This spring has taken me from very large gatherings like those at SXSW to a variety of board meetings and seminars with a couple of dozen in attendance. At any scale, it’s important to get those right. As a startup founder, you can find a conference or meetup relative to your field every day somewhere in the country. Your time is precious, and you should expect anything you attend to create value for you. Allow me please in this essay to point out some of the practical measures your hosts should take into consideration if they hope to win your attendance, your attention, and your return. And, on the occasions where you are on the stage, here are also some tips that apply to you.
The Royal Wedding was an event that did get it right. I did not once see the Queen or any other guest sneaking a look at their phones. Perhaps phones weren’t allowed, or etiquette prevailed in such a highly formal setting, but I can’t recall any other gathering I’ve attended in recent years where the majority of those in the seats were not checking their phones with some frequency. Even funerals, although I have yet to see the deceased’s hand rise up from the casket for one last look at a text. But, you and I did not get invited to the Royal moment of history, so let’s return the discussion to the more mundane world of technology events.
The most important rule in my opinion is that there should be no cheap seats. The A/V, and particularly the acoustics, should treat everybody in the room equally. That means from the front row to the back, everyone without straining can hear every word spoken and can read every word on the screen. Presenters all too frequently conjure up PPT slides with too much tiny text that is unreadable even from the third row and particularly from any auxiliary monitors provided for those further from the stage. Our industry is racing to develop experiential technology like VR, and we have several different cinema standards that immerse you in the action. Watch the recent movie Dunkirk in a regular theater and then in one equipped with 70mm, for which the soundtrack was mastered. It’s an amazing difference, and the movie deserved the Academy Awards it won for sound editing. Those are the types of advancements we are delivering to the world, but when we engage in show and tell among ourselves we revert to A/V concoctions and venues that are far from those standards.
Maintaining the pace of an event is critical. That means allowing enough time in advance to sort out the nearly certain last-minute A/V crises, particularly when multiple presenters bring their own shows, forget their cables, can’t get a video to play, etc. Start on time and use the hook to stay on schedule. Don’t punish the prompt by having them sit through delays. Finish on schedule so there is adequate time for conversations within the audience and a chance for meet and greet. When you go to a conference, you should have a mission of making yourself and your company known to others relevant to your mission. If all you are allowed to do is be a passive observer, you might as well watch the YouTube replay from the comfort of your home. If you are a presenter and must therefore be physically present, make yourself as engaging and interactive as possible; measure your results by the number and quality of the people who seek you out after your appearance for any purpose other than to sell you something.
The more progressive conference hosts actively involve the attendees. Twitter voting for things like People’s Choice awards is becoming pretty common. Social technology is a good way to handle Q&A with a larger audience and to crowd source valuable content. Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest Conference in DC went to considerable effort to curate its attendees and match them in smaller groups with common interests. All of us were even given our own set of ROTR business cards with our most important issue printed on the back. We were all pictured on a map. It was easy to figure out who was who, and, unlike most conferences, I can actually recall something about every person who handed me one of those cards. If you get invited to something that well organized, you have no excuse to come away without some new inspirations and relationships.
Conferences come to life when the emcee is clearly in charge and has a sense of showmanship. I would describe Steve Case as pretty low-key, but he did a superb job as the master of the ROTR event. On the other end of the spectrum, Allen Nance is a born performance artist, and he has “rapped” Atlanta Startup Battle into a must-see semi-annual highlight in Tech Square. Bob Metcalfe is the master of the interview technique and can draw from any featured guest a discussion well worth your time, as I observed on many occasions like Longhorn Startup Demo Days. There’s an entertainment factor in any event, especially if you wish to minimize the heads-down phone watching, and that is largely a function of the person who is leading the action on stage. As mentioned above, if you are part of the program, make yourself memorable by delivering your energetic best.
Scheduling is worth of paragraph of discussion. In most major cities, as I have observed first-hand in Austin and Atlanta, traffic is a major consideration in getting your attendees to sign up and to arrive without undue roadway delays. If an Atlanta audience includes guests flying in and your venue is not on the MARTA rail line, you have to time the start and end times to allow for the hours navigating the expressways to and from Hartsfield-Jackson. Even if the audience is primarily local, you shouldn’t invite people to a venue at a time when there is guaranteed difficult traffic. No one will arrive in a positive and relaxed mood, and they’ll get antsy to leave before you’ve finished your program if you intend to turn them loose in the afternoon rush. Or, they just won’t attend. I am a loyal GA Tech football fan, but the 2018 spring game was held at 7PM on a Friday evening at Tech’s midtown location in competition with a major concert downtown and everything else that happens in the Friday social scene. Getting to Midtown Atlanta on that schedule requires no small effort for all but those who live there, and our fan base is spread across the metro area. Attendance was 8,500. Our rivals at UGA drew 82,000 to their spring game on a Saturday in Athens, which was a typical all-day football party for the Dawg faithful. There are many other obvious factors that influence this disparity, but I have to believe we’d have drawn much better ourselves on a Saturday absent the normal commuter traffic. Football is meant to be entertainment, not a compulsory final exam. If you want your event to be a success, have a heart for its accessibility at your proposed times. And, if you are choosing events to attend, factor in the overhead of getting there, which may include an extra hotel night or flying at odd times to avoid ground delays on both ends of the journey.
Meetings and conferences are an important part of the startup life. You make no money sitting at your desk. Getting out, talking to customers, learning from your peers, and sharpening your own skills are part of the game. My advice is to choose wisely. After one annual cycle you’ll know which ones have the courtside seats and are worth the time and dollars to attend.