Gretyl Kinsey: Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 30, we talk about content industry conferences with special guest, Jack Molisani.
Gretyl Kinsey: Hello and welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast. I’m Gretyl Kinsey, and I’m here today with a special guest, Jack Molisani. Jack, go ahead and introduce yourself.
Jack Molisani: Thank you. Jack Molisani here. I’m both the executive director of the LavaCon Conference on content strategy and tech comm management. I’m also the owner of ProSpring Technical Staffing, which is an agency that specializes in content professionals.
Gretyl: I want to talk specifically about conferences today, because as you mentioned, you do run LavaCon. Scriptorium also recently did its own LearningDITA conference, which was an online-only conference. I want to talk about conferences in the content industry specifically and how they work. How about you start by just telling us a little bit about LavaCon and what it is and how it works?
Jack: Sure. LavaCon started in Hawaii. That’s why it’s called LavaCon. I was at the Society for Technical Communication’s annual conference in 1998, and someone at the Leadership Day observed, “That’s a shame that none of the people in the regional conferences get to go to their own regional conference in regions seven and eight,” because those conferences were always on the mainland US and those chapters were offshore. Someone kind of just said, “You know what, we should have a combined region seven, region eight conference, hold it smack dab in the middle in Hawaii.” I raised my hand and went, “I’ll run that one.” Our breakeven was about 140 people. 560 showed up. It was amazingly successful. At the end of that conference, everyone kept saying, “I can’t wait till the next one.” I’m going, “There is no next one.” “I can’t wait till next year.”
Jack: Maybe there’s an opportunity here. I did not want to go into direct competition with the STC, because they already covered tech writing. Joe Welinske had WinWriters, which covered online help. I’m saying, “Well, what could I do a conference on that’s not already covered?” What I realized was technical communication management. For those of us who have a little more gray in our temples and been around a while, how do you manage technical writing projects? How do you estimate them? How do you handle poor performers? How do you build a business case for resources? Tech comm has always been our core, and then we added to it over the years. We realized that content strategy has kind of merged with the field of content writing and to become … Now, we’re still managing tech writing projects, but we’re also encompassing that broader field of content strategy and multichannel publishing.
Gretyl: How have you seen that grow and the trends in the industry change throughout the years of running LavaCon?
Jack: Well, first of all, this is our 18th anniversary this year. We’ll be in New Orleans in October. The conferences, all the conferences in our industry, used to be very, very tool-focused. How do I insert a new topic in RoboHelp? How do I link pages in FrameMaker? Everybody had their favorite tools. Tech writers knew how to write, and the STC did a good job of teaching at their conference, where ours was more, how do you choose a platform? What started out as a very narrow focus on specific tools became more a broader picture, something I would call tool-agnostic, is how do we plan for the future? This was before Google Glasses and before iPhones. Then the internet hit, and then webpages, and then mobile devices.
Jack: At our conference this year, our keynote speaker is going to be talking about content in the zombie apocalypse, where it feels like, “Oh my god, the sky is falling. The sky is falling. No, no.” Relax. The sky is not falling. If you future-proof your content, if you store it in small pieces in the content management system and tag it efficiently, you are set to handle the next big apocalypse that comes down the road. I find we are far more focused now on future and preparing the future than we were 18 years ago. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Gretyl: For someone who has never attended LavaCon, and they’re coming into this industry new for the first time, what can they expect out of your conference?
Jack: Ooh, that’s a trick question, Gretyl, because someone who is new to the industry probably wouldn’t come to my conference. Let me give you a qualified yes but. LavaCon focuses on management and director-level decisions. How do you choose a content management system? How do you decide to even go to a structured authoring? How much of your legacy content should you convert, and how much should you start from scratch? How do you get multiple silos, marketing and tech comm and learning and customer success, all talking to each other to implement these content strategies? Then how do you build the business case to get the funding for it? I would say the conference would be good for someone who may not have been to LavaCon before, but someone who’s definitely got the responsibility of making these really sometimes expensive decisions and need to learn how to do it and learn from the mistakes of others, because they’re faster and cheaper than making them yourself.
Gretyl: What advice do you have for people coming to LavaCon, or really any other conference, to get the most out of their experience there?
Jack: I always, always, always give this one piece of advice. Download the schedule at a glance. Highlight all the sessions you think would either save your company money, solve a content problem, or generate revenue. One, use that in your business case to attend. The second one is look at your corporate mission statement or your division’s corporate mission statement. Look at what projects you are working on that help forward your corporate mission statement, or how can you help your own company forward their goals for the year? Then once you decide to go to a conference, mine or anybody else’s, when you sit down in that very first session, keep in mind, what problems am I trying to solve, and how can this session help me do it? You’re not just going to a conference to get better yourself, whether you’re a UX designer, a tech writer, a content strategist, but you want to go back to help your company do things better, so you can then help your customers do things better. I think those would be the two main pieces of advice I’d give.
