Most conferences have a central focal point – a stage or screen – and chairs or tables arranged so that all can have a clear view of the stage or screen.

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Washington DC Metro

A group of us including Michael Coghlan and Steven Ridgeway (and dynamic lady to whom I wasn’t introduced please leave you name in comments) were discussing all these issues when I was called to my cab.  They were going on to discuss it, I had to catch my plane. So, what can we do to bring our conferences into the 21st century? Here are some initial brainstorms:

1) Make all the materials and any formal presentations available BEFORE everyone gets together for the face to face event.

Pre-record presentations and cite the resources from which they are drawn.  Allow participants to digest and mull over what information is being presented. Maybe put it out there a week before.

Ensure there is a tag so that conference organsiers/facilitators can collect it all and synthesize it.

2) Prior to the day, set up a template that people can download and can create and print  their own name tags so that they can include social networking addresses and names. Encourage them to print off sheets of them and cut them up so they can hand them out on the day (it’s low tech and it works). Include a space for an image of the person. Include blanks at the conference.

3) START the day with a networking activity that will allow people who will be using online tools during the event to meet each other. Ensure there is a screen or a really large monitor and computer to meet with those not coming to the event physically but taking part online.  Include a “safe” option for those who aren’t comfortable with open social networking sites but who want to participate. Include a space for those who don’t use online tools and don’t want to or don’t like them. Preferably have really good coffee available.

4) When everyone gets together, the first presenter could give a 5-minute summary of the major points of his or her presentation. Then, groups have a set time to not only formulate and present questions and comments — but if they disagree, to offer supported alternate viewpoints and solutions.  The presenter and facilitator should circulate through the area where the tables are set up to answer questions. once finished, each group could present their viewpoints, with opportunities for questions and comments. A scribe from each table adds these to a public Wiki. One table could be for the virtual participants, with a person at the venue facilitating the Wiki entry.  OR, tables could be assigned numbers or colours and online participants could choose which table to direct their only commentary to. The other presenters will be participating at the tables until it is their turn to circulate.

5) Have a clear goal for the day. What will be the result — a mini information portal with the original presentations and citations and the content from the conference? A paper or eBook chaired by the facilitator/organiser of the day? People are no longer merely consumers of information — many participants CREATE information. Harness that.

6) Include an unconference portion of the day.  Ask the question — what didn’t we cover or what should we cover? Set aside a block of time for this. If no one comes to the party, hand out the door prizes and let ’em go early.

7) If people want to plan a casual piggyback event – a Tweetup or bloggers dinner — encourage it prior to.

That’s all the bright ideas I can think of at the moment — please add yours…