Three principles of insanely cool conferences

by Jeff De Cagna on June 27, 2008

It is really exciting to see a great conversation bubbling up on the topic of insanely cool conferences.  The reaction to this post isn’t at all what I expected…it’s much better…and so I’ve been thinking about how to keep the discussion moving forward so we can keep learning from each other.  So, here are three quick and dirty principles of insanely cool conferences extrapolated from my Fast Company experiences earlier this decade:

+Organizational DNA matters–It should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Fast Company that this particular magazine was able to create a vastly different and exceptionally compelling conference experience.  From the very beginning of the publication, Fast Company has been about looking at the world of business through a different lens, and in creating their RealTime events, the organizers were able to very successfully translate the magazine’s brash, edgy and break-all-the-rules editorial worldview into physical space.

+Violate the participant’s expectations–My friend and fellow blogger Patti Digh planted this phrase in my mind years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since.  In my view, truly engaging experiences don’t simply meet or even slightly exceed the expectations of those who participate in them.  Meaningful engagement emerges when you stretch people and challenge them to fully commit to the experience from the very beginning by changing the accepted norms.

For example, at RealTime Phoenix in 2000, the very first event of the conference was an activity in which everyone was randomly assigned to small hot teams and asked to build the tallest possible free-standing structure (in the shape of a letter representing one of the conference themes) using materials that were available in the room.  We had sixty minutes to complete the activity, and prizes were handed out for the most creative structures.  Needless to say, this was no ordinary icebreaker, and it definitely set the tone for the rest of the conference.  Our expectations for how we were going to interact were violated from moment one.

+Focus on design–As someone trained in education, with years of service as an association educator, I have always thought of myself first and foremost as a designer of learning environments and experiences.  In my work, I always sought to design conferences, workshops and other learning sessions for cumulative effect, in much the same way that a museum curator begins with a fairly small artifact or artwork and builds toward the grand conclusion of the most important archaeological discovery or striking masterpiece.

Design was a critical element of each of the Fast Company conferences I attended, and you could really tell the difference.  Instead of a series of mostly disconnected concurrent sessions, each conference featured speakers on a single stage whose presentations merged into a rolling narrative around the primary conference theme.  The richness of these conversations was particularly well captured in San Diego in 2002 when conference staff created mini-posters featuring some of the most pithy and provocative quotes from both speakers and attendees, and taped them to the walls of rooms we were using at the hotel.  Attendees were free to take any posters they wanted for their own use.  Now that was a stroke of insane coolness!

What are your principles for insanely cool conferences?  Please add your brilliant insights to this list!

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