Podcast

Is This the Future of Conferences?

When digital media publisher Charlie Melcher set out to create a conference to bring together digital storytellers, he threw out the playbook.

“If you’re going to have people come to a live event, then let’s celebrate their being alive. And asking them to sit silently, passively in the dark for hours at an end is not celebrating their being alive.” — Charlie Melcher

Charlie Melcher began his career in book publishing, but his company, Melcher Media, is anything but traditional — in addition to books, it releases apps, short films, and other digital media. And when Melcher created a conference — the Future of StoryTelling Summit — to bring digital storytellers together in New York City, Melcher kept on reinventing. 

““The first issue was how do you create a 21st-century conference,” Melcher told Convene podcast host Ashley Milne-Tyte. “How are you able to walk your talk with the event, if the idea is to look at how digital media and technology is transforming the way we communicate?”

We described some of Melcher’s innovations in our January cover story  In this conversation,  Melcher and Milne-Tyte keep digging into the process. 

Listen: 

Intro music composed by David McMillin

Read the full transcript below:

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Welcome to the Convene Podcast, I’m your host, Ashley Milne-Tyte. In this podcast we’re talking to Charlie Melcher. He’s the founder of the Future of Storytelling – a summit that wants to upend the way we think about storytelling, and the way we think about conferences.

Charlie Melcher: If you’re going to have people come to a live event, then let’s celebrate their being alive. And asking them to sit silently, passively in the dark for hours at an end is not celebrating their being alive.

AM-T: Coming up, where storytelling and conferences meet. Convene Magazine is published by PCMA, the Professional Convention Management Association, and it offers fresh perspectives on meetings and events. You can find Convene online at pcmaconvene.org

Charlie Melcher is CEO of Melcher Media. It’s a publishing company in New York, but not in the way you might think. They publish books, yes, but also apps, short films, digital media of all kinds. A few years ago he realized, there’s this whole community of people like us out there who are telling stories in a new way – they might be musicians, gamers, advertisers – but they all have the same goal: to tell the best stories in the most innovative ways. He decided they all needed a way to get together, to inspire eachother and learn from eachother. That’s how the Future of Storytelling – or FoST – was born.

CM: The first issue was how do you create a 21st century conference…how are you able to walk your talk with the event, if the idea is to look at how digital media and technology is transforming the way we communicate. The first insight was we didn’t want to make it a passive experience, we didn’t want to create a conference where everyone sat in the dark in an auditorium and was lectured by someone from a stage. 

AM-T: Instead, Charlie and his team decided to make short films of their speakers before the conference – films where they discuss their ideas and their work.

CM: Share those online before the event, so our attendees could watch them, get excited, choose their favorite speakers and then when they came to FoST they could sit in a comfortable room around a table with their favorite speaker and 25 other people who had self-selected to be in that session. And then they have this very sort of lean in, roll up your sleeves hour to have a high level seminar with this world expert and 25 other really interesting people around the room.

AM-T: When Barbara Palmer, the senior editor of Convene, when she did a print piece about your conference, you were quoted as saying you knew you needed to blow up the conference model. Is that what you meant by that?

CM: Yeah, that and other things. We were looking at ways to get people to learn by doing, to get people to connect with each other in new ways. A lot of what we were trying to do was take our attendees and shake them up in different groups. So that we’re without people realizing it we’re forcing them to get to know each other, to meet new people.

AM-T: For those of you who listened to the last podcast with Josh Packard, this may sound familiar. He argued that to keep future conference goers engaged, organizers will have to allow more interaction with the speakers and other guests at the event itself – and let attendees watch the speakers’ talks ahead of time.

CM: That’s exactly what we do and that came from the understanding we should allow each medium to do what it does best. So video works beautifully online, the internet is a perfect place to convey certain kinds of information, but if you’re going to have people come to a live event, then let’s celebrate their being alive. And asking them to sit silently, passively in the dark for hours at an end is not celebrating their being alive. It’s not actually encouraging conversation, connections, or participation, and it’s not solved by taking three questions at the end.

AM-T: He says these days people expect to be able to participate, to  ‘like’, share, and comment.

CM: But even more than that now we want to be part of the discussion, or we want a role to play at the very least. And so we built FoST around that and we all know you learn better, you make friends more quickly, you are stimulated if you are physically active.

AM-T: He says little of the Future of Storytelling is passive – they do have performances, but pretty much everything else has attendees taking part in some way: they have workshops, for example…

CM: So we have someone teaching aerial drone photography and we have 20 people outside flying drones.

AM-T: And you know those performances I mentioned? Well it turns out even those can get interactive pretty quickly. 

CM: The last thing is we actually make a meta narrative…

AM-T: I read about this and it sounded terrifying to me…can you explain a little bit to people who don’t know, how does that work? 

CM: So we work with a writer and a troupe of actors and we create a story that will play through the 2 days of the summit, and our intention, since we’re here talking about storytelling in a meta sense, we want you to also be able to experience it. So you’re at a thought leadership gathering talking about storytelling, and you’re in an immersive theatre experience.

