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James Wallis levels with you

How Interesting

Saturday was the day of Interesting 08, the second unconference organised by Russell Davies (no T on this boy) at Conway Hall in London. Thirty speakers gave talks on subjects close to their hearts, the only common linking theme that the topics were—and the speakers should be—interesting. Possibly it was the best not-a-conference conference I’ve ever been to.

I presented a very cut-down version of my current paper (a geophysical survey of the World of Warcraft, which will be appearing here in the near future) and was gratified to get laughs in places I wasn’t expecting laughs. I was kind of surprised that, at a conference that was inherently playful, I was the only person talking explicitly about games. The closest were Roo Reynolds who spoke about Lego, and Collyn Ahart Chipperfield who talked about spaces for the fantastic.

What do I mean when I say the conference was “playful”? Several things.

It wasn’t serious. ‘Serious’ is not the opposite of ‘playful’, as anyone who’s ever played Diplomacy will tell you, but an absence of seriousness can certainly help create a playful atmosphere. The hall was decorated with bunting, the catering was biscuits, cupcakes and apples, and the event kicked off with a singalong version of ‘The Final Countdown’. From the get-go you knew this was going to be infotainment in its purest form.

Almost all the talks were short. I asked for ten minutes and got five. The weakest presentations were (with one exception) the ones that noticeably overran their slots. It encourages focus and attention to core points.

It was a lucky dip. When a speaker stepped on stage, you had no idea what they were going to talk about. Topics included what spooks horses, toilets, the history of vacuum cleaners, zoetrope animation without the slits, the role of booze in the development of society, guerilla geography, favourite words, beating insomnia with bad audiobooks, odd communities on Flickr, and much more. The guy who designed the ineffably cool new UK coinage spoke; so did the guy who did the remix of Radiohead’s ‘Nude’ using obsolete computer hardware.

Nobody was trying to impress you or sell you anything. It was about the joy of enthusiasm and communicating that joy.

And perhaps most importantly, even though almost all the speakers used PowerPoint or similar, everyone presented their material differently. Roo, who kicked off, showed 30 slides in three minutes—you can see it here but he’s cheated slightly by re-synching the sound with the slides. On the day the slides appeared automatically and he had to speed up or slow down what he was saying to match each image on screen. (He alludes to this at one point on the soundtrack.) It didn’t make his presentation more smooth but it made it more exciting, more of a competition, Roo against machine.

All the PowerPoint presentations were in a style that, if brought to a regular meeting or conference, you’d be asked to leave. Lots of full-screen pictures with no captions. Cartoons. Elegant graphs, often with slightly irreverent captions. A good number of images from classic SF movies. Nothing that was there just for teh funneh, but plenty that was meant to amuse as well as inform.

For the audience, barring the ‘Final Countdown’ singalong and one item that called for volunteers, it was also entirely passive. You listened or you didn’t listen, you enjoyed or you didn’t enjoy. You were not called to interact, but you felt involved. Playful, yes, but elements of direct or indirect play would almost certainly have spoiled the experience.

How does that work, then?

There’s a theory that says visualising walking, step by step, burns almost as many calories as actually walking. I can’t find any links to it and have no idea if it’s true, so take it for now as a metaphor. Everybody at Interesting 08 was thinking of what they could talk about at Interesting 09. It was the number one topic of overheard conversations. Even though non-speakers couldn’t play this time, their head full of thoughts about being up on the stage made the experience of watching others speak vicarious.

Secondly, because the talks were short and had to pack a lot into their time, they tended to be strong on wide-ranging high-points. Finding links between the different talks became a game, whether conscious or unconscious, and as the day went on the links coalesced into a web that felt like a tent covering all of us, the same way that a really good multi-stranded novel pulls all its threads and characters together. No coincidence that the bunting criss-crossing the hall looked like a net. It was an enormously unifying and satisfying feeling: not playful in a conventional sense, but playing with ideas is still play, and Interesting 08 was packed with ideas.

Links to the Interesting talks will be up on the Guardian website soon. Meanwhile, kudos to the organisers, congratulations to the speakers, and thanks to everyone who laughed at my jokes.


Categorised as: conference | world of warcraft


10 Comments

  1. Jim Le Fevre says:

    James,

    An excellent overview on the day and just a quick one to say how great your talk was, highly entertaining and informative. I can’t believe it was 5 minutes, there was so much stuff in it! I very much look forward to reading the finished paper (and in fact watching the talk again when it’s up on-line).

    Hooray for everyone who is interested.

    Jim

  2. Andy Piper says:

    Loved your talk James – hope you can put it up on Slideshare at some point!

  3. james says:

    Wow, many thanks for that feedback. (Jim was the zoetrope turntablist guy whose talk was absolutely one of the highpoints of the day–you could feel the whole audience not wanting it to end–and who I then completely failed to recognise outside the hall. It’s that hat, Jim, it does you no favours.)

    I’m looking into Slideshare, but first I’ve got to find someone with the audio of the talk.

  4. NickD says:

    Just a note – I haven’t presented for a while but having read up on presenting styles… a bit… I gather that “full screen pictures with no captions” is exactly what you should do at regular meetings. Standard presentations are far too dense, and don’t stick with the audience at all… however they do remind the presenter what they are meant to say next, which is always my problem ;)

    ( Hope to see you at OpenTech, it’s been several years, about time we bumped into each other again… )

  5. james says:

    Evidently we go to very different presentations. And yeah, I’ll be at OpenTech.

  6. Daniel Weir says:

    James

    Just a quick ‘note’ to say hello and thanks for providing such an excellent five minutes on Saturday, you were funny, informative and interesting (I rarely manage more than one of those a day let alone in five minutes). It was particularly interesting given it’s proximity to Daniel Raven Ellison’s presentation on Geography with his Mission : Explore statements and was definitely one of the highlights of the day for me.

    Well done and thanks. DW x

  7. Simon James says:

    Just wanted to add to the growing number of people thanking you for a great talk. My wife who usually laughs when I mention anything as ‘nerdy’ as World of Warcraft said it was one of her highlights of the day.
    Simon

  8. Mark Pack says:

    Just watched your presentation having followed a link from another blog. Very funny!

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