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Five ways to improve publishing conferences

Conferences get stuck in ruts because we treat them like conferences.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)

Ever suffer from “conference head”? It’s that feeling, after a couple dozen speeches and panels, where you wonder: wow, what did I learn from all that talking?

Having just returned from Books in Browsers (BiB), a tweet from Liza Daly (@liza) stuck in my head: Much better to have talks as a series of refinements or rebuttals vs. 50 people telling us that the digital revolution is ‘here’.

Liza Daly tweet

It got me thinking: is the standard conference format — solo talks plus panel discussions — the best way to “program” a one- or two-day get together? What if organizers structured events more like a great class?

A few quick caveats before I answer: I have never designed or chaired a conference myself, and I offer up these thoughts from the perspective of a frequent attendee and with a huge helping of humility — I can only imagine the time and energy that goes into actually putting one of these shows on. This post was spurred by my time spent at the immensely rewarding BiB, but my ideas here are less a review of that gathering and more about how to make all speaker-heavy conferences more useful. Finally, as for what this topic has to do with digital book design issues: it’s tangential, to be sure, but since you can’t swing a dead cat these days without hitting a conference on publishing, it felt worthwhile to share what I hope are constructive suggestions

First, a quick roundup of key problems:

Problem: Presentation overlap

This is where multiple speakers give, more or less, the same presentation. Or even if the talks aren’t exactly identical, it’s the feeling you get when, say, speakers #2, #5, #8, and #11 all talk about how “social reading” is gonna change digital books. Even when organizers do a good job of keeping people from doing “brochure talks” (here’s a big problem & here’s how my company will solve it), you still end up watching multiple people block out their own version of a framing story that often ends up sounding pretty similar: publishing is undergoing a Gutenberg-sized revolution; readers are suffering from info overload; it’s hard to discover what to read; etc.

Problem: I learned what?

What’s tough in most conferences is pattern-spotting and takeaway extraction. What’s missing are the epiphanies a great teacher gets her students to notice by the end of a class or semester: a sense kids get that they now know more about the topic than when they began. Facing a barrage of speakers who often stray from the descriptions they’ve submitted (guilty, I plead), the audience can sometimes find it hard to pinpoint what, exactly, they’ve learned. Is it possible that what conferences need most are good editors to prune, shape, and synthesize all the valuable ideas that speakers (and attendees) share? More on that idea in a moment.

Problem: Format monotony

Empty new museum auditorium by ol slambert, on FlickrOne speech followed by another speech followed by another speech. Have coffee. Repeat. Even when everyone’s top notch, the sheer uniformity of sitting through multiple slide-powered talks is hell on our brain’s need for diversity.

Having sketched out what I see as the three big problems, here’s my crack at some solutions worth exploring:

Solution 1. Organizer as curriculum developer

More than just articulating a theme and curating a speaker list, the organizer would need to devise a “curriculum” — one that doesn’t dilly dally too much with basics and yet spends enough time tackling fundamentals so attendees would really feel like they’d gained a new appreciation for issues they thought they already understood. This would clearly entail a substantial amount of speaker management. Organizers would need a degree of cooperation that some presenters might be unwilling to commit to; for example, they’d have to agree in advance to sticking to their assigned topics. As someone who strayed at least partially from the blurb I pitched to the BiB program committee, I know first hand how tempting eleventh-hour inspiration can be.

The event I have in mind would resemble something like a learner’s journey — from gentle introduction to the articulation of big challenges; then onto intermediate-level matters; and finally, culminating in some niche topics suitable for those with a master’s level understanding. (I did think, by the way, that Brian O’Leary’s call at the end of BiB for industry-wide cooperation was a pitch-perfect example of the kind of topic well-suited to wrap up a conference.)

Solution 2. Diverse activities

Rather than a non-stop sequence of solo presentations, I’m picturing a varied program of events woven around traditional talks: a moderator, mic in hand, working her way around the audience posing questions, eliciting answers, and drawing out connections; group activities (split into groups of five, and take 10 minutes to design a product you’d buy); team debates; the presentation of pre-made content (like documentary shorts), website tours, and narrated app slideshows. The idea here is to keep attendees engaged by giving them lots of different ways to consider the material under review.

