A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Running live events: what I learned from Bitnorth

In September 2008, I ran the first Bitnorth. It was an informal TED-meets-Foocamp-meets-Unconference getaway North of Montreal, and it wound up being one of the most entertaining weekends of recent memory. Podcaster Bob Goyetche wrote about it and discussed it in a recent episode of Canadian Podcast Buffet (it’s around 4:00 into the podcast) and the feedback was generally very good.

I’ve been talking to several participants about what worked and why. I’m going to try and share those here, though it’s silly to try and capture the zeitgeist of an event that was as much about participants and venue as any kind of organization. It’s a long read, as much for others to see what worked as it is for me to remember what worked when it comes time to plan the next one (and yes, there will definitely be a next one. If you want in, mail me.)

I was lucky enough to get in front of crowds early, first at university and later as the policy-based networking guy for 3Com. But it was when I started presenting and organizing for Interop that I really saw how events unfold. There’s a lot of organization behind the scenes that makes things run smoothly.

Conference like Interop have been around for decades. But the conference world is changing. I think this is a reflection of marketing in general (Mitch Joel does a great job explaining this.) Broadcast marketing is long gone, and good marketing these days is an interaction, a dialogue between marketer and audience, often on a personal and individual level. So the traditional talking-head-on-a-podium model is boring: If I wanted that, I’d just download it.

As a result, many of the conferences I’m involved with try to mix it up. Panels are the most obvious way, but it’s audience participation that’s most effective. The Unconference movement, as well as FOOcamp, Barcamp, Startupcamp, and Cloudcamp, are self-organizing events that hace nearly no structure.

Here’s what I’m finding worked at Bitnorth. Some of this won’t apply elsewhere (we weren’t trying to sell anyone anything, for one thing.) And some of it might be a bit controversial. Sorry.

Just enough structure

This is key. Most people aren’t leaders. Not that they can’t lead, but rather, they’re expecting some form of guidance. At Unconference, we provide several topics (cloud, social networks, mobility) and themes (ROI, open platforms, security) and then let people debate them. This is usually enough to start things off.

At Bitnorth, we had a format (some speakers and panels, interlaced with audience participation.) You need to walk the line between telling people what the topic is without flipping on the passive bit in most people’s heads that says, “okay, I’m being served, I don’t need to participate.

Plan early, plan often

When we started thinking about Bitnorth it was back in April. People told us we were daft. We still left things so late we couldn’t get the entire building to ourselves. If there’s one thing Interop showed me, it’s that you can’t start too early. At New York’s Interop in October 2008 we were planning next May’s content. Had we not started planning and marketing the event in April, we wouldn’t have filled up the space we had or had nearly as interesting a group of attendees.

The girls factor

This is the observation most likely to get me labeled a misogynist. But it bears saying, particularly at a technology event. So here goes: Don’t make the event a sausage-fest. Early on, some of the women involved in planning said they didn’t want this to be a technology-for-technology’s-sake event. We tried to make sure there were women at the conference. And this made a huge difference to the chemistry.

Men (who, unfortunately, continue to dominate many conferences) behave in three distinct ways on a camping trip, and this plays out at conferences to a degree.

  1. If there are only men attending, they’ll try to burn something or blow something up. This is just par for the course: We can’t go kill the pig, so we’re going to play with fire instead. It often results in injuries or much rejoicing; sometimes both.
  2. If there are single men and women attending, there will be posturing and preening, and lots of attention lavished on the women. Then, around 11 PM, couples will mysteriously vanish. The next morning, neither party will want to talk much, and the mood will be broken.
  3. If there are men and women, but most of them are in relationships, then the discourse tends to be interactive and more cerebral—less fire-breathing, less swagger. IMHO this was a balance we achieved at Bitnorth that made for a less-geeky, more-conversational event.

You could consider this sexist (and I don’t want to put lipstick on a conference.) But my point is conferences are made up of men and women, and the tone of the conference is heavily influenced by their interactions. Men are dolts and like it or not this changes how things go.

Keep them wanting more

Bitnorth lasted Friday night to Sunday noon. Most of the feedback I received was, “make it three days!” or “add more Birds of a Feather sessions.” If we’d had more content, I think folks would be talking about it less. We also didn’t want to dry up our creative reserves. If people leave wishing for more, it’s likely they’ll return.

Schedule flexibility

We had no idea how things would go. We had a panel of precocious kids (which was hysterical) that was supposed to last half an hour, and we let it run a whole hour. The ability to adjust the schedule mid-conference was great.

This also worked out when it came time to adjust the order of Short Bits: If things were getting too geeky, I could swap out the order of presentations on a board near the front and steer the tone of the discussions. Gone are the rigid conference calendars (which, of course, wreaks havoc with things like keynotes.)

Scheduling usually happens because you’re paying someone to be there (like the massage therapists we had on Sunday) or because you have multiple “tracks” and let people switch between them. This is almost always a recipe for disaster, as it constrains the discussion.

