Starting conversations

Earlier this month, Scientific American published a post by Bora Zivkovic, its blog editor, describing how ScienceOnline 2012 was put together.

Zivkovic starts with what many people intuitively recognize as the true value of many conferences – the hallway conversations – and asks what might be done to build that energy and insight into regular sessions. Some of his solutions included:

  • a more diverse set of presenters (not just middle-aged white men)
  • fresh topics (if you’ve heard me talk about piracy: we’re done now)
  • crowdsourced ideas via a dedicated wiki and effective Twitter curation
  • individual session wikis to promote pre-meeting discussion
  • small panels, with limits on how often someone appears on the agenda.

Reading Zivkovic’s post, the resonating theme was a commitment to diversity. To foster conversation, the folks who work on ScienceOnline challenge themselves to find new and different voices who signal that the topics and the presenters are not “business as usual”.

Intentional diversity is something I’ve seen work really well at Books in Browsers, the Internet Archive’s fall event. Organized by Peter Brantley and Kat Meyer, the 2011 agenda included people from around the world, both speaking and participating. Making that happen took outreach, careful planning and at least a few grants from the IA.

As meetings get bigger, maintaining a commitment to diversity and dialogue becomes more of a challenge. Changes in formats can help.

At last year’s Tools of Change in Frankfurt, Sheila Bounford hosted a conversation with me and Alastair Horne in a way that made it feel as if those attending were part of a living-room chat. The upcoming Tools of Change conference features a “startup showcase” that I expect will bring a range of new ideas and presenters to the discussion.

No one idea makes a good conference better, but it’s interesting how many good ideas relate back to getting more and different voices into the conversation. Oh, and really good wi-fi doesn’t hurt, either.

A bit of disclosure: Excluding only Bora Zivkovic, I am friends with the people mentioned in this post. I like them, and I like what they do. That probably biases me in some ways, but I think the examples I’ve provided stand on their own as touch points.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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