Parallels between the evolution of journalism and events

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.

[The rest of the interview is well worth the listen; David Weinberger always asks good questions! Jeff’s new book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News.looks like a good read too.]

The science of white space at events

Conference organizers have an unfortunate tendency to stuff their programs full of sessions. It’s an understandable choice; if participants have committed all this time and money to be present, shouldn’t we minimize white space and give them as many sessions as we can cram in?

Unfortunately, filling every minute of your conference schedule does not lead to an optimum experience for attendees. We need white space; free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do. Here are some science-based, light-hearted, yet serious reasons why.

Biology
Yes, all of us need to use the bathroom every once in a while. The good news is that just about all event organizers remember this.

Physics
But what many forget is that Star Trek technology is not currently available; we cannot instantaneously teleport from one meeting room to another. At a minimum, breaks between sessions need to be long enough for attendees to walk leisurely between the two session locations that are furthest apart. But don’t program the minimum; people also need time to check their messages (otherwise they’ll just do it in the sessions, right?), get a cup of coffee, fall into a serendipitous conversation, etc.

Physiology
On average, conference session attendees sit 99.13% of the time.

OK, I made that up. But I’m not far off. And here’s a cheerful graphic about the perils of sitting created by Jan Jacobs:

Give your attendees more time to stand up and move about between sessions (and during them, see below) and, who knows, they may live longer.

Social science
According to social scientist Dr James House, “The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.” Why expose your attendees to such an unhealthy environment? We need to create conference environments that encourage and support connections with others, rather than leaving attendees to their own devices, and it turns out that conference mixers don’t provide as good opportunities for attendees to meet new people as you might think. We need additional kinds of white space at our events.

Neuroscience
Neuroscience supplies the most important rationale for providing white space at your events. As molecular biologist John Medina describes in his book Brain Rules: Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once. Brains need breaks.

We need white space not only between sessions, but also during them to maximize learning. Medina suggests that presentations be split into ten minute chunks to avoid the falloff in attention that otherwise occurs. (Back in the ’70s, Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind maps, recommended studying in cycles of twenty minutes followed by a short break, a technique that has served me well for forty years.)

In addition, Medina tells us that multisensory environments provide significantly more effective learning than unisensory environments; recall is more accurate, has better resolution, and lasts longer. So make sure your sessions include multisensory input (participatory exercises, participant movement, smells, touch, etc.) and your conference locale provides a pleasant multisensory environment.

So, what to do?
How do we find a balance between providing white space during and between conference sessions and our desire to provide as much potential content and opportunities for our attendees?

During sessions it’s important to provide white space between every ten to twenty minute chunk of learning, so that the learning that has occurred can be processed and retained. This is something that we should all be doing to optimize the learning experience at our events.

Between sessions it’s important to include significant unstructured time. A ten-minute break between two one-hour sessions is the absolute minimum I’ll schedule, followed by long refreshment or meal breaks. I am not a fan of providing intrusive entertainment during meals—eating together is one of the most intimate bonding activities humans have—for goodness sake, let your attendees talk to each other during this time!

I’ve saved my best advice for last. Instead of deciding how much white space should exist at your conference, let the attendees decide! At the start of the event, explicitly give people permission to take whatever time they need to rest, recuperate, think, etc. It may seem silly, but I find that if you publicly define the event environment as one where it’s expected and normal for people to take whatever time they need for themselves it becomes easier for attendees to give themselves permission to do so.

[Thanks to Joan Eisenstodt for providing the initial impetus for writing this post! And check out Give me a break! for another viewpoint on the topics of this post.]

White space—it’s not just for advertising any more! What’s been your experience of white space at events? What suggestions do you have for improving its use?

Image attribution: Flickr user zavie.

The new patron economy and its impact on events-Part 2

The tip 2287456850_1aa4e388fc_b

I believe we are moving inexorably towards a time that is similar in some ways to an era in our past—a time when content creation will be supported largely by the subsidy of patrons.
—from Part 1 of this post

We are returning to a patron economy
In Part 1 of this post I explained why I believe we are returning to a patron economy.