Gretyl: So, it’s not so much just an opportunity for learning. It’s also an opportunity for networking and what you can take back from both of those kind of pieces to your company.
Jack: Yes, and so much of what I get out of conferences is the networking, because you could be sitting around a coffee table, a dinner table, a karaoke night, and we do do a karaoke night, and be talking to a colleague from another company, someone else who does what you do, and say, “Hey, we’ve been working on that.” They go, “Yeah, we figured out how to do this. This is how we fixed it.” Also, as a speaker, because I speak at conferences, I’ve learned things in my own session that I taught because there was so much collective knowledge in the room. I call it a gathering place of professionals, not someplace where you sit and get talked at by some learned professional. No, you go there to share your best practices and lessons learned. I’m learning just as much from other attendees as I am from the speaker in the front of the room. A lot of that happens at lunch and dinner and karaoke night. Does that answer your question?
Gretyl: Yeah, I think so. That’s something that we’ve talked about and blogged about too is the importance of what we call the hallway track, and not just getting what you can out of the sessions and the programming at the conference itself, but everything else that’s offered just by being in the same physical space as all these other professionals and people that you can learn from.
Jack: No, I absolutely agree. I’m going to steal that term, the hallway track.
Gretyl: Yeah, please do. I think for us as exhibitors, because we do a lot of presentations and exhibit at a lot of conferences in this industry, that actually ends up being where we make a lot of our connections is not always at our booth but in the hallway afterward or going to dinner or to karaoke or any other events. That kind of leads me to my next question too, which is not so much from the attendee side but from the exhibitor side. What advice do you have for those people to get the most out of their conference?
Jack: That is a loaded question. I don’t get it asked often enough. I’m going to take full advantage of this opportunity. First of all, part of LavaCon’s mission statement is to connect the organizations who are experiencing content challenges with the tool vendors, consultants, and software providers who can help. Now, how, how, and I’m waving a pen at my laptop right now, how can the exhibitors excel at this? The biggest thing I would say is don’t sit in your booth with your arms crossed hoping someone will walk up and talk to you. Those token extroverts amongst us have no trouble walking up to an exhibitor and going, “Hi, I’m Jack. What do you do? Tell me about your product.” 99% of the world doesn’t, right? Be approachable. Say hello. Get out of your booth.
Jack: I’ll give you another example. We had an exhibitor. When we did LavaCon Dublin last year, that was fun. An exhibitor came up to me and said he was kind of disappointed that he didn’t have more people walk up to him at his booth. I said, “Well, you were at the networking lunch with 156 other people for two hours. What were you doing?” Other exhibitors would sit down at a table and go, “Hi, I’m Chris. What do you do?” “Oh, nice to meet you, Bob. How about you? What do you do?” “Hi, I’m Nancy. I’m an XYZ at such-and-such. Nice to meet you.” We exchange business cards. Then he goes back later. As she passes by in the hall, she goes, “Hey, Nancy. You mentioned that you were in XYZ. Can I show you something?” “Oh, sure.” You become approachable in a normal social setting, not with your arms crossed standing behind a table. That applies to anybody, anywhere.
Gretyl: Yeah, and I agree with that 100%. I will just add from Scriptorium’s perspective as well, one thing that definitely helps is if you have chocolate at your booth, they will come.
Jack: Yes, absolutely.
Gretyl: We found too that we talk to people where sometimes they don’t need our services at that moment, but they realize that two or three years down the road, they will. Even just making that connection early never hurts, and a lot of times, they’ll keep in contact with us, and they’ll do things like follow our blog, follow our podcast. Then when the time comes that they need a content strategy from us, we’ve been talking to them for a couple of years just because of some random meeting at LavaCon.
Jack: Exactly. I have two anecdotes that illustrate that perfectly.
Gretyl: Yeah, absolutely.
Jack: Last year, we started the Content Impact Awards, where anybody who went to LavaCon and went back to their organizations and effected positive organizational change, either internally or for their customers, and documented it as a case study, got an award. They come to find out that the two biggest best-of-show winners both came to LavaCon the previous year because they needed tool vendors to help them with XYZ. Ended up being two completely different problems and two completely different vendors, but both of those had met those vendors for the first time the previous year on a webinar and wanted to see them in person. Those breadcrumbs actually started two or three years ago, and I just had the same conversation with one of my staff members today, is that when people hear about a conference, a lot of times you have to put it in your next year’s travel and training budget. I can proudly say that early registrations for LavaCon 2018 are up 150% over last year.
