Following up on my earlier post about CX or Conference Experience – I’m going to dig in a bit on how you get good conversation to happen. In the past two years I’ve been to nearly 20 conferences, I’ve been to conferences with great talks, with great parties, with great swag, and hands down my favorite conferences have always been a result of great conversation. With the number of talks that are recorded and immediately available online after, what can I say I’m a hallway track guy.
I’ve seen a number of conferences intentionally design around this concept, in some ways the unconference is purely a hallway track conference. I’ve also seen conferences that weren’t clearly planned for this and have pulled off some of the best situations where people turn their phones off and engage in real conversation.
Breaks are always a hard part to balance. Every conference organizer I’ve talked to felt they had the perfect mix for breaks. If you’re designing for convesation then you need to allow time for conversation to actually happen. Whether a multi-track or single track conference 15 minutes for breaks doesn’t give you the time to actually engage in conversation. If multitrack its time enough to grab a drink then head to the next room. If single track its time to have the entire room leave and then come back.
Even 30 minute breaks fall into this category. At a multitrack conference I’m usually saying hi to enough people during a 30 minute break that I don’t have the chance to really get deep into a conversation. If I do it usually results in skipping the next talk.
One pattern thats a bit more unique is to schedule talks so that you cannot catch the next talk. This forces either moderate breaks or very long breaks intentionally forcing a hallway track. Though for most anyone thats used to conferences or new comers this concept has to be clearly explained otherwise people try to rush from one talk to the next and it can be a bit chaotic
Locations for Conversations
Having places for people to get away an talk is critical, in a venue that only has 1 main room and no convenient places for a quick coffee or beer it becomes very hard for conversations to happen. If its on the agenda to facilitate such things thats great, but going a step further and allowing for it to be facilitated naturally is even better. On more than one occasion I’ve been mid conversation wtih someone, we cut it off agreeing to pick it back up at the next break only to never locate them again for the rest of the conference. I’d have just as much preferred to continue the conversation there, but sadly there was in the middle of a talk room with no where else feasible to go.
This one caught me by surprise… The event was PyCodeConf in Miami and it was one of the evening activities – a pool party with food, drinks, and mariachi band. Early into the evening, inevitably someone was thrown into the pool (by friends in a general good nature), but thus ruining a lovely iPhone. As a result I’m pretty most people, just as I did, went to their rooms but their cell phone away, or set it near their stuff. Much of the rest of the evening was an entirely internet and twitter free evening. Causing lots of uninterrupted conversations to happen and resulted in a pool full of geeks.
The big difference between just assuming this will happen and actively working to facilitate it is who gets involved in the conversation. For a first time presenter there’s a wealth of nerves about talking. For a first time attendee there’s a wealth of knowledge to soak up. First time attendees may not feel as comfortable interjecting them into a conversation, approaching presenters, or talking to someone they’ve been following for years – yet they have just as much to add as anyone else.
Creating places where more conversation is happening helps ease this and build a better community.