I’ve been catching up with a good friend in Sydney this past weekend and we inevitably spoke about innovation and technology. I was reflecting on how different conference styles were in the US compared to the one I’d been to in Australia. Conference design is something I’ve been interested in ever since I started co-organizing the Crisis Mapping Conference series. How do you really make a conference worth a participant’s time? How do you maximize the added value for participants?
A good starting point is to recognize that a conference is actually not an event. It’s a participatory process. The added value that you seek to maximize is not limited to the period of presentations, panels, keynotes, etc. There is a before and an after which are as important as the presentations themselves. But what I want to focus on here is the innovation of that middle bit.
This is where the Kiwis come in.
We’ve all been to conferences where speakers go and on and on. The content of their presentations may not actually be boring but the delivery and setting may be particularly uninspiring. Put someone in a suit behind a lectern in a lecture room with a fixed microphone and they’ll inevitably lecture at you. Put them on stage with a hand held microphone, spot lights and cameras rolling, and they’ll likely feel the pressure to entertain. Conferences should be entertaining!
That’s what I really like about Ignite Talks (aka Lightning Talks). You have 5 minutes and 20 slides that are automatically forwarded every 15 seconds. This really forces the presenter to think through their presentation a lot (lot) more and to rehearse a lot (lot, lot) more. And it’s addictive, once you’ve given an Ignite Talk you just want more, it’s a thrill.
We used Ignite Talks for the Crisis Mapping conference we held last year, but we did so in an alternative way. Ignite Talks tend to be held in the evenings after the main presentations, roundtables, keynotes, etc. We held ours first thing in the morning. Normally, tech conferences tend to have 10 talks in a row, we kinda pushed that by having 26 with a half-hour break in the middle. And we actually opened the conference with these Ignite Talks.
Why? Because we wanted our participants to feel engaged from the very first minute and also because we wanted to get everyone up to speed on the latest developments in Crisis Mapping (well before the roundtable discussions, keynote, tech fair and self-organized sessions.) Senior colleagues from the UN Secretary General’s Office later raved about the approach and said they should introduce the Ignite Talk format to the UN.
Turns out the Kiwis started doing something equally interesting with conference design well before the Ignite Talks were born. They call it 7×7: 7 People, 7 Ideas and 7 Mins Each. “7×7 began in Wellington in 2000 with the exploration of local technology, entertainment and design. It ran quarterly in this vein for 4 years.”
Turns out the idea was actually inspired at TED (surprise, surprise).
“The theme for the original 7×7 series was showcasing ‘Technology, Entertainment and Design’. This came directly from the TED Conference in Monterey, California in 1998, convened and ring-mastered then by information architect and impresario Richard Saul Wurman.”
Richard came up with the idea during the conference when he wanted to get a quick overview on certain topics from several participants. I’d love to bring back 7×7, especially to traditional conferences that may not be ready to “stomach” the Ignite Talk format just yet. The 7×7 format would go a long way to making those conferences a lot more interesting, entertaining and worthwhile.