How Disruptive Tech is ‘Changing Everything’ — Meetings Included

From his award-winning work as a tech columnist for The New York Times to his new role at Yahoo, David Pogue aims to make disruptive technologies accessible for the everyday user.

Tech guru David Pogue has worn many hats over the course of his career. In his youth, he composed songs for musicals and for choirs and performed as a magician. He studied music, English, and computer science at Yale. He worked in various roles (conductor, programmer, arranger) on Broadway for a decade. Then Pogue began writing professionally — manuals for music-software programs, books in the “For Dummies” series, articles for Macworld magazine — culminating in a job as The New York Times’ award-winning technology columnist beginning in 2000.

Recently, Pogue left the Times to join Yahoo, where he’ll “lead a major expansion of consumer-tech coverage …,” CEO Marissa Mayer wrote on Yahoo’s tumblr site, “and will publish columns, blog posts, and video stories that demystify the gadgets, apps, and technology that powers our users’ daily lives.”

Pogue also hosts PBS’s “NOVA science NOW” program, writes a column for Scientific American magazine, and makes frequent appearances at conferences — including PCMA Convening Leaders 2014, where he’ll present a Masters Series program on “Disruptive Tech: What’ s New, What’ s Coming, and How It Will Change Everything.” “It’s just so much, so fast,” Pogue told Convene in a recent interview. He sees his role as helping “separate the wheat from the chaff to tell you which things are important and which things you can forget…. [T]hat’ s the whole point of my existence on Earth.”

What will be most useful for professionals about the new consumer-tech site that you’ll be creating at Yahoo?

The fundamental issue is that there are a million technology sites, and there are two problems as I see it. Number one, they tend to be for gearheads. They’re for gadget hounds. They’re very technical. My mission, from writing “Dummies” books to writing in The New York Times, has always been explaining technology to ordinary people who don’t have a particular technical expertise.

And the second element of this [new Yahoo] site is, it’s not just about what to buy, which tends to be the thrust at technology sites, but how to use it. So we’re expanding into troubleshooting and tips and tricks and tutorials and stuff like that. Anyone who uses these gadgets or feels overwhelmed by them will find a better home there.

You’ve described Yahoo as somewhat of an underdog. What is most exciting for you personally about going to work for a company that is in that position?

Well, you know, I wasn’t especially sold on this idea of going to Yahoo, but they insisted I come out and spend a couple days out there at their headquarters and meet the executive team and sit down with Marissa Mayer and so on. And, I have to say, it turned me around. When you’re the underdog — when the world has left you for dead — that inspires you. That makes you aggressive and resilient and creative. From the top employee to the bottom, everybody there has this mentality of, we’re all rolling together and we can do this. Every bit of good news is cheered. It’s a really, really exciting feeling. That’ s very much why people like working on startup companies. You have nowhere to go but up. You have nothing but your wits and your creativity. It’s just darned exciting. That’s the bottom line. It makes your blood pound.

There are so many new products and so many technologies that meeting planners find it difficult to know which direction to go — both from a cost perspective and in terms of learning new things. How might people wade through all this and decide which products to use?

First of all, that’s true even for me. It’s my job to keep on top of it. It’s all I do is read about it and test it and go to conferences. And it’s still overwhelming. It’s just so much, so fast. Obviously, the one thing you can do is just read the material written by people whose job that is to crawl through this stuff…. And, you always benefit by not being the first. [Tech reviewers are] not buying [version] 1.0 of anything — that always applies. And other than that, check in before you buy anything to see what the latest news is.

Do you think that disruptive technologies have changed the way people meet face-to-face?

On the small scale, videoconferencing is finally becoming standard. My meetings with PR people who want to pitch me on some new product used to involve them flying across the country and then spending two hours in the car to come visit me in person. And more and more we’re doing that over video chat — Skype or FaceTime. I think they’re delighted and I’m delighted, because it’s just so much less time out of everybody’s day and so much more efficient and less expensive and better for the environment.

