SISV, E2Conf, SXSWi: under the hood of the social business speaking gig


Front-stage, meet back-stage.

In fine Erving Goffman-esque form, I’m currently involved in organizing and curating the brilliant speakers at the upcoming Social Intranet Summit (Sept 28/29 in Vancouver, be sure to register before we sell out), I’ve pitched a talk with Thomas Vander Wal for Enterprise 2.0 in Santa Clara, and I’m asking for your vote for Dave Gray’s panel on “The Connected Company: an inventory of the possible*” at SXSWi 2012 next March in Austin.
*Note: I’ve been referring to that talk at the office as the “4 really smart social business guys you’ve heard of and… uh… me” SXSW panel…

Dramaturgical conceptions of self aside, it’s been a really interesting and enlightening experience going through the three processes simultaneously. I figured I’d share some of those thoughts with the readers of this blog, as I figured a few of you have gone through some of these application processes in the past, and I’m curious as to the feedback on how to make some of these things better, both from a speaker and an organizer standpoint.

1. The Social Intranet Summit Vancouver 2011

Gordon Ross, Chris McGrath, Darren Gibbons

So last year we held the inaugural Social Intranet Summit here in Vancouver and felt it was a great success. We set out to host a ThoughtFarmer client event, to bring our clients from far and wide to spend a day with us learning about the product some more, meeting each other, and talking to us about the future of collaboration and communication. We have other ways of doing that, which primarily involves phone calls, onsite visits, and online community collaboration, but there’s something about the energy of a physical-in-person event that even our fine social software product can’t compete with. And what better place to do it than the new Vancouver Convention Centre, with it’s stunning view of the harbour.

Vancouver Convention Center

The client workshop was practically focused around ThoughtFarmer itself. We decided to add on a second day to broaden the discussion to the ideas surrounding social intranets, social business, collaboration, communication, design, and all things in between, attempting to replicate some of the greatest conference experiences we’ve had over the years of attending E2Conf, KM World, Office 2.0, Web 2.0, Dachis Social Business Summit, SXSW and many more. We sat down (we being Darren, Chris and myself) and created a list of people we like reading, people we enjoy talking to when we’re on the road at a conference, and who we’d love to bring to Vancouver and hang out with.

The result was a pretty remarkable line-up. And we were flattered to have so many people come out and enjoy that line-up with us. Ultimately it was pretty selfish: who would we want to listen to for the day? Who do we think has something to say about all of this social intranet stuff? Let’s invite them. And so we did. And they came. Crazy.

The philosophy hasn’t changed this year that much, but one thing did. We put out a call for speakers earlier this year and we got more responses that we had spots. Not quite the 3500 SXSWi submissions, but more than a one-day event could handle. So that, while also extremely flattering and to be honest a bit unexpected, left us with some difficult decisions on the agenda front. There are some good speakers we had to turn down. I hadn’t contemplated how hard that would be as an organizer.

I speak with every potential speaker on the phone, do an interview and get a sense of what they want to talk about and why. We then ask for the submission in a format that we can review internally. We shortlist, slot people into a draft agenda, look at the overall lineup, and make our final selections. That’s the really hard part.

Once our speakers are selected and we have them lined up, about a week or two out from the event itself, I’ll do a rehearsal presentation with every speaker. This is intended to keep speakers on track, give them a deadline to work towards, and also an opportunity to rehearse, which hopefully makes the final presentation that much better. Especially for those speakers preparing new, never-seen before material like Mark Fidelman (not to pick on Mark, but just as a good example of a highly anticipated presentation in a series of great presentations, “What if Richard Branson Led a Social Intranet Initiative at Virgin?“), I’d guess this is even more crucial. Any minor course corrections can be done at this point – like a beta usability test on the talk prior to launch – trimming length, tightening up the message, etc.

Last year I felt this really helped us dial-in the order of the talks too, given the varied topics and the narrative flow needs to hang together. At only 20ish minutes for a lot of the talks, precision really counts too. You need to get your point across quickly and ensure your focus is laser-sharp.

Our speakers are almost entirely announced. The line-up, in case you haven’t seen it already, is now up, minus a couple last names. We’re just on the cusp of doing those rehearsal calls. I’m excited. It’s like watching a editor’s first cut of a movie prior to the big day.

Organizing your own conference is a lot of hard work. It’s a ton of details. Logistics like seating plans, lighting, microphones, food choices, after-summit reception venues, lanyard printing, travel, hotels — I can see why people have businesses organizing conferences. I appreciate the conferences I attend now that much more, having seen how the sausage is made. Thankfully, we have a great team here who have taken that on, along with their regular roles and responsibilities to make it happen.

But details aside, it’s a remarkable feeling to have people share your passion in this way – to come together for a couple of days to talk about what you love talking about. That’s what makes it so great. Last year was a professional highlight for our entire team and we hope to do it again this year.

2. Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara 2011

Picture 366
the keynote crowd at #e2conf – photo: Alex Dunne

I’ve been critical of some of the talks I’ve listened to a E2Conf in the past, so I put my money where my mouth is and decided to step up and propose a talk. Thomas Vander Wal and I pitched a talk for E2Conf this November on what social business professionals can learn from urban planning. My writing schedule this summer hasn’t been terribly conducive to continuing to share some of the thoughts I’ve had on the topic and continue on a small burst of blog posts that occurred earlier this year, but I’m hoping this talk provides me with a deadline to do that. And collaborate with a great thinker with a shared passion in this area, Thomas.

The submission process for E2Conf, a much larger conference that ThoughtFarmer has sponsored, exhibited, and spoken at in the past, was a bit more formal: the Spigit powered website was open for a while, submissions were taken, and a committee for each stream is evaluating the talks. Topics and speakers are nailed down by certain dates, tied back to the publishing of guides, promotion of the event, and then logistics, I would assume, are handled from there as the date gets closer. Social software is doing the coordination of that activity, this time using Jive – makes sense to leverage some of the tools UBM Techweb has available to make this all happen.

I have a lot less insight into this process than my own conference organizing details: an important reminder of the experience of someone else’s service and how those touchpoints are really key for speakers. Making our own Social Intranet Summit more tangible on the “what do I do next?” expectation-setting side for speakers prompted me to send a pretty big email out to each of our confirmed speakers the other day. Lesson: it’s easy to get caught up in the organizational details and forget about the lives of speakers who need to book flights, hotels, schedule around their “real jobs” and family lives.

I’m not far enough through the E2Conf process to draw any further comparisons, but the “divide and conquer” approach of organizing by stream (Community Mgmt, Social CRM, Analytics, etc.) makes things perhaps a bit easier (E2Conf had 246 submissions sliced and diced by theme, again a lot more than our one-day single-track conference here in Vancouver). I’ll let a stream organizer chime in on whether my perception is correct if smaller tracks / less number of speakers really means less work. I know from the past, E2Conf has been panel heavy, which introduces an entirely different level of logistics.

3. SXSWi 2012

whole lotta people

The extreme end of the large conference experience is SXSWi. Over 3000 submissions, a Panel Picker application, this process included filling in a very lengthy form, making the deadline, and now letting the proverbial crowd to help influence the SXSW Advisory Committee to decide.

From the SXSW site:

“Is crowd-sourcing really the best way to generate content for an event such as SXSW?
PanelPicker is a great way to gauge the kinds of topics that most interest the SXSW community. Likewise, it has helped bring great new topics into the event. However, we also significantly rely on the expertise of the SXSW Advisory Board and the SXSW staff to help curate the most relevant programming. ”

Dave Gray did the legwork to get our talk into the Panel Picker, itself requiring Skyping, Twitter DM’s, emails, and even a good old phone call or two to make happen. And now it’s up to you (and others like you) to express your interest.

And it’s up to me, Dave Gray, Thomas Vander Wal, recently-announced SISV speaker Stowe Boyd, and JP Rangaswami to convince you that we’re worth listening to… As Stowe recently blogged, we’re all pretty excited about the opportunity.

Given the S/M/L progression of the work of curating a single-track one-day conference, a multi-day-multi-track conference, and the largest nerd-fest in North America, I’m not sure you could be SXSW size and try to do it any other way. I haven’t seen inside the machine that is the conference organization, but I’m guessing it’s a pretty intense process. I’m excited and mildly terrified by the prospect of attending as a speaker. And fascinated to see what’s next, should our talk get accepted.

Size doesn’t matter: lots of great opportunities to learn

If you haven’t attended a conference lately, thanks to budget cuts or perhaps it seems like too much of a hassle, I encourage you to contemplate attending one. It’s a great way to learn about new topics, get back up to speed on what’s going on if you haven’t been to one in a while, and most importantly meet people who do what you do. If you’re an intranet manager, for example, you might not have many other outlets to do that. You also have the opportunity at even a mid-size conference like E2Conf to meet and rub shoulders with the speakers; the social business community itself, while growing, is still relatively small, very approachable, and well… social. In my experience, the speakers and experts and panelists love talking about the subject, especially with a drink in one hand and an appetizer in the other. Some of the best experiences you can have happen after the formal program is done and you can connect with others.

Chris McGrath & Ephraim Freed

And that’s really what it’s all about.

Hope to see you in Vancouver, Santa Clara, or maybe even Austin next spring.


Join The Discussion

  1. Alex Berenyi

    Proposed E2Conf topic “What urban planning can teach us about social business design” sounds fascinating, great to see you putting social business in a larger context!

  2. Gordon Ross

    Thanks Alex. Looking forward to doing the presentation with Thomas. Will you be joining us in Vancouver for SISV 2011? Was great to have you here last year.

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