Conference format?

Alan Williamson was recently away at EuroOSCON and came back somewhat disillusioned.

The source of this disillusionment is the lack of interest that people seem to take in the sessions and the keynote, especially when delegates are given access to free wireless connectivity. He says that peering over a few people's shoulders showed that they weren't doing things like note taking, live blogging or anything like that, but were in fact reading emails, IMing and just generally browsing. And this is during the keynote speaker!!He asks, why are these people here at the conference? The conclusion he comes to and the reason that he attends conferences is the obvious one of "Networking", so why not do away with the pretense of the sessions and just go for a speed dating format?

I dropped in a comment letting Alan know about the Speed Meetings that Dott, my employers, use at their Explorers Club meetings and how they are actually quite popular, if a little intimidating to start with.

Both Andy Allan and I feel the same way as Alan about conferences and that something has to change to make them more useful and more productive for the delegates.

I quite like the idea of doing at least one "Speed Meeting" at Scotch. I know there are always a few groups of people that end up the pub or having a bit to eat, but it would be nice to just sit down and chat directly with one person at a time for even just 5 minutes. As the manager of the group, it would help me to understand why people come to the conference (other than for beer ;) ), what they want to get out of the conference and subsequent UG meetings and the group in general. Hopefully I'll also meet people that can help me too.

The thing I'm struggling with is how can I expand this idea to the sessions, so that everyone learns something?

I'm kind of thinking along the lines of much more hands on sessions. Perhaps breaking delegates in a session into smaller groups with a "facilitator" rather than a "presenter", but again how do you do this without the sessions turning into training sessions?

Don't get me wrong I still want to see "Speakers", but I think something more interactive might be in order. I also wonder about perhaps to expanding the speed meeting idea to lunch breaks, but in small groups, so you go pick up your food from a buffet and go you pick a random table that seats say a maximum of 6 people....

I don't know... This is just me churning over thoughts, but I would be interested in anyone's thought, so please comment away...

I think this is a wonderful idea. As for the speakers and sessions, input has to come from them. The worst type of speaker is one that stands up and simply reads off the bullet points in a PPT slide. Every conference is made up of at least 80% speakers that follow this format. Speaking is hard, no doubt, so choosing the speaker is key.

The speaker can turn a room full of strangers into a room full of relationships. But it is a tall order to ask the speaker to do this, because 9 times out of 10 they will feel uncomfortable doing this.

So it is up to the conference shell to help them. For small numbers, we could simply give every delegate a list of all the delegates and their mission is to get signatures of everyone on their sheet to show they have spoken to everyone. Then at the end we do a "name'n'shame" as to who the top networker is etc. I don't know, maybe a little silly, how do you get people to talk to one another.

But the idea of your networking event turns a conference that has 5 x 1hr sessions, into one that has 100 x 2 minute sessions; each delegate becomes their own mini speaker.

Maybe each delegate signs up 10 tags that they are interested in; and the conference organizes breakout sessions for the 'tag cloud'. That way everyone expressing an interest in say "ajax" go into a group for 10minutes, and everyone in "jrun cluster" to another. That way the network event is more targetted.

There is no one correct answer here, but i think we should try something with our SCOTCH event.
# Posted By Alan | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Hi Stephen,

I disagree with the "lack of interest" argument. Its just a reflection of peoples comfort with multi-tasking (or it was a lousy keynote!). I think traditional conference sessions are still a great reason to attend a conference. At cf.objective() this year it was noted that there was almost nobody i the corridors during sessions (unlike CFUnited). There were just too many good topics to miss!

That said, a big part of the value of any conference is the networking/learning from other attendees so I think if anyone else is up for it, it would be a cool formalized way to make sure you don't just speak to the same 20 or 30 people every year. I'd certainly give it a shot.

You could add the ability to register for broad categories of interest so you don't get a flash head with a db guru.

Side note: any way you could simplify your captcha?!

Best Wishes,
# Posted By Peter Bell | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Speed meeting - I like it. With one caveat.

If a meeting is going well and has over-run the 3 minute (or whatever) limit, the meeters should be allowed to continue because they're obviously having a good conversation. They should be allowed to "sit out" a round and be skipped by the next meeters. Nothing worse than having a good discussion forcefully terminated!
# Posted By Keith Douglas | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Thanks for your comments.

re: captcha - yeah been meaning to give them Charlie Arehart rework :, just not got around to it.
I should really update my install of BlogCFC too.

re: "lack of interest" I think maybe I'm being a bit dramatic, but if you read Alan's note he says that he "consider it rude to be using my laptop while someone is speaking" and I'm inclined to agree. I'm not sure that the whole "comfortable Multi-tasking" argument holds water. I think I'd probably lean more towards the decline of good manners. :-/
# Posted By StephenM | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Hi Stephen,

I would have agreed re: manners in the past, but now not so sure.