Solution 3. Note-takers & synthesizers

The first idea here is for a conference to provide a note-taker (skilled in the art of sussing out key points — kinda like the bloggers The New York Times uses to report on live events). Freed from the distractions of writing, attendees could focus more on what speakers are saying. Even better, what if, once or twice a day, an emcee-type got up on stage and distilled out big themes and takeaways? What if these nuggets were posted in a highly visible spot (off- and online) to give everyone a persistent sense of lessons learned or emergent themes?

Solution 4. Workshop-style critiques

Hugely controversial and potentially disastrous territory I’m entering here, but I’m brainstorming, okay? What if someone — respectful, inquisitive, skilled in the art of asking illuminating questions — was up on stage with the speakers and, following their talks, engaged them in a Q&A. This, of course, is what post-speech question time is meant for, but many audience members are too shy, reluctant to challenge, etc. I do want to make sure I’m clear here: I’m not suggesting we grill speakers gotcha-style. I am looking for a way to get people to address the toughest challenges they face and make a strong case about why their solutions and ideas are compelling.

Solution 5. More content

Boy, for an industry built around authors, it’s amazing how little time they get at our events. I’m not just talking about storytellers. I’m also thinking of how-to explainers, idea-weavers, cookbook chefs, photographers. Is there a way to get more of these people up on stage — not just talking about their fears in this new era of publishing, but actually sharing what they create to remind everyone of why consumers buy books in the first place?

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT

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Photo: Empty new museum auditorium by ol slambert, on Flickr


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Comments: 5

  1. Publishing or no, this is excellent advice for any conference setting. Here’s hoping more even organizers recognize the need to switch from a “preaching to the choir” structure, in which everyone is bored out of their skulls, to an engaging, useful format for discussion.

    Thanks for the great article!

  2. This is a suggestion for solution 2: I think one could also integrate the use of other channels, especially twitter.

    As a foreign speaking person, twitter is great to follow while hearing presentations, as major points and discussions are typically “live texted” on twitter. Especially publisher conferences are heavily tweeted from. Often the speaker is behind the audience in terms of the subject discussed, because he naturally can’t follow his twitterstream while presenting. Also, the online audience not physically present could be better utilized.

    I know that several experiments and services has been tried with twitter in relation to live events, but I am sure it could be leveraged more than today.

  3. Great post, Peter, useful for all types of conferences.

    I would add one more thing: challenges.

    One of the problems you mention is that conferences are passive. Yes, networking is great, but that’s while the conference is “on pause”. But what if part of the conference would be to “create” something? I’ve seen that in Makers’ Fairs, on SW Developer’s conferences, … but now that publishing and technology are closer than ever… why not test it out in the conference? Some examples that come up:

    – Social reading: let’s choose something on the conference and let’s have teams BUILD a prototype and show it at the end of the 3-day conference. Teams comprised by a publisher, an author, a developer and a graphic designer. Let the conference attendees decide which team did it better, or which features match their reading experience in a better way.
    – Metadata: similar to the adword challenges: have a publisher enable a predefined team to work in order to improve SEO and discovery of a book by improving/updating its metadata. Show that metadata works by… MAKING IT WORK.

    … and it doesn’t have to be technical challenges. Legal, organizational… but instead of saying how hard this is, or how social reading will change our life… SHOW IT!

    Merge this with more classic presentations, workshops while following your recommendations, and I foresee this would be a conference where lots of people would initially complain (too much work! too much technical stuff) but then, at the end of the conference we would have many more lessons learned.


  4. @Justo: Love that idea — I had drafted thoughts amounting to something similar but couldn’t quite come up with examples I liked…yours are great. No doubt, some would balk at being given “assignments”, but I think anything that gets people engaging, creating, and being active rather than passive would spark lots of energy & ideas.

  5. The Society of Indexers in the UK uses a blog as a medium to report from the conference by writing up a summary of each plenary session as soon as possible after it’s taken place. The main aim is to allow our geographically dispersed members, who may not be able to travel to the conference, to still take part by reading the blog posts and commenting on them.
    We also report each of the plenary and breakout sessions on the Society website. The reports and the blog posts act as our version of your solution (3).
    Solution (1) is a very good point but difficult to put into effect. You may have a structure in mind but who fills what slot depends very much on when the speakers are available. Also if you respect a speaker enough to want them to speak at your conference you must respect their freedom to talk about the assigned topic in their own way – which may not be the way you expected!

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