Putting conference distractions to good use

The Donahue app aims to sync conference presenters and audiences.

DonahueLogo.pngConference presenters are increasingly faced with audiences that are dividing time between in-person presentations and web updates. Two presenters at SXSW 2010 noticed the growing trend and developed an app to harness that distraction.

Tim Meaney (@timothymeaney), partner at Arc90, and Christopher Fahey (@chrisfahey), founding partner at Behavior Design, launched the Donahue app shortly before SXSW 2011 in March. In a recent interview, they discussed how the app helps presenters and audiences stay connected and keep the conversation going.

Our interview follows.


How does the Donahue app work?

TimMeaney.pngTim Meaney: First, for a highly technical answer, we’ve posted a blog with a full technical walk-through of how we architected and built the app. For a more general description, Donahue is a presentation tool built upon the premise that certain conference presentations are best delivered in conversational format. The app allows the presenter to construct their points as a series of portable ideas, delivered through Donahue into a number of views:

  • The Presenter View of the point — For display in the room, this view is akin to a PowerPoint slide. We took care to remember that not everyone in the room will have a laptop or wish to view the “supplemental” experience of the talk.
  • The Participant View of the point — This view allows for easy interaction with the presenter’s point. Donahue puts these points directly out there with the presenter’s name and avatar attached. In the Participant View, anyone in the audience — in-person and web-based — can reply to the points or tweet to their network. This reduces the friction around the presenter’s ideas, and allows the points to flow freely through the audience into a larger network.
  • The idea or point is also directly tweeted, from the presenter. This creates another opportunity for ideas delivered in a talk to reach others.

ChrisFahey.pngChristopher Fahey: From the moment Arc90′s Rich Ziade thought that Twitter could be Donahue’s engine, we knew that Donahue would have to be able to work for users who didn’t want to (or could not) use Donahue. Users who are only on Twitter can engage with Donahue using standard Twitter functions, like hashtags and retweets.

Another view is the Projector View. We knew Donahue would have to work for people who wanted to experience the conference in the conventional way, sitting in the room sans laptop, phone, or tablet. The Projector View takes the speaker’s tweets and any related media (like a photo) and displays them in a simplified view, suitable for projection on a screen.

Tim Meaney: Donahue also “works” by acknowledging that the audience wants to have a conversation. It’s pretty standard today that the audience tweets during a talk, and then hours later the presenter uploads their slide deck to SlideShare, and then later elaborates their thesis or ideas in a blog post. With Donahue, that wall between audience and presenter, and the abstraction of a slide deck, is removed. The content and ideas are immediately shared, and the audience can immediately begin discussing them. People insist upon discussion, and instead of fighting that trend — “please close your laptops” — we went the other way and joined the conversation.

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How should conferences evolve? What needs to improve?

Tim Meaney: It’s hard to make a general proscription for all conferences, but we do believe that conference presentations, like all other forms of media, are being impacted by “the conversation revolution.” And much like all other forms of media, bringing the benefits of the conversation directly into the conference will suit presenters, organizers, and attendees alike. Those benefits are engaged participants, frictionless sharing of ideas, better learning through discourse, and building new connections among all participants. It’s very likely that conferences will begin to better design for conversations — the audience is demanding it.

Christopher Fahey: Speakers also need to ask themselves a few questions:

  • What can I get from this audience? — Can the speaker improve his or her own ideas by really hearing audience reactions and feedback? How? The best feedback is likely to pop into the audience’s heads during the talk itself. How can speakers harness that?
  • What can this audience do with my ideas? — If the ideas are any good, the speaker should desire and expect those ideas to grow, spread, and evolve immediately. Again, this might happen in real time.

Complexity is important, too. In our talk at SXSW, I mentioned that most conferences are not theoretical physics and that most audiences can understand everything that a speaker is saying without devoting their full attention. Two days after getting back from SXSW, I went to a theoretical physics lecture — and I was right: theoretical physics is far more complex than web design or project management or search engine optimization. I tried to tweet during the lecture, and when I looked back up I was completely lost. I couldn’t keep up with the speaker if I allowed myself even a moment’s distraction.

But what I learned from that experience was this: Even a complex topic should permit audiences to let their minds wander. You just can’t come to understand and master a complex topic through listening to a lecture alone. Learners need to read and study at their own pace. Conferences and lectures augment and inspire those materials. But most of all, conferences should connect both speakers and audiences with the subject matter and with each other. This enables learning by empowering people to pay attention together, think about ideas together, and most importantly talk about them in the same energized moment.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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