Monday, July 21, 2008

How to have a great conference by Jason Calacanis

After 14 years of running and attending conferences in the technology space, I’ve learned about 20 things that I think are essential to either making–or breaking–an event. I’ve been keeping track of these in the back of my head, but have never really taken the time to put them into an essay… until now.

Two questions (and I will republish your answers to the list with your name, title, and url if you provide them!):

a) What was the best conference you ever attended and why?
b) Who was the best conference speaker you’ve ever heard and why?

Now on to Jason’s tips for a great event:

1. Every conference must have a purpose. A mission statement. A reason to exist. If you can’t clearly say why your event exists, there is a good chance it is not worth attending. If you look at the top technology events out there, they all have fairly clear missions:

a) TED is a conference about ideas (worth spreading). It was previously

about technology, entertainment and design.

b) Foo Camp is based around informal discussions about technology (by friends of Tim O’Reilly).

c) TechCrunch50 is designed to launch 50 brand new companies (for free with a $50,000 grand prize, as opposed to DEMO which is almost $20,000 for startups–sorry, couldn’t help myself).

d) WSJ’s D conference is a place for the most senior executives in technology and media to talk business.

e) The WEF/Davos is a conference for people to discuss issues impacting the global economy.

f) Web 2.0 is focused on the second wave of internet companies (i.e. Web 2.0 companies).

f) Le Web 3 is focused on the second wave of internet companies in Europe (i.e. the Web 2.0 of Europe).

g) Burda’s DLD conference is essentially TED + WSJ D conference–but in Munich and for Europeans.

h) Blogher is a conference for female bloggers.

You get the idea. The further away from a purpose you get the harder it is for everyone–sponsors, attendees, and speakers–to know if they should get involved. Be clear about your mission and make your conference *essential* for some group of people. If it’s not essential for some core group to be there, you will fail.

2. The best editorial format is a 15-20 minute solo presentation followed by 10 minutes of Q&A. The reason this is the best format is because individuals will perform on their highest level when they are out there alone on stage. When you put two to five people on stage there is massive diffusion of responsibility. Very few people need more than 15 minutes to get their point across, and very few people can be entertaining for more than 15 or 20 minutes (some can, of course).

3. The best way to handle Q&A is to make a general statement at the start of the Q&A session as follows: “We are going to the question and answer session now. If you would like to ask a question please raise your hand and someone will come to you with a wireless microphone. We ask that you please ask a concise question, not a statement or commercial for your company.” I’ve done this at all my conferences and it works *very* well. Also, I’ve added–in a joking voice–the following: “The audience should boo anyone who does a commercial for their company instead of a question!” This typically gets a big laugh and scares half of the self-promoting idiots who use the Q&A session as a back door for marketing.

4. You must NEVER hand the microphone to someone during the Q&A. You should hold the microphone in your hand like Phil Donahue used to so that you can move it away from the person’s mouth if they drone on and on. Alternatively, you can have two stand-up microphones and work out a deal or signal with the audio folks so that they watch for a sign from you to turn off the microphone if someone drones on and on. Remember as the host of the event it is YOUR responsibility to keep things moving along and if some jerk-off wants to waste 500 to 1,000 people’s time with a commercial for their startup you are WELL within your rights to cut them off.

5. The best way to cut someone off is to say “Let’s give another person a chance to ask a question.” This gives the person trying to monopolize the Q&A a chance to be graceful. If they keep talking they are basically saying, “No, let’s not give someone else the chance to ask a question.” The best way to keep people focused is to say, “Your question?” or, “Another question?” before putting the microphone in front of them. This keeps everyone focused on asking a question.

6. Conference producers must–I repeat must–take 100% ownership of what people present on stage. Most conference producers spend so much time on logistics, marketing and sales that they don’t watch the presentations of the people who are coming on stage. 90% of conference bombing presentations could be avoided if the conference producers asks for a run through one to two weeks before the event.

If someone is not willing to run through their presentation, they shouldn’t speak at your event. I’m constantly shocked by conference producer who ask me to speak at an event and never talk to me about the audience, what they might expect or what the goals of the event are. Now, sometimes these folks have seen me speak and trust me, and I understand that. However I would make high-end folks like Doug Rushkoff tell me their plans ahead of time. The way you can get away with this is to say to them, “I’d like to make this the best conference presentation you ever give… if we go over it once or twice we might be able to make it 10-20% better each time.” No one will give up the opportunity to get 20-50% better.

7. Fireside chats are only appropriate for very opinionated, blunt and insightful speakers. Do not put just anyone in this format, because if they are not absolutely entertaining and insightful it will fail. Barry Diller and Mark Cuban are fantastic fireside chats because they don’t filter themselves like most people do–they just talk like real people.

Most CEO/founders are so on message that fireside chats turn into bad infomercials. When you do a fireside chat format be honest with the subject about this fact and ask them if they are “ready to bring it!” Get them pumped up. Ask them what they are really inspired by or pissed off about in your pre-interview. Ask them what the biggest mistake they’ve made is and ask them the hard questions in an upfront way. If they don’t answer the question, you are within your right to say “I don’t really feel like you answered that question fully… can you drill down a little more?”

8. Panels are the weakest form of conference editorial. Only one out of ten panels I’ve been to are interesting, and they are typically interesting despite the moderators and because there is some conflict on the panel. Conflict equals both drama and that there is something at stake. It’s hard to manufacture drama–it either exists or it doesn’t. So, if you must do a panel, talk to prospects early about what topics they’re passionate about. Then, after you have a list of what they’re passionate about, ask them, “Who takes the opposite view on this and why?”

A panel full of bloggers talking about how great it is to blog is pure death. A panel with five journalists talking about the problems of blogging is also death. A panel with bloggers, journalists, bloggers turned journalists, and journalists turned bloggers? That’s going to be interesting.