Add variety through brevity, not parallelism

This is a bit of a strange observation. If you want to get twenty ideas across in one day, the usual approach is to split it up into three tracks with hour-long sessions. At Bitnorth, we sliced things up the other way: Get people to convey a simple idea in 10 or 15 minutes. If you don’t like the topic, you can change quickly. It’s conferencing for the ADD generation. I think having a single track, but keeping the presentations short, worked to our advantage. It made it easier to adjust scheduling and also kept the content varied.

If they speak, they won’t grandstand

At a lot of conferences, I see someone in the audience grandstanding or posturing. I see it most on panels, when one panelist wants to monopolize the topic. Nothing kills a panel faster than five people agreeing with one another and repeating the same platitude.

By having each person present something they cared about, they all knew they’d have the chance to speak their minds. They got to put their best, most valued foot forward. That made it easy to start a conversation about the topic, since they’d already given the preamble. This sentiment is well understood in the Web2.0 conference world. Foocamp says,

Be Prepared to Demo or Speak: Foo Camp is as much fun as participants make it. Be prepared to lead or participate in a session, ask interesting questions, show off what you’re working on, and generally leave your mark on the weekend. It’s a little like Burning Man in that there are no spectators, only participants. People sometimes ask “what can I do to be invited back” and your best bet is to make a (positive) impression by engaging and presenting.

Mix fun and work

CAMMAC has had weddings for a hundred. They’ve never run out of cold beer before us. 25% of the budget went to Saturday’s party, and that doesn’t include the Wii, table tennis, campfire, or poker tournament (all proceeds to Kiva.) Sunday, we had guided hangover meditation and chair massage. ’nuff said.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

The other thing that a participative conference does is make people comfortable presenting. If they know everyone will be participating somehow, they’re more likely to be comfortable. I had people who gave great presentations come over and apologize, saying, “I never present. I’m not very good at it.” They rocked! Others, who sat out the speaking stuff, also said they’d present next time because they saw what it was like.

It was important for us to have other ways people could help. Some folks worked on promotion, or logistics, or even running Birds of a Feather discussions. But once a few people got up and spoke, everyone realized that it was a very informal model.

I believe most people have a fear of speaking, but it’s a fear of speaking on a topic they don’t care about, behind an austere podium, in a big room, wearing a suit, staring at unreceptive strangers. Give them a subject they’re passionate about, a willing audience in scruffy clothes, and only ten minutes, and they’re fine.


Always follow up shortly after the event to find out what worked and what didn’t. I always ask three questions after an event:

  1. What would you change?
  2. What would you add?
  3. What would you not change?

That third one’s the kicker, and people often forget to ask it. With Bitnorth, a resounding number of participants said, “keep the ‘Disconnect to Reconnect’” theme. Which was important, and brings me to my next point.

Be where you are

You see, the music camp we were at had barely any network connectivity (one satellite terminal) and no cellphones. People were astonishingly, unusually present. I fretted about the lack of connectivity for a long time, even going so far as considering have Dan Koffler from Syntenic set up a local intranet with a file server and Wifi.

You know what happens when you take away people’s networks? They focus on the people they’re with. It was great.

Have a loose theme

This year at Bitnorth, we had the theme of “the other 99 percent.” The idea was to look at how the rest of the world—not just Arrington’s 54,000 friends—used technology, and how it was changing their lives. If people strayed from the topic, we didn’t care. It was more of a subject for discussion, and it guided some of our invited speakers (Jean-Francois Dumoulin on bringing broadband to the population of Northern Quebec, and Tamu Townsend on using social networks to promote awareness of bone marrow donation.)

Too often, conferences are about a thing (“mobile telephony” or “green technology”) without a human aspect. Humanizing the topic so people talk about the consequences (“life when we’re always connected” or “is technology the planet’s friend or enemy?”) makes the conversation more personal and more engaging.

Everything’s intertwingled

Several people pointed out how inter-related things were at the conference. Chinese invention of movable type, and encryption.  Podcasting, and audio design for movies. Broadband in the arctic, and the lousy performance of social networks over dialup. Investment communities in Dubai, and entrepreneurs in the third world. And so on. Everyone found connections to other subjects.

To me, this is the mark of a successful conference. As organizer, you have an important role to play as a match-maker, connecting subjects and people to one another.

Getting the right people there

It takes a lot of faith in your participants to run an informal conference. But you also don’t want to be elitist and only invite your friends. I think Bitnorth lucked out on three fronts.

  1. People put some skin in the game—$300 for a weekend, all expenses paid, was a bit of money, not so much that it was prohibitive but enough that they bail at the last minute
  2. The facilities weren’t exotic. The food, in particular, was very much what we remember from school cafeterias. The first night was muggy, and all our feet hung off the beds. So if you weren’t prepared to be a bit scruffy, this wasn’t for you.
  3. People were expected to have something they care about vocally. This meant many people who would have just shown up, didn’t.

So once the dust settles on conference season, we’ll get to work on the next one, with some of these observations in mind.