Luckily, there are a lot more patrons now than there were when Mozart and Beethoven eked out a living via the largesse of nobility and the wealthy. These days, when you tip generously in a restaurant, donate to worthy causes, or volunteer, you are a patron in the patron economy. Once our core needs have been satisfied, our desires to create and share remain, and these desires, decoupled from financial reward, are now easier for many to fulfill than they’ve ever been.

How will this future affect the world of events? Events have always relied to some degree on the contributions of volunteers: family members at a wedding, conference advisory board members, and student interns, to name a few. As emphasis shifts from content to connection at face-to-face events, the contributions of enthusiastic volunteers become increasingly important, as even a few true fans can make a dramatic difference to an event.

The new event patrons
I’m writing this just after attending a four-day, 500-attendee association conference where key participatory sessions were facilitated or led by twenty enthusiastic volunteers.

Hiring professional facilitators to lead these sessions would have been very expensive. The volunteers received branded fleece jackets, a reduced event fee, and public acknowledgment of their contributions. No extra lodging or travel expenses had to be paid because the volunteers were already attending the conference.

In addition, hiring professional facilitators to lead sessions would have been a far less satisfactory experience for attendees because outside facilitators would not have had the substantial subject matter expertise and experience that the volunteers possessed. I sat in on some of the sessions, and an outside facilitator would simply not have been able to understand, let alone guide, the discussions because of the considerable professional knowledge taken for granted as the basis for discussion by the participants.

Volunteers are the new patrons
When I think back, I realize that none of the conferences I’ve organized over the last twenty years would have been possible without the significant contributions of volunteers. Think about the events you’ve organized—how true is this for you? As we move towards more participative and participant-driven sessions at events, the role of volunteers is going to become increasingly important. Your volunteers are your new patrons—ignore them at your peril!

Photo attribution: Flickr user cali2okie

The new patron economy and its impact on events-Part 1

Patron economy media 144939792_7b9828a484_oOver the last twenty years we’ve seen the slow crumbling of business models relying on paying for atoms carrying the real article of desire: information. Once, being paid for cassettes, CDs, newspapers, DVDs, copy-protected software, and password-protected services was how “content providers” (such a soulless term!) made money. These schemes are dying wherever and whenever the cost to the consumer of playing buy-my-content-by-my-rules is greater than the cost of downloading the associated bits that have had their copy protection broken.

We’re in the middle of this transition. For example, right now, the paperback version of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love is outselling the ebook four to one, even though the ebook isn’t copy-protected and is half the cost of the paperback. So perhaps people still like physical books. I don’t expect things to stay this way for long.

A few years ago I got into a heated public argument with software freedom activist Richard Stallman about how I might be paid for the four years I spent writing my book. (At the end of his presentation, Richard complained that he had never spoken in front of a more combative audience. We took this as a compliment.) When Richard told us we should give our content away, I asked him why anyone would bother to spend four years writing a book. He told me, scornfully, that I should give the book away and make money in some related arena.

I have to admit that now, knowing the bald economics of writing, I’m more sympathetic to Richard’s point of view than I was when we sparred. If the book continues to sell at its current rate, it will take another year just to earn back the money (for editing, copyediting, interior design, cover design, and copywriting) I spent creating it. That’s before I start receiving any compensation for the time I spent writing it! Meanwhile, people are hiring me to design, organize, and facilitate conferences, and I have to sell many books to equal the income from a day of consulting. Richard, maybe you were right.

With the repeated demonstrated failures of attempts to copy-protect information and the rise of ubiquitous online content, I believe we are moving inexorably towards a time when content creation will be supported largely by the subsidy of patrons.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll explore how this shift to a patron economy will impact events.