Gretyl: Wow, that’s pretty awesome.
Jack: Isn’t that cool? I’m going, “Well, we didn’t really do anything different.” Then I realized we did a whole bunch of promotion last year, because we were doing two conferences. We did Dublin and Portland. By doubling the amount of promotion we did, twice as many people found out about the conference, put the travel and training request into this year’s budget, and can attend this year. To illustrate your point, just because someone can’t buy your services or don’t need your services now, doesn’t mean they’re not looking to one year out, two years out, five years out. To me, this is a relationships game, not a come by my booth and buy something game. It’s really relationship building.
Gretyl: Absolutely. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about the planning side of conferences and not so much the attendee and exhibiting side, and just ask you a little bit about what goes into putting on a show like LavaCon, making sure all the pieces and parts fall into place.
Jack: Wow. How do I answer that? First of all, I love this part of my job. It’s like throwing a party for 450 of your closest friends. We actually start the site selection process two or three years out. I’ve already signed contracts for 2019, 2020, 2021, and now looking at 2022. Part of what I do as a conference planner is, one, pick a place where people will want to go, because that helps attendance. LavaCon was in Hawaii until 2008, until the market crashed, and I couldn’t get people to Hawaii if my life depended on it. I brought it to the mainland US, because it was more corporate budget-friendly. But I wanted to keep that aloha spirit, that magic of the islands that we started to be known for, the great food, the great networking, the fun locations, so I tend to take my conference to fun places, like New Orleans, the Gaslamp District of San Diego, live music capital of the world, Austin, Texas, Downtown Portland.
Jack: The second thing that I have to do is listen to what is coming next. What’s over the horizon that people are going to need to know about a year from now? This lesson came from my mom, who said, “Chanel No. 5 never goes out of style. Nor do khaki pants.” Instead of following the latest fad, I try to cover the things that are eternal. Management basics. How do you build a business case? Workplace negotiation skills. You’re always going to need that, no matter what the next publishing technology is. You need your core management soft skills, but then you need to know, what’s coming next down the line? There wasn’t chatbots five years ago. There wasn’t iWatches and iPhones. You need to stay true to our core values by also responding to market changes and technology changes. Did that answer your question?
Gretyl: Yeah, it did. I’ll follow up with one more, which is LavaCon has a virtual track. We did something at Scriptorium earlier this year, which was something we’d never done. We did LearningDITA Live, so that was a web conference. It spanned four days. We had presenters from all different countries and time zones. All of us at Scriptorium, all the consultants, did presentations, but we also had our sponsors and other guests. Just coordinating something like that was really challenging. I’m kind of curious to get your perspective, since you have both the virtual track with LavaCon and a physical conference itself, what kinds of differences that you see in the planning for something at an actual location versus something that only happens online? Then what happens when you kind of bring them both together the way that you do for LavaCon?
Jack: A good question. One, I can also happily admit that when we submitted our call for speakers this year … Last year, we had, I don’t know, 70 proposals for 50 speaking slots. This year, we had 120.
Jack: I turned away 70 really good speakers and topics because we just didn’t have the room for them. Since they all were really good, I said, “Okay, we’re going to do a similar virtual conference in the spring, just with those people, because I still want to get those messages out.” We kept the more interactive ones for the in-person track, and then we’re going to do the virtual conference. Now, at the physical conference in New Orleans, we using Adobe Connect, will, using live video, stream all the sessions in one room, so all the keynote presentations and all the breakout sessions that are also in that room during a live virtual track.
Jack: Now, where this differs from other conferences who offer a virtual track is that Phylise Banner and Joel Glickman, who’s our roving reporter, and Phylise is our VJ, so to speak, does this really immersive experience where you just don’t sit there. There’s a chat room where you could be asking the questions to the speaker, and the speaker responds to the virtual audience. We go out and we livestream in the exhibit hall, and you get to meet with other attendees. The virtual attendees can network with themselves. Then we do live streaming on Facebook Live, so we can bring everybody else into the karaoke room, and really make it that the attendees are really part of the conference, not just sitting there passively looking at a window on their laptop.
Gretyl: When it comes to coordinating something like that, how do you make sure that everything stays on track and nothing falls apart?
