VizThink Wrapup: The Conference in General

So here it is, almost a week later now – the VizThink conference is wrapped up and everyone has headed home. I’m surprised with how much enthusiasm has stuck with me. Conferences tend to be a happy, friendly place in general but VizThink just had that extra *spark*.

When people have asked how it was I’ve described it as feeling like a three-day long BarCamp where everyone is engaged & interacting. It’s even more impressive when you consider the make up of the conference.

Throughout the event Tom Crawford, CEO of VizThink and the event’s emcee of sorts, was surveying the crowd (“Hands up if you…”). Surprisingly, less than half the people there would actually say they could draw (Dave Gray fixed that right off the bat with his “How to Draw” general session). In terms of typical jobs etc. there just weren’t any – the mix ran from independent contractors, entrepreneurs, graphic facilitators, consultants right on up to VPs with long titles from huge corporations.

For me personally the conference met and exceeded every expectation I had for it – though I think the truth is no one really knew what to expect.

What worked…

Long Sessions – The format was great – when I first saw the 90 minute session lengths I was a bit concerned (especially as I had to fill one of those blocks personally) – would presenters have a hard time filling the time? Would attendees zone out?

The reality was 90 minutes was just long enough. I got the general impression from most facilitators that we all could have easily filled two hours if we’d had too (I had my group hustling at each step and I just barely finished six seconds over).

General Sessions – I was also worried about the number of big general sessions. The conference format was basically:

AM
90min General Session
30min Break
90min Breakout Sessions (8 tracks)

60min Lunch

PM
90min Breakout Sessions
30min Break
90-120min General Session

At most conferences I’ve been to in the past the general sessions were usually affairs where about halfway through you were looking around the tables for tools you might be able to use to subtly off yourself with. Not so at VizThink – Tom did a great job getting people or panels together that were entertaining and informative.

Paper on the Tables – Every flat surface in the place was covered with paper tablecloths. It took people a little while to revert back to their five-year old self and start drawing on the tables but once they did it became a great work surface during the conference. On Monday night as I was leaving the ballroom I saw two guys deep in conversation with their ideas scrawled out over 90% of the table. I suspect next time around we’ll see more facilitators working the tables into their sessions.

Atmosphere – What any of us who attended will have the hardest time conveying to you is the energy in the room for those two days. I don’t think I saw a single wallflower the whole time – as I said before people were engaged & interacting from the first moment. It just worked. A lot of people were stepping out of their day-to-day shells and really getting into the flow and it was great to see.

What didn’t work…
None of these are really complaints – if Tom & co. ran exactly the same format in exactly the same way next year I’d be back again in a heartbeat. This is just your average ordinary feedback:

Tables – One or two fewer chairs at every table. The conference had ten seat round tables in every room. The size of the tables was perfect but they also had ten chairs around them. The reality was they were too crowded. By the time you got everyone at the table and trying to draw etc. there was just no way 10 people would ever actually fit at the table. As a result, everywhere you looked the tenth chair (and occasionally even the ninth) was almost always pushed away from the table into whatever free space people could find. Ten-top tables with eight chairs would be ideal.

Break Lengths – The break lengths were tough. More and more people are finding much more value in the hallway conversations. There were a lot of great hallway conversation opportunities but I always felt rushed as sessions were typically running a little over and there was enough demand for upcoming sessions that the pull really was to get in early & stay late. As a result the 30min interludes often flew by – giving you enough time to pick up your stuff, move rooms, find a spot, hit the washroom and, if you were lucky, give a friendly nod to a couple of people as you passed them in the hall.

I don’t know how you stretch them without losing valuable session time – maybe start at 8:30 instead of 9:00 and add 15 minutes to each of the breaks in the middle of the day.

Computers – This isn’t even something that didn’t work in a negative sense it’s really just an observation. Before the conference I helped Tom with setting up a VizThink twitter account (http://twitter.com/VizThink) and a public VizThink Skype chat to hopefully act as a bit of a backchannel for the event. The reality though is there just wasn’t time, or the desire, to crack open a laptop during the conference. During some of the general sessions I’d open mine for a few minutes but not for long. Laptops were out a lot during the breaks but most people put them away as soon as the session started. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues – I think both the Twitter & Skype solutions will be useful for the between conference times but at the conference? Not sure.

In Conclusion
All in all, a great, great conference. Huge kudos to Tom and his team for pulling it off. Registrations were just shy of 400 for this go round and I suspect we’ll see a lot of growth next year for the second North American conference.

At the end of the conference Tom also “announced” that a VizThink Europe is in the works. Right now it’s looking like a September/October time frame and it will likely be held in Geneva. Watch the VizThink blog for more details, and of course I’ll post info here once Tom announces some firm dates/details.

This was also a huge event for the local communities. I’ll have more detail in my session follow-up post but it looks like we’ll have more than a few VizThink regional events running in the coming months. I’ve had people from Seattle, Mountain View & London (they already registered the domain!) express serious interest in running events locally – if you’re interested in getting one going in your area please drop me a line!

As for VizThink Toronto – I’m working out some of the details but expect to hear an announcement around VizThink Toronto #6 in the coming week or so.

  • Brent Schlenker

    Ryan,
    I completely agree with your observations. I felt a little rushed as well and would have loved more time to just chat. The dinners were cool for that, and I loved that VizThink made it easy to signup and find a good restaurant.

    I wish I had known about the back-channels before now. Can you post a link or quick tips on how to set up a twitter/skype backchannel?

    Thanks,
    Brent

  • Christine Martell

    Hi Ryan,
    You summed up my feelings as well. Every person who was there had so much to offer, I never felt I had enough time to talk with them.

    I’m also surprised at how long it is taking me to digest it all. Usually I am able to start writing about a conference while I am attending, or certainly within a few days. I’m just starting to be able to construct some of what happened a week later.

    You did a great job with your session. My only regret is not sitting with other people from my area so we could leverage the connections at the conference to move forward.

    I agree with Brent, I always enjoy dine arounds at conferences.

  • Ryan

    Hey Brent –
    I see you’ve already got a twitter account so won’t detail that but basically I just created a second account for VizThink – my main hope there was that by everyone following it (and it following back) then we’d all have a central place to find other Visual Thinkers on twitter.

    For Skype – if you go in your Skype window just click on “Chats” then “Start Public Chat” and invite away.

    Once it’s open click on “More Options” and you’ll see “promote this chat” click that and you can get the URL to share with people.

    Ryan

  • Ryan

    Thanks for stopping by Christine!

    Yeah – I’m going to work with Tom to figure out how we can identify people who are close to each other and connect them somehow as he’ll have all that information in the registration.

    Whereabouts are you located?

    If you’re interested in getting a session off the ground post a topic on the VizThink Facebook group and maybe we can get you connected that way…

  • Christine Martell

    Ryan,
    I’m just outside Portland Oregon, so I know there are people at Xplane, but I’m not sure who to connect with?

  • Ryan

    Aric Wood (CEO) is at that office – I’m sure he wouldn’t mind a call. Happy to make an email invite if you don’t know him already.