Saturday, May 14, 2011

If I Had A Crystal Ball and a Magic Wand – What I Think About Conference Improvement

An Opinion Or Two Or Three

In the last post, I left the famous Gertrude Stein “What is the answer?” question hanging in mid-air.  Here’s what supposedly happened next with Miss Stein - 

Reportedly, after a moment of strained silence, and with no immediate reply coming from her friend Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude’s deathbed response to her own question was a groggy, “Well then, what is the question?

In this blog’s case, the question at hand is:  

What, if anything, needs to be done to improve, modify and/or expand large genealogy conferences? 

And, since I’ve never been one to shy away from an opinion, especially my own, I intend to offer a few observations, albeit in no particular order.

Those Cute Dolls – What’s With That?

First, let’s think “matryoshka dolls”.  Those are those neat hollow Russian dolls, ranging in size from large to tiny, that nest inside of each other.  In other words, think about a series of smaller conferences/ meetings within the main conference, so that the “conference” could unpack itself in a specific location and have a number of smaller “stand-alone” parts.  In some respects, this is already happening.  Groups like the Association of Professional Genealogists and the Board for Certification of Genealogists now use national conferences to hold their important meetings as well.  

But what about other groups with a core genealogy component?  Maybe reaching out to the educational arms of the DAR and SAR (to think of two very large groups) or perhaps to some of the Civil War groups or family heritage groups whose membership is based upon a provable line of descent and encouraging them to join in the conference activities with educational activities of their own.  Bottom line here: the more interesting activities that go on, the more people will come. Some of those activities could be “stand-alone” add-ons to the conference.  Think “three-ring circus.”

Posters & Panels

Second, think about having “poster sessions”, as they are called in academic/scientific/medical circles, added to a national conference. Poster sessions (where submitters construct an actual poster to display information about their topic of choice and then talk about it) are a great way for relatively new or inexperienced speakers to showcase their work and talents.  They’re also a great way to showcase really obscure topics for which the audience or “market” is very small. 

Let’s say Sally wants to speak at next year’s big conference, but nobody has ever heard of Sally.  Let’s say Sally wants to talk about Italian immigration to central New York in the 1870s, a topic she’s worked on for a dozen or so years or more.  She’s the expert, but nobody knows her.  It’s also not a topic that would likely attract a huge conference audience outside of central New York. 

Now let’s suppose there were “poster session” space and time available.  Sally could submit a poster proposal, much like a lecture proposal.  It would be reviewed by the same program committee.  Since the concept behind poster sessions usually is to showcase the work of newcomers and invite them into the larger community of seasoned researchers, her poster proposal would have a much greater chance of success.  At poster sessions, the folks who’ve designed their “posters” (a highly visual display – often as large as 4 by 8 feet – that “walks” the viewer through the topic) are available to talk about their work to whomever is interested.  In fields outside of genealogy, it’s a great way to get yourself known – and to let your peers know what’s going on in other dark corners of the research world where  not much light shines.

Poster sessions are common in scientific fields, but still new to fields like history and genealogy.  Here’s a link to this year’s “poster session” topics at the American Historical Association’s recent conference. 

While we’re at it, how about more topically focused panels of three or more presenters with diverse backgrounds?  This is often done in combination with poster sessions.  It’s also a great way to address controversial issues.  Imagine a panel discussion titled “If The Pols Don’t Get It – Get New Ones: Strategies For Reversing The Growing Trends Toward Library, Archives and Records Closures?” Chances are, that would attract a warm body or two.

Is It Like “Speed Dating” on Steroids?

Third, Pecha-Kucha.  (it means “sound/casual chatter” in Japanese).  Pecha-Kucha is a PowerPoint presentation technique that’s been around for a few years now, but hasn’t seemed to have gotten much of a toe-hold in genealogy. It’s like a blend of PowerPoint on steroids and speed dating. 

How does it work?  It’s pretty simple. 

The presenter prepares exactly twenty slides for the presentation on a highly specific topic.  During the presentation, each slide remains on the screen for exactly twenty seconds while the presenter makes the relevant point(s) necessary. Each mini-presentation takes just under 7 minutes.  Bottom line: highly focused presenter, highly focused audience.  Nod off and you’ll miss it.  The other neat thing to consider is that, with proper scheduling, a presenter could give the same presentation a number of times at the same conference so that anyone wanting to hear it would not be disappointed.  

