Phillip Smith

Blow it all up: How can we make events suck less?

Musings on creative destruction & event design

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How many of the usual trappings of a “business” event would need to be taken away before you no longer recognized it as an “event” at all? What would be the limits of your comfort zone for a day of professional development? Are you ready to play?

I’ve been having some great fun with these questions in the context of Hacks/Hackers Connect. The event is just three weeks away and — while I don’t want to give away all of the surprises yet — I’m also keen to build on the creative event design input that I’ve received over the last few weeks from our design team in Brooklyn, The Public Society, Rubik Marketing’s Katie Bowman, and my long-time collaborator Mark Greenspan.

State of play

After several brainstorming sessions, it has become clear to me that the most important outcome of these unusual interventions that we’ve been dreaming up is just one simple idea: shifting participants’ perspective from “work” to “play.”

Burt and I have tried to frame the Connect events in our own minds as a “one-day fellowship:” a chance to get away from the newsroom or office, from the usual day-to-day distractions, and to have an opportunity to really explore big, bold new ideas with a room full of equally-unleashed minds.

The first intervention that needs to be addressed, then, is that thing we’ve come to know as “registration.” You know, finding your name on a list, picking up a boring, possibly waste-creating name badge, and then awkwardly finding a place to hide until the show business begins.

So, the first question for you is: if there were no limits at all, what would you do to completely re-think this artifact of often-boring events? We’ve got some big, colourful ideas, and I’m pretty keen to hear yours too.


The next albatross of many events is typically called “signage.” Signage typically answers participant questions visually, e.g.: Where is the so-called registration? Am I at the right location? Where is breakfast? The bathroom? Who is this person in front of me? Who am I!? Most importantly, WHO IS PAYING FOR THIS THING!? DON’T LET ME FORGET THAT IMPORTANT FACT!! SHOW ME THE LOGOS!!

Okay, jokes aside: signage typically sucks, and is often pretty wasteful. I’ve experienced more-and-more events these days using projection and LCD TVs to accomplish this with less waste. And yet I am still convinced that there’s something even more playful to be done with signage that has yet to be discovered.

Question number two for you: How have you experienced signage done differently? Could it be edible (or editable)? Could it be audible? Could it be as ephemeral as shapes & words in beach sand?

Can silence be golden?

How many events have you been to where you couldn’t hear the person speaking? Or, worse yet, wished that you couldn’t hear the person speaking! In my experience, good “panels” or “talks” at an event are more often a miracle or happy accident than the result of good planning. To be upfront with you: it’s very challenging for an event producer to script every minute of a day to be interesting, exciting, and participatory.

Given that creative constraint, I propose that the one path forward is to intentionally explode what many of us know to be a roll of the dice and, instead, replace it with something that has better odds.

And, if we are prepared to accept the reality that there’s often more experience in the audience than there ever can be on one stage, it would also seem obvious that all of the ingredients of a successful event are already there once you’ve filled the room with awesome, tuned-in people.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s something about many of the “un-conferences” that I’ve attended that leave me wanting more — something more polished, produced, and respectful of my time. Maybe you’re more BIL than TED, but — for me — TED feels like a meal, whereas BIL is like a snack.

So how do we blow up the typical speaker-driven format while still embracing the focus that a voice talking about relevant experience can provide? What “talks” have you gotten the most out of, and why? What other approaches of bringing in some framing & expertise have you experienced that are worth investigating?

Currently, I’m looking to Silent Discos for inspiration. What would be your inspiration when re-thinking the “content” portion of events?


Last but not least, the focus of Connect is to get creative and passionate individuals working together, and dreaming together, to bring new product ideas to life.

I believe there are a few key ingredients that will bring magic to the recipe for this event (and probably most others) — ensuring that participants are:

  • not falling asleep by 9:15AM;
  • active, physically, as much as possible throughout the day;
  • guided toward connecting with as many other participants as possible;
  • and — most importantly — working to gently shift particpants into a state-of-mind that is playful and experimental.

The format of Connect is very much going to explore the edges of how to bring these ingredients into an event that is fully baked, and — with some luck — very nourishing.

Last question for you: What do you remember as key ingredients in great events that you’ve attended in the past? What was it that made the event memorable? What was it that made you think you wanted to return?

Looking forward to your input, and hope that you can make it out to one of the Connect events to see these ideas in action.

Questions, ideas, feedback, hate mail? Drop me a note here in the comments, or on Twitter.

P.S. This post would not be complete without acknowledging a huge inspiration debt to some pretty big geniuses in the unusual event-design space that I’ve had the honour of collaborating with over the years: Mark Surman, Allen Gunn, and Misha Glouberman.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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