There’s nothing I enjoy more than breaking the rules and breaking process moving from the established norm. At conferences and unconferences like #trulondon, I like to listen to what people are doing and saying, and thinking how we can break the process and do it differently. I arrived at the #trulondon unconference format, inspired by #recruitfest in Toronto, by looking at what was happening with social media conferences and conferences around the UK. I had no big plan to run a conference business, I just knew that despite being a key-note speaker often, I found many conferences repetitive and dull, trapped in a row of seats watching presenters repeating the same message again and again. I wanted to be a part of something different. I looked at every aspect of an established conference format and tried to break it. The result is #tru.
The reason for repetition in the traditional conference, as I see it, lies in the difficulty for new faces to break in to the circuit. In the US in particular, more emphasis is placed on speaker submissions pre-event, often linked to professional accreditations. This is safe for organisers because it gives certainty of content and sells tickets for academic credits. Speaker slots are allocated on the marketing ability to present submissions against a fixed criteria rather than allowing the audience to make their own choices. You see few new faces and hear few new stories. The PowerPoint presentation format gives little room to respond to what the audience really wants, and they have little other option than to accept what is served up.
With #tru, anyone can have a track that wants one, no matter who they are. Sometimes this means doubling people up and other times it leads to less well attended tracks. I don’t care if you’re a celebrity on the circuit or a novice. Everyone that attends the events is social in one way or another. It’s easy to see what their views are and what they are likely to share. From the content you can suggest track titles and piece it together. I’m proud that this has lead to a new names coming on to the circuit every time we run an event. It’s often the lesser known names that turn out to be the stars that people remember when the event is over. One of our core values is ensuring everyone has a voice, and everyone has a platform. If you want to lead a track you can. If you want to sit and listen you can. This is only possible by breaking the model. 47 great people wanted to share and lead tracks, we found space for 47 people. I’m proud of that.
It was interesting to see how during the master class day we ran two tracks and used presentations to demonstrate stats and illustrate points. I tried to break this up by restricting the overview to 15 minutes, inviting a panel up to quiz the speaker for 15 minutes and 15 minutes open q and a. What was interesting to me was that in the main room the layout was traditional style. A row of chairs facing the screen. In this room the attendees reverted to conference style. There was interaction but it was still like being at a conference. The content was great, but I’m not convinced it worked 100% and the feedback would say the same.
Alternatively, in the smaller room the chairs were crammed in. People were popping in and out for coffee at the machine in the room and the screen was pushed in the corner. Still there for projection but not the centrepiece. The interaction and open conversation in this room was fantastic. Continuous exchange with the speaker taking second place to the crowd. Just how I like it. This accidental lesson taught me that if you want interaction you have to break the environment. It can in no way resemble conference or people revert back to what they are used to rather than what they want. In future that means sticking with the no-presentation principle and ensuring the seating is in smaller groups with unstructured seating. We need to break the conference layout to break the conference feel.
Social platforms mean that events can easily become communities if you pay as much attention to the people who want to take part from afar. The people outside the room are as important as the people inside it. This starts with the hashtag (why do so many events decide on this the day before? How can you expect to gain traction?) and grows from there. For me this means having a dedicated tweeter and blog squad to update the followers on content throughout the day. The traditional conference focuses on the people in the room; after all, they bought a ticket. The people in the room get the benefit of the buzz. It’s like being at a concert or a sports event, you can watch on the TV, get excited but it will never replace the live experience. That’s what you buy with the ticket, but the people away from the venue get to be a part of it through the stream and by exploring best use of technology. Thanks to sponsors Allthetopbananas we were able to develop a mobile website where attendees could follow the schedule and post 300 word reviews of the session. 55 of the attendees posted over 240 reviews, over a third of the attendees sharing their learning points via linked updates to the twitter stream. Thanks to sponsor MapThat we featured a live twitter map enabling anyone using the hashtag to communicate. Platinum sponsor Jobsite transformed a side room in to a studio streaming live conversations between participants and track-leaders. Rather than script this, and to maintain the unconference feel, there was no pre-planning and particants were grabbed and given a topic at a moment’s notice. This resulted in over 11,000 log-ins to watch the stream adding a new dimension. By putting external participants first, enabling them to take part, we broke the model again. One of our great successes I believe is working out how sponsors can be equal participants at the event, and much more than just cash in the bank with a selling brief. Special hat-tip here also to Martin Couzins, who has become the curator of the 50+ blogs that have been written post event. It is my intention to take all of this content including the photo’s, audio-boos and twitter stream and produce an e-book to mark the event. Thanks Martin for all you have done.
