Five ways to improve publishing conferences

Conferences get stuck in ruts because we treat them like conferences.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)

Ever suffer from “conference head”? It’s that feeling, after a couple dozen speeches and panels, where you wonder: wow, what did I learn from all that talking?

Having just returned from Books in Browsers (BiB), a tweet from Liza Daly (@liza) stuck in my head: Much better to have talks as a series of refinements or rebuttals vs. 50 people telling us that the digital revolution is ‘here’.

Liza Daly tweet

It got me thinking: is the standard conference format — solo talks plus panel discussions — the best way to “program” a one- or two-day get together? What if organizers structured events more like a great class?

A few quick caveats before I answer: I have never designed or chaired a conference myself, and I offer up these thoughts from the perspective of a frequent attendee and with a huge helping of humility — I can only imagine the time and energy that goes into actually putting one of these shows on. This post was spurred by my time spent at the immensely rewarding BiB, but my ideas here are less a review of that gathering and more about how to make all speaker-heavy conferences more useful. Finally, as for what this topic has to do with digital book design issues: it’s tangential, to be sure, but since you can’t swing a dead cat these days without hitting a conference on publishing, it felt worthwhile to share what I hope are constructive suggestions

First, a quick roundup of key problems:

Problem: Presentation overlap

This is where multiple speakers give, more or less, the same presentation. Or even if the talks aren’t exactly identical, it’s the feeling you get when, say, speakers #2, #5, #8, and #11 all talk about how “social reading” is gonna change digital books. Even when organizers do a good job of keeping people from doing “brochure talks” (here’s a big problem & here’s how my company will solve it), you still end up watching multiple people block out their own version of a framing story that often ends up sounding pretty similar: publishing is undergoing a Gutenberg-sized revolution; readers are suffering from info overload; it’s hard to discover what to read; etc.

Problem: I learned what?

What’s tough in most conferences is pattern-spotting and takeaway extraction. What’s missing are the epiphanies a great teacher gets her students to notice by the end of a class or semester: a sense kids get that they now know more about the topic than when they began. Facing a barrage of speakers who often stray from the descriptions they’ve submitted (guilty, I plead), the audience can sometimes find it hard to pinpoint what, exactly, they’ve learned. Is it possible that what conferences need most are good editors to prune, shape, and synthesize all the valuable ideas that speakers (and attendees) share? More on that idea in a moment.

Problem: Format monotony

Empty new museum auditorium by ol slambert, on FlickrOne speech followed by another speech followed by another speech. Have coffee. Repeat. Even when everyone’s top notch, the sheer uniformity of sitting through multiple slide-powered talks is hell on our brain’s need for diversity.

Having sketched out what I see as the three big problems, here’s my crack at some solutions worth exploring:

Solution 1. Organizer as curriculum developer

More than just articulating a theme and curating a speaker list, the organizer would need to devise a “curriculum” — one that doesn’t dilly dally too much with basics and yet spends enough time tackling fundamentals so attendees would really feel like they’d gained a new appreciation for issues they thought they already understood. This would clearly entail a substantial amount of speaker management. Organizers would need a degree of cooperation that some presenters might be unwilling to commit to; for example, they’d have to agree in advance to sticking to their assigned topics. As someone who strayed at least partially from the blurb I pitched to the BiB program committee, I know first hand how tempting eleventh-hour inspiration can be.

The event I have in mind would resemble something like a learner’s journey — from gentle introduction to the articulation of big challenges; then onto intermediate-level matters; and finally, culminating in some niche topics suitable for those with a master’s level understanding. (I did think, by the way, that Brian O’Leary’s call at the end of BiB for industry-wide cooperation was a pitch-perfect example of the kind of topic well-suited to wrap up a conference.)

Solution 2. Diverse activities

Rather than a non-stop sequence of solo presentations, I’m picturing a varied program of events woven around traditional talks: a moderator, mic in hand, working her way around the audience posing questions, eliciting answers, and drawing out connections; group activities (split into groups of five, and take 10 minutes to design a product you’d buy); team debates; the presentation of pre-made content (like documentary shorts), website tours, and narrated app slideshows. The idea here is to keep attendees engaged by giving them lots of different ways to consider the material under review.

Solution 3. Note-takers & synthesizers

The first idea here is for a conference to provide a note-taker (skilled in the art of sussing out key points — kinda like the bloggers The New York Times uses to report on live events). Freed from the distractions of writing, attendees could focus more on what speakers are saying. Even better, what if, once or twice a day, an emcee-type got up on stage and distilled out big themes and takeaways? What if these nuggets were posted in a highly visible spot (off- and online) to give everyone a persistent sense of lessons learned or emergent themes?

Solution 4. Workshop-style critiques

Hugely controversial and potentially disastrous territory I’m entering here, but I’m brainstorming, okay? What if someone — respectful, inquisitive, skilled in the art of asking illuminating questions — was up on stage with the speakers and, following their talks, engaged them in a Q&A. This, of course, is what post-speech question time is meant for, but many audience members are too shy, reluctant to challenge, etc. I do want to make sure I’m clear here: I’m not suggesting we grill speakers gotcha-style. I am looking for a way to get people to address the toughest challenges they face and make a strong case about why their solutions and ideas are compelling.

Solution 5. More content

Boy, for an industry built around authors, it’s amazing how little time they get at our events. I’m not just talking about storytellers. I’m also thinking of how-to explainers, idea-weavers, cookbook chefs, photographers. Is there a way to get more of these people up on stage — not just talking about their fears in this new era of publishing, but actually sharing what they create to remind everyone of why consumers buy books in the first place?

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT

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Photo: Empty new museum auditorium by ol slambert, on Flickr


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