Jack: Well, the first thing you learn is how to hide it when things fall apart and don’t stay on track, because there’s always something. First of all, I have an amazing staff that keep me out of trouble. That’s the first thing. The second thing is checklists, checklists, checklists. We have things that we do six months out. We have things that we have to have done five months out. Make sure that the speaker slides are posted one month out. Send the thing to the printer two weeks out. We’ve done this for 18 years, and every time something goes wrong, it went wrong because we didn’t have something in the checklist, or we didn’t have a policy and procedure to handle that if that happened, so we quickly write one.
Jack: Over the years, we’ve grown the conference production machine, and I’m using air quotes around machine, in that we’ve done this enough, we’re comfortable in our skin, so we know what to expect. We’ve handled the crises that may have happened. We’ve written checklists and preparedness plans and watched our clocks. I mean, we do at LavaCon, instead of one hour-long keynote, I started running into the problem of getting these really good speakers, Gretyl. I went, “Everybody needs to hear this. Ooh, everybody needs to hear this.” For the keynotes, we went to more of a TED Talk model, 18 minutes long, no less, no more, 18 minutes, TED Talks, because it’s short enough that people can listen without a podcast, but long enough for it to be substantive. But when you’re running three 18-minute keynote speakers in 60 minutes, you’ve literally got two minutes to do a scene change and a speaker and a mic change. You watch the clock. You have countdown timers. It just starts running like clockwork.
Gretyl: Now that you do have things running like clockwork, what goals do you see for LavaCon in the future?
Jack: Well, first of all, I’m having a lot more fun at my own conference. It used to be that I was the one running around like a chicken with his head cut off, where I can now network with more of my speakers. I can network with more of my exhibitors. Heard a great analogy once where you have to be familiar enough with how something is supposed to run to spot when it’s not running right. The analogy that someone used is like sailing a boat. If you’re on a sailboat, you expect to hear clang, clang, clang, as the things hit the side of the boat, and there’s certain creak, creak, creaks.
Jack: Well, it’s when you don’t hear the clang, clang, and you don’t hear the creak, creak, that you know something’s wrong. If I don’t hear a clang when I should be, like, “Wait a minute, that air wall is supposed to be open now,” I could say, “Go get somebody.” It just really becomes keeping the machine humming before a problem occurs, and that same analogy happens within content development. It’s really training both myself and my staff to be proactive. Really one quick thing, and I’ll let you go to the next question, I’m constantly going, “How else can I serve my attendees? How can I make the conference better? How can I make it more fun, just a better experience at all?” That’s one of the reasons why LavaCon, I think, is growing the way it is.
Gretyl: Right. Absolutely. You mentioned that you are on the 18th anniversary coming up. Do you have any special plans for the big 20 when it rolls around?
Jack: Yeah, we’re looking at going back to Honolulu again for the main conference. My concern though is a lot of people will still not get budget authority to go to Hawaii. It’s either too far away, or it’s perceived as a boondoggle. That year, we’re probably going to do a LavaCon East and a LavaCon West. Maybe we have LavaCon in Hawaii in January/February, and then the main conference in October somewhere on the East Coast.
Gretyl: Sounds great. For now, why don’t we wrap up by just having you give us the details about the next LavaCon Conference and where people can find more information?
Jack: The next LavaCon is going to be in New Orleans, October 21st through 24th. The Saturday before we start, because we start it on a Sunday, New Orleans has a Halloween parade, just like they have a Mardi Gras parade, called the Krewe of Boo. If you come in on Saturday, you get to go to a Mardi Gras parade. You can find out about the conference at LavaCon.org. I don’t know. How much of the surprise should I let out now? Each year, we started a tradition … Well, last time we were in New Orleans, to get from the hotel to the offsite karaoke venue, we did a Second Line jazz parade down Bourbon Street to where we were going.
Jack: When we were in Las Vegas, we had a stilt walker lead us in a parade down Fremont Street to the offsite venue. Last year in Portland, we had a Chinese dragon parade from the hotel to the offsite venue. This year, because we’re a couple days before Halloween, and because Karen is speaking about content in the zombie apocalypse, we’re going to do a zombie pub crawl on the last night, where we’re all going to get zombie makeup-ed and crawl through the French Quarter, and do an undead walking tour, and some other things, but I’ll hold those as surprises for now.
Gretyl: Yeah, always good to keep people in suspense and then make them want to come to your conference and find out everything that’s going to happen.
Jack: We also have a Facebook page. You can follow us on Facebook. You can follow us on Twitter, all the usual suspects. Yeah, it’s going to be fun.
Gretyl: All right. Thank you so much for joining us on The Content Strategy Experts podcast.
Jack: It was absolutely my pleasure.
Gretyl: Thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.