How to design a conference – Interview with GEL host Mark Hurst

I’ve run a few events myself and a challenge many attendees never think about is how to arrange the day. When are the breaks? What order should the speakers go in? What topics should get the morning vs. the afternoon? There is a curation-like design challenge in figuring out how to make a great day.

One of my favorite conferences is Gel – Good Experience Live (it’s the place that let me run my NYC Sacred architecture tour), and I asked the organizer Mark Hurst his thoughts on doing this well.

SB: Speakers are the core of most conferences, yet the lectures and lecturers have earned a reputation for being boring. Gel has consistently had very high quality speakers. How you think your approach is different than other events?

MH: Invite your heroes. I learned that from Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TED, who originated the phrase.

That means, invite people who you are personally, genuinely interested in. Forget any other consideration and focus on: would YOU want to hear from them, if you were an audience member?

I’m not sure how this compares with other conferences – I can’t speak for them – but I’ll leave it to you to imagine the other not-so-good reasons why events might have people speak… rather than inviting them because they’re good for the attendees.

SB. Is there any coaching or training you do for your speakers? Do you think this is a meaningful practice for conference organizers to consider?

I run speakers in a 20-minute time slot, so there’s often some coaching around getting the message across in that short timeframe.  One thing I often say is to go light on, or skip over, all the normal introductory stuff, and just get right to the good stuff. In other words, start strong. And then try to tell a story, while still making the larger points. It’s a tricky balance.

Most conferences use 45,60 or even 90 minute sessions, yet yours are shorter, often 20 minutes. How do you decide the length, format and order of speakers for each Gel?

The length is easy – 20 minutes is the standard slot. Format is easy – the day is comprised of four groups of four, usually with a few shorter “special appearances” sprinkled inside.

The order of the speakers is the challenge – and that’s hard to describe, as it’s more of an art than a science. It’s a puzzle with lots of dimensions. You have to consider developing the theme of the day, and (possibly) a sub-theme for each individual session, and the blend and flow of the energy that each presentation is likely to transmit to the audience, and the timing of catering (coffee breaks and lunch), *and* occasionally there are constraints due to a speaker’s schedule. And it’s really tough to put the puzzle together unless you have the speaker list completely finalized… so I generally have to do this late in the process, not long before the event, and go through several revisions of speaker order, before I finalize it and send it to the printers.

How do you evaluate speakers, both before you choose them, but also how to you evaluate how well they did?

I listen to attendee comments at the event, and read all the emails that come in after the event, to get a sense of what people liked or not. I’m happy that Gel attendees are enthusiastic about sending feedback – positive and negative – about their experience, so I always have a pretty good idea of how the audience reacted to each speaker.  (And it’s often a mix – occasionally a speaker polarizes the audience with an extreme reaction in both directions.)

As for how I *choose* speakers, see answer to #1 above. That’s another one that’s more art than science – but generally I’m just trying to find a good mix of speakers that, together, will create the best possible experience for the attendees.

[Update: The next Gel event is Gel 2013]

You can watch videos of Gel talks from past years – several dozen are up there. Don’t miss Ira GlassErin Mckean or Andrew.

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