A little while back, I suggested that the value of conferences was that you could obtain content, have conversations, create community, and change context – all so you could put yourself in a different space, a different place, and reap some changes from it. That said, I’m wholly aware of the giant imposition that conferences and events make on our lives. I see just how much they really cost even just to attend every time I file my expense reports. I am keenly and painfully aware of how out of context they can make your life when all you want to do is go to bed at a reasonable hour or read your kids a bedtime story.
So that raises the challenging question: what if you can’t, for time or money reasons, attend conferences, but you still need the benefits? The answer is: throw a virtual conference. Here’s how. First and foremost, obtain commitment from yourself, your coworkers, and whoever you answer to that for one day, you’re going to be out of the office attending an event. You can promise that except for your time, there will be minimal impact on the bottom line and no travel or expense reports to deal with.
That said, you must make the absolute, iron-clad commitment that you will be out of the office. That means turning your mobile off. That means setting your out of office message on your email. That means putting up DND everywhere you can. Heck, if you have access to a private conference room or an office with a door that locks, use it. Make yourself as unavailable as if you’d flown thousands of miles away.
Next, find at least two other people either at your company or at like-minded companies in similar roles to you to attend the “event” and make the same commitments as you to a DND experience. This part is important. Part of a conference is the conversation in the halls, the community. You’ll want to add as much of that as possible. Ideally, get up to 10 people to participate with you, but at least have two other people along for the ride.
Let’s talk about the content of the conference. Pick a theme. Maybe it’s lead generation. Maybe it’s better customer service. Whatever’s on your mind and the minds of your colleagues. You’ll use Google+ Hangouts and invite your colleagues to each submit for everyone’s enjoyment two conference sessions appropriate to the theme that are posted on YouTube. You’ve got your choice of events like TED, All Things D, Google Presents, Dreamforce, and a gazillion other events with full length sessions available to you. Everyone put together their two suggested talks and curate the list of videos into a playlist on your YouTube account.
When conference day rolls around, have everyone do introductions, post the schedule, have everyone present the challenging business problem they are facing in their business in a minute or two, and then hit the playlist. Treat it like an actual conference – schedule short, frequent breaks for people to attend to persona needs, take a lunch break in which you stay connected via Google+ Hangouts to have conversations and informal discussions, comment and discuss in the chatroom as you watch videos together – everything you expect of a regular conference.
At the end of the event, at the last “session” of the day, consider a roundtable where you each discuss the problems that everyone shared at the beginning of the day and see if there are additional ideas or solutions that came up during the sessions that provide the answers people are seeking.
This sort of homebrew conference isn’t for everyone. Some people will have a hard time enforcing the DND commitment. Others may not be able to get buy-in from superiors or co-workers. That’s okay – but then when you don’t get the buy-in, you can push for attendance at real-world events instead. For those who have the discipline and focus to pull off a homebrew virtual conference, you may find that you get more out of it than a major event because of the close, intimate nature of the event and the discussions in it. Give it a try and see how it works for you if you’re up to the challenge.
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