Image attribution: Flickr user fernando

How the rise of online is changing your events

Encyclopaedia Britannica

How I used to find information
When I was living in England in the 1960’s, finding a telephone number was cumbersome. Five huge telephone books, each requiring both hands to lift, sat in a cupboard in our hallway, with millions of alphabetized names and associated numbers in microscopic print. The books quickly became out of date and were updated sporadically. And, if you didn’t know the exact spelling, or had only an address, you were out of luck.

Books were a key way to obtain information. Wealthy families (not mine) purchased the Encyclopedia Britannica and proudly displayed the 24+ volumes on sturdy bookshelves. The local free library was a key resource. For current information, I could watch three TV channels and read several rather good print newspapers. For specialized information, I subscribed to, or read in the library, a bewildering variety of magazines and journals.

And, of course, I talked to people. My parents, my teachers, my friends, and, later, my professional colleagues were all valuable resources. I found my friends from face-to-face social events or through my work. Finally, if I needed to know more about a subject of interest, I would attend a conference and listen to papers delivered by experts in the field.

How I find information today
I don’t remember the last time I consulted a paper telephone directory. Ten years ago I checked eBay to see if an Encyclopedia Britannica that I never consulted any more was worth anything. Reluctantly, I ended up recycling the set, because no one wanted to buy it. Today, apart from a local paper and a few paper magazine subscriptions, online is where I find telephone numbers, email or physical addresses, and information on just about any subject that, in quantity and mostly quality, dwarfs the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

People are still a major resource for me, but the primary way that I first meet new people professionally these days is online, via a variety of social media, rather than an initial face-to-face encounter.

And, of course, these days I am a creator of conferences rather than a passive consumer of them. For me, a good conference is one where I can interact, connect, share, and learn with others, and can influence what happens at the event in a way that is useful and meaningful to me.

How the bountiful availability of online content changes events
Today there is amazing one-way content on the web. The internet is where we go for information about people, places, facts, processes, techniques, and solutions to problems. Our resources have migrated from cumbersome books and broadcast media to browsable indexed data servers in the internet cloud.

For face-to-face attendees, this makes vanilla delivery of content at events far less compelling.

In the future, people are not going to travel to your event to listen to a speaker they could watch streamed live, or as a recording at a time and place of their choosing. Providing a ten-minute opportunity for questions at the end of a presentation isn’t going to cut it either. Viewing one-way content over the internet is cheaper and more convenient for attendees, and if straight content is mostly what you have to offer people will gravitate to obtaining it online; either from you or a competitor.

As a result, traditional events concentrating on the transfer of predetermined content from experts to a local audience are dying. I don’t know how long it will be before rigor mortis sets in. Perhaps some events will remain viable as training opportunities for novices, or as vehicles for CEUs to be awarded or certifications to be maintained. Over time, however, the majority of professionals who care about their profession and best use of their time will stop going to face-to-face events that don’t incorporate significant opportunities for connection, peer-to-peer sharing, and participant-driven sessions. And, no, a lunch and an evening social or two aren’t going to be enough any more. Instead you need to put opportunities for connection front and center of your events, because connection around content is becoming the most important reason that people attend face-to-face events.

Why you should care
In the fifteen months since my book on participant-driven conferences was published I have been amazed and delighted by the flood of interest from meeting professionals, peer communities, and business & association leaders. And I’ve also been disturbed. A common story I hear is of long-running conferences in trouble: conferences where attendance, evaluations, and consequent income are falling. The organizers who are contacting me have realized that the traditional conferences-as-usual models are not working like they used to—attendees are starting to defect, or ask for something different. I’ve heard this story from professionals in many different fields.

In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before the importance of the shift in emphasis away from content towards connection at face-to-face events becomes apparent and generally accepted by the events community. As usual with industry trends, the people who recognize and respond well to them early will be the beneficiaries, while those who continue doing things the old way will lose out. If you’re not currently investigating ways to restructure your events to significantly increase attendee connections and participation, I recommend you start.