Think of it as the “haiku” of presentations.  It lends itself to topics that are concise, and they’re especially useful for “how-to” presentations on new technology. I know it can work because I’ve tried doing something similar.  There’s a part of my census talk that was written as a pecha-kucha presentation.  While it’s part of a larger presentation, it could also stand alone, since it addresses a very specific “stand-alone” topic within a larger topic.  Most experienced speakers could probably distill the essence of their fifty minute presentation down into 4 highly focused pecha-kucha modules that could be presented throughout the conference.  

How About More Quality Time?

Fourth, consider having one fewer Exhibit Hall day, but making up for it with more “unopposed” vendor time on the other days.  Why? First of all, there is no “Parkinson’s Law” of Money. Money simply does not expand to fill the time allotted if the conference attendees are the same people each day. Large department stores (Walmart excepted) know that, which is why shopping malls aren’t open round the clock. 

Lots of “new” exhibitors with only a conference or two under their belt think that the longer the Exhibit Hall is open, the more sales they will make.  It’s a nice idea, and it certainly sounds eminently logical, but the actual vendor sales numbers rarely support the hypothesis. People will set a budget for their conference purchases, then they will shop, and then . . . they will stop. It doesn’t really matter if the Exhibit Hall is up and functioning for three days or for four as long as there’s as much time to shop/browse/buy in three days as there are in four. From the vendor’s point of view, the big exhibit expenses are not racked up in the booth rental fees; in fact, they’re highly dependent upon the number of days that spent on the road and at the conference itself. 

We’ve exhibited in four-day, three-day and two and a half day Exhibit Halls.  Actual sales revenues, however, were much more reflective of (a.) the availability of “quality” shopping time and (b.) the number of attendees and (c.) the number of vendors in the room competing for the same spendable dollars.   The trick is to avoid diminishing returns.

Hint to conference organizers:  The larger the Exhibit Hall and the more vendors you sign up, the more unopposed browsing time will be required.  Otherwise, your attendees will complain about not having enough time. And yeah, I know you think you’re doing everybody a favor by opening the Exhibit Hall at 8 AM every day.  However, most of those days, there are 70 exhibit staffers and only 6 or so conferees in the room for at least the first 45 minutes. The rest are having breakfast, driving in and/or looking for parking or on their way to a conference session.  (I know you’ve arrived at this “early opening” idea through thorough committee discussion.  Problem is, you are rarely in the Hall at 8AM yourself, so you’re only guessing about what’s going on in there.)

8 AM till 9 AM is not “quality” exhibit hall time.  The best quality time is the block that’s tacked on before or after lunch.

Playing The Numbers Game: Talking It Up And Thinking Big

Fifth, there’s that small matter of attendance.  You know, the registrants. The conferees or whatever you want to call them. First, after the volunteers, speakers and exhibitors (remember: they’re all registered, so they’re counted in the final attendance figures), there are the conference “regulars”, a core group of professionals and conference groupies that will go pretty much anywhere anytime for a genealogy conference.  Middle of nowhere, accessible only by horse or mule? They’ll be there.  Then, there are the “almost” or “wannabe” professionals/ groupies who go as frequently as possible.  Next, the “serious genealogist/ casual conference goer” group; they’ll show up if enough stuff on the program looks interesting and if everything else (travel-wise) falls into place.  Finally, there are the folks who live locally or within a day’s drive of the conference and are willing to fork over the cost of a registration to check things out. This is actually a pretty large group.  Still, each of the last two or three groups could be larger.

Think about more promotion, more hype, more chatter, and a whole lot less preaching to those already on board – they already know what’s going on and have already made up their minds. Offer group discounts to any local genealogical society in North America who books 15 or more registrations at one time.  Blanket the local media – including radio and TV - with interesting leads for stories, not just press releases.  More sizzle and lots of it.  Encourage the local non-genealogy types who might think that genealogists are docs who deal exclusively with “lady parts” to come on down and surf the Exhibit Hall in person and take the new, constantly available 15 minute “mini-course” on starting your family history the right way.  Then, keep telling the conference story AFTER the conference.  Think of it as the conference “book review.”  

Review it for your own members IN GRAND AND GLORIOUS DETAIL in your newsletters and magazines, so that the members who didn’t go this year will want to go next time.  Then, highlight some of the “new” things that happened at the conference.  You’re having the Archivist of the United States speak?  Let the world know before and after the conference.  It’s a big deal.

I could go on and on, but I already have.  

There will be one more “forward-looking” post on this topic coming up next, with a comparison to what’s happening in an altogether different non-genealogical field conference-wise and how we in genealogy might “borrow” some ideas from other areas, and then I’ll move on.


  1. Thanks for checking it out, Polly!

  2. Great post! Every genealogy conference committee should read this.

  3. Thanks for dropping by, Tonia! Here's hoping that a few folks on the planning committees use it as food for thought!