Guest Post: Minna Jung, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Vice Chair, Communications Network
By now y’all who were at our Fall conference in Boston should have received an invitation to tell us what you thought of the event. If you haven’t filled out the survey yet, and you’re still sharpening your opinions for us on how the conference went, I just wanted to say: have at it. And thank you.
And, this is not intended to blunt the force of your opinions, but I thought it might be helpful if I gave you a little glimpse inside the Network conference sausage-making, just to show you how much we care about doing right by you. The Board hasn’t always planned the conferences, by the way: after the Network was revived from near-death, the annual conference took place in San Francisco in 2006 and used the Open Space framework—a do-it-yourself approach to conference planning whereby conference participants proposed topics for discussion, rooms were assigned, and people simply migrated to the discussion of their choice. As most people have told me since then, this approach really works well about half the time, and so it went in San Fran, but the experience was still memorable notably in that over 100 people showed up. The Board realized that despite languishing membership, people still believed in the Communications Network, and wanted a flocking ground.
However, Ira Glass happened, at the 2008 conference in Chicago, and then the bar was set high forevermore from that point onwards. After Ira, we all wanted great speakers, with thought-provoking, non-preachybreakout sessions and lots of time for networking. And that’s what we’ve aimed for ever since.
So here are some of the rules we live by, to make the Network conferences worthwhile:
SPEAKERS SHALL NOT SUCK
We have felt really strongly about this from the beginning, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure speakers are great and they understand the audience. We’ve watched speaker videos, if they’re available. We solicit first-hand testimonials. We’ve even taken breakout session speakers through Andy Goodman training. We’ve suffered (our executive director, mostly) through insufferable agency representatives with endless demands.
With all that, we fail sometimes. We just do. It’s not a science, and sometimes you come across the astonishing circumstance where a person has been vouched for by numerous trusted sources, and yet they still suck. Sometimes we get a speaker who appeals to some people, and not so much to others. And, we often get dinged for the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our line-up, and while we think you absolutely SHOULD get on us about that, we also wish you would maybe help us out a little more than you do. Every conference in the world is seeking more diverse line-ups. We need help making the connection, because sometimes, the connection is all that will get us through the door to then cajole, persuade, and maybe tearfully plead for the major speakers to come and show up. For a reduced fee.
Also, diversity is about more than one’s race/ethnicity. Remember that. We could use a little more political diversity (avoid the Network filter bubble!).
EXCEPT IN RARE EXCEPTIONS, WE DON’T LIKE PANEL PRESENTATIONS
I think all of us must wake up screaming from nightmares in which we are forced to attend one boring panel presentation after another. Oh wait, that’s my real life! Yes, it’s so sad to me, how many people miss the boat on conference planning by getting two, or three, or seven speakers on a panel, giving each of them five minutes each to speak, and then watching each one take 15 minutes, thereby collectively vaporizing the time for Q&A and true interaction with the audience. We’ll do almost anything to avoid that from happening. (We appoint “board buddies” for session sponsors, people from the Board who work with the session designers to keep an eye on how a session is shaping up. Are we Type A, or what?
BREAKOUT SESSIONS ARE HARD
Although the Group Therapy concept appeared to go over well this time, I gotta say, it’s hard to keep things fresh in this department. People are eager to learn, but they’re also eager to show-and-tell, and the best and the worst of people come to play in smaller discussion settings. We’ve had some hits with breakouts, and we’ve had some spectacular misses, and on this point in particular, we’d love it if you could share some good ideas with us in the survey about what to do in the future.
As I said in the beginning, we’ll take all the advice we can get—although I’ll be honest: whining’s not cool, and it irritates the hell out of us. We do have feelings.
(If you didn’t receive a survey invitation, please email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Fall conference photos courtesy of Jessica Keyes, Prairie Sky Design.
Minna Jung is communications director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and vice chair of the Communications Network.