In a small group (say under 50) that is one thing, but in a large con (like CF United) if you want 100% attention of everyone in the room, you have to earn it! Nothing wrong with someone doing something useful if you're only challenging 50% of their attention. It also solves the problem of different learning speed/knowledge levels. You can continue to take more basic sessions and learn some hints while still doing something useful!

That said, maybe I've just lived in NYC too long and got ADD. Sometimes I find NYC even too slow :->
# Posted By Peter Bell | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
From attending CFUNITED this year I have to say that I got nothing out of any of the sessions. I really didn't learn a single thing. Maybe it's because some of the sessions were too "newbie", or maybe it's because I'd already read them (Sean Corfield's Factories, and Persistence presentations had been presented to UGs before the conference), or because it was a presentation based off a blog entry or CFDJ article, which I had already absorbed.

I'm 100% sure this would have been different if I had attended cf.Objective() as it was focused on advanced level topics. Howver, you can't run an all round conference like that. cf.Objective() will always have a lower attendance level because it appeals to a subset of the community.

For me, the benefit of attending CFUNITED was getting to sit down at a table with Mark Drew and have him show me some code, and explain some things about CFEclipse. Or sitting with some of the CF Team (Tim, Jason, Tom, Steve) and just discussing CF in gneral. Or hanging out in the corridor as Dave Ross wacked lyrical about ColdSpring.

Ultimately I could have saved myself a fortune by not buying a conference ticket ... Of course, I consider myself an advanced developer, and I'm realistic to know that some folks WILL have taken things away from many of the talks. However I think it's unrealistic to take away that much from a 40/60 minute session.

In fact, I used to get into trouble at User Group meetings because I allowed the talks to go on for 2 or 3 hours if required. You can't do that at a conference because everything is running to a strict schedule. And it's not easy to just grab Sean Corfield (sorry I keep using you as an example!!!) after his presentation because there's 500 people waiting to do the same.

That's why I'd personally like to see some longer hands on sessions. Why have we never had a half/full day session that takes a bunch of people through setting up CF on JRun, with Multiple Instances and then Clustering them. For me there's so much more appeal to that type of activity. People are get to learn by doing, and it keeps them away from IM and email.

Obviously you can't run an entire conference like that, but you could easily mix such a format with Stephen's idea of speed meeting. And maybe you still have some general 40/60 minute sessions.

I think we will try something different for Scotch ... we tried to be different last year, and I imagine we'll do the same next year. And yes, drinking will still be part of the official agenda :)
# Posted By Andy Allan | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Hi Andy,

Good points, all. cf.objective() was special and wouldn't work for a broader audience.

Re: CF United, you should have checked out the Birds of a Feather ColdSpring session - I think it was the Thursday evening. Simeon and Chris were showing some things on CS & AOP that I think even you would have learnt a little from! But most of sessions were about getting the word out to everyone rather than introducing completely new concepts (although it was fun to see Joe do his 9 minute demo in the flesh!).

I also learnt a lot more from chatting with Chris Scott and Dave Ross, with Pete and Matt and Kurt and all of the others that from the sessions.

In terms of longer sessions, there were the vendor sessions that were half day, there was some kind of flex lab and then there were the paid half day and full day training courses before.

I still think there is a real place for 1 hour sessions. A good 1 hour presentation can raise an issue, show an example, run you through the key concepts and give you enough information for further exploration. Even some of the small snippets I walked away from have saved me a bunch of time since June.

The problem with half day sessions is even more acute than with 1 hour slots. I'd love to do a half day on something advanced - say Chris Scott on "Real world AOP using ColdSpring", but while I enjoyed an hour of Ray speaking about Verity, Charlie introducing Web Services and Sean talking about factories (mainly as refreshers and for a few helpful hints), if you learnt nothing from the 1 hour sessions can you imagine what spending 3 hours plodding through samples on the same topic would be like?!

I love the speed dating approach, but I think there would need to be some kind of matching of interests - even if people just associated themselves to 1..n of n "affinities".
# Posted By Peter Bell | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Speed Meeting sounds like a good idea, but I'm not so sure about the 1 on 1 for 2 minutes idea. You are not really going to get to know someone or what they think about a subject in that time. I'd go more with a small groups session.

