I spoke too soon

So yesterday I smugly say that conferences where we have to sit and endure powerpoint are “exactly the kind of event I would avoid these days.”

And yet barely 3 hours later, I saunter into Six Apart’s evening blogging conference here in London… for a good 2 hours of being presented to.

Alistair Shrimpton had found some interesting speakers especially John Dale of Warwick University, talking about WarwickBlogs, a project to get everyone there blogging together.

But oh how I hate this default conference format where I get to sit and listen to talk after talk.

And let’s not kid ourselves that a Q and A session is a satisfactory nod towards interaction. I hate Q and A sessions. Here we have a room of maybe 100 smart people and the only way we can interact is to ask a question.

After sitting impatiently for so long, I decide to ask a question. But I realise now that I’m asking less out of curiosity than out of a desperate urge to do something other than just sit still. I wonder if that dynamic lies behind other questions.

And what is the likelihood that one person’s question is going to interest many other people in the room? Of course, after enduring a boring question the urge to stick a hand up and do something myself only grows. So here we have an ingenious form of group torture where each additional question simply adds to the frustration of sitting trapped by a format that sucks.

Is that clear? Q and A sessions make boring conferences even more boring.

How bizarre to assemble a group of bloggers and use the meeting equivalent of a blog with no RSS, no comments and no trackbacks.

I choose to sit at the back knowing I will be fidgety… the trouble is that that’s where the caterers are lovingly preparing the wine for afterwards. So there I sit, my attention increasingly drifting to the prospect of alcohol whilst the Q and As drone on.

(A friend of mine (I shan’t name him here) had a great idea for a question to ask the lawyer who was last up. He didn’t ask it but it would have been great: “Is there a legal reason why I don’t have a glass of wine in my hand right now?” And Lloyd‘s comment last night shows we were not alone in our frustration.)

Finally, Alistair mercifully releases us from this torment, the drinks and eats are served and what happens? Immediately, a flurry of animated, energetic conversations spring up all over the room.

It turns out that the audience, like the speakers, is made of up of bright, enthusiastic people who want to share ideas and enthusiasms. Why make us wait so long to do so?

(It’s not as if the speakers really enjoy this format either. And no disrespect to them is intended here.)

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are plenty of simple ways to let groups like this self-organise. Good grief, just look at how instantly we did it once the handcuffs were off.

UPDATE: Other coverage of the event is much kinder, including a very thorough report by Suw Charman; positive vibes from minkmedia; Luke Razzell. Connected Blog says “Well, what an interesting night! This was quite easily the most interesting conference Connected has ever been to.” (All spotted by Luke) So maybe I am just being a grumpy git today…

22 thoughts on “I spoke too soon

  1. Julian

    How disappointing Johnnie!

    I was half-tempted to go, but in the end the thought of finishing a stack of stuff, so that I could then forget about work for the long weekend won…

  2. Johnnie Moore

    What I didn’t say was that the conversations after did make the whole evening completely worthwhile. So I wasn’t disappointed, though I was frustrated by the formal part.

  3. Communigations

    Conference format

    More and more I begin to understand that I’ve been spoiled with going to open space format BlogWalk meetings. I agree on everything Ton says about the Creative Capital Conference in A story of form and content. Johnnie Moore is…

  4. James Cherkoff

    guy from Warwick was really good and it was great to put faces to a few blogs. But no food, long presos, and red wine is only going to lead to one thing….a bad hangover.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    I couldn’t make the one in New York the other night. Do we know if the format was the same there?

    I’m ambivalent about the “talking presenter” conference format. I just attended the TED Conference, and, in the main, found the presentations terrifically stimulating. It’s a large group (~1000) making interactive sessions very difficult. I’ve been in lots of Open Space sessions as well, and also find them very productive. I guess I find both valuable: sometimes I really do want to concentrate on what an expert has to say, at other times, I want to interact with that expert and others about the area under consideration.

  6. Perfect Path

    Blogs in Action from Six Apart

    Suw looked up long enough for my camera to capture her, but the rest of the time she was clearly tapping away. Johnnie Moore, Minkmedia , Luke Razzell and Connected Blog(with pictures) have all covered the Blogs in Action…

  7. Suw

    I think the format would have been ok if there had only been two or three speakers, longer discussion sessions and time to mingle afterwards. I got really itchy towards the end, because I knew I had to run off to catch a train and the lawyer was eating into my mingling time. I mean, here we were with London’s bloggerati all in one place, and no chance for me to talk to them all. So yeah, some good presentations, but just a little too many of them.

