Main stage to main stream
As a conference designer, I tend to avoid conferences that I am not involved in. I find that the traditional model of talking heads is boring, and even when there is an amazing speaker, there is no call to action or meaningful processes for participants to move forward and apply the ideas to their reality!
I also believe that too many conferences preach to the converted. A conference on mental health tends to attract people who are involved in this area; subject matter experts sharing best practices like a panacea to fix all work-place woes. A workshop on social entrepreneurs brings a narrow slice of stakeholders, and participants share their experiences, lamenting to each other that no one else sees the value of their work.
I am tired of navel gazing.
I want to see multi-sectoral conferences occur because I believe that at the nexus of two seemingly unrelated issues is often the greatest need and therefore opportunity for true innovation.
I want to see a different paradigm emerge in the conference space that focuses on meaningful opportunities and safe spaces for all participants to come together and explore the future together. I want everyone at the conference to feel comfortable unpacking and exploring ideas. Too many conferences design around a “sage on the stage” sharing feel good stories.
TechChill2019 is the closest I have ever seen to these two ideas being applied in a real way.
While TechChill is still primarily a conference for start-ups, by start-ups, and with start-ups, the door was cracked open for conversations that do not usually happen in this space. TechChill2019 took topics that are usually relegated to side stages and put them on the main stage at key moments. It was refreshing to be at a conference that provided an open opportunity to present mental health in the (start-up) workplace without the conference being about mental health. It was inspiring to have a panel on social entrepreneurship at a conference that was not on (social) impact and explore other measures of success.
By main-staging conversations about mental health, impact and inclusion, the TechChill2019 hosts were bringing these conversations and presentations to the fore, not just asking people to take note but forcing them to hear.
What you put on the main stage will become main stream.
TechChill2019 also engineered conversations. While there was still a lot of pontificating from the stage (start-ups are great at sharing their story), there was also combination of speed networking opportunities, deep-dive conversations hosted by speakers, and tables reserved for 20 minute focused networking. Stage space was actually taken away to create these rooms for dialogue. Specific times and spaces for discussions to occur and an opportunity to ask “so what?” and “now what?”, to explore the themes on the main stage and try and find applied meaning!
Imagine a future with equal representation throughout the speaker and delegate lists. Imagine attending a conference were meaningful conversations are the focus and there are physical spaces and specific times set aside to facilitate these conversations. Imagine opportunities to hear about subjects that are taboo, forgotten or just outside your normal scope, and the ideas it could spark.
In the last five years I have seen panellists start to comment on the lack of female participation on their panel – and things have started to change. Perhaps if we start demanding participatory conferences, less talking heads and more “wild-card” themes we can change more conferences.
Let’s dare to be different and try new formats. Let’s ask participants to try something different and attend a workshop or presentation that they would never have considered. Let’s challenge everyone to see the opportunities in unexpected ideas. Let’s seed innovation.