Do you see a trend of increased attendee dissatisfaction at traditional events? If so, why do you think it’s happening, and what are you doing about it?

Why hybrid events aren’t going away soon

hybrid engagement 2290434541_e4a4ce2896_o
I’m a big fan of hybrid events (events designed to provide a worthwhile experience for both local and remote audiences), but I think Dannette Veale is hankering after those Jetsons flying cars, based on this recent quote:

In the future, says Dannette Veale, global manager of the Cisco Live and Networkers Virtual event, there will be no more live vs. virtual discussions. The two experiences will overlap so completely, that what we now perceive as two separate environments glued together through some “hybrid” sleight of hand will merge into a single, seamless stream of content, entertainment, and engagement that can be accessed from either end of the physical to virtual spectrum…
…In the future, there will be no more hybrid events—a term that implies the cobbling together of two separate realities into one hiccuppy, Frankensteiny, excuse to multi-task. The future of events as Dannette Veale envisions it is one where the learning is über compelling, the engagement is exhilarating, and anyone can participate.
When there are no More Hybrid Events, by Michelle Bruno, posted January 10, 2011

I wish I were as optimistic as Dannette Veale. She predicts that live and virtual will “merge into a single, seamless stream of content, entertainment, and engagement”. It would be great—but it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

It’s the last term, engagement, where I part company with Dannette. While content and entertainment can be easily and effectively streamed now, engagement, arguably the most important ingredient for a successful event, cannot be created by a single stream, and suffers from signal delay issues that are very difficult to overcome.

Effective engagement requires many-to-many channels

Effective engagement amongst remote attendees requires many-to-many channels. If I am a local attendee, I can wander up to a group of people in conversation and listen and engage with anyone present. I can be aware of multiple simultaneous connections and can initiate and switch conversations with ease. But a remote attendee is restricted to (usually) one or (at best) a few streaming feeds produced at the event site. These feeds are not under remote attendee control. I’m not aware of any hybrid events that provide individual, real-time, two-way AV connectivity to more than a modest number of remote attendees, since the number of streams required increases as the square of the number of participants.

We have a hard time providing a few simultaneous streaming channels now, let alone the hundreds or thousands needed to effectively match the experience of live attendance at an event. Including a chat room for remote attendees is a pale substitute for the rich real-time interaction that routinely occurs face-to-face.

One possible way to live with bandwidth limitations while providing a better remote experience is to develop systems that, while providing a small number of two-way connection channels, dynamically switch the limited channels between attendees who are currently active. This is analogous to the fishbowl group conversation technique I often use at Conferences That Work. At any one time, a limited number of interactions are possible, but the people in conversation can “swap out”, while everyone else watches and listens. Such approaches are still at the research stage, but while welcome, they still will not create the kind of seamless engagement Dannette implies.

Currently, the best hybrid events do a decent job providing text-based back channels for remote attendees to comment and ask questions. Remote emcee ambassadors can help to bring these attendees into the room and offer them some compensatory content, e.g. presenter interviews, that the local audience doesn’t necessarily get. But without individual, real-time, two-way AV channels for remote attendees, their experience will always be significantly inferior to that of local participants. I don’t see this state of affairs changing soon.

OK, maybe one day soon we’ll all have rock-solid 10MB+/sec connections to the internet, with OC-768 lines feeding our local ISP. All at a cost that’s too cheap to meter. (Don’t hold your breath.) Even if this glorious day arrives, however, remote attendees will still face another fundamental problem.

The effect of signal delays on engagement for remote attendees

Anyone who has used the fledgling group video chat services available on the web (e.g. tokbox, tinychat, and, recently, Skype) knows the limitations of these services. Some of the flaws, like poor video & audio quality and unreliable operation might be alleviated by the availability of high bandwidth links and appropriate internet backbones, as described and desired above. What is harder to mitigate, however, is the signal delays that video conferencing routinely introduces.

