funny on the Web because humor expresses the truth about the world within which knowledge makes sense, and the truth about the inevitable humanity of knowledge itself.”
—David Weinberger, KMWorld Magazine, Why is the Web so funny?
Humorizing knowledge humanizes it, and we should celebrate this truth. Knowledge is no longer something that can be shoved into discrete categories and made subservient to our theories about the world. Rather, it has been liberated, finally able to take its rightful place as an integral component of human culture.