Friday, June 18, 2010

The real-time conference: What you can learn from TEDxOil Spill

Seven months ago, I was taken with the idea that we'd soon be rebooting traditional communications tools--like magazines, or record albums or annual reports--and turning them into dynamic events.  So when TED, the technology-education-design conference known for its dynamic speakers, announced a worldwide day of events centered on TEDxOilSpill about the Deepwater Horizon spill, I knew right away I'd found an example.

The coordinates: TEDx events are independently organized, and sometimes focused on particular timely events or geographic regions.  In this case, there'll be a full day of speakers here in Washington; unlike the more exclusive TED conferences, this one includes a free. live webcast.  Satellite events are being organized to generate action and "will feature discussions on mitigating the effects of the spill, seeking energy alternatives to oil, and improving global policy to prevent mistakes and lay the foundation for a more stable future."  Partners include environmental groups, the U.S. federal government, National Public Radio and others.  Before the conference convenes, a weeklong expedition is underway to document (in photos and video) damage from the spill, and donations are being solicited to cover costs.  That'll become part of the content, both online and at the conference. And since we discuss handling the backchannel here, the audience for the live event won't be able to use laptops or other devices during the talks--not a big issue since it's being livecast for anyone to follow along. There's a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, and in addition to the official blog, the TED photographer also is blogging about the expedition.  The discussion's already going on.

Those are the basics.  Here's what I see that gets me excited:
  • It marries a meeting with action: Over time, we've slid into accepting the meaning of "convene" as "to meet formally" with a sitting, listening, passive audience instead of the more dynamic definition, "to come together, as in one body or for a public purpose."  In this case, the event itself is just one in a series of active steps, from making an expedition and sharing information to blogging and tweeting to fundraising and commitments to act, and later, the actions themselves.  Better yet, it builds on a topic that makes many feel helpless and sidelined--ordinary citizens want to do something, but can't plug the leak. The event becomes a channel for that energy.  I don't have to wait to see the expedition footage, since I can follow along on the blog as it unfolds, for example.
  • It makes the "room" bigger. TED sets the bar for reaching beyond the conference room with technology and access (despite its high price and early sell-outs, speaker videos are posted for free on the web, with transcripts, translations and more, for example). The livecast, social media options and local events mean that anyone--from the deskbound to the distant--can play a role.  That makes the audience feel included, a priceless way to engage. Scarcity of seats (just 500) isn't a disadvantage anymore.
  • It seizes a moment.  Call it the real-time conference. Somewhere, other technical meetings and annual conferences are furiously remaking their already prepared agendas for conferences that will take place in 2011 to reflect something about the oil spill (and sadly, there's enough material here to last us for decades).  This TEDx event is being put together in a matter of weeks, enabling it to strike while the opinion irons are still hot.  That the crisis is still unfolding adds drama and surprise.  I wish more groups were bold enough--and deft enough--to turn on a dime and convene in a timely manner on more topics.
  • That only happens with a well-cultivated audience.  TED's been building its audience for years, first the exclusive excited few who get to attend the main conference; then those of us who see the videos each week on the web; then those who organized viewing parties with livecasts in remote locations; then those who were encouraged to independently organize TEDx events around the world; then those who were asked to help mount topical TEDs, like TEDmed.  TED encourages followers, and uses social networks and online offerings to build loyalty.  Tell me there's a TEDxOilSpill and I can see the benefits immediately--because I know and understand the approach from experience.
  • It curates, in a day, a live "special issue."  Back in the day, we'd figure out how to give over one issue of a magazine, an annual report or some similar product to a "special issue" on one topic like this.  We'd interview experts, take photos, cull facts. This does the same, in effect, but with the excitement of live action.  The speakers bring the content, but so does the documentary expedition and even the audience, in its reactions and actions before, during and after the meeting. It's not a meeting attempting to cram many topics into one day.  Just one day, one topic, one focus.  Within that scope, we can learn in more depth.
  • We can expect speakers with clarity, but not "dumbed down" content.  TED doesn't shy away from technical speakers and the lineup here is packed with knowledgeable experts.  The difference: This format forces them into clear, brief, compelling presentations.  TED never underestimates the audience and its ability to grasp the complex.  More of us should be doing just that; content would soar in improvement if we did.
Listen, I know you're not TED.  Your topic may not be seizing the entire nation, your followers fewer, your web resources gummed up.  But your company, nonprofit or government agency has partners. You've got smart thinkers and intriguing topics. You've got a role in issues of the day, stuff happening right now that people care about. You have an audience you're cultivating, even if it's not a worldwide movement.  Can you make an event that captures the "now" now, rather than put off the communicating until the next quarterly newsletter/annual meeting/website redesign? Can you rethink an existing static communications tool into a live event? What would you gain by reaching beyond the room in which you normally convene people? Share your ideas, concerns and what else you see in the TEDxOilSpill approach that you might be able to adapt to your own purposes, in the comments.

Related posts:  7 ways to reach outside your conference

Check out don't get caught on Facebook, where I'm floating ideas and discussing them before they appear on the blog.  It's shaping up as a great networking community for communicators.

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