Research has shown that signal delays of less than a quarter of a second can seriously affect both the interpersonal understanding of conversations and the free flow we take for granted when we speak to another person face-to-face. Terrestrial links often suffer delays this large, and satellite circuits require a minimum of .5 seconds for a simple round-trip signal. It’s unlikely that these limitations will be overcome soon, except for remote attendees who are close (in channel terms) to where an event is being held.

Furthermore, though I’m not aware of research in this area, signal delays also mess up our habitual ability to read body language responses (mainly facial). Most people, in my experience, are not consciously aware of how well they can “read” interest, boredom, agreement, and emotions on others’ faces. Body language is telegraphed almost instantly and is hard to mask. When we lose the immediate feedback from experiencing how others around us respond to what we say and do, we lose a highly significant channel for connection.

The report of hybrid events’ death was an exaggeration

The difficulties of providing a comprehensive many-to-many channel experience for remote attendees, when combined with the subtle yet important communication degradations introduced by signal delay will, in my judgment, ensure that hybrid events will be around, live and kicking, for a long time yet. What do you think?

Photo attribution: Flickr user catspyjamasnz

Demystifying the unconference

THe ShaftNine hundred years ago, when the world’s first universities were being founded and prestigious libraries might contain a few hundred hand-copied books, the way you learned something was to travel to where a man (in those days it was always a man) knew it, and sit and listen to him teach it to you.

This model for learning sank deep into our culture. Today, on a computer we can hold in our hands, we can search the internet for information or watch videos of the finest presenters. Yet, even though we have amazing content at our fingertips, our meeting designs have not changed much from the classroom model required by the technologies available during the Middle Ages.

Over the last twenty years, new face-to-face meeting designs—such as Open Space, World Café, Conferences That Work, Future Search, and Everyday Democracy—have appeared that challenge the entrenched dominant learning paradigm of passive reception of predetermined information. Although each design has unique features and goals, what they all have in common is that what happens at the event is participant-driven, rather than being largely prescribed by the conference organizers. Collectively, these formats are known as unconferences.

Here are some of the key features of an unconference:

  • Unconferences can be designed to work on a group problem or goal, or as a time for individualized learning and sharing. Longer events can also include traditional sessions, keynotes, etc.
  • Meaningful and useful interaction between attendees is put center stage, instead of being something that happens in the breaks between sessions.
  • The culture is designed to be participatory, not passive. This has a highly positive effect on the environment, outcomes, and community created at the event.
  • Learning happens in small groups, rather than in large general sessions.
  • Teaching and learning aren’t fixed roles; a teacher at one moment may be a learner the next.
  • The experience and expertise of the participants is harnessed, rather than relying on the contributions of a few outside experts.
  • Participants have more input into and control over their learning and takeaways from an unconference, and thus are more likely to satisfy the goals for the event.
  • Interesting, unexpected things are likely to happen. While traditional conferences discourage risky learning, unconferences create an environment where sessions can be created on the spot, questions are welcomed, and sharing is encouraged.

It’s no coincidence that unconference designs were developed as our society responded to the increased availability of information and ease of sharing made possible by the personal computer and the internet. And yet, despite the pervasive reality of ubiquitous knowledge and connectivity, these new designs are still rarely used by professional event planners.

One reason is the fear that an unconference just won’t work. I’ve run unconferences for twenty years, and reviewed thousands of evaluations, and I can assure you that the level of satisfaction with unconference formats is much higher than traditional events. (One of the reasons for this is that I’ve found that traditional program committees predict less than half the sessions that attendees actually want.) Other reasons include the misconception that crowdsourcing session topics before an event makes it an unconference, the understandable fear of giving up control over one’s event, and general unfamiliarity with unconference revenue models, facilitation requirements, and logistical considerations.

All these barriers to the implementation of unconference meeting designs are readily overcome with education and experience. Most event planners (and their clients) have begun to hear the rumbles of dissatisfaction from attendees who are no longer satisfied flying hundreds of miles to listen to speakers they could have watched on YouTube, or to attend a conference where a majority of the sessions are not what they really wanted. Instead, these attendees are increasingly demanding meetings that concentrate on what only face-to-face events can provide—like Howard Givner’s experience of a recent unconference:

“…one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.”

