Though I don't travel much (thank goodness) for my current job, my previous job involved attending lots of conferences and other trade events. Unfortunately, I found most presentations as stale as the Danish served as part of the continental breakfast/networking opportunity. You've seen one ill-conceived PowerPoint, you've seen them all.
Even worse (shudder) were presenters who spoke with no visual accompaniment, and most awful were those who simply read their PowerPoint slides verbatim -- as if the attendees couldn't do that themselves.
So I think it's a (mostly) good thing that interactive communications tools like instant messaging, Twitter and blogs are increasingly being employed at conferences, as Daniel Terdiman relates on News.com's geek gestalt blog. Tediman quotes Jennifer Pahlka, general manager and co-chair of the Web 2.0 Expo:
Conferences are media. People expect to be able to comment on articles online, and they expect to be able to comment in conferences while they're in them.
At traditional conferences, folks tend to mill around outside presentation rooms to discuss what they've just heard with other attendees over a smoke, drink or snack (or all three). So it makes sense to give people an opportunity to do this during the actual presentation, or even offer them ways of directly interacting with presenters. With Web 2.0 tools at their disposal, many people like to insert themselves into whatever is going on around them.
According to Terdiman, uber-blogger Robert Scoble takes Twitter breaks during his presentations to find out what people think of the information -- and him -- and to address any especially pertinent questions that are being asked. This seems preferable to waiting for the traditional post-presentation Q&A -- which is invariably filled with "quiet talkers" whose questions you can't hear, totally irrelevant queries that the presenter feels obligated to address anyway, or incredibly technical questions that only a few people in the room can grasp. I've been pretty critical of Twitter in the past, but Scoble's idea, in my opinion, represents a nearly perfect use of the medium.
Of course, giving attendees too much control can lead to a kind of anarchy, which tops bad pastry as a conference no-no. Terdiman links to two articles that illustrate how Twitter emboldened audiences to assail presenters while they were still on stage. (This particular kind of rudeness seems to be common among those using new communications tools, as I blogged earlier this month.)
Chris Heuer, founder of Social Media Club and organizer of numerous BrainJams unconferences, suggests enlisting a moderator to monitor communications channels such as Twitter so they can alert speakers to modify their material to better address audience needs or pause to field questions. He likens this role to that of a talk radio producer who screens calls before putting them on the air.
Scoble mentions having someone respond to thoughts conveyed via Twitter with Tweets of their own, which can even be displayed during the presentation so all can view them. A speaker or a moderator could also offer online polls about aspects of the presentation during the event to further engage attendees.
While different methods of employing such channels are still emerging, Pahlka believes more conferences will employ them. As with many Web 2.0 applications, she predicts there will be more than one "right way."She says:
... Hopefully what we'll end up with is not, "Here's the new way of doing it," but, "Here are several new ways of doing it."