This March, the annual bacchanalia that is South by Southwest descended upon Austin, Texas.
The festival originally featured music and film, but for the past decade it has also offered the hugely popular SXSWi conference. The I stands for "interactive." Whether you're a startup founder or Google product manager, SXSWi has become a popular destination for those in the technology sector.
I've attended SXSWi, and it's everything you'd imagine a ginormous technology event would be: a keynote to 10,000 people, a huge trade show floor and a dozen conference sessions to choose from at any given time. The sessions themselves were generally disappointing. I imagine that it's hard to maintain quality control with over 250 sessions.
A Vague Sense of Disappointment
Each time I attend a big conference like SXSWi (or Web 2.0 Expo or LeWeb), I come home with a vague sense of disappointment. I've usually learned some new tips and tricks and, if I'm lucky, I have a refreshed outlook on my work. Despite my best efforts, I rarely return with many great new connections. The huge audience at big events means that I rarely meet someone more than once, and that I won't have much in common with the randomly-selected person I’m sitting beside in any given session.
You naturally have more choice in the sessions you attend at a big event. But as SXSWi teaches us, more choice doesn’t mean higher quality. Plus, an increasing number of large conferences like TED and SXSWi are posting videos of their most popular sessions. So you can review all of the conference learnings back at the office.
Building a Trust Network
I have a much richer experience at small events that I attend or organize. I come home from Web of Change or Social Change Institute not only inspired and revitalized, but also with new and meaningful connections. Small conferences are, by their nature, much more focused and almost always attract a very targeted audience. This ensures that I’m able to have deeper, more instructive conversations with any given attendee.
Though conferences shouldn’t just be about conversations and bolstering your contact list. I help to run Fireworks Factory, a conference for mid-level to senior digital marketers. One of our stated mandates is to help to build a trust network of colleagues. That is, a group of colleagues who can rely on one another to help solve problems and provide advice and support while keep each other’s confidences.
Smaller conferences are naturally more participatory. The big conference sessions are fraught with challenges—most panels are awful, and as Greenpeace’s Michael Silberman observes, most plenary sessions are boring:
“Only Barack Obama has a shot at capturing the interest of the entire audience for the entire time slot he’s given, but it’s even a stretch for him. This is why I think we’re seeing growing interest in fixed-length 'ignite' or TED-style formats. If you don’t like the content, it’ll be over in a few minutes.”
Silberman not only advocates for small events, but ones where “everyone gets a voice." This doesn’t necessarily describe an un-conference, which can be unpredictable and dominated by a few strong personalities. But they might start with attendees who “get introduced in pairs or small groups enough times to not only get excited about the other people in the room but also discover that other people are excited about them being there and that they’re valuable participants too.”
Smaller conferences also tend to encourage less technology. In a 1,000-person ballroom, nobody cares if you’re swiping through Instagram during a session. However, when you’re among 15 to 20 colleagues whose names you know, your inattention becomes conspicuous. I attended a very small meeting of professionals where attendees were invited to store their phones in a bucket during each session, so as to encourage human-to-human interactions.
Meeting designer and facilitator Stina Brown ran that event, and suggested the smartphone bucket. “I help individuals stay present and direct their focus in a way that creates dynamic engagement. An external technology-such as involvement with personal devices—causes drains on that field of energy. We revert to familiar biochemical responses when staring at screens or trigger obsessive urges to check our devices when others do so," she said.
How Do You Make Small Conferences Great?
So, if you’re producing a smaller conference, how can you make it great?
- Give everyone an opportunity to participate. This may be through question periods in each session, but it might also be through mini-case studies or fun, Ignite-style evening presentations.
- Pick your speakers with that audience in mind, and advise them that you’re going to be speaking to a smaller group. As a speaker myself, I’m always more interested in talking to a small, targeted audience than a big, generic one. I know their feedback will be smarter, and that my questions to the audience don’t have to be rhetorical.
- Instead of panels, which are often the silver-medal prize for speakers who don’t get plenary sessions, set up short on-stage interviews. Have a host or moderator chat with each speaker for about 15 minutes. That way, each speaker gets the spotlight, and the on-stage conversations feel more intimate than a panel.
- Schedule breaks and opportunities for alone time. Because we don’t want attendees to be anonymous conference drones, smaller conferences are more socially demanding. Be sure to leave enough time for people to go for a walk or otherwise get some downtime away from the crowd.
- Mix up the style of presentations throughout the day. It’s mind numbing to sit through seven hours of talking heads, and different attendees have different learning styles. So, be sure to include workshops, on-stage interviews and other formats to keep a small audience engaged.
Next year, decline the invitation to the 10,000-strong mega-trade show. Instead, spend your time at smaller, more targeted events where you’ll be sure to have a richer experience.