AM-T: For instance, at the most recent conference that meta narrative was that everyone in attendance was an extra in a Hollywood production. After actors – playing a leading lady and leading man – argued and flounced off saying they were leaving the production, attendees were asked to step up and take part. It sounds kind of like when you sit near the front during a modern theater production and suddenly you’re plucked on stage – but Charlie says you’re not forced to take part here, just encouraged to. He says he and his team plot the course of the summit carefully. They even send each attendee a personalized memento box two months after the summit ends.

CM: I mean we start by taking people on a private ferry boat off Manhattan island, to this destination where no one’s ever been before, this beautiful campus called Snug Harbor located on Staten Island, which again most people have never been to. And so we’re really thinking about taking our guests on a journey from before the summit all the way to two months after. They should feel like they’ve been on an adventure, a luxury adventure of some sort. Transported. Transformed.

AM-T: You know I was going to ask you, are there any parallels with creating a narrative to creating a conference, with a beginning, middle and end? And it sounds like there are.

CM: Yeah, absolutely. Our twenty some odd years of crafting beautiful books and telling stories in print prepared us very nicely for this.  The curation is similar to the editorial process of choosing writers or other creative contributors to a book. The attention to detail comes from our experience paying attention to the details of making books. It’s the same set of skills that have made us very successful in the publishing world that have led to people really enjoying the summit.

AM-T: How do you pick who comes, because it’s a small – it’s an exclusive group of people.

CM: Yeah we limit the summit to 500 people and that’s, interestingly that comes about because there’s only a certain number of rooms we have on this campus…and we don’t want it to be more than about 25 people in a room, and we don’t have space for more than 20 rooms. So what it does is it keeps us at a set size. We’ve made decision to not grow bigger than that. We think the intimacy of the conversations is a huge part of what makes the event special. 

AM-T: The guests come from the worlds of music, publishing, journalism, technology, and marketing. Most people are regulars who get asked back each year. Only ten percent are chosen from outside applicants. 

AM-T: Do you do anything to facilitate connections between people who have been going for four years and new people this year, or does that just happen organically?

CM: So we don’t have some conscious program like a speed dating or mentorship or whatever, but the way we organize the event, every bit of it is meant to shake it up so you’re having to meet new people each time. So one of the pieces of feedback we get is that you go to a session, there’s 25 people in that room, and after an hour of sitting around the table talking to the speaker you get a sense of who that speaker is, you get to know the speaker.

That’s one of my complaints about a lot of conferences is that the speaker is on stage. And if I  – at best I’m gonna get to shake that person’s hand in the lobby and say thank you, great talk. And maybe get their card. But I’m not gonna have a chance to have a meaningful discussion with them. Here, after an hour of sitting around a table I got a chance to ask what I wanted to ask – I got a sense of who that speaker was and they got a sense of me. But the other wonderful surprise was that after an hour of listening to each other talk around the table I got a really good sense of the other people in the room. So what we see is people leave those rooms saying ‘Hey, we should talk,’ or ‘I’m dealing with that too,’ and so just the rooms themselves become a wonderful way for people to get to know each other.

AM-T: Yeah, and listening to you talk about this, I’m someone who can be a bit of an introvert at conferences, they can be overwhelming, I’m someone who might run up to their room after several sessions because I need to get away from that hubbub and all those people. Do you find that with these smaller groups, people who might be a bit more introverted are actually happy to talk and they want to open up and talk in a smaller setting?

CM: I think people feel much more comfortable to be able to do that…again with a small group of people in a room…they might not be the first to ask a question, they might not start off the conversation, but after 30, 40 minutes and pretty much everyone else has said something now… and also by the way, we have a facilitator in each room with each speaker so they’re there to make sure conversation goes smoothly or fill in if there’s a lull, but also to make it welcome for the person who hasn’t asked a question or hasn’t been in the conversation to come into it.

And just back to those films they make of speakers before the conference – the films that kick off all the discussions these small groups have. These aren’t mashups of Powerpoint slides and video. Each film has a team and a director, and takes many hours to produce and edit.

AM-T: It sounds like it’s so much work, I wonder how…it’s not like every conference in the land would wish to replicate this, but it’s pretty labor intensive doing it this way, and doing it well.

CM: I totally agree, which is why I’m completely comfortable sharing it with you [laughs]. I think we’re the first to do this but I don’t think there’s something we own…I mean the idea of making films or sharing them online, we didn’t invent that. We’re just willing to put in the work, the time, and again that goes to our craft as storytellers, making books, making videos, we’ve made about 100 videos now over the last five years, just for FoST. They’re on our site, anyone can come watch them, we release them as we lead up to it – but it’s all part of creating a very rich story world for our attendees. Whether it’s the meta narrative or the boat ride, or the videos beforehand or the takeaway personalized books after, we’re inviting you into this exquisite journey, this hero’s journey, and literally we think about how can we have you leave transformed? How can we have you leave with the world seeming like a different place at the end of it?

AM-T: Charlie Melcher. The next Future of Storytelling summit will take place in October 2017. That’s the Convene Podcast for this time. We’d love to hear any feedback you have on the show – you can write to us at convenepodcast@pcma.org. There’ll be another show soon.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.

 

Ashley Milne-Tyte