Chapeau. Really. I have been to my fair share of conferences and my attendance has decreased over the years because so many of them are so poorly run, if not truly awful. How many long-winded keynotes have you suffered through wondering “What is (s)he trying to get across?” until the speaker’s anti-climatic announcement “The point I’m trying to make is…” in minute 57 of a seemingly endless ramble.
*Side note: If you have to state that you are trying to make a point… you’re missing the point of your talk, literally. I have listened to panels that were so fabulously uninteresting that even fellow panelists fell asleep on stage. Yup. No joke.
The more I appreciate when organizers put a lot of thought into creating a genuine experience for attendees, an environment for learning, collaboration, frank conversations, ideas and problem solving. The Eship Summit did a lot of that for me.
The Makings of a Great Experience
- Instead of keynotes, we had fire starters: Speakers that gave so much as an impulse in less than 20 minutes. Mostly without presentation slides. It was just enough time to ignite a spark of some fascinating and engaging idea, a light-bulb moment that left you hungry for more. There were goosebumps, laughter, gasps and standing ovations (before the speaker came on stage, try it!).
- For two and a half days we were in constant yet changing work sessions. Writing, drawing, crafting, modeling, prototyping. I realize many people come to conferences to listen and be talked at; I prefer getting involved and learning through interaction with my peers. I realize flip charts, glue, dough, feathers and yarn aren’t for everybody, but it was just right for my learning style.
- Seamless coordination. These work sessions were set up for a group of north of 400 participants. I worked in teams of anywhere from two to six people, but never with the same person twice. The Value Web, a network of outstanding facilitators, made sure I knew where to go, what the job at hand was, who to work with, for how long and what output we were striving for. Let me just repeat that: They did this for more than 400 people! And it worked seamlessly. And trust me, in the heat of the moment of a big conference, these details are the first thing to go if not built into a robust system that allows for adaptation on the fly and real-time communications.
- I enjoyed the structure of the Summit. Arrival day was all about getting to know the local ecosystem through a startup tour through Kansas City, and meeting other attendees. A soft start which was much appreciated after eight hours of travel. Day two was entirely dedicated to envisioning the future we want to work and live in, space to do some If-I-had-three-wishes-thinking. Day three brought it all home by back-planning (from that ideal vision we had developed) through figuring out the steps we would have to take to get to that ideal future. Shout-out to Amanda West and Enoch Elwell, Mission Control, who guided us through these Missions on day three. We developed concrete tactics and implementation plans to take back home with us and hit the ground running (read about Mission 5 here).
- A word on the Arts. Chase Public was on the scene writing short-order poetry based on conversations they had with us strangers. Jami Milne of Milk & Clay set up around the Summit sites to take a very different kind of portrait of Summit attendees. Instead of stiff coquettish looking portraits she engages you in a conversation about the things you care about and just randomly hits the trigger to capture the person on the other side mid-sentence. We had DJ’s in residence, real-time social media stream and video stories by NationSwell and sketch artists who were capturing content in real time while also opening up visual spaces for collaboration and idea collection.
- Hall Chatter. As a conference organizer, you want to squeeze as much content as possible into the little time you have with participants. But making time and space for hall chatter is just as important. Never underestimate the power of conversations that take place on the fringe of a conference: following up on an earlier conversation, running into ecosystem builders you have always wanted to meet or seeing someone who you haven’t seen in a long time. We traveled to Kansas City to meet people face to face and in such an intense and well structured work environment, you need some outlet to decompress, catch up and not be “on” 24/7. Allowing time for hall chatter is key, folks!
- This need for decompression was emphasized through the morning and evening activities. Rooftop yoga for early-risers and one incredible block party on Thursday night both came with the explicit ask to stop working. Between a marching band, contortion artists, food trucks and art galleries we caught up with other ecosystem builders and processed the day. Day three wrapped up with a Baseball Game which I’m sure was a party (which I missed as I was heading back to the East Coast).
What didn’t occur to me until after the Summit was how little the name Kauffman Foundation came up. Everybody knew they were the host but name-dropping and praise of the sponsoring organization was pleasantly absent. Kauffman Foundation could have promoted the heck out of their work, latest reports, initiatives and so on. I half-expected (read dreaded) a 90-minute opening speech by Kauffman’s president and CEO Wendy Guillies (who I’m sure is fabulous!) about the mission of the foundation, historical developments and strategic importance of the Summit to their overall vision. You know the kind I’m talking about. But there was none of that. It felt like they had created an equal and neutral playing field that allowed us to be productive. And that was that.
We all are — at some point in our careers — in charge of organizing events. Make it an experience, leverage your artistic and creative community, ask yourself what type of format you would truly enjoy. Don’t make attendees suffer. Keep it real, keep it engaging. Learn from this one.