We know how to create these events. Our clients are starting to ask for them. So, if you haven’t already, attend an unconference in 2011 and experience a participant-driven event firsthand. Or talk to people who have. Then you’ll be ready to begin to build unconference designs into your event planning future.

This article was first published in Lara McCulloch-Carter‘s free eBook What’s Next in Events 2011.

Photo attribution: Flickr user stuckincustoms

Providing clearings for your event

Clearings 308017772_e0744a9e4b_b
In the 1920’s, the German philosopher Heidegger wrote about the necessity for clearings: the making of space for something new to happen.

At traditional conferences there are few, if any, clearings. The schedule is densely packed with sessions, decided on months in advance. Attendees sit in dark rooms, being led through a dark forest of content.

Why not include some event clearings for your attendees? There are several kinds you can supply:

Physical clearings
Providing attractive, comfortable lounges close to (but set apart from) your session rooms gives attendees a place:

  • to rest and recuperate;
  • to digest and integrate what they have heard, experienced, and learned; and
  • to meet and connect with other attendees as they choose.

Make sure these places are quiet. Why we are often expected to socialize while bombarded with loud music or constant announcements is beyond me.

Freedom clearings
Giving people the freedom to choose, to some degree, what happens at your event clears a psychological space in their minds. When attendees aren’t constrained to predetermined choices, and the event design supports and encourages them to create what they want, they get excited and motivated to actively participate, which improves their learning and facilitates meaningful connections while they’re together.

Permission clearings
I regularly run events that last several days, and I’ve never expected that people will attend every session possible in an event this long. Yet I recently noticed (via evaluations) that some attendees believe they should attend everything, without a break, regardless of their stamina limitations. So now, at the start of a conference, I tell participants that we’re going to treat them as adults, and explain that I don’t expect them to attend everything. I give them explicit permission to take breaks, to escape for a while as needed, knowing that they will return to the conference, renewed, with energy to enjoy and contribute to the sessions yet to come.

How do you handle providing clearings at your events? What other kinds of clearings can we offer our conference attendees?

Image attribution: Flickr user sheepguardingllama

The myth of control

The myth of control.

myth of control

Misconception 7: Conflict is bad…The reality is that whenever you have more than one living person in a room, you’ll have more than one set of interests, and that’s not a bad thing.
—The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady

Why do we cling to traditional event structure?

One powerful reason is because we want to avoid dealing with messy differences of opinion. When we give attendees the power to choose what happens at our conferences, people are going to disagree. And when people disagree, there’s the possibility of controversy and conflict. Who’d want that at their event?

Perhaps you believe that learning is some kind of linear process that happens painlessly. That’s certainly the paradigm we’re fed in school. Even though most of us struggle to learn there, the underlying message is usually “if you were smart enough, this would be easy”.

If you do believe that conference learning should be painless, I ask you this. Think for a moment about the most important things you’ve learned in your life. How many of them came to you in the absence of disagreement, pain, or conflict? And how many of them did you learn while sitting in a room listening to someone talk for an hour?

Do you want your conferences to maximize learning, even at the cost of some disagreement or discomfort? Or would you rather settle for a safe second best?

We are scared about not having control in our lives and at our events. That’s why we lock down our conferences, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to choosing, at most, which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.

The myth of control

The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the myth of control. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will.

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to give up the unnecessary control exercised at traditional conferences and give attendees the freedom and responsibility to make the event theirs. All participant-driven event formats like Open Space, Conferences That Work, and Future Search treat attendees like intelligent adults.

