Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

Industry events need to get more social

Posted on | March 2, 2010 | 6 Comments

If we think publishing is turmoil, why not take a look at traditional live industry events?

I thought of this after spending part of the day today at one of my favorite annual events, Semico’s Summit, this year called the Semico Outlook because they held it for just one day and founder Jim Feldhan and crew flew up from the warmth of Arizona to present in rainy San Jose.

No Power Point Slides Allowed, Boys

Events like this are increasingly anachronistic. It’s sad in a way because it’s a reflection of a changing, consolidating, maturing industry, but it’s also an opportunity–an opportunity to do things differently to bring new value to an old audience.

Panels and speeches at events are the live equivalent of newspaper publishing: We talk, you listen. Newspapers and magazines have been pounded for the better part of a decade that the we-say, you read model isn’t what people want in the age of ubiquitous and constant information. Why should it be the same for live events?

The electronics industry is in a state of constant change. Semiconductors in particular are forecast to have a very healthy year after several lousy ones, but everyone understands they can’t rest on their laurels. How do we prepare better for the next phase of that constant change?

The presenters at these events are telling people about problems they’ve already solved and that virtually everyone in the audience knows they’ve solved (or propose to solve).

Two questions today gave me a glimpse of how these interactions could change for the better, for both presenter and audience.

  • First Ron Wilson of EDN asked a panel of hardware guys that if we’re all on track to connect a trillion devices together in the coming years, isn’t software the fly in the ointment? Software’s increasingly complexity threatens to become the industry’s Achilles Heel. That’s a potential problem, no?
  • Another gentleman asked whether calling vast portions of the industry “consumer” is correct when some devices, such as smart meters, are not being demanded by consumers but instead are being forced down the food chain by government regulators. It’s a great question because it ponders indirectly the future drivers of the industry (and its potential growth or lack thereof).

The answers to these very intriguing questions were very unsatisfactory; each defaulted to individual company messaging. OK. Fine. That’s what they’re trained to do. And it’s easy to do that when you hold a commanding position on an elevated stage with amplified sound in front of rows of listeners all facing up at you.

So here’s my very simple suggestion:

Array the chairs in the room in a great circle around the presenter(s). Everyone has to look at everyone else;  no one hides; everyone’s forced to be attentive and stay off their laptops and crackberries. The circular set-up makes conversation easier. Up the ante by removing microphones from the speakers and panelists. Make sure the moderators really know how to facilitate a conversation, even if it means calling on people in the audience. Phil Donahue meets sub-threshold leakage.

I’m not picking on Semico (and frankly the Semico gatherings themselves, as opposed to individual panels, do foster industry conversation). This is a larger industry challenge you encounter at virtually every live event.

With the exception of presentations like technical tutorials, there’s no reason why this industry can’t start changing the live event paradigm. We can’t solve our problems by laboring over and staring at Power Point slides.

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6 Responses to “Industry events need to get more social”

  1. bfuller9 (Brian Fuller)
    March 3rd, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    Twitter Comment

    We need to change the dynamic in live industry events: Let’s starting with seating: [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  2. chelseaboy (chelseaboy)
    March 3rd, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    Twitter Comment

    RT @bfuller9: We need to change the dynamic in live industry events: Let’s starting with seating: [link to post] A hybrid event?

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  3. Sean Murphy
    March 6th, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

    Brian, these are great suggestions but they have a few things working against them.

    First some background to establish how much I like the round table format as well and places I have used it:

    o We did the EDA Bloggers Birds of a Feather this way at DAC 2008 and ICCAD 2008.

    o We structured the “Managing Project Health” Birds of a Feather at DAC 2009 (see ) as lightning talks followed by discussion in the audience.

    o We run the Bootstrappers Breakfasts this way as well.

    I only mention this to show I like the format and understand its strengths.

    The drawbacks:

    1. Only works with small groups: the nature of the interactions start to breakdown at 16-20 people and really starts to have problems above 40 or 50 people. There are other formats that build on it that have the group break into smaller discussions and then reform and report but the practical limit on the meeting size is somewhere around 40 or 50 for a single large roundtable. Above 16-20 it becomes more difficult to manage.

    2. Speakers sell audiences on attending. While the ‘unconference’ format is also gaining in popularity, I haven’t seen any in the electronics or EDA space. The EDA Process workshop comes closest to free discussion, but again it’s a smaller audience and people are in one room for the day and get to know one another better.

    3. Requires strong moderation. When a panel breaks down into a series of monologues you may still learn something. But when a roundtable doesn’t come off it can be very painful. It’s a challenge to bring folks together for 60-90 minutes and foster a good discussion. We do it at the breakfasts but we limit the table size to 20 (and most breakfasts have 8-16 attendees). Sharing a meal or a cup of coffee also seems to help break the ice. We have the networking take place afterward, once folks have had a chance to get to know one another.

    I think the roundtable format works better when the attendees are still wrestling with emerging problems where collaboration trumps competitive pressures (e.g. where the “stag hunt” model still holds). This was certainly the case for the blogger BoF’s and the Project Health BoF as well as the Bootstrappers Breakfasts. Everyone is more focused on learning than “getting the word out” about their product or service.

    And I think that points up another problem with the format for conferences. Sponsors pay and take part to get the word out about their product. They don’t want to be in a setting where competitors and others can attend in what is effectively a peer position. If you are on a panel, up on a raised platform or stage, there is an unconscious presumption that you must be smarter than the audience. If everyone is sitting around in a circle, then everyone’s opinions matter more or less equally.

    This was the inspiration behind the Conversation Central model that had 8-16 around a table having a conversation. The premise was that we would talk about issues facing the EDA industry that had not yet settled into competing solutions from vendors.

    Interesting post.

  4. Sean Murphy
    March 8th, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

    Here are some comments that Jeff Jarvis gave at TEDxNYed that mirror yours:

    This is bullshit.

    Why should you be sitting there listening to me? To paraphrase Dan Gillmor, you know more than I do. Will Richardson should be up here instead of me. And to paraphrase Jay Rosen, you should be the people formerly known as the audience.

    But right now, you’re the audience and I’m lecturing.

    That’s bullshit.

    What does this remind of us of? The classroom, of course, and the entire structure of an educational system built for the industrial age, turning out students all the same, convincing them that there is one right answer — and that answer springs from the lecturn. If they veer from it they’re wrong; they fail.

    read the whole thing at

  5. Brian
    March 9th, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    Sean, excellent points all! On Jarvis’ point, yes and no. As you point out in your previous comment, the speakers sell the gathering, so on rare occasion the classroom lecture model works when the lecturer is outstanding (Gates, Warren Buffett, Willie Mays, et al).
    BoF was an inspired idea that has gained traction over the years but it’s the exception. I think in retrospect I should have reframed the original post to say that if your event is struggling or feels old and faded, reconsider the format. It’s not easy changing what’s worked in the past, but it’s not easy going out of business either.

  6. SKMurphy, Inc. » Circle the Chairs
    May 13th, 2014 @ 12:30 am

    […] Brian Fuller had an interesting blog post on “Industry events need to get more social.” […]

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