LinkedIn | What Makes a ‘Killer’ Conference

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Last month, I announced to my newsletter ‘tribe' that I would hold the first D^4 (Dare, Dream, Do, Disrupt!) conference in May 2014. Not having nailed down a venue yet, this will be an MVP (minimum viable product) conference, to be sure. Just a few weeks later, I vice-chaired Belmont's 50th Annual Wreath Making Party. It was a success, but I realized then just how much work it is to stage an event that appears effortless.

D^4 is definitely a stretch self-assignment, but I've found a terrific template.

In July 2012, I attended Spark Camp, an unconference founded by Amanda Michel, Amy Webb, Andy Pergam and Matt Thompson, that assembled c. 75 people to exchange ideas on how to respond to the ongoing disruption of journalism. Spark Camp is one of the best, if not the best, conference (akaweekend think tank cum dinner party) I've ever been to, and the founders just published a paper titled Mastering the Art of Sparking Conversations. Part manifesto, part handbook, I've shared the highlights below:

1. People are the key ingredients. Prior to each camp, the founders spend months curating to get the right mix of people; everyone comes to the table as equals, and must commit to stay the entire time. With less than 100 people you can meet everyone; because of the curation, you want to. If you want to put on a killer conference, help people feel alive.

2. The more varied the group, the more valuable the connections and outcome.The attendees are 50% women, 50% men; 30% of color, across a number of disciplines. This variety makes for lively, spirited conversations. And opportunity. I placed an article about the 2012 presidential election in Slate because of a connection I made at SparkCamp.

3. To foster a spirit of improvisation, create a comfortable environment. In Boston, SparkCamp was held at the Walter Lippmann House, a beautiful old home in Cambridge, MA. During the breaks, which were frequent, we ate hot fudge sundaes, steamed clams while enjoying the beautiful grounds.

4. Intimacy over publicity. While a trending topic on Twitter is nice, each participant was encouraged to unplug and be fully present. Not only a welcome respite, but in my view, the world changes one conversation at a time.

5. Productive discussions happen more easily with thoughtful, informed facilitation. One of my favorite sessions was facilitated by NY Times‘ Jodi Kantor's on How Not to be Be Boring.

6. The better the planning, the smoother and more spontaneous the outcome. By the end of the conference, people were singing together (without being inebriated), and loathe to leave. Jazz musician Carl Stormer has said, “control is for beginners”. In which case SparkCamp is orchestrated by experts.

What do you think of SparkCamp's model?

What are the best conferences you've attended?



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