Lloyd Davis has a good post exploring how people group themselves at conferences.
I see two basic models of how people can talk to each other at events like this. There are conference rooms where the speaker to listener ratio is between 1:50 and 1:700 (not including those watching live on the web) and the other “Coffee Track” mode of people speaking in pairs joined by a third which gives the opportunity for one of the original pair to slip away and for a new pair to get talking. Of course there are other mutations and variations that spring up around the place but they don’t live for long the ecosystem keeps returning to two dominant parallel states, the very large and the very small.
It’s interesting that when people are left to their own devices, there is a natural preference to gather in small groups. How odd then so many events assume that the top down, one-to-many mode is best.
These days, I avoid almost all presentations, talks, panels, no matter how brilliant or engaging the presenters/panellists promise to be. I’m slightly ashamed to admit this as I feel I must be breaking some deep social convention.
My own hunch is that our education system has a huge amount to answer for. School was an extraordinarily rigorous drilling in the idea we should sit in serried ranks, at the behest of others. Any interaction was to be at the whim, and following the instructions, of the leader.
I’m mostly bored of presentations because, however brilliant, they are nearly always the prepared and established thoughts of the presenter delivered at his pace. If I’m interested in his content, far better to have it online where I can control the pace, rewind, fast-forward skip so that I can properly engage in a way that suits my own learning style.
If I’m going to present with real people, surely this is the time for fresh ideas to emerge, the way they do naturally, in conversation.
The other day I wrote about how easy it is think we’re being innovative when really we’re being superficial. A vast number of events I’ve been too claim to be introducing interaction whilst rigrously maintaining a top-down model.
Panels are presented as conversational but they’re usually contrived and still allow a small number of people to talk and the majority only to listen.
Q & A sessions are usually more agonising than the speeches that precede them. A few people in the audience grab their paltry share of airtime but we’re still stuck in a rigid mode of one person talking and loads just listening.
If there are breakouts, the organisers often think they get to tell us who to mix with and set us patronising tasks, methods and rules as if we’re not to be trusted to work things out for ourselves.
So much of this is based on crude ideas that large groups are all after the same thing at the same time in the same way. Approaches that respond to the real diversity of views and energies in the room get dismissed as chaotic simply because they expose the falseness of the notion that we’re just cogs in some big machine.
Lloyd reports on an excellent experiment he carried out where he used a very simple invitation to generate a much more conversational experience. Well done.