Just finished watching the last episode of True Detective. Man, was that weird or what? Sure, you knew that whoever did it was going to be pretty much deeply disturbed—when you think about it so was Mathew McConaughey, but in a good way—but that didn’t stop you from analyzing every episode and line of dialogue in search of deeper meaning. Interesting and compelling content makes for must see TV. And as we enter trade show season, shouldn’t this same axiom work for them? Instead, the most interesting aspect of the typical data center trade show is determining who offered the most interesting tchotchke (hint: it’s the booth with the largest congregation of paunchy, middle-aged men armed with bulging vendor logoed plastic bags). This needs to change. If you’re going to spend a few grand for a pass, travel and hotel shouldn’t you at least want to be there? If you think about it, don’t the things that made True Detective great provide us with a guide to making our trade shows events that we really want to attend and not just another excuse for chalking up more frequent flyer miles? Since I’ve taken the liberty of assuming that your answer is yes, let’s analyze how an HBO mini-series can provide us all with a more stimulating trade show experience.
1) Lead with the biggest names you can get– Let’s face it, getting Woody Harrelson and Mathew McConaughey to play the leads in the search for the Yellow King peaked most people’s interest a little more than the usual police procedural. Sure you’re not going to get guys like that for your average data center conference, but surely we can do better than some Silicon Valley hack providing us with another vision of our technology enhanced futures. C’mon guys let’s think outside the box a little. For example, I just got back from a conference that had the Dalai Lama as a featured speaker. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but when was the last time you saw a guy in Saffron robes at AFCOM?
2) Punch up the script– True Detective had some of the most original dialogue seen on television in a long time. And even though most of us didn’t know what the heck Rust was talking about with the whole “time is flat circle thing”; you just don’t hear that kind of soliloquy everyday. I realize that there is a quid pro quo element to sponsorship and speakerships, but listening to some senior engineer droning on about advances in fly wheel technology has most of the audience wondering if they’ll be serving cookies at the break within five minutes. Let’s try and be a little more aspirational here people.
3) Less is more– Unlike the average television show that takes a whole season for plot line resolution, True Detective wrapped up a decades long serial killer case in just eight (8) episodes. At a time when our trade shows continue to proliferate, maybe it would make sense to have fewer of them. Cutting down on the number of shows would make them much more important to potential attendees since they can’t just go to the same exhibition in the next state over as they can today, and also provide the bigger stage that would draw higher level speakers. I’m sure the regional VP of Sales for Company X is a great speaker, but wouldn’t you rather hear from X’s CEO?
4) Challenge your speakers to be different– The makers of True Detective have already said that next year’s season won’t have the any of the same characters (and the actors that played them). This forces them to give us something different than what we became accustomed to. Our trade shows should throw down the same gauntlet. For example, a show could refuse to allow any presentations with a product pitch. Now there’s a challenge. But from an attendee point of view, how refreshing would that be, and you might even have a chance to learn something new. Maybe, just to make it exciting, they could do something like taze any presenter who uttered the forbidden phrase, “our product”—I know I’d pay to see someone get a jolt of a few hundred volts for that, and I bet a lot of you would too.
5) Mix it up. The characters of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart couldn’t have been more different, and that tension kept our interest. D idn’t we all know that they were going to come to blows at some point? Our trade shows have all the tension of a Sunday cotillion, and every speaker gets the same level of polite applause that most people reserve for their 8 year old daughter’s dance recital. Folks, we all know that we aren’t in violent agreement on everything, so let’s agree to disagree in public. This industry has some strong personalities so let’s put them together on stage and let the sparks fly. We don’t have to go all Jerry Springer—although that would definitely be an attendance booster—but a little good-natured “discussion” would sure spice things up. I’ll even go first. Me and Manos against all comers.
Someone once described television as a vast wasteland. I couldn’t disagree more. I think shows like True Detective can not only entertain us, but demonstrate that we shouldn’t be afraid to break out of traditional modes of doing things. Maybe it’s too late for the lessons of the series to be inculcated into this year’s spate of trade shows and conferences, but the DVD will undoubtedly be available shortly, and for all you trade show operators out there, I say this should be required viewing.