Apr 23

Sarah Milstein

Sarah Milstein

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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Comments: 7

  Csalomonlee [04.24.08 01:09 PM]

Blanc & Otus won a PR Week Innovation award for this idea several years ago - it was called 8 minute PR. The idea was to bring together journalists together with company representatives around a specific topic. With no more than 8 people, the idea was that a reporter would get 8 perspectives about a specific topic in less than hour.

There was plenty of networking before and after the event. Bios of all participants were provided, which helped spur conversations for the meetings and networking.

Disclosure - I worked at B&O when the agency won the aware.

  Glenn Fleishman [04.24.08 01:46 PM]

This is the model used by my officemate who runs book and chef events in Seattle. Her Cooks and Books events feature a notable food writer or chef at a restaurant that cooks meals from the book the person is currently promoting. A few dozen to perhaps 100 people attend, and everyone gets a copy of the latest book. The chef or writer circulates, usually sitting down and talking with a table of several people for 5 to 10 minutes. It's usually long enough to have a bit of a conversation, and it's kind of fun. This seems like the same approach, only with a rotating contingent of people, ensuring 50 minutes of conversation among several different folks. Lovely idea.

  Jens Roland [04.24.08 02:15 PM]

Innovation Lab tested the same method a little over a month ago at the Techsperience Base Camp in Copenhagen, Denmark, only with one slight difference: We let the attendees switch tables rather than the experts, and we let each person pick their next station themselves.

The reasoning behind it was that we wanted them to meet a new group of people each time, not just a new expert/subject. And just as on Web2Open, it was a tremendous success (we did the shouting thing too, and I agree that a bell would have come in handy), with every table getting a great conversation going each time. I can highly recommend it.

  John A Arkansawyer [04.24.08 04:55 PM]

I have to admit I didn't go to this because I assumed such an obviously high-value activity was part of the paid program. My mistake, and one I'll try not to make again.

  Alex Tolley [04.24.08 06:39 PM]

I did attend this event.

On the plus side, the approach made for a much more intimate and friendly occasion.

However, 89 minutes was a short time to get any conversation going, especially if more than a few people at the table wanted to ask questions.

The subject matter cards were ignored at our table - so questions were general, and I think, the better for it.

A more two-way conversation would have been nicer too.

I will say that it was probably the most entertaining session of the web2open, although not the most informative.

  Tony Stubblebine [04.25.08 09:26 AM]

David Spark shot a couple nice videos from this session.

Here's Kara Swisher on the "advertising, of course" business model:

Clay Shirky on collective action:

Matt Cutts on exploiting loopholes:

  Greg Bell [04.25.08 02:27 PM]

Great idea. I think this just goes to show that even with blogs, Twitter, social networking, etc., face-to-face interaction is still incredibly important. Perhaps it's even more important today with all the alternative forms of communication and interaction.

I like the suggestion of letting attendees switch tables and pick their own next station. I also wonder if it'd be possible to give the experts a whiteboard or some other means of capturing interesting points during the sessions. This might help reduce duplicate questions from group to group and keep the conversation "moving forward" with each new session.

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