A good event does not have attendees. It has participants.
At the heart of how events are run today, we see a clear philosophical division. There are events that are about attendance: sit in a darkened room and be inspired by a sage on the stage. And then there are events about participation: make and learn with fellow participants around shared passions and interests.
As an event organizer in the latter school of thought, I am constantly frustrated by the glorification of ‘marquee’ speaker-driven events. This type of event is very well-known in technology circles and in fact often plays a pivotal navel-gazing role. But I think these events miss the point. In this article, I'd like to share experiences and ideas of another way. It's an approach to events that honours the participants in the room. It respects their intellect, their skills, and their time. It places making and learning at the center of activity, focusing on the desires and goals of the very people it seeks to honour.
And at every juncture of an event, we should be asking: are we delivering value?
Goodbye Sage on the Stage
The biggest tragedy of a speaker-centric event is the untapped cognitive surplus. Readers might be familiar with the term coined by Clay Shirky to describe humanity's idling brain power while watching TV. Cognitive surplus is often a by-product of broadcasting, where it is more comfortable to listen and no one is expecting you to act. At conferences packed with speakers and artificially interactive panels, you miss out on hundreds of conversations, ideas, exchanges, and sparks. All those people sitting in the dark, without the avenue to make and learn together.
Let's flip the paradigm. Let's interact throughout the whole event. Let's create as much decentralized collaboration as possible. Let the coffee break be the main event, and the speakers, if they must be there, are merely supporting players. If the traditional model gets us one simultaneous conversation, we can explode that. In a room of 100 people, let's go from one conversation to 50.
Less Yak, More Hack
Within the last few years, we've seen the rise of a number of alternative event formats. Many of them go at this very division of attendee vs. participant and dissolve the fourth wall. One such model is the hack day.
This style of event aims to build something in a short period of time. There are various subcategories of hack days, but the essential elements are: bring people together around a theme, set them loose to explore and iterate, and build as much as possible around ideas that excite them.
We are seeing hack days being organized across industries: journalism, film, healthcare, government, education, you name it. It originates from the impulse to do, not just talk. It's held in the spirit of rough consensus and running code; building epic shit in a collaborative fashion. A hack day goes well if you've made something, or at least leave with sketches and wireframes of what you could build later.
These events also favor working in teams. Some teams will consist of people who often work together, who quickly find a groove and know what they want and how to get there. Others offer more serendipitous pairings. People will cluster around projects they like, or the organizer will help facilitate a good spread of skill-sets so that each group has the capacity to make something by the end of the day.
Iteration and Prototyping
A key tactic at hack days is iteration and prototyping. Adapted from practices in user-centric design, these methods help participants build solutions quickly, test them, and work the feedback into subsequent solutions. User-testing and user-centric design, even for non-designers, can be a really valuable and eye-opening experience. In the best of worlds, you get end-users in the room from the beginning—ideally embedded in the participant teams—and they shape what's being built.
For example: a group of developers want to make a mobility app based on traffic data released from their city. Who would ultimately use this app? A commuter, a city planner, a traffic reporter? Get exactly those people in the room, get them weighing in on features that are valuable, get them testing and co-designing solutions.
Only then are you addressing reality and building something useful. What's more, the end-users invited into the process will feel a shared ownership that can lead to further adoption, understanding, and appreciation for the tools.
Lastly, iteration and prototyping are brilliant ways of articulating a solution. At speaker-centric events, participants are often told about a challenge ("too much traffic in the city"), but they aren't provided an avenue to explore answers or test/break the solution, if any, presented by the speaker. At participatory events, participants engage in the topic. And by drawing a sketch of your ideas, even in the roughest of ways, you achieve a clarity and an activation around the issue that lecture notes alone seldom provide.
Value to Participants
How can event organizers create the opportunity for all these explorations and productive conversations to take place? It's not easy.
One important step is to engage participants before the event. This is often a time-consuming task, but it pays off handsomely. Discuss desired outcomes and shared interests with participants before the event. With that intel, organizers are better able to adjust the event to fit the preferences of participants. Furthermore, participants can determine if the event is really for them, and, if so, they have a stake in it from the beginning.
Furthermore, tough questions before, during and after the event can align participants with the organizer and with each other. Encourage participants to dig deep into the event's assumptions. Push them to say how can the event better serve their aims. Set the expectation that the agenda is hackable and at the service of everyone in the room.
With active engagement beforehand and a continued emphasis on delivering value to participants, an organizer builds trust. What's more, everyone understands better why they are there, and they know that if their needs and interests aren't being addressed, the onus is on the participants to hack it and make it happen.
The Same Goes for Sponsors
Another missed opportunity at many speaker-centric events is not seeing sponsors as more than sources of cash. Obligatory logos and product talks are common, but rarely are sponsors contributing to shared outcomes and providing expertise in a meaningful way.
This is something I recently learned: the same value-driven engagement strategy described above for participants is equally valid with sponsors. An event is more than a room filled with passive eyes and ears. Work with sponsors to deliver value to everyone involved. That way, a sponsor has even more to gain by supporting a participatory event.
For example: you're organizing your mobility data hack day. There is a car-sharing company eager to be involved. Rather than just taking their cash and letting them pop up logos, ask where can they be serving up meaningful data, tools, questions, expertise, and users to fuel the work? Engage the sponsor in advance of the event, talk about similar things as you would with participants: how can the event serve them? What can they bring to the table and how can the participants provide feedback, testing, insights, use cases etc. that they would otherwise not get?
In this way, sponsors are approached as equal players, able to both give and receive. But they don't dictate the show. Set up the expectation at the beginning that your event is about the people in the room, not about who's writing the check. When everyone's on board with their role and their capacity to contribute, then the arrangement can be quite fruitful.
Around your Kitchen Table
Speaking of sponsorship, events driven by big names and shiny stages are expensive. But if the goal of your event is to make and learn together, gathering people passionate to affect change they care about, then your budget can be more modest. In fact, real change can take hold on a shoestring, in the comfort of your home.
In many cases, you just need a laptop and a friend sitting around your kitchen table to make and learn something. A participatory event doesn't have to have hundreds of people. Small, sustainable formats are just as valid. When we lower the logistical expectations of what events are, so that they can literally be gatherings in cafes, living rooms, and public parks, then we remove the barriers that prevent many people from getting involved in the first place: time and money.
If we explore and encourage simpler, more modest participant-centric events, we will see a change. We will see more people eager to make and learn around their interests. We will see people who would never have appeared on glossy speaker programs now activated and making a difference. When we appreciate the role of delivering value, and meet people at their interests and goals, we foster a culture of caring and participation.
I think we can challenge the reigning speaker-centric event paradigm. We can push back on bloated budgets and bloated egos and ask: is this really valuable? We can shape the way we discuss and share and build things. We can honor the capabilities of the people in the room and encourage them to contribute, on their terms, then and there. Then we can start getting somewhere. Then we start to make a difference.
There is great potential to grow a community of practice for participatory events. There is so much to do. There is so much to learn. One small step is to try it yourself. Grab a few friends, sit around your kitchen table and teach others something. Remind yourself of a basic human pleasure: enjoying the company of people who light up your brain with new ideas. It doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't have to involve loads of logistics. Events are about activation and engagement and doing stuff around your passions with people you like.
And we can start doing that now.