  8. Broadband and Me

    Blogging in broadcast

    Last night’s Blogging in Action conference(?) at the Polish club in London was certainly worth attending if only to hear Tom Coates analogy of blogs being a horseless carriage (you had to be there) although a more important point was…

  9. Paul Goodison

    I just came back from speaking at ETech and had a similar experience… the sessions were so often about the need for more two-way networking and feedback, but yet they were all delivered in the one-way “push model” where the speaker talks, and the attendees listen (and I agree that the formal Q & A at the end does *not* count as interaction ; )

    I wrote about this as well a couple days ago:



    Johnnie – for some reason this word popped into my head about the conversation you should have had with the lawyer – Ethnomethodology particularly in terms of disrupting social order. Your point about self organisation being most appropriate. Perhaps one should take it upon oneself to disrupt such formats in order to provoke self-organisation.

    Of course serving the wine at the start could also provoke a similar effect…

  10. Complete Tosh, by Neil McIntosh

    Blogs in action

    I was speaking at SixApart and Nokia’s Blogs in Action doo last night, and it was great fun – a few familiar faces including Jane and Bobbie from the Guardian, and plenty of new faces too, not least some newspaper

  11. pc4media

    Your Mamma Dun Told Me…

    I am skimming 324 blogs now. So, I have about 40 firefox tabs open with stuff I found interesting. So, if you want to know a bit more about how my strange mind works, click around. Personal Data Consumption and

  12. cindy

    As a person who is not an expert in this area… might if I ask: how would you handle the situation then?

    Would be nice if you could give me a few examples. With over 100 persons, would open space a nightmare to manage?


  13. Johnnie Moore

    Cindy: the number attending would not be a problem in terms of Open Space but the time limit could be. I don’t have a perfect answer but I think the plenary part of such events needs to be kept much shorter. I would lose the Q and A altogether and limit presentations to a total of 30-40 provocative minutes. And/or offer a choice of sessions for delegates.

    Ultimately, I trust those attending to organise themselves; it’s exactly what happened as soon as the presentations were over.

  14. scale|free

    Blogs in Action

    Together with many of the UK [actually probably London and the South-East] bloggerati, I attended the Blogs in Action thing organised by Alistair from Six Apart. Unfortunately, many of the same old issues regarding conferences came up: Johnnie Moore

  15. Chris Corrigan

    By definition Open Space (and self-organization in general) is a nightmare to manage which is why it calls for very different facilitation skills. You WANT to not manage the conference, and if you are uncomfortable with that, then you need to rethink your commitment to working in a networked world.

    With crowds of more than 100 Open Space meetings positively hum…with groups in the hundreds, the self-organizing part makes the whole thing amazing. I have personally facilitated several events in the 200s with awesome results every time, judged by the participants and their engagemtn with the experience. Others have as well, and for many many more practical examples, have a look at https://www.openspaceworld.org

    By contrast the traditional conference format becomes duller and colder the more people are in one room listening to a speaker you can barely see, drone on and on.

  16. David Wilcox

    How to make social software events social

    The growing interest in online tools that can help transform our organisations and relationship offers a big opportunity for interesting events, say Lee Bryant. But only if organisers make their event formats as interactive as the software.

  17. David Wilcox

    How to make social software events social

    The growing interest in online tools that can help transform our organisations and relationships offers a big opportunity for interesting events, says Lee Bryant. But only if organisers make their event formats as interactive as the software.

  18. David Tebbutt

    Self-organising gatherings which depend on serendipity (which is what the alternative sounds like) aren’t particularly helpful, although I’m sure they’re good fun.

    When you have a disparate audience, as we did at the Polish Club, they all need to be brought to a similar understanding. This is bound to be perfect for only one person in the room. Others will be bored yet some will still flounder.

    Q&A’s can work well, but the questioner and the responder should bear in mind the needs of the wider audience.

    How about getting the questioner to announce their topic and the moderator to ask “Who’s interested?” A show of less than half (or two thirds) of the audience and Q&A time could be made brief and relevant. It would kill the ‘show-off questioner’ dead.

    Fewer presentations is probably the only other thing that could have improved the use of time at the Polish Club.

    I thought the ten-minute time slots for presentations was fine. Perhaps “ten minutes maximum and you’re not allowed to talk fast” would be a good instruction for the speakers.

    Then we could collar the speakers and ask our more obscure questions during drinks. Or, maybe better, email them afterwards.

  19. Johnnie Moore

    David: I agree with you that fewer presentations would have been a very simple way of improving the event. The plenary session went on far too long.

    My favourite format for large scale meetings is Open Space which doesn’t rely on serendipity. It does create a simple but clear structure within which every individual gets a lot of flexibility to seek out the conversations and ideas that will most engage them. It’s not, however, well suited (unadapted) to an evening event.

    What I’m now exploring with Chris Corrigan and others are some ways to run events like this that do not rely on pre-prepared keynotes and which put more emphasis on engaging the curiosity and opinions of the audience.

    I have seen countless meetings of all kinds where simple interventions have dramatically shifted the level of engagement. And not many came from a formal presentation.

  20. Teblog

    Making conferences more interesting

    I recently attended Six Apart’s Blogs in Action conference which I found jolly interesting. Not everyone would agree, which is hardly surprising since there were a hundred people in the room with differing degrees of prior knowledge. After reading through


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