How it would work is:
You have 100 people
You have 20 tables of 5
You have to spend at least 10 minutes per table and visit at least 10 tables in a 2 hour session.

This gives you the opportunity to stay in a couple of really good discussions for 20 minutes.

It also lets the organiser see what people are talking about most and have a third hour of open discussion with the whole group on some of those topics.
# Posted By Lorraine Wales | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
I agree with Andy about the longer sessions. In fact having them in a workshop manner would be cool. Maybe teams could be put together from the participants and these have to do/make something for a day. Along the way they would be guided and challenged. For example, in for a OO topic the teams would have to make different applications, but with a fixed API so that they would colaborate in the end. I'm not sure if it would work out, but the idea is at least intriguing to me. I think one could learn a lot - not the least working in a team.
# Posted By Trond Ulseth | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Alan -
I don't think the 100x2 minute sessions would really work. The only people that are going to turn up to this are the people that are already confident at taking part in an activity like this. Its really only intended as a very brief introduction to someone new and get an idea of why that person is at the event. If you were to run it specifically as a networking event, I guess you could probably make it 10 minute turn around.

Keith -
As with speed dating, if you meet someone you "like" you follow up with them after the meeting ends.

Peter - You have ADD and have been in NYC too long ;)

Andy/Peter/Trond -
In terms of session lengths, perhaps we should be looking at something more akin to 1 hour sessions, where the speaker gets to say their bit, but with an additional 30 minutes to an hour for questions or a workshop at the end. You can either walk out for a break or stay and talk, but rather than having 500 people mob the speaker at least this way its a bit more "controlled" and less rushed for more in-depth code/product demonstrations.

Peter -
In terms of matching affinity - perhaps we use something like Alan's "tagging" suggestion and have say something like 5 speed meetings going on.

Lorraine -
I like the idea and it is something that was floating around in the back of my mind, but having helped run your standard one-on-one speed meeting, its hard enough to get people to "move left", I imagine that something on this scale would be even more of a nightmare to coordinate, which is why I suggest the less formal lunch "dates" :)
# Posted By StephenM | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Hey, Stephen, just a quick note about the captcha simplification Peter recommended, thanks to you both for the kind regards. As for doing the fix, though, let me just clarify that it takes only seconds to do. The blog entry is longer because I explain things (and address those who are concerned about a loss of security--which I argue is silly on a blog).

The quick and dirty is that you just edit the [blogcfc]\client\includes\captcha.xml to enter the handful of values I list. The file's small so it will be a quick fix.

With that longer captcha, you really could be losing commenters who give up trying to get the captcha right. (Granted, I'm sure some never have a problem, but it's just so easily fixed and very satisfying for all concerned.) Keep up the good work. Now I'll go read the rest of the great comments here.
# Posted By Charlie Arehart | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
I went to a great event in Aberdeen called a sharefair which did exactly what you say above, we had 15 minutes with representatives from many major companies and they took the time to listen to us and either advise us on who we might want to contact within their company to progress the ideas and help arrange the meetings. The 2 things required are a high degree of organisation from the people doing the conference(to stop any sitting around) and buy-in from the companies being talked to, including their agreement to send the right people to the conference(the people with the money to spend). I have attended a lot of conferences and this was by far the best even I have been to.
# Posted By szlwzl | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Explain your speed meeting format please. As a facilitator in a peer advisory setting, I have proposed to have "trusted advisors" meet my company members in a speed meeting (each get 3 minutes to tell their story). My group thinks this would be great with the trusted advisor list now including a transactional attorney, a business litigation attorney, a general accountant, a tax accountant, a securities broker, a commercial real estate broker, a human resource expert, an insurance broker and a psychologist specializing in business stress.

The goal of this type of meeting would be to quickly introduce each member to a new trusted advisor that may currently fit their needs.

In anticipation of this meeting, each member is practicing their 3 minute "elevator" speech on who they are and what they see as their needs from the advisors.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.
# Posted By Steve Poludniak | 3/13/08 9:39 PM
Its not my speed meeting format, but the basic idea is that you have two rows of seats head-to-head. The speed meeting lasts for say 20 minutes. You sit your delegates down and give them 2 minutes to have a chat, introduce themselves and talk about, for example, why they are attending the event. At the end of the 2 minutes the delegates move down one seat, so that they are now facing an new person, at which point the 2 minutes starts again.

This continues until your allotted time for your speed meeting is over.
I hope that helps...

Your method sound kind of like a structured version of Pecha Kucha:
# Posted By Stephen Moretti | 3/13/08 9:39 PM