Starting conversations

Diversity can drive conference engagement

Earlier this month, Scientific American published a post by Bora Zivkovic, its blog editor, describing how ScienceOnline 2012 was put together.

Zivkovic starts with what many people intuitively recognize as the true value of many conferences - the hallway conversations - and asks what might be done to build that energy and insight into regular sessions.  Some of his solutions included:

  • a more diverse set of presenters (not just middle-aged white men)
  • fresh topics (if you’ve heard me talk about piracy: we’re done now)
  • crowdsourced ideas via a dedicated wiki and effective Twitter curation
  • individual session wikis to promote pre-meeting discussion
  • small panels, with limits on how often someone appears on the agenda.
  • Reading Zivkovic’s post, the resonating theme was a commitment to diversity.  To foster conversation, the folks who work on ScienceOnline challenge themselves to find new and different voices who signal that the topics and the presenters are not “business as usual”.

    Intentional diversity is something I’ve seen work really well at Books in Browsers, the Internet Archive’s fall event.  Organized by Peter Brantley and Kat Meyer, the 2011 agenda included people from around the world, both speaking and participating.  Making that happen took outreach, careful planning and at least a few grants from the IA.

    As meetings get bigger, maintaining a commitment to diversity and dialogue becomes more of a challenge.  Changes in formats can help.

    At last year’s Tools of Change in Frankfurt, Sheila Bounford hosted a conversation with me and Alastair Horne in a way that made it feel as if those attending were part of a living-room chat.  The upcoming Tools of Change conference features a “startup showcase” that I expect will bring a range of new ideas and presenters to the discussion.

    No one idea makes a good conference better, but it’s interesting how many good ideas relate back to getting more and different voices into the conversation.  Oh, and really good wi-fi doesn’t hurt, either.

    A bit of disclosure: Excluding only Bora Zivkovic, I am friends with the people mentioned in this post.  I like them, and I like what they do.  That probably biases me in some ways, but I think the examples I’ve provided stand on their own as touch points.

    Posted by Don Linn
    Jan 31, 2012  at  08:54 AM

    Couldn’t agree more, and as further anecdotal evidence, have a look at Heather McCormick’s (@huiscebeatha) piece on librarians’ experience at Digital Book World, “A Most Optimistic Unconference: Publishers, Libraries, and Independent Bookstores at Digital Book World 2012

    Posted by Brian O'Leary
    Jan 31, 2012  at  09:13 AM

    Thanks.  I liked the Scientific American post because it broke down “diversity” into a set of actionable steps.  Both at last year’s Tools of Change conference and in the article that she wrote last week, Heather showed that she is equally mindful of how varied the “ecosystem” is.

    I am glad that there is progress in having the various members of the publishing supply chain talk with one another more openly.  I am not sure how much more time we have, but that’s the subject of other posts smile

    Posted by Sheila Bounford
    Jan 31, 2012  at  05:54 PM

    It’s kind of you to cite our TOC conversation in Frankfurt last year. In the six year’s I organised the UK Independent Publishers Guild annual conference, the most popular session each year was “you and your book” - and ice breaker that split people into small groups and gave each a turn to talk about a specific book, project or aspect of service. The reason that conference places still sell - even in difficult economic times - is that people want to engage. The best of conferences - and the conference that will survive offer opportunities to do so as part of the package. The days of pedagogy and didacticism from the platform are over. Modern conferences are a dialogue (in the sense of a multiparty conversation that moves the parties forward in understanding). Social media tools greatly enhance the value of such events (particularly when they are used intelligently rather than merely to create an echo chamber…)

    Posted by Liza Daly
    Jan 31, 2012  at  10:36 PM

    My takeaway from Books in Browsers is that even when familiar faces give presentations, in the right environment everyone will be motivated to go off the beaten track. At that event, the driver was nothing more than peer pressure—there was no way I was going to sleep through my talk preparation when the audience was made up of so many people I respected. (No comment on whether I succeeded, but I certainly did not assemble those slides overnight.)

    It’s paradoxical in a way, but I think in the end the best way to get great talks is to run a great conference.

    Posted by Brian O'Leary
    Feb 01, 2012  at  08:47 AM

    Sheila and Liza, I agree that the mindfulness evident in planning an ice-breaker like “you and your book” or the speaker curation evident at Books in Browsers really brings out the best in people.

    If you know you’re unlikely to be anonymous throughout an event, you come prepared, and if you know you’re speaking in front of and among some pretty challenging people, you try to keep up.

    When I do speak at events, I almost always attend the full event.  People sometimes think of things to ask or contribute well after you’re done talking, and the small conversations that follow can have a big positive effect.

    Posted by Anna von Veh
    Feb 03, 2012  at  10:16 PM

    All great points.

    I think Kat Meyer is making a real effort to broaden the diversity of presenters at TOC (thanks, Kat). And I too so enjoyed Alistair and Brian’s conversational session, moderated so well by Sheila.

    I would have loved to attend Books in Browsers in person, but living in NZ does have one or two disadvantages:). Instead, I was able to ‘attend’ via the live feed and apart from not being able to take part in the hallway chats, I felt very much part of the conference, and contributed to the Twitter feed, so felt involved.

    My ideal conference would be a mixture of presentations and conversations, and some workshops perhaps. I’d also like to see more integrated sessions rather than separate tracks for workflow, marketing, business etc. In general, I think we need more integration rather than continued separation of thinking; which links back to the theme of diversity and ‘cross pollination’ of ideas.

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