Conferences normally have a target audience. I don’t want that at any #tru event. Everyone, vendor, practitioner, consultant, journalist, sponsor are all equal in my book. Everyone is welcome and each unique viewpoint based on experience has a value. Those with something to sell learn quickly that pitches fall on deaf ears, and the best way to generate interest in their offering is to demonstrate a real understanding of the market they are in and display a level of expertise. One of the things that I think makes the conversation so relevant and valuable is this blend of experience and perspective on the track topic.
Ticket pricing is another area I have really wanted to break. Swanky venues and prawn sandwiches, as well as coffee at £3.50 a serving means one day conferences are priced between £3-500. This is prohibitive for people without the backing of an employer. By choosing venues like The Lane Bar that have a much lower cost, ditching coffee by the serving and installing hot water and sachets and asking people to organise their own lunch and utilising social-media for all your marketing activity, you rip out the event costs, and with a few sponsors on hand you can reduce the costs considerably to attendees. I never want to be in a position where anyone is stopped from attending a #tru event because they can’t afford a ticket, and ultimately I’d like to end up with free events, where attendees apply for tickets. It will take a few more sponsors that share my vision, but I’d expect to achieve this by the end of the year.
Nearly everyone who attends an unconference is brought there by social media. When they review what you do it is very public. Some days those at or following the event like what you do, sometimes they don’t. There’s no need for feedback forms or happy sheets. You get feedback from an event on a form, and by the time your next event comes around it’s out of date. I have learnt to crowd source for content, feedback and suggestions by monitoring the social channels. This is real time and I have the opportunity to engage with the contributors and properly understand what they are saying. Some day’s people love you, and its great ego juice to read the plaudits, other days things don’t go quite to plan and you have to learn to not only accept but embrace it. Contributors to the stream and attendees to events feel a part of it. The community feel has great benefits when it comes to promoting events and the price to pay is embracing feedback on things the community don’t like, engaging and making the necessary changes they are calling for. It also means event organisers need broad shoulders and a listening ear, and sometimes put their hands up and say “I got it wrong.” I had to break from my own defensive attitude and now I look forward to whatever is said, it’s all important!
There is still some way to go in breaking the conference model. Every event presents new learning and new opportunities. The key is to never fall in to doing things in a certain way because we always have done, or because others always have done. Apply an equal mix of imagination and innovation by listening on=line and off it, to what your community is telling you.
The next instalment will cover how I’m breaking the recruitment process on a project I’m working on and why. What processes have you broken recently?
Special mentions in dispatches:
Jason Seiden – For writing books that inspired me to change my thinking. If you haven’t read a Seiden put it on your list.
Craig Fisher – For being a good friend and support, from giving me my first US speaking spot at TNL to flying around the world and being at the last 2 #trulondon’s
Felix Wetzel, Keith Potts and all the Jobsite team for being great partners.
Geoff Webb, who helped set up#tru and now runs Radical Events who has been and is my biggest collaborator.
Laurie Ruettimann – you know why.
Matt Alder, Andy Headworth and Peter Gold who have been constants at all of the #tru events.
Jacco Valkenburg and Gordon Lokenburg for opening up the Netherlands, and Rob VanElburg for bringing #RIDE to the party.(More coming soon on #truRide in September and #truAmsterdam in April.)
Everyone who has ever bought a ticket, tweeted on the hashtag, wrote a post or shared our thoughts. You all constantly contribute to breaking the conference model!
My next post will be at my new destination: http://www.recruitingunblog.com. Hope you like our new home!