How to make technology conferences suck less

Summary:There's a dirty little secret to technology conferences: Most of them suck to some degree. It's about time someone started thinking about how to make conference time more valuable and less stale, especially now that companies are cutting back on travel to shows.

There's a dirty little secret to technology conferences: Most of them suck to some degree. It's about time someone started thinking about how to make conference time more valuable and less stale, especially now that companies are cutting back on travel to shows.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. We just announced the openSUSE Contributor's Conference for this fall, and I'm on the presentation committee for OpenSource World and LinuxCon this year. After seeing Danese Cooper's post about designing better conferences, I was finally moved to write about it. Cooper says:

Speaking personally, I'm much more interested in content and formats that are fresh.  As we're reading these carefully worded abstracts, I keep thinking about how hard it is to even remember what my intention was when I get around to finally speaking 6 months after an abstract is accepted in traditional "Call For Papers" kinds of conferences...

Have to agree here: I've been submitting talks and judging talks for years now. It's a chicken and egg problem -- people plan their conference attendance far in advance, and choose based on the content at the conference. This means choosing talks well in advance, but by the time the talks are given... they're usually a bit on the stale side.

And the traditional schedules packed with one talk after another, that may not be the best format for a lot of events, either.

So, what makes an ideal conference? There's no single-purpose format that works for everybody -- what works for the Open Source Business Conference attendees is going to have nearly zero value for the audience that attends FOSDEM.

Oddly enough, going pro doesn't mean a conference will be better. Perhaps I'm a bit biased, but I've found that community organized conferences like SCALE, Ohio LinuxFest, Linux.conf.au, and so forth tend to be much more enjoyable and useful for attendees. In part, that's because the shows are not organized with a profit motive in mind -- and thus, they don't cater as much to the sponsors. (Read: The speaking schedule is not "pay to play," so the keynotes, talks, and format are chosen to benefit the attendee rather than the sponsors.)

A couple of suggestions for organizers to make the most of a conference:

  • The audience comes first. Paid keynotes don't give attendees value.
  • Let speakers know what's expected, give them guidance and suggestions on good presentations. Subject matter experts don't always make good speakers.
  • The "Barcamp" and "unconference" format works really well for "advanced" audiences. Bring Your Own Content is the format for the future.
  • Panels can be fun, but no more than one panelist per 15 minutes of session time.
  • Give the conference attendees a way to connect before, during, and after the event. Mailing lists, wikis, and other tools that let people reach out and connect and stay connected.
  • Leave plenty of time for the "hallway track."
  • For the love of all that's holy -- give attendees plenty of electrical outlets and a robust network.
  • If you're starting a new conference, try to hold it somewhere other than San Francisco, OK? Done. To. Death.

I do hope that the Linux.conf.au, SCALE, LinuxFest NorthWest and/or Ohio LinuxFest organizers will sit down and write the "conference howto" for other organizers to follow. There's a lot that goes into a good conference, and having to relearn those lessons seems like a real waste of wisdom.

Topics: CXO, Open Source

About

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is the community manager for openSUSE, a community Linux distro sponsored by Novell. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist primarily covering the Linux and FOSS beat, and wrote for a number of publications, such as Linux Magazine, Linux.com, Sys Admin, UnixReview.com, IBM developer... Full Bio

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