“The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
the waiter brought a tray.”
Procol Harum “A White Shade Of Pale”
A couple weeks ago, Jane Copland wrote a post at the SEOmoz blog about her frustrations surrounding her appearance on the Pubcon “5 Bloggers and a Microphone” session she appeared on. While the point of her post was to voice to her readers the sorts of questions she would have like to be asked as a panelist, she made one “off the cuff” comment that I immediately picked up on…
“…Unofficially, I suggest we be allowed to show up with a drink in hand… and is that such an odd request, given that it’s Vegas?!”
Unbeknownst to anyone besides some of my fellow SEMpdx Board Members (who might not even remember my bringing it up), I made the suggestion to do the following sort of session for our last Searchfest event (which I shared in the comment thread to Jane’s post but I’m repeating here with more detail):
“Put the bartender for the no-host bar to follow the session in the corner of the stage (clearly, this would have to be the last session of the day). Give each of the panelists a drink about 20 minutes before the session starts and give them the ability to get a refill during the session if they wish. 3 panelists is ideal (certainly no more than 4). Have a moderator (probably our own Kent Lewis) prompt the panelists with interesting concepts that they can talk about in a free-flowing manner, instead of the typical directed questions that require a specific answer. On the screen behind the stage, have a live Twitter stream of people posting with the relevant session hashtag (note that this idea wasn’t part of my original proposal since I was barely aware of Twitter when I thought this up). Twitter would also act as a good “discussion prompt” for the panelists if one is needed. Instead of doing traditional moderation, Kent would conduct the panelists more like an orchestral leader and so long as the conversation is moving along at a good pace, he would not interfere with the panel flow.”
While I can’t disagree with Jane’s assertion that she should have been asked better questions, I would suggest that that her concern was secondary to the real problem with the session (which I actually found to be interesting but somewhat inferior to the previous year’s session that featured Lee Odden, Rand Fishkin & Andy Beal).
We (the audience) were the problem because our presence inhibited the speakers from really communicating and sharing in an optimum fashion. In order to program a session to cater to us (or what the session programmers felt we wanted or needed to see), the session had to be constricted and “dulled” down to attempt to meet our perceived expectations.
What would I have liked to see happen during the session?
“…Ideally, the panelists would experience a collective Charlie Kaufman moment. They would cease being aware that they are on stage with spotlights shining on them, speaking into microphones with every word being recorded and liveblogged. Instead, the black backdrop of the stage would be magically transformed into the back booth of a diner. The hum of good conversation and all the positive vibrations of good friends, good food and good times are in the air. Comfort reigns and self-consciousness melts away as each person partakes in conversation, paying rapt attention only to the others at the table, totally ignoring the world beyond the booth.”
The superior 2007 session actually had some of this flavor…the 2008 session did not.
If Andy Beal, Lee Odden, Jane Copland, Barry Schwartz & Michael McDonald sat in a restaurant booth with good food & drink, I will guarantee you that the conversation would be incredibly interesting and insightful. I would definitely want to be a fly on the wall to listen and learn from these industry leaders. The “proposed” session I’ve outlined above would be my attempt to recreate what would be the ideal backdrop to learn from such folks…where we could hear how they think, feel, and perceive, instead of just getting factoid responses to sound byte questions.
Fortunately, I did get one excellent opportunity to sit in a restaurant booth at Pubcon and participate in a “dream” industry discussion with some extraordinarily smart people. I, Scott Hendison, John Andrews, Marty Weintraub, Brian LaFrance & Ken Huffer all took advantage of the $9.99 Prime Rib Special at the Sahara one Pubcon evening. Our collective conversation was amazing. Had we been a session, I guarantee that you’d want to sit in and listen.
By brining the spirit of what transpired at the Sahara onto a conference a stage, even if we sanitized the confidences that we shared, we would have a memorable session with strong takeaways for all assembled.