Company owned Ford Seirra’s, grey suits hanging in the back, charging along motorways while their drivers, one hand on the steering wheel, navigate another service station smoked salmon sandwich. Travel Lodges and Holiday Inns near bypasses in places like Exeter, Guildford and Milton Keynes. Stuffy halls in concrete prefabs, free from that pesky natural light that can render an OHP’s best efforts void. Business management techniques, water dispersal planning, road traffic management. When I was a lad, it was the worst C word I knew.
As a child, the trappings of the businessman held a mysterious appeal to me. My own desk, decorated with my stationary. A brief case, segmented to conceal its secrets, protected by two three-digit locks, my own piece of Bond. And business cards. Oh, the business cards. I wanted my own business cards almost as much as I wanted a Jazz model that didn’t break. The life of the businessman was it, in my eyes. But I never liked the idea of conferences. You couldn’t have paid me enough to go to one. These days the idea of wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase can induce in me a cold sweat. But these days I would consider selling that unbroken, in box, original, Jazz just to get my hands on a ticket to certain conferences.
Man I’ve changed.
Well of course I have. I’m reminiscing about 25-30 years ago. If I hadn’t changed I’d still be collecting Transformers and watching Star Wars on a Saturday afternoon.
Conferences, like me (yes really), have grown up. They’ve matured. In fact, they’ve positively mutated. Sure, workflow optimisation (where your time goes), logistics (where your letters go) and waste management (where your poo goes) are still conferences that businessmen (OK, and women, pedants) in middle management have to pay their dues. But a new, fun, trendy conference has emerged.
As the geeks inherit the Earth, so shall they mold it in their image. And their image isn’t what you thought it was when they were first labelled geek. Those business mavericks who once earned the title entrepreneur, rather than seeing entrepreneurship as a career option, who opted out of climbing the corporate ladder in favour of creating corporations that were a little different from the norm, started disrupting industries before the business press had managed to overly-define the term “disruption” into meaninglessness. They were part of that first internet boom. Some thrown by the wayside as the bubble burst bounced back in newer and more exciting ways. And that’s when the real disruption began.
The grand daddy of the modern conference is TED. Technology, Entertainment, Design. It’s annual conferences started in the 90s and over the years have expanded nationally and internationally. The premise of a TED talk is simple, you have 18 minutes. Be interesting. Begin. An industry secret and occasional magazine article, TED came of age when they started releasing the TED Talks online for free. Making this original thinking available to all changed the conference game completely. And boy can they get the big names at TED. The website is a video library to lose yourself in for days, weeks. Once you begin you will find yourself interested in things you never knew were interesting. It’s possible they weren’t until someone at TED explained them and opened your eyes. Personal favourites include Bill Gates’ Mosquitos, malaria and education, and Malcom Gladwell’s Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce. Just off the top of my head. Neither of which appear in the top twenty most viewed TED Talks, which would probably be a good place to start watching them.
As well as it’s own travelling offspring, the TEDx events, TED has inspired imitators and aspiring competitors. In the UK, the future focused Wired conference, having just completed it’s second annual event, is probably the closest we have to TED. And like TED, but a way behind in terms of content, Wired puts videos of the talks online.
While the talks being online is a wonderful, almost philanthropic, decision on behalf of the event organisers, they’re not exactly going to be out of pocket. A ticket to TED 2013 is $7500. It’s already sold out. Wired 2012 was £1400+, depending on when you bought your ticket. The added discount I was offered as a Wired subscriber didn’t make it any more affordable. Turns out that selling Jazz wouldn’t help get me into either of these conferences (about £100, if you must know).
The more fiscally restricted among us must therefore look to the young upstarts and hope that Bond was wrong and that youth is indeed a guarantee of innovation. And if not innovation, then perhaps interest. Luckily there are far more interesting people out there than there are running multinational coorporations and making more money while reaching for a dropped note than the note’s actual value. And events like The Lost Lectures (less than a score a ticket! Can’t say fairer than that) try to give these people the stage and microphone they need to enlighten, illuminate and entertain us. The Lost Lectures USP (for there must be a unique selling point) is that the location and subject matter are secret until as late as is feasibly possible. And true to form, those Lost Lectures can be found online, for your viewing pleasure, for free. Sixth Form Poet’s A complete joke and Moose Allain’s The hive mind of twitter are both great examples of speakers and speeches.
If twenty quid, the aforementioned “score,” is still too rich for your wallet and you have the dedication to grab a ticket during the tiny window in which they are available, then Ignite is the conference for you. Ignite is a concept that started in Seattle 7 years ago and its USP is it’s restriction of talks lasting only 5 minutes, driven by the twenty 15 second slides, automatically and relentlessly pushing on behind the speakers. Speakers who are volunteers, rather than invitees, which means topics can be more diverse than even The Lost Lectures. The Ignite attitude being that if you aren’t interested, it’s only five minutes that you have to wait until the next person that interests you could come along.
Ignite London 7 happened on 15th November and was an utter triumph. This time becoming part of Internet Week Europe, topics covered ranged from the digital restoration and preservation of steam engines to password protection to badgers. The audience were entertained, for 5 minutes and 5 minutes only, by Olympic drummers and scientists. The speakers included a girl who couldn’t speak. But she could smile. Man could she smile. Ignite has events across the UK, so keep an eye out for one near you. And go. A more enlightening, mind-opening evening is unlikely to be available to you anywhere.
So conferences went and got interesting. Desirable. Aspirational. They have taken the speeches and speakers who once moved in the elite world of after dinner speaking and American college commencement speeches (try Steve Jobs or Conan O’Brian’s efforts for starters) and put them on your laptop. Whether you want to gain insight or just be entertained you should get yourself along to the conference best suited to your budget. Try turning off Corrie of an evening and watch a TED Talk. Your brain and your soul will thank you for it. And most importantly, and I really can’t stress this enough, if you ever get the chance to witness Hannah Levy’s Smile talk, take it.
UPDATE: While these talks can be incredibly entertaining, there is a sense that they can occasionally become a little “worthy.” So it’s probably no surprise that The Onion have put together a satirical alternative, Onion Talks. For the sake of balance, and light relief, they should probably get a little attention too.