The events team at Intercom began this year with the goal of creating a series of events that was a better reflection of who we are, where we’re going and what we wish we knew when we were starting out and scaling.
If the reaction from attendees is anything to go by they’ve done exactly that. A unique production (yes, there are really no slides) and raw, honest talks means they’ve created something more akin to a high-quality concert production than your average tech event.
Having just announced our biggest ever show in San Francisco on October 25th and a fresh round of speakers (Sharon Moorhouse and Sabrina Gordon), we caught up with the Manager of Events Megan Sheridan to discuss the concept behind the tour, what’s worked so far and what audiences can look forward to in the North American and Australian leg of the tour.
Hey Megan. One of the most commented on aspects of the tour so far has been the production. Could you talk us through the concept behind the tour?
Can’t tell if I’m at #InsideIntercom or a rave
— Dan Rolfe Johnson (@danrolfejohnson) May 16, 2017
When you’re a small startup, there’s a glorious period of time when you’ve got 50 people in a room and everyone’s best friends and high-fiving. Every day is about discovery and experiments, figuring things out and getting things wrong. There’s a certain romanticism to not knowing if you’re coming to work tomorrow.
But when you get to a company of Intercom’s size, not a small startup but not a 500+ person company either, there comes a stage when things start to break. There are all these new departments, new goals, new pressures and in general stresses are pretty high. Fundamentally the company is still the same, but you start thinking about people and product in a completely new light. That’s what this tour is all about and that’s what the whole creative production is based on; Intercom’s journey six years in and how we’ve come to honestly think about things.
It definitely didn’t find the mold of what you’d expect to see from a tech event. Were you worried that the audience would be put off by the concept?
Funnily enough, I didn’t get worried until right before the first show. The six months before that point were built on blind optimism. I spent so much time trying to convince people that this was the right thing to do that I didn’t really have a chance to doubt it. I don’t think it would have worked if I was worried.
But a week before our first event, when everything was coming together, I had a realization that no one had actually asked for this. The reason other companies and other conferences do what they do is because there is an open, obvious demand for tried and tested topics and methods. “Tell me how to raise X amount of money.” Or “Tell me how to build a team with five easy steps.” So why mess with that? I know that people genuinely want to go to a tech event, have a page of notes at the end of it and have a method for becoming successful.
Nobody asks for stories like “Emmet (our Director of Product Design), what do you think about the state of the universe and how that relates to our industry?”. No one ever specifically asks for that, so it always feels like a risk to build in new thoughts and new ways to do this stuff. The reaction so far has been really positive, and in a lot of ways validates that there is a demand for types of content like this. In a lot of ways, the concept of the show is what I really wish other conferences did or cared about more. I don’t think I’m the only one.
Ok, I have to ask. Why were there no slides? People love slides!
I never considered that people enjoy slides because personally I really, really hate them. 😀 I hate them because I love watching people talk. It’s cool to see people think. So when somebody gets on a stage and they have a screen that’s easily 200 times the size of them, people are really only focusing on one thing, right? That’s broken.
A speaker’s attitude and content change the second they lose slides too. Something interesting happens when every word you say has a purpose, not just a narrative or a repetition of what your screen is saying for you. When you lose slides you notice that people are really listening. You forget how rare that is or how hard that is to do but it’s probably the most important thing you can hope to do at an event.
There’s another thing I wish conferences thought about more. If we’re putting people on a stage, we’re entertaining. Imagine you went to a comedy show and someone on stage was walking around with a clicker in their hand, checking their speaker notes, or looking back at a screen to make sure their slides are in sync. You’d switch off right away. Slides completely work against how people want to engage and digest information. Getting rid of them is an attention thing, an engagement thing and a human thing.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in production?
By paring everything back – no slides, no clicker, no theatres etc – I thought I was creating something really simple, but it’s actually the most complicated thing I could have done. The show should look and feel simple if we do it correctly, but it also means there’s absolutely no margin for error. If it looks wrong by even the smallest degree it’s pretty obvious to everyone in the room.
The other difficulty of the production is that it’s incredibly open. Nothing is hiding anything. You can see the crew moving around throughout the whole production. You can see how the stage is built. You can see how the speaker has nothing in their hands but is controlling the whole show. So if anything falls apart, the audience will know about it right away.
One of my personal highlights of the tour has been the confessional nature of the talks. You kind of get the feeling some of this shouldn’t be aired in public. Was it hard to convince speakers to share some of this stuff?
I’d be lying if I said everyone was excited about it! It wasn’t an easy sell and it’s not an easy commitment for a speaker to make either. It was really important to get the speakers excited about the final product. What would it be like if you saw a speaker onstage who walks up, has nothing in their hands and talks to the audience like people actually talk to one another? What if you actually got to talk about something you’ve been genuinely involved in, that personally matters to you, that’s based on your time at Intercom? What if you could talk honestly about it?
When we got speakers to think along those lines, they saw it as a fun or at least interesting opportunity. But it is a bet they had to make, and I’m very lucky and proud that they did.
What can attendees expect in the second leg of the tour?
We’ve learned a lot about how people are receiving the show so we’re fine-tuning the whole production based on that feedback. It’s amazing to get to do that during a project. Marketers rarely get to ship something and then take a step back and say “Let’s tweak this. Let’s move the content around this way. Let’s rewrite that. Let’s change the visuals.” But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and wish we saw more of in marketing. The audience can expect the same concept and the same theme, but some changes in the production, our visuals and a few new stories from our speakers as well.