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Reflections on the Gartner Catalyst Conference

Most of the time when I go to a conference I see the same faces. When you’re speaking inside of a technology you get used to the same faces. You’re seeing the same speakers and in some cases attendees over-and-over again. You get to expect how the conference organizers run the conference. However, when you’re given an opportunity to speak at a conference you don’t normally attend, it’s a whole new ball game.

The Opportunity

I’m quite honored to have been asked to share my story – or rather the story of my clients with the Gartner Catalyst attendees. The number of outside speakers at the conference can be counted on your hands. (Or at least your hands and toes) So it’s a special honor to be invited. If you’re an attendee of the conference the presentation I gave – Five Lessons from Less-Than-Successful Intranets – is available from the conference site. (If not send us a message and we’ll get you a copy of the slides.)

It’s great to even get the opportunity to experience the event because there are things that they do that are so radically different than other events that I was instantly impressed

The Experience – Wireless

I’ve come to expect that wireless won’t work at the conference or at the hotel. I expect that I’m going to have to use the hotspot on my cell phone to get any kind of connectivity. After my recent trip to Northern California where I had no cellular service I was a bit concerned. However, I couldn’t have been more pleased with how well the WiFi worked at Catalyst.

The Internet connection on the conference wireless was AMAZING. I wasn’t streaming movies or downloading Windows 10, however, it was rock solid connecting me and I always had connectivity. It was slow at times – but never awful and always better than expectation. I saw more access points and signal repeaters than I’ve ever seen – including at the larger conferences like Microsoft Ignite. In short, wireless was a 10 out of 10 for me.

The Experience – Meals and Refreshments

I take my caffeine in a cold suspension fluid – Diet Coke – and not coffee (a hot caffeine suspension fluid). As a result, I sometimes am challenged to find the caffeine that I need to stay awake in sessions. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see both Coke and Pepsi products out occasionally. Not that I didn’t have to hunt it down occasionally but it was an acceptable balance.

Meals were great. I’m a hot-food kind of guy. For whatever reason I don’t like cold breakfasts or lunches. As a result it was great to see meals that were hot and included protein. (I hate speaking right after the attendees have a carbohydrate laden lunch and are in a coma.)

The Experience – Signage

Despite having activities spread across four floors of the hotel, the signage was great. Digital signage (i.e. TVs) had the next session in each room and there was ample traditional signage helping to route people where they need to go.

The Experience -Schedule

So on the one hand the mobile event application and web site were great. You could schedule what you wanted and you had a personal event calendar that worked very well. On the other side, the variable length sessions – short sessions – and quick turnover times were frustrating.

If you wanted to have an in-depth discussion at a round table you would necessarily be walking into a presentation late because the round-tables were longer than the assigned speaking slots. So that could be frustrating to me as I tried to experience the small group time and the larger sessions.

Most conferences I attend or speak at have 60 minute or 75 minute sessions but at Catalyst the sessions were 35-45 minutes in length. It’s OK if you want to have a surface understanding but it prevents you from drilling into details. So as a result I would frequently feel like the speakers didn’t really dive into a topic. Of course they would refer to the papers they had written but as someone who isn’t a Gartner client that’s of little use – and it doesn’t allow you to hear the passion behind some statements in the documents.

The Experience – Other Speakers

The speakers were very experienced in their topics as you would expect. They knew the space, the content, and the questions. As a result, the materials were — generally speaking well prepared.

One of the obvious things to me – and admittedly an unfair comparison – is that they’re not professional or semi-professional speakers. The modulation of their voices was somewhere between monotone and how professional speakers speak. As a result some of the sessions felt dry. That’s a shame because there’s so much great knowledge that they were trying to convey.

The Experience – Connecting

For me, connecting with attendees is why I come. I want to be able to talk with them and figure out what they’re interested in and what they’re fighting with. There were table topics for breakfast and lunch which is helpful but I wish there were a better way to manage the connectivity.

There was also a peer connect setup that people could use but I found that it wasn’t being used very effectively – despite some rather direct marketing to the attendees. I don’t know what the solution is – but I can say that I would have loved to have found a better answer to connecting.

My Speaking

When I speak I expect that I’m going to have to figure things out myself. I’ve done lighting, audio, video, etc., for so long that it’s not something I worry about but in my room was an audio technician, a video technician, and a speaker assistant. So despite the quick 10 minute turnover time we made it work. I still think it’s too short but it worked out.

I found that the audience had become used to a presentation style that was dry and non-responsive. Some of the jokes that almost always go off were failing. While I did get some level of interaction, it’s not the level of interactivity that I generally strive for.

In Summary

It was a great event for me as I got to experience another kind of conference event. I’m hoping that I’ll have the opportunity to be invited back to another conference soon.

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