But, you know, that’s on a small scale. In terms of larger meetings, aside from the obvious things like efficiency gained by apps and the ability to rebook or reschedule or post the conference agenda online in real time, I’m not sure. There’s something still fantastic and un-replicable about a live person on stage presenting in two-way real time with value.

In a recent interview with Forbes, you said that with Yahoo you’ll be trying “things online, on phones, on tablets, on TV, and in person that nobody in consumer tech has tried yet.” Do you have any ideas about what some of those things might be in terms of meetings?

I sort of am a born-again showoff. I’ve always been on stage since I was a tiny kid. I was a magician growing up. I spent 10 years on Broadway doing Broadway shows. So to me, the conference — the presentation — is just a natural place for me to be. I guess that’s my way of saying I hope that someday we’ll be able to develop our own live conferences to accompany all the digital stuff we’ll be offering.

And then there’s another sense I probably meant by live, and that is I’m a huge fan of crowdsourcing. I wrote a book a few years ago — well, I didn’t write a book, my Twitter followers wrote a book — called The World According to Twitter. Every night I would pose a question to my half a million followers at the time, like “What should the 11th Commandment be?” Or, “Tell me about your first kiss,” or whatever. People would tweet back their responses. The funniest and most interesting ones I rounded up into this book. It’s two-way. It’s real-time. I immediately repost the funniest one within 10 minutes. So it becomes like a digital stage performance. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It seems like there’s lots more room to experiment like that.

Which could have a lot of implications for in-person events?

That’s right. A couple years ago when the iPad came out,… they announced it six months before the actual iPad was available to buy. Everybody had all these questions about it, so I made a video town-hall meeting where my viewers and audience members appeared on my computer screen like a Brady Bunch grid of 32 faces. They could raise their hand and they could react and they could laugh. Now, it was all fake. I actually assembled these tiny videos by hand into a grid. It wasn’t live. I had my Twitter followers prerecord the appropriate reactions and ask people questions. I think we’re at the point where we could do that live.

We could do a virtual live conference. It would be me interviewing, let’s say, the CEO of Verizon, and across the bottom of the screen you’d see two representative rows of the live video feeds of people watching. So you get a sense of audience. You get a sense of being in the same place at the same time, even though we’re all over the world. And you’d be able to converse and interact with the audience.

Have there been any tech elements at conferences you’ve attended lately that you’ve found particularly interesting?

At one conference, it was in a ballroom setting, and on each table, there was a terminal set up, sort of like a table tent, and there were a number of times during the sessions where the MC or the speaker would ask the audience for feedback [to questions like] “If you haven’t started [using] Facebook or Twitter [for your company], why not? Type in your answer.” They were beamed in real-time and collated onto the big screen as they came in. So it became a really interesting realtime, two-way dialogue with the audience at key points. It really kind of changed the nature of the presentation.

They could type in whatever they wanted, or did they have a preset list of choices?

I’ve seen them both ways. At another conference, people were asked to use their cellphones to text the answer to a real-time poll being presented by the presenter. To me, that’s a little bit less interesting. I mean, it was a neat technology demo that it could add up the poll results in real-time, but it was just a poll. The one I was describing with the kiosk, you could type in answers.

On your website you mention that you admire Marissa Mayer’s “try-stuff” attitude. We talked about how it can be daunting and potentially expensive to try to adopt the newest technologies in business or at your meetings. Do you have any advice for a planner considering implementing something brand-new?

That’s a good question. I guess the answer is, the reason a place like Yahoo experiments and takes these risks is because they want the climb. They want to do better. They want to attract a larger and better audience. I would think it’s the same for a meeting planner, because the idea is to attract an audience to the event. One way to do that might be incorporating and advertising some of these helpful new technologies that would make it more interesting for people to go. Like, somebody who hadn’t been for three years, when they find out that there will be a cool new two-way system on your phone to interact with the speaker, they might be pushed over the edge to attend. .

Katie Kervin

Katie Kervin was formerly assistant editor of Convene.