12/13/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Professional Events Can Be Personally Meaningful

Recent years have seen a significant rise in the number and variety of industry events: South by Southwest, Renaissance Weekend, Sun Valley, Disrupt, The New Yorker Festival ... you can likely name a dozen others. The growing popularity of these events reflects a real and deepening hunger among participants for meaningful professional development and networking.

This makes a lot of sense given the way jobs have evolved. The 20th Century's neatly-zoned, 9-to-5 dividers between personal and professional time and space have started to disintegrate. We live in an increasingly mixed-use world, carrying our offices around in our pockets. And so we increasingly crave professional experiences that offer not only career fulfillment, but personal enrichment, genuine connection to people whose values we admire, who challenge and inspire us and whose ideas spark our own.

Done well, events are the best way we know of to create those connections.

But as events proliferate, formulas creep in. Experiences that once seemed dynamic and enriching become rote, familiar, mass-manufactured, factory-scale. Our world views shrink as we see the same people talking about the same topics, again and again. We're both experiencing and seeing evidence of a growing event fatigue, with little on the horizon to replace the meaning and intellectual nourishment that a great gathering can provide.

There are ways to buck this trend.

A few years ago, the four of us -- Amanda Michel, Amy Webb, Andrew Pergam and Matt Thompson -- along with Jenny 8. Lee, launched an experiment. We held a modestly-sized weekend-long event. We called it Spark Camp, and we focused it on a theme ("Real-time"). We were startled by the outpouring of appreciation from attendees, so we held it again, at a different venue, with a different theme ("Data"). The reaction was even better, so we held it again ("Money"). We've now held five Spark Camps (2013 brought us "Design" and "Storytelling"), and the power and impact of the event on its attendees has grown every time.

Here is some of what we've learned about hosting events that makes them more meaningful.

The more varied the group, the more valuable the connections and outcome. For us, having a diverse group of attendees is about hosting a better event. When people bring together a true variety of backgrounds and experiences, they also bring a variety of ways to frame issues, find opportunities and identify solutions. Our mix of Campers was once perfectly described as "Everyone I never knew I always wanted to meet."

Before we decide on our individual invitees, we create what we call an "attendee matrix," which describes our desired composition of the group, their industries, experience levels and backgrounds.

More than 50 percent of the attendees at every Spark Camp we've hosted have been women. Roughly a third are people of color. Campers have been associated with a vast range of institutions and companies, from large news organizations to scrappy tech upstarts. Some are individual achievers -- playwrights, poets or project managers.

Some approaches to further increase each camp's diversity have been unsuccessful. At our first two Spark Camps, we asked attendees to suggest a "+1." We thought this approach would necessarily introduce us to new people, and help organizers break out of their own professional networks. Instead, Campers tended to invite friends or former colleagues. People often doubled themselves demographically. For example, white men almost always invited other white men.

We also found that attrition almost always comes disproportionately from groups that are underrepresented at media events. So we plan for it, and adjust our invitee list accordingly.
As we've said, finding great guests takes a lot of work. Assembling a diverse group of great guests takes more than double that work -- and it's well worth it.

We value discussion over presentation. When event organizers put a speaker in front of a podium, they presume that the speaker has access to a unique and timely body of insight that the rest of the crowd is there to hear. The presentation model is valued for its efficiency -- it allows a single person to dispense their latest learnings to an unlimited number of people in an hour or less.

But because we put so much work into bringing together people with unique perspectives, we find discussions to be a much better fit than presentations. We're not gathering to merely trade conventional wisdom or share best practices. The value of having all the different voices around the table is that it affords a better, stronger platform to debate, discuss and build on each other's assessments, to enable conversations we can't (and don't) easily have online and in public.

And so at Spark Camp, we set only a schedule in advance, not the session topics. Instead, we carefully help the participants form their own sessions collectively using a convening framework that we developed.

We value intimacy over publicity. We've learned that there's a trade-off between in-person sharing and social buzz -- the more publicly attendees share what they learn during an event, the less inclined they are to disclose valuable pieces of private knowledge. We want attendees to feel safe discussing failures as well as successes, to talk in real detail about processes and outcomes in their work.

At the start of each Spark Camp we ask attendees to consider what they hear as protected by 'FrieNDA' (an informal non-disclosure agreement we discovered at NewsFoo, a convening put on by O'Reilly Media, Google and the Knight Foundation). The FrieNDA equates to a social pact -- the understanding that conversations are meant to be private. We also ask attendees to shut off their devices and focus on the conversations at hand. Instead of a trail of tweets, we ask Campers to write down flashes of insight on cards and post them in a prominent place during the event.

There are certainly drawbacks to this approach. We miss the rich online buzz that builds around events that are fully on-the-record. And it reinforces a perception of exclusivity we're not trying to foster.

But because of this policy, numerous attendees have told us that they gleaned unique insight and understanding from Spark Camp, knowledge that likely wouldn't be shared if everything were public.

These are just three of Spark Camp's organizing principles. To learn more about how we work, please read the entire 'Sparking Connections.' And please share your thoughts and feedback with us -- @sparkcamp on Twitter.