A Successful Experiment

During Web2Open yesterday, we ran an experiment that turned out to be a big success. Because it felt like a model that could be extended and used by others–but it hasn’t been blogged about widely–I’ll explain here what we did.

We started with the idea that we wanted to hold a conference speed-dating event. But we didn’t have a natural set of pairs who’d want to meet, like VCs and entrepreneurs, or writers and agents. What we did have were a number of well-known experts and a bunch of thoughtful attendees. So we ran small speed Q&As with the experts: we set up five tables, one each for programmers, designers/UI specialists, marketing/community experts, businesspeople and undeclared, and then we had five experts–Clay Shirky, Kara Swisher, Matt Cutts, Saar Gur and Tim O’Reilly–each hold a nine-minute informal Q&A at a table. Every nine minutes, the experts switched tables until they’d hit them all. The whole thing took 50 minutes, plus lots of lingering afterward. It had great energy, and people were smiling the entire time.

Why’d it work? It was intimate (about a dozen people gathered at each table), engaged and informal. All which provided a nice contrast to the general conference. And it required no prep on the part of the experts (except their life work, of course): they just showed up and chatted.

What would we do differently next time? At least two things. 1) We didn’t have a bell to signal the 8-minute mark or that it was time to switch tables–so we shouted. That was too much like we were yelling at people. 2) Afterward, Tim said, “That was great, but I wish I’d had time to ask the participants questions.” Good point. It would be cool to increase the time per table to at least fifteen minutes and let the experts do some asking–or possibly make it all questions from the experts. (Update: Clay adds two more good suggestions: Make it an hour, with four 12-min sessions, and spend 12 minutes at the beginning introducing the speakers, to give them time and context for the initial questions.)

How would you adapt and use speed Q&A?

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