In the last couple of years, I’ve been to a few conferences and meetups – more often than not, at the Conway Hall. I’m always uncertain whether I should be taking notes, or whether it’s better just to sit, listen and soak up what’s being said. Often, though, during a talk, I’ll have a question – or something that has been said will set my mind off on a train of thought, connecting it to other things I’ve heard, similar ideas and so on. I’ll tend to jot those down, in some form.
On the few number of occasions where I’ve been one of the speakers, and not been on first, I like to, if possible and relevant, refer to things that have been mentioned by previous speakers – because the audience will be familiar with that idea, and that might help form connections when understanding my ramblings. I like to think it also helps the conference as a whole have more of a coherence. But, at the same time, what I’m going to say is pretty much prepared in advance. As will be most of the speakers’ talks, I would expect. Which means that, in a way, we’re all operating in our own little silos. The conference organisers will have, hopefully, selected the speakers and topics, and arranged them in an order which flows well together, but, on the whole, the talks are, by their nature, self contained things.
Which, for me, seems a shame. Because in some ways the crucially important part of a conference, in my opinion, isn’t the content of the talks – it’s the thoughts and reactions that the talks inspire in everyone else. And at the moment, the reaction to a talk is too disconnected. It’s confined to blog posts, which mainly appear days after the event; Twitter, where it’s often hard to form a coherent response over a number of tweets (and the ‘twitter wall’ of real-time reactions can be a mixed blessing), or, worst still, just confined to someone’s own notebook, never to see a wider audience.
What I’d like to see is a conference where there’s a few speakers, who might be primed with some general thoughts and themes they want to talk about, but the main feature is in the reactions. The first speaker gives a fairly normal talk, but then the following person talks mainly in the form of reacting to the first speaker – talking about how the ideas presented by the first speaker chime (or otherwise) with their own thoughts, and so on throughout the day, so that each talk becomes not a silo, but a melting pot of constantly evolving ideas.
I’m aware that this is very much a format rather than a theme for a conference/meetup, and, in the very basic form that I’ve described above, it’s not completely practical. But it feels that with some tweaking, and perhaps framed with a theme, there could be room for a slightly different style of conference/meetup to see the light of day. And in the spirit of the new year, I’d be very interested in trying to make something actually happen along these lines, rather than it just being a blogged idea.
P. S. Yes, it’s basically taking the format of Radio 4’s ‘Chain Reaction‘ chat show, but compressing it into a conference/meetup, rather than strung out over several weeks – and less ‘interview’ heavy, more responsive.