September 15th, 2008

Running live events: What I learned from Bitnorth

in: Create

bitnorth-conferenceroom.jpgRednod co-sponsored Bitnorth last weekend. It was an informal TED-meets-Foocamp-meets-Unconference getaway North of Montreal, and it wound up being one of the most entertaining weekends of recent memory. Podcaster Bob Goyetche wrote about it and discussed it in a recent episode of Canadian Podcast Buffet (it’s around 4:00 into the podcast) and the feedback was generally very good.

I’ve been talking to several participants about what worked and why. I’m going to try and share those here, though it’s silly to try and capture the zeitgeist of an event that was as much about participants and venue as any kind of organization. It’s a long read, as much for others to see what worked as it is for me to remember what worked when it comes time to plan the next one (and yes, there will definitely be a next one. If you want in, mail me.)

I was lucky enough to get in front of crowds early, first at university and later as the policy-based networking guy for 3Com. But it was when I started presenting and organizing for Interop (which is coming up this week in New York) that I really saw how events ran. There’s a lot of organization behind the scenes that makes things run smoothly.

But the conference world is changing. I think this is a reflection of marketing in general (Mitch Joel does a great job explaining this.) Broadcast marketing is long gone, and good marketing these days is an interaction, a dialogue between marketer and audience, often on a personal and individual level. So the traditional talking-head-on-a-podium model is boring: If I wanted that, I’d just download it.

As a result, many of the conferences I’m involved with try to mix it up. Panels are the most obvious way, but it’s audience participation that’s most effective. The Unconference series of events, of which I’ll be running one in New York this week, are a good example of this. The “camp” movement (no, not that camp) including Barcamp, Startupcamp, and Cloudcamp, is a self-organizing event that has nearly no structure.

Here’s what I’m finding worked at Bitnorth. Some of this won’t apply elsewhere (we weren’t trying to sell anyone anything, for one thing.) And some of it might be a bit controversial. Sorry.

Just enough structure.

shortbits.jpgThis is key. Most people aren’t leaders. Not that they can’t lead, but rather, they’re expecting some form of guidance. At Unconference, we provide several topics (cloud, social networks, mobility) and themes (ROI, open platforms, security) and then let people debate them. This is usually enough to start things off.

At Bitnorth, we had a format (some speakers and panels, interlaced with audience participation.) You need to walk the line between telling people what the topic is without flipping on the passive bit in most people’s heads that says, “okay, I’m being served, I don’t need to participate.

Plan early, plan often.

When we started thinking about Bitnorth it was back in April. People told us we were daft. We still left things so late we couldn’t get the entire building to ourselves. If there’s one thing Interop showed me, it’s that you can’t start too early. At New York’s Interop this week we’ll be planning next May’s content. Had we not started planning and marketing the event in April, we wouldn’t have filled up the space we had or had nearly as interesting a group of attendees.

The girls factor.

olieangie.jpgThis is the observation most likely to get me labeled a misogynist. But it bears saying, particularly at a technology event. So here goes: Don’t make the event a sausage-fest. Early on, some of the women involved in planning said they didn’t want this to be a technology-for-technology’s-sake event. We tried to make sure there were women at the conference. And this made a huge difference to the chemistry.

Men (who, unfortunately, continue to dominate many conferences) behave in three distinct ways on a camping trip, and this plays out at conferences to a degree.

  1. If there are only men attending, they’ll try to burn something or blow something up. This is just par for the course: We can’t go kill the pig, so we’re going to play with fire instead. It often results in injuries or much rejoicing; sometimes both.
  2. If there are single men and women attending, there will be posturing and preening, and lots of attention lavished on the women. Then, around 11 PM, couples will mysteriously vanish. The next morning, neither party will want to talk much, and the mood will be broken.
  3. If there are men and women, but most of them are in relationships, then the discourse tends to be interactive and more cerebral — less fire-breathing, less swagger. IMHO this was a balance we achieved at Bitnorth that made for a less-geeky, more-conversational event.

You could consider this sexist (and I don’t want to put lipstick on a conference.) But my point is conferences are made up of men and women, and the tone of the conference is heavily influenced by their interactions. Men are dolts and like it or not this changes how things go.

Keep them wanting more

Bitnorth lasted Friday night to Sunday noon. Most of the feedback I received was, “make it three days!” or “add more Birds of a Feather sessions.” If we’d had more content, I think folks would be talking about it less. We also didn’t want to dry up our creative reserves. If people leave wishing for more, it’s likely they’ll return.

