We MUST stop meeting like this!


Why are most events rubbish?

I've attended, spoken at, or organised more than my fair share recently, and found myself mentally writing a list of do's a don'ts as follows:

  • Presentation – I prefer bumbling enthusiastic honesty to a slick rehearsed presentation, everytime.
  • Visualisation – Please don't read out your slides verbatim – Tell vivid stories, show pictures, convey your enthusiasm.
  • Contradiction – Give me a healthy disagreement any day of the week, rather than fawning consensus (alas I fear a very British trait).
  • Conversation – There is never enough time or space for conversation. The best bits, as the unconference crowd well know, are the coffee breaks – always.
  • Inspiration – Going to events for me is all about getting inspired and learning something new, even though things all too often conspire against this.
  • Connection – There is almost certainly someone in the room you really would want to/should speak to – the trick is how to find them.
  • Facilitation – Is a dark and underrated art but alas so frequently apparent by it's absence.
  • Discussion - Panel sessions are often tedious and artificial unless superbly curated. And Q&A almost always feel tokenistic and seldom adds much value.

Unfortunately, most events I attend still get many of these things wrong. We really must stop meeting like this!

A recent notable exception was bTween09 in Liverpool which was excellent, and I'm also looking forward to Reboot Britain on July 6th which I know will buck the trend too. A common thread in those exceptions is the use of Twitter which I find most useful and interesting at events especially to plug the attention gap and to make connections and start conversations with interesting people. 

Oh, and thanks also to Johnnie Moore, who gave me the title of this post and is also one of the most unassuming but best facilitators out there.


  1. Great post, Roland!
    I’d love to hear more about Twitter, and particularly what you can do as an organizer to help people use it to advantage. I know that people find it less distracting than having people mutter to one another or pass notes.
    A few things we learned over the years that really help:
    – run invitation-only sessions. Make sure that everyone there is a player, no spectators. The worst thing is to have an event where everyone is just vaguely interested and has never tried actually implementing the ideas;
    – schedule for time between sessions with tea/coffee/snacks in a nice space for networking. Sounds obvious, but people often run seminars with no networking space and everyone is left hanging over chairs or crowding round the podium at the end;
    – have a brutally tough Chairperson who keeps everyone to time and repeats back “questions” from the audience in Q&A that aren’t questions at all but just attempts to broadcast a general statement. If Q&A is tokenistic, set up members of the organizing team to ask awkward questions;
    – charge SOMETHING to keep no-shows down. Typically you can get them down from 1/3 to 1/20;
    – pre-analyse and pre-circulate a list of the folk coming with their interests. That way people are alive to the possibilities of a connection;
    – give people name badges and make sure that people who show up on the door get a badge too. The folks who really wanted to catch someone specific will get hooked up;
    – if possible, divide the group into “buyers” and “sellers”. I’ve done a lot of academic/industry stuff and green/red dots on badges really helps spot at a distance if there are huddles of colleagues who are avoiding engaging with the crowd. Generally any event is meant to be bridging SOME boundary – figure out what it is and colour code accordingly. If you want to see a hilarious example of how NOT to do this, check out the impact of ranking people by “importance” at Davos (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7871994.stm) ;
    – provide feed-back forms, analyse them and do post-mortems. It quickly pulls together the organizing team and you get better routines;
    – follow-up afterwards and find out whether people made a connection. Attendees love it and you generally learn about the outcomes – new deals being done, new collaborations. That motivates you as a team and helps you make more persuasive events for the future.
    Look forward to hearing more about the Twitter point!

  2. I still think there’s a place for the ‘standard’ event format. Just not all the time! Now that people can be connected to one another constantly and can read about a person’s views or ideas online, it’s not always that interesting to hear them repeat the same ideas in the flesh. However, it can be great to get the chance to chat over their ideas. That said, events where there is no structure at all, can end up feeling a bit pointless. So – not too hot, not too cold. Just right please!

  3. Apparently, messaging people during presentations is now a serious problem in Washington and New York following the advent of a Blackberry-toting new President (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/22/us/22smartphones.html?_r=2&th&emc=th)…
    It seems that the message that it sends is, “actually my friends are more important to me than you (the presenter)”. Or perhaps folks who do Twitter reason differently!!
    Perhaps people are getting unreasonably anxious if they have not checked their status for at least 20 minutes. The expectation that status’s flow in real-time is somehow built into Twitter, which loses one of the major benefits of store-and-forward media like e-mail, in that everyone knows you can’t get back to people within minutes.
    Personally I am disciplining myself NOT to respond to e-mails or other stuff at unreasonable hours. It freaks people out. I write my blog instead. Nice old boring blogs with their store and forward technology don’t require a response from anyone…

  4. Good post Roland, stirs things up a bit. Two more tips from me:
    1.Don’t invite too many people – we had 40 at our recent NLab event and there was very little space to move around in the workshop sessions. Cramped physical space must cramp one’s thinking. Lesson learned.
    2. As you know, I’m a big fan of getting out and about. Our events at DMU have often involved a post-lunch walk along the river. I believe this really cements relationships and provides a psychogeographic space for thinking differently. Sometimes I act as a guide, sometimes give people a creative task, and sometimes we just walk together. Stewart Brand used to take people rafting down the Santa Fe River – any chance NESTA could get us all out and about?

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