Searching for, maybe building, the ideal conference. I need your ideas.

Roundtables of participants with facilitators, not speakers and audiences

I haven’t been to a conference in a few years. As I started thinking about what conference I might attend, my mind wandered to the question of what makes a good conference?

What follows is my working (likely to change and be updated) framework of what makes a good conference.

My basic assumptions

I spend a lot of time talking to and collaborating with my team and our clients. When I attend a conference, I’m not looking for business. I know this breaks most of the assumptions of conference organizers and the vendors that take up most of the space in their venues.

I attend conferences to be inspired with new ideas and hopefully meet smart people. I want to build relationships that last beyond the conference. I want to know people that I can continue to have informal conversations and debates about new trends and ideas. Ideally these conversations will become fuel for all of us to continue being relevant in what we do.

Conference Framework

Proper alignment with participants’ goals — People have a variety of objectives that lead them to attend conferences, which is why there’s plenty of room for a variety of conference formats. However, in my opinion and experience, the most valuable conferences focus on attracting and networking smart people.

1. A format that puts participants in the driver’s seat — I admit this is incredibly hard to facilitate. David Winer created a set of guidelines he used effectively for BloggerCon. The basic concept is to flip the traditional speaker audience format, pull the speaker off the stage, and turn the room into a more collegiate atmosphere.

2. Engineer diverse topics and participants — I think that a wise conference organizer will spend most of their efforts assembling the ideal set of participants. A big part of this is to endeavor is finding a diverse set of people that can be quilted together into an interesting community that persisted beyond the conference.

3. Designed intimacy — Some of the most valuable conference moments that I have experienced have been outside of the traditional “session” format.

I remember Chris Brogan sitting down at my breakfast table before the early session at Pubcon; working with Phil Gerbyshak at our mastermind table at SOBCon; and listening to Dave Winer and Steve Gillmor banter about future technology at a small Thai restaurant during BloggerCon.

A conference should design as many of these intimate experiences as possible. SOBCon used the concept of Mastermind Tables. Bloggercon used the concept of Friday Dinners. And both of these conferences, SOBCon and BloggerCon (two of my favorite conferences), limited the participants to just under 150 people. It’s probably not a coincidence that Dunbar’s Number is 150.

4. Pick a conducive venue — I think many conferences underestimate the importance of the right site, both location and meeting area(s). My best conference experiences have been in more collegiate environments — literally university seminar rooms. Here are just a few of the things I like about conferences hosted at universities:

  • They’re built to accommodate good WiFi and power for every participant
  • They’re specially designed for teaching, debating, and learning
  • The hallways, common areas, and campuses are designed for productive loitering conversations
  • They are often divorced from a lot of counterproductive distractions (i.e., Las Vegas)
  • They are often surrounded by great unique restaurants, coffee shops, and gathering spots conducive to “continuing the conversation.”

Do you know of a conference in this mold?

Lest you think that I’m one that’s just looking to be served and not serve. I have created a very successful event — Leads2007 — in this unconference mold for the Lead Generation industry, in which I used to be heavily involved.

If I can’t find the perfect conference, maybe I’ll just create another one like I did in 2007.

Would you attend a conference like the one I described above?

Let me know ( Maybe I’ll build it for us.

(This post was originally published by Bill Rice at

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