Schedule flexibility

kidspanel.jpgWe had no idea how things would go. We had a panel of precocious kids (which was hysterical) that was supposed to last half an hour, and we let it run a whole hour. The ability to adjust the schedule mid-conference was great.

This also worked out when it came time to adjust the order of Short Bits: If things were getting too geeky, I could swap out the order of presentations on a board near the front and steer the tone of the discussions. Gone are the rigid conference calendars (which, of course, wreaks havoc with things like keynotes.)

Scheduling usually happens because you’re paying someone to be there (like the massage therapists we had on Sunday) or because you have multiple “tracks” and let people switch between them. This is almost always a recipe for disaster, as it constrains the discussion.

Add variety through brevity, not parallelism

This is a bit of a strange observation. If you want to get twenty ideas across in one day, the usual approach is to split it up into three tracks with hour-long sessions. At Bitnorth, we sliced things up the other way: Get people to convey a simple idea in 10 or 15 minutes. If you don’t like the topic, you can change quickly. It’s conferencing for the ADD generation. I think having a single track, but keeping the presentations short, worked to our advantage. It made it easier to adjust scheduling and also kept the content varied.

If they speak, they won’t grandstand

At a lot of conferences, I see someone in the audience grandstanding or posturing. I see it most on panels, when one panelist wants to monopolize the topic. Nothing kills a panel faster than five people agreeing with one another and repeating the same platitude.

By having each person present something they cared about, they all knew they’d have the chance to speak their minds. They got to put their best, most valued foot forward. That made it easy to start a conversation about the topic, since they’d already given the preamble. This sentiment is well understood in the Web2.0 conference world. Foocamp says,

Be Prepared to Demo or Speak: Foo Camp is as much fun as participants make it. Be prepared to lead or participate in a session, ask interesting questions, show off what you’re working on, and generally leave your mark on the weekend. It’s a little like Burning Man in that there are no spectators, only participants. People sometimes ask “what can I do to be invited back” and your best bet is to make a (positive) impression by engaging and presenting.

Mix fun and work

tabletennis.jpgCAMMAC has had weddings for a hundred. They’ve never run out of cold beer before us. 25% of the budget went to Saturday’s party, and that doesn’t include the Wii, table tennis, campfire, or poker tournament (all proceeds to Kiva.) Sunday, we had guided hangover meditation and chair massage. ’nuff said.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

beerprez.jpgThe other thing that a participative conference does is make people comfortable presenting. If they know everyone will be participating somehow, they’re more likely to be comfortable. I had people who gave great presentations come over and apologize, saying, “I never present. I’m not very good at it.” They rocked! Others, who sat out the speaking stuff, also said they’d present next time because they saw what it was like.

It was important for us to have other ways people could help. Some folks worked on promotion, or logistics, or even running Birds of a Feather discussions. But once a few people got up and spoke, everyone realized that it was a very informal model.

I believe most people have a fear of speaking, but it’s a fear of speaking on a topic they don’t care about, behind an austere podium, in a big room, wearing a suit, staring at unreceptive strangers. Give them a subject they’re passionate about, a willing audience in scruffy clothes, and only ten minutes, and they’re fine.


cafeteria.jpgAlways follow up shortly after the event to find out what worked and what didn’t. I always ask three questions after an event:

  • What would you change?
  • What would you add?
  • What would you not change?

That third one’s the kicker, and people often forget to ask it. With Bitnorth, a resounding number of participants said, “keep the ‘Disconnect to Reconnect'” theme. Which was important, and brings me to my next point.

Be where you are

You see, the music camp we were at had barely any network connectivity (one satellite terminal) and no cellphones. People were astonishingly, unusually present. I fretted about the lack of connectivity for a long time, even going so far as to have Dan Koffler from Syntenic set up a local intranet with a file server and Wifi.

You know what happens when you take away people’s networks? They focus on the people they’re with. It was great.

Have a loose theme

This year at Bitnorth, we had the theme of “the other 99 percent.” The idea was to look at how the rest of the world — not just Arrington’s 54,000 friends — used technology, and how it was changing their lives. If people strayed from the topic, we didn’t care. It was more of a subject for discussion, and it guided some of our invited speakers (Jean-Francois Dumoulin on bringing broadband to the population of Northern Quebec, and Tamu Townsend on using social networks to promote awareness of bone marrow donation.)

Too often, conferences are about a thing (“mobile telephony” or “green technology”) without a human aspect. Humanizing the topic so people talk about the consequences (“life when we’re always connected” or “is technology the planet’s friend or enemy?”) makes the conversation more personal and more engaging.

