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The 5-4-3 double play, or “The Art of Conference Blogging”

When I was about seven years old, my father taught me how to score a baseball game. We were probably in Florida, combining a trip to a spring training game with a visit to one of my grandmothers. He explained the basics of the hieroglyphic system that both professionals and fans use to score games, the numbering of the position players, the difference between a forward and backwards “K”, and set me loose to scribble on a scorecard while he made his own illegible notes in his wire-bound, leatherette scorer’s book.

I’ve scored games ever since – only when I’m actually in the stadium, but religiously on those occasions. When scoring at our local ballpark, the elegant and ancient Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, MA, I sometimes get asked by other fans why I’m scoring the game. “Are you a scout? Are you a reporter?”

“Nah, I just like to score ballgames.” If pressed, I’d tell them that scoring a game forces me to pay attention, to be in the moment, to keep at least one eye on the action rather than on the hot dogs, the beer and the people I’m sitting with. I miss something if I’m not scoring a game. And I like being able to glance down in the seventh inning and see whether the man at the plate is 0 for 3 or 2 for 2 with a walk.

This may help explain my anti-social and obsessive attitude towards blogging at conferences. I’ve developed something of a reputation for blogging the conferences I attend with fairly obsessive detail. Some of my colleages are grateful for this “service”; some of my readers have stopped subscribing to this blog due to the volume of conference posts. If you ask me why I do it, the answers are similar to my reasons for scoring baseball games:

– Because David Weinberger does it, and David is someone worth emulating. Ditto Bruno Giussani.
– Because it gives me a record of a gathering that I can work from, quoting speakers and ideas in later blog posts.
– Because it forces me to pay attention to what’s going on at a conference, not just to visit with my friends, chat in the hallways, enjoying the spectacle.

As I’ve gotten better at conference blogging, there are at least three other reason:

– Conference blogging gets me invited to conferences I couldn’t otherwise afford to go to, and which I enjoy being present at.
– Other bloggers link to my conference posts, which raises my Technorati profile, my google juice, etc., and makes it more likely people will read my original writing.
– People expect me to. (This is a good and bad thing.)

A few kind friends have asked for thoughts on how to blog a conference in detail. I’m not convinced that there are many tricks to it, but here are a few things that help me keep pace at conferences like Pop!Tech and TED, where the talks come fast and furious:

The kit: I come to conferences with my beloved Mac, two charged batteries, a power strip, a digital camera and cables, granola bars and a lap desk. This last item is totally essential – I’ve turned my car around when driving to a conference to retrieve my lapdesk, knowing that burned knees and backpain await if I try to blog with the laptop directly on my lap.

The location: Bloggers rarely sit in the front row to blog conferences. We’re distracting to the people around us, especially people sitting behind us, watching our screens. It’s usually better to sit to a side, near the power plugs. The really big conferences often have “overflow rooms” where some of the audience can watch a talk on simulcast TV. These are a gift for bloggers. I learned this from Ndesanjo Macha, who blogged 2005 Pop!Tech almost entirely from outside the main hall, glued to a monitor and power outlet.

Some conference organizers are particularly good about creating a physical space for conference bloggers. TED in Monterey provides a table with power strips facing a monitor in their downstairs overflow lounge – it’s a great place to blog that conference, if you can wedge your way between me and Bruno.

Preparation: Conferences usually give you a speaker program ahead of time. Use it. Over breakfast before the day of a conference, I’ll type the names of each speaker and their talk title into a text file. If I’m really good, I’ll do quick Google searches on each of them and link their names to their blogs, research institutions, arrest records, etc. Prepare sufficiently and you’ve got the first paragraph of each post written ahead of time.

Macros: I write my blog posts – and, frankly, everything I write – in BBEdit, a remarkably powerful Macintosh text editor. One of several thousand reasons to use BBEdit is a feature called “Glossaries” or “Clippings”. This is a way of storing pieces of text that you use frequently and linking them to key combinations. My friend Daniel Beck turned me on to this powerful feature and developed a couple of basic clippings for me, which I use heavily.

So when I want to add a hyperlink to a document, I copy the address from Mozilla, highlight the text I want to link, and then type Shift-Apple-Comma, which inserts the following text into my file:

< a HREF="" >< /a >

around the highlighted text, and positions the cursor between the quotes. Press Apple-V and I’ve got a formatted hyperlink in two keystrokes. I have keys linked to blockquotes and to URLs I reference frequently, like Global Voices and this blog. I’ll sometimes create a glossary entry for the technorati tag associated with a conference, associated with shift-apple-T-R, or for the main website for a conference.

Even if you’re composing online, within your blogging platform, or if you don’t feel comfortable setting up macros, it can be a big help to put some useful snippets of text in a text file and cut and paste them into blogposts.

Keeping Up:
I have a hard and fast rule for myself – I complete posts on a conference session within fifteen minutes of the end of that session. This isn’t because I’m obsessive about getting up the first post on a topic – it’s because I will miss the next session if I’m still writing the former post. Better to put up an incomplete and imperfect set of notes than to miss another speaker.

Many conferences break up speeches with “lighter” interludes – videos, music, or other less-bloggable forms of content. These are excellent times to finish blog entires. I will frequently use question and answer sessions to finish posts as well – this makes Pop!Tech easier to blog than TED, which provides less time for Q&A and squeezes in more speakers per day.

I have, once or twice, been forced to give up on a talk because it’s clear that I can’t transcribe it in time. I’ve never successfully transcribed a Yochai Benkler talk – he simply packs too much into a speech for a mere mortal to document.

Hard Talks:
One of the reasons I’m able to blog so many talks at conferences like Pop!Tech, TED, Idea Festival or PUSH is that the talks are, for the most part, really, really good. Experienced speakers are easy to blog – they follow a narrative path through their talks, speak at a pace the audience can understand, emphasize key points with visuals. Write down the points that they’re starting sections with or emphasizing, and you’ll likely have a finished post with little need to edit.

It’s much harder to blog inexperienced speakers. Some will speak too fast or too technically and many won’t have a clear path through their material. With an inexperienced speaker, I’ll often take notes on the talk and try to structure it into a blogpost afterwards, doing the work the speaker should have done before giving his talk. I do this often with panels, which rarely have as much structure as a formal talk and often need you to add a narrative after the fact.

If a talk is truly out there and hard to follow, I might skip it, or blog it really briefly, summarizing it into a few lines or combining it with the next talk. Don’t be afraid to give up on a hard talk . It’s the speaker’s fault if he or she can’t interest you in the material, so long as you’re paying attention and ready to listen.

Use your commenters:
Because I’m blogging ten or more talks a day, I get things wrong. Sometimes I get things egregiously wrong. Comments allow other attendees – and sometimes the speakers themselves – to correct me. I check comments religiously while I liveblog, and I try to thank commenters who correct my errors, as they’re doing me a major service. “Mental” notes that blogposts, when commented, critiqued, linked towards, can serve as “the blogger equivalent of a peer reviewed professional article in a professional journal” – that’s only true if your peers are working with you to make your posts better.

“Hash”, writing about bloggers at the TED Global conference in Arusha, used the Swahili term “harambee” to describe the ideal operation of a group of bloggers at a conference:

Harambee is a Swahili term that means “pulling together”. That mentality, the willingness to work together, was what made it possible to cover a busy event like TEDGlobal… Some of us decided to take pictures, some did interviews between sessions and others decided to summarize the day. Everyone who blogs has their own voice, and I think it showed in the coverage. What could have been an amalgamation of everyone saying the same thing turned into a fairly well-rounded coverarge of the event.

My goal in blogging a conference is not to be the sole, authoritative voice of the blogosphere. It’s to do what I enjoy doing: writing detailed summaries of each sessions. But that means I can’t take photos of the speakers on stage, can’t interview speakers between sessions, can’t monitor coverage of the conference in the blogosphere. At TED, we were able to split up the tasks, so that Hash and Andrew took photos, Ndesanjo blogged in Swahili, Juliana did interviews, June monitored blogosphere coverage, etc. It’s a whole lot more fun to blog these events in groups, even if that means sitting next to someone trying to liveblog at the same time as you are, arguing about how to spell a word the speaker has just uttered.

I go to conferences because they give me a wealth of new ideas to wrestle with, sometimes for weeks or months to come. I try fairly hard not to wrestle with these ideas as I’m writing about them – it’s hard for me to form opinions while talks are going on, and harder to express those opinions articulately. (This isn’t always true. The occasional conference will include strong opinions I feel compelled to disclaim are the speaker’s, not my own…)

So that I have a chance to wrestle with the big ideas, I’ll often try to write a summary or reactions post a week after a conference. These summaries are generally a great deal more opinionated than my reactions to the original talks. Good conferences have big themes that aren’t always apparent when you’re sitting in the hall… and these themes are frequently not the themes the organizers intended.

Have Fun:
Not everyone enjoys blogging at conferences. I have many friends who’ve tried it and discovered that it stresses them out or detracts from their enjoyment. There’s an easy solution to this: don’t do it. Most people don’t keep score at baseball games. That’s okay, as there’s an official scorekeeper, a scoreboard and at least one journalist in the stands. We don’t need everyone to become a conference liveblogger – just a few more of us.

If you’re a liveblogger at conferences and have tips that keep you productive and sane, please feel free to share them in the comments. If you try some of these out and find them helpful – or, especially, if you find them unhelpful – let me know in the comments as well. Thanks in advance.

68 thoughts on “The 5-4-3 double play, or “The Art of Conference Blogging””

  1. I liveblog for the many of the same reasons – it keeps me focused on the session and gives me a record to look back on. I’ve have to take a look for a lap desk, that could make a huge difference for the next one (Gnomedex).

    One thing that helps for me is to have my editor trained to auto correct all my common typing mistakes. I’m not the cleanest of typists but many mistakes are predictable – saves time when cleaning it up.

    I often go back later and link to speakers posts about their panel, giving a context to the report, showing what was going on in their heads.

  2. Thanks for the summary – I’m intrigued by having a lap desk too, how could I not have thought of this?!? A text editor with macros is a great idea as well.

    I agree that it’s not for everyone, I do think it requires a particular type of attention and I’m sure that it’s similar to playing music – in through the ears, out through the fingers.

    I was really glad to see this example of Bloggers coming before Press:

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  4. Templates
    If the set of speeches is suited in a similar way, it helps both speed and clearness to work on templates (title, speaker – with link to his profile, exposition, thoughts, bibliography, resources) and create draft posts with all the expected blog sections.

    This is what I did, for instance, when liveblogging the Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctorate Programme 2007 at the Berkman Center and it was way helpful.

    By the way, filling in as many gaps as possible (the googling part you mention above) before the conference (if possible) helps too.

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  8. Ethan, this is a masterful post – bookmarking right now…

    By the way, which lap desk would you recommend? Personally, I’m tired of burning my legs.

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  11. Ethan, thank you for the praise — and indeed, there isn’t much space left at the TED bloggers table when we both are there — but as this post demonstrates, you’re the master. I liveblog conferences for pretty much the same reasons and I do it across several blogs. Using the blog as a (public) notepad, rather than taking notes with pen and paper, has had a significant impact on the way I can use that information further, hence on its value to me: it’s “clean” (written in a readable/immediately usable form); it’s organized (includes links, references, pictures, graphs, embedded