9. Most panel moderators are self-aggrandizing lightweights who do more damage than good. The best moderators *pull* information out of the panelists, cut people off, and move the conversation on. To be a good moderator you only need 3-4 questions to get things going, the rest of your questions should come by *listening* to the answers and asking follow-up questions.

You can ask folks to expand upon their ideas by saying things like, “You mentioned blogging as a public relations tool–could you unpack that a little bit?” or, “I’m not sure I understand what you mean by blogging being dead–can you expand that a little?” These types of follow-up questions are typically the best. Also, address each question to a person–never say, “Anyone on the panel want to respond.” That’s lame. You should know which panelist is best suited for a question, and if they are all equally suited pick the person who has participated the least thus far. Say their name clearly: “Jason! What are you thoughts on blogging and PR?” Short questions are best. You don’t have to explain the question in detail–you’re no Charlie Rose and this is not PBS. Say it quickly and let them speak.

10. NEVER let panelists introduce themselves, that is the job of the moderator. Lazy moderators don’t take the time to research their panelists and memorize their introductions. As a result people introduce themselves and that leads to two horrible things: a) modest people understate their background and b) losers talk about themselves for five or ten minutes.

If I’m on a panel I say, “I’m a serial entrepreneur. My first project was a magazine, my second was a blog company, and my current company is a human-powered search engine.” That’s it. To the point and done. When I ran my conferences in New York and Los Angeles, I introduced *everyone* in tight bullet points then got right to it. News flash: No one cares about your bio–it’s in the book/on your website. Let’s get to the discussion!

11. Not having a Q&A period is almost always insulting to the audience. If a speaker will not do Q&A, then tell them not to come to the event. The converse of this is that you can’t let the folks go wild in the Q&A asking stupid questions or doing self-promotion (as I mentioned above).

12. Unconferences are generally filled with 80% weak/bad content and 20% good/fascinating content. If you’re considering doing a conference where the audience self-organizes and makes the content you have to take the time to have anchor presentations. If you don’t have some ringers setup ahead of time, you risk having a lot of boring/inane stuff.

The value of an unconference is that more non-traditional folks get to speak and that leads to some diamonds in the rough. If you host one, make sure you lower people’s expectations and do everything you can to keep the presentations very short: 10 minutes tops, unless you’re a ringer.

13. Turn off the backchannel: its so distracting for everyone and typically devolves into making fun of the person’s appearance. For those of you who don’t know about the backchannel at a conference, it’s typically an IRC chat room where folks hang out and respond to the speakers. It can be fun and informative when it’s good: folks post links, challenge statements with data they find on the web, and riff on what they are hearing. However, chat rooms quickly become inhuman, and I’ve seen folks make fun of people’s accents, their weight, and other such things.

When the backchannel first started, folks would put it on the projector–now most folks understand that’s a bad idea because typically the speaker is the only person who doesn’t see the comments. So, folks laugh at something, it throws the speaker off and they turn around and say, “What’s everyone laughing at?” It was a neat idea at first, but most of the time it’s a distraction. I suggest skipping it, or just don’t endorse it.

14. Classroom style seating with power and ethernet cables is the best setup. Folks sitting at desks pay attention and have room to settle in. There is room behind them to walk in and out typically, and since they can have their laptops open, they tend to camp. Theater seating (without the desks) is great to pack folks in, but typically you have folks knocking into each other and spilling coffee all over the place.

15. Have water and hard candy in the room–preferably on the tables. This will keep people in their seats and keep them from coughing.

16. One track conferences are best because people have a shared experience. People typically have multiple tracks because they are trying to pack in more speakers. Then folks have to decide between conflicting panels, all of which are lowered in quality on average because you are doing so much. Most conference folks have three tracks packed with panels so they can have 15-20 folks speaking at a time–this is death. Again, diffusion of responsibility. Your job is to curate the event and have only the top 20% of the speakers you could have. As an exercise take the last conference you were at and cut the weakest half the speakers and leave only the best speakers and ask yourself, “How much better would the conference have been?” That’s the job you need to do BEFORE the event.

17. Have fresh fruit, drinks, and energy bars available all day long. Having only cookies, coffee and ice cream is a really bad idea. Folks get wired and then tired–plus they get fat. People appreciate healthy choices, and you’ll have a more lively audience.

18. If you want people to listen to a speaker, make sure that they have a seat and take their alcohol away. I’m always shocked by junior conference folks who think that you can put 500 folks in a hall with no chairs and an open bar and then get them to pay attention to a speaker. If you want folks to listen give them a seat and close down the bar. If you want them to network and drink, don’t force a speaker on them. Cocktail hours are for networking–not for speeches.

19. As the conference host you *must* stay in the room the entire time and ensure that things are running smoothly on stage. I’m always shocked when I go to an event and I see the host running around the registration desk, the green room or the lobby. GET BACK IN THE ROOM and make sure the audience is having a good experience. At my Silicon Alley events and TechCrunch50 last year, I didn’t leave the room at all. Even when I wasn’t moderating or speaking I stayed in there so I could have the experience of the audience. If something went wrong, I would get on it (i.e. audio problems, spilled coffee, a broken projector).

20. Follow your muse. The best conference are the ones where the host(s) put things on stage that matter to them. When I host an event, the first thing I do is make a list of the 20-30 things that I’ve found fascinating over the past year or two and try to figure out how to share that fascination with the audience. This is the model that Esther Dyson, Stuart Alsop, Richard Saul Wurman, and countless others have followed and it works. It’s *your* event and *you* are responsible for the content. Focus on it and be the best curator you can… if you do, everything will work out.

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All the best,


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