Everything’s intertwingled

Several people pointed out how inter-related things were at the conference. Chinese invention of movable type, and encryption.  Podcasting, and audio design for movies. Broadband in the arctic, and the lousy performance of social networks over dialup. Investment communities in Dubai, and entrepreneurs in the third world. And so on. Everyone found connections to other subjects.

To me, this is the mark of a successful conference. As organizer, you have an important role to play as a match-maker, connecting subjects and people to one another.

Getting the right people there

grungyporch.jpgIt takes a lot of faith in your participants to run an informal conference. But you also don’t want to be elitist and only invite your friends. I think Bitnorth lucked out on three fronts.

  1. People put some skin in the game — $300 for a weekend, all expenses paid, was a bit of money, not so much that it was prohibitive but enough that they bail at the last minute
  2. The facilities weren’t exotic. The food, in particular, was very much what we remember from school cafeterias. The first night was muggy, and all our feet hung off the beds. So if you weren’t prepared to be a bit scruffy, this wasn’t for you.
  3. People were expected to have something they care about vocally. This meant many people who would have just shown up, didn’t.

So once the dust settles on conference season, we’ll get to work on the next one, with some of these observations in mind.

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  • Duncan Hill


    Sorry I didn’t get a response to you on what I thought worked and didn’t, what I would change and wouldn’t. I would not change the location or the disconnectedness of it. I thought it was brilliant that I sat in a room of 40+ people, mostly technologists, and 95% of them were looking up and engaging with the speakers, rather than staring at their laptops and taking in the speakers as a secondary input. Nothing pisses me off more as a conference attendee than sitting in a conference all listening to mad key strokes all around me while I try to give the speakers the respect they deserve. Clearly, getting everyone in sooner so we can get the whole main lodge would be a big benefit. From a content perspective, I liked the mix. I was wondering if a more ridged structure to the short-bits might have worked batter. The 10 slides that changes automatically every 60 seconds sort of thing. I say this as a major offender when it comes to trying to say too much and pushing my 10 minutes to 15. It would force people to think a bit harder about the 3 key points they want to drive home. For people who have a more expansive topic, there are the keynotes interspersed amoung the shortbits. The person then must know ahead of time that they need more time and can request one of those slots. I did like that there was only a single stream, as opposed to breakouts. If the conference doubles in size, perhaps breakouts might work, but with 40-50 people I think it would be a mistake. I can’t really point to anything I thought didn’t work, except the alcohol shortage on the Friday night that was duly rectified for Saturday night. There was never a point where I thought I was wasting my time or disengaged (not been to many conferences where I wasn’t at some point bored senseless, thinking about all the things I’d rather be doing). I think the organic format and eclectic mix of people pretty much ensured an interesting full day of talks. I think trying to make it longer might be a mistake though. Two days of the same format as Saturday would have been too much random information to process and the second day would have likely had me thinking about being somewhere else. As you rightly pointed out, I am now looking forward to next year’s single full day grab bag of what interests a group of smart and diverse people. I also think the fact that it fit into a normal weekend enabled people to come who might not have given up a day’s wages to come for a longer even. And reading more BoFs, I think there were many more than went on the board, you just had to be hanging around the bonfire Saturday night to engage in dozens of really interesting discussions that became more fluid and passionate as the bar-fridge emptied. Just imagine how interesting ans spirited it could have been if we had coxed some of the theologists in the adjoining conference to join us 🙂

    Thanks again for a great event.


  • Matt Harrison

    Amazing experience. Allow me to make an observation that could be considered by someone relatively third party compared to most of the people there. I noticed that regardless of the staggering amount of raw brain power gathered at that conference there was little posturing, ego or pontificating in any of the presentations or the discussions I heard. Everyone just wanted to hear, learn or enjoy something new. The buffet of different topics was quite like our food arrangement except to date I have no idea what that breakfast meat was. Thank you Alistair for an enjoyable brain stretch for a lowly accountant.

  • Alistair, it would not be possible for me fully articulate how great Bitnorth 1.0 was — and is! Your observations and those of other participants is spot on, though I think there is value in adjusting the schedule to have more on the second day — make it two full days with optional (though fun, interesting and rewarding) days bracketing on the front and back. CAMMAC was perfect, too. It was highly beneficial to be disconnected from the voice and data networks to spend time intimately connected with such great people.

    Bitnorth was a fantastic mind-expanding and fun weekend. Oh, by the way…what do we get to blow up or burn next time?