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Manufacturing Genuine Conversations

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I have this theory, that the entire reason why moderators exist so ubiquitously in the world of conferencing, is because for some reason no conference producer in history has had the balls to risk awkward silence in return for potentially creating world-changing conversations.

In all of our lives, many eureka moments come out of conversations. A great conversation that is free-flowing, unstructured, and unrestrained can change one’s entire life. In a previous exploration I asserted that all of mankind’s innovations in communication has been an effort to replicate the qualities of a face-to-face conversation. I will postulate further today, that I believe every form of media and entertainment is also an effort to replicate to audiences the effects a genuine conversation can have.

Whether it’s movies with great scripts and dialogues, or the ever-expanding array of talk shows on television, or the radio stations and podcasts that place all their emphasis on the spoken word. Even the news — all news of all formats — seek to conduct interviews from people with first-hand knowledge as one of the core ways of coverage on any issue. People seek conversations, and whether introvert or extrovert, we are all drawn to making conversations with the right people about the right subjects.

Which is why I believe the model for conferencing is so flawed, when all conference producers seem to insist that a moderator is an absolute necessity for making contents work. There have been countless conferences where I’ve seen remarkable pairings of people — Bill Gates and Elon Musk, Al Pacino and Robert Deniro, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — with underwhelming results due invariably to some idiot moderator who’s cutting off the speakers from engaging with each other.

There is certainly a place for moderators in the world of conferencing and live media. Some situations do call for interviews rather than speeches, or structure due to a combination of subject urgency and time constraint, and in those situations a great moderator serve a linchpin purpose of successfully drawing the right contents out of a speaker. But I believe there is a place in the world also for public and unstructured dialogue, and that space is not only underserved, but as far as I know it’s nonexistent. Because no conference producer wants to risk programming an hour long conversation that has the potential to come to an awkward silence at any point during the hour. With a moderator, the only job of that person is to keep the conversation going and keep the speaker from leaving in a fit of rage. For a conference producer, it’s a guarantee, that an employee of the event is getting paid to do the sole job of making sure the conversation doesn’t end before it’s supposed to.

There are numerous challenges if one attempted to change this status quo of course. A truly genuine conversation typically doesn’t happen in front of an audience, because anybody who is aware of being in a spotlight would get a human inclination to “put on a show” with anything he or she is doing. Also, conference production needs replicability, and it’s foreseeable to believe the spontaneity of meeting a perfect stranger and striking up a life-changing conversation cannot be dependably replicated by the work of a conference producer. There is also the factor of time, of which the best conversations in life are not beholden to. Sometimes a great talk can last 10 hours, and other times less than 10 minutes, and it’s a daunting challenge for a producer to integrate this unpredictability in programming a conference.

What little theoretical control that a conference producer has may or may not be enough to offset the seeming oxymoron of manufacturing genuine conversations. We have lead times of weeks and months to prepare speakers for their conversations, we can create theoretically optimal settings for a conversation to happen, curate specific audiences and cues to hedge against conversations gone awry. But it’s surprising and frustrating to see that no conference producer has attempted to systematically perfect this art. Because if there’s one ability as enviable as an X-Men character, wouldn’t it be worth pursuing to have the ability to bring any two people in the world together and foster understanding between them?

See you at the next exploration!

Harry

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