An Open Letter to Conference Planners

Dear Conference Planners (specifically those in charge of content): You have a tough gig. You walk a delicate balance between informing and entertaining. But I want to give you some tough love. 99.9% of conference content is BORING. I don’t care what industry we’re talking about. It just is, and you know it. You could almost just label your sessions: “Five forty-something white guys talk about important stuff that will bore you to death.” Here are 5 ideas for sexing up your format.

1) Pick bombastic panelists: Yes, it is key to have a good pedigree, but also consider bringing on someone who will either a) piss people off or b) inspire people. Before you say “but how do we know who’s bombastic?!?” Come on. You meet people every day in your industry. You know who is engaging to talk to and who isn’t. I saw a panel recently where one of the panelists was just a mouthy, overbearing guy who delivered hilarious sound bites, one after another. People didn’t like him, but for that ONE session during a 3 day conference, no one was multitasking. People were engaged. And he up-leveled the game of the other panelists.

2) Choose unexpected panel topics or formats: Here’s the thing, talking about “what’s next” in the industry is safe. Yeah, people will attend. But they won’t pay attention. Instead of having experts up on the panel, have users up on the panel. Ask them what they want. And let the so called “experts” react, and explain why they don’t offer this stuff, or what needs to be done to meet these needs. Wanna know what’s next? Don’t ask the folks on the delivery side. As the users. Period. Make it mildly uncomfortable. Put people on the spot. Get ‘em sweating. Guaranteed the laptops will close and eyes will be active and bright.

3) Put audience members on the spot: Have panelists throw out questions to the crowd, and force them to be involved and engaged. You better believe if a mic is being passed around actively, people will be paying close attention. “What if they pick me!? I better have something to say!!”

4) Use props: Hand out a small red signs (think auctions) to the audience that say “I call bullshit” and encourage audience members to raise their signs whenever they disagree. Have fun with it… get people laughing at themselves at the industry.

5) Leverage technology: Have attendees text messages about what would be more useful, interesting to talk about as the panel is happening, or at least post panel to get feedback to improve it for next time. Kudos to AlwaysOn for streaming a live chat of people watching/commenting on the panels live. It is a bold move, especially because from time to time, the chats get more interesting than the panels themselves. Nice work.

I know this is hard. No one gets fired for status quo. But have some fun with it… it always feels good to shake things up.

All my best, Your friendly neighborhood conference attendee