When I first read about Al Gore's latest project, CurrentTV, I didn't really know what to make of it. I wasn't the demographic they were trying to reach, so no big deal to me. It was an easy newsbyte to ignore.
For some unknown reason, a year later, it pops into my head again. And it now makes sense.
If you're not familiar with CurrentTV, it's often referred to as "Television for the ADD generation." Its content comprises short films usually three to ten minutes in length.
I wish I could explain this connection, but CurrentTV entered my thoughts when I was discussing the fact that our coffeeshop sold more panini when we made them smaller than larger.
Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? But it bears out. We learned early on (from painful trial and error) that when we decided to cut our original oversized panini in half, we sold more halves than wholes. So we built that into our business plan and menu.
Maybe it's time we think about smaller servings at our educational events. And I don't mean food.
Here's why the "smaller is better" works in the coffeeshop: No guilt, no regret. There's nothing left after lunch to throw away. No waste that could've fed the starving children of China. There's no dealing with, "I'll wrap this up and eat it later," only to find a science project growing in the back of the fridge a month from now. And you never feel like a glutton when you're ordering.
Naturally our profit margin on the half panini is higher.
How does this apply to conference education? The conference business is built around some firmly embedded universal conventions. Session lengths are never less than 45 minutes and usually in the 60 to 75 minute range. Workshops are a minimum of 90 minutes and as much as 180.
What if sessions were 20 minutes? Or 15. Or five.
Back in the halcyon days of internet IPO, Red Herring used to have a conference where pre-IPO companies looking for funding had something like 15 minutes to do their pitch to a room of venture capitalists. Having worked on the slides for one of those, it forced the presenter to be extremely economical in what information was being conveyed.
When you're asking for several million dollars to support your company for the next year or more, you want to say everything you can think of to sell the investors. But you can't. You've only got 15 minutes. So what's really important?
So much of what we're exposed to at typical conference sessions seems wasteful in a world where seconds matter. Introductions, speaker biographies, feel-good audience participation gimmicks, rehashing beginner information over and over and so on. Perhaps these things have their place at some meetings, but certainly not all.
What is lost if at the scheduled time the presenter just launched into his/her topic?
For the sake of argument, let's take a session on direct mail copywriting. Does everyone really need to see another slide on AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action)? If we do, then that's the 101 session. Basics. 15 minutes on how to structure letter copy. Get in, get out, move on.
Sound silly? Undoable? Why?
What if the same session had time blocks listed in the program. Basics went from 9:00-9:15. Writing the close from 9:15-9:30. Johnson boxes and other tricks from 9:30-9:45. Lift notes from 9:45-10:00. And you could attend any 15 segment you wanted. Or leave.
As an attendee, wouldn't that make more sense to you? Isn't that a better use of your time? Would you start to nod off in a 15-minute long session? Would a mediocre speaker even try to fake their way through such a scenario?
Sure, it's a logistical challenge for the organizer. But what if you could accommodate all of the above in the same room concurrently and just move from table to table? Logistics solved. Time saved. Everybody happy.
I understand variations of this theme have been talked about. I've been hearing about them for at least a decade. But I've never attended a single conference - and that includes a couple of dozen in the meetings industry itself - that employs this type of setup.
We know from Seth Godin and others that less can be more. And a lot of "less" strung together as in this structure is definitely more. As conference-goers, it seems we're less gluttons for knowledge and more gluttons for punishment.
Trust me, there are no children in China starving for these leftovers.