What’s amazing to discover is how liberating these event designs are for conference organizers too. When we give up over-control, we become largely freed of the responsibility to choose the content, format, and instigators of our conference sessions, concentrating instead on supervisory, facilitation, and support roles. Yes, the result is an event that is less predictable, and often more challenging. But the richer experience, the creation of an event that reflects what participants truly need and want, and the joy of uncovered valuable, unexpected, appropriate learning make it all worthwhile for everyone involved.

Why The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Revolution will not be televised finalA number of people have asked whether EventCamp East Coast (EC²) will be livestreamed. The answer is a qualified “no”, and since this is a different choice from those made at the original EventCamp in New York City and EventCamp Twin Cities I thought I’d explain why.

We’re concentrating on the face-to-face experience of the local audience at EC² for three reasons. Two of these factors are straightforward, while the third requires clarification.

The first reason is philosophical. The conference organizers—Traci Browne, Lindsey Rosenthal, and I—want to create an effective, uncomplicated event. Serving a remote audience well, as was done at the recent EventCamp Twin Cities, adds a significant level of complexity, not only to the organizer’s workload but also to the demands on presenters and the local audience to integrate the two audiences successfully.

The second reason is a matter of logistics. We three organizers enjoy busy professional lives, and possess a limited amount of time to make EC² the best conference we can. Creating an excellent remote audience experience (we wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less) would significantly shift our focus from other important components of EC².

The final reason is event design related and, perhaps, the most fundamental. The Conferences That Work design that we are using adds a default requirement of confidentiality to what happens during the conference. Let me explain what this means and why we’re doing this.

The thought of providing confidentiality at a conference may seem strange or counterproductive, especially these days where event sessions are routinely streamed and videoed for anyone who wants to watch. But in fact, there’s always been a need at some meetings for a commitment to confidentiality.

The classic example for a need for confidentiality is diplomatic meetings, where, to make best progress, participants need to be sure that what is said isn’t broadcast to the world. In this case, the reason for off-the-record conversation is to benefit relationships between the institutions that the diplomats represent.

But there’s another reason why confidentiality can be useful when people meet face to face; the personal benefit of the participants.

Perhaps the most well known example of events that provide this kind of environment are the 30 years of Renaissance Weekends, where participants “CEOs, venture capitalists, business & social entrepreneurs, Nobel Laureates & Pulitzer Prize-winners, astronauts & Olympians, acclaimed change-makers of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street & Main Street, Republicans, Democrats & Independents” agree to the following policy:

All participants are expected to respect Renaissance Weekends®’ tradition of the candid and welcome exchange of diverse opinions, safeguards for privacy, confidentiality, and non-commerciality, and family ethos. Comments, behavior, or public references which could compromise the character of Renaissance Weekends® are unacceptable.

In my experience, all peer groups can benefit from this kind of environment. For example: more than once I’ve been told by different doctors I know that they regularly meet with a small group of their peers to confidentially discuss professional issues. In each case, the doctor I was talking with said, in effect, “There are some things that I can only talk about with other doctors.” The Conferences That Work format extends this kind of possibility to any peer group, and I believe that providing this opportunity can be important to any group of people with a common interest.

At every Conferences That Work event I’ve run, there are some sessions where the attendees decide not to share the proceedings publicly—in a few cases not even with other participants at the event. A common example is a frank discussion of the pros and cons of commercial tools and services available to attendees. And it’s not uncommon for a session or two to delve into work- or industry-related issues where attendees are looking for support and advice from their peers. Although these sessions are in a minority, it’s impossible to reliably predict in advance whether a specific session will turn out to require confidentiality.

All sessions at Conferences That Work have a recorder assigned to them, who makes notes or otherwise records the session. Because of the default requirement of confidentiality, unanimous agreement of the session’s attendees at the end of the session is needed for the recording to be made public.

In conclusion, it’s likely that the recordings of most of the sessions at EventCamp East Coast will be made available publicly, but they won’t be streamed live. So if you’re interested in fully experiencing EC², please join us on site in Philadelphia! I hope this article has explained why we’ve made these event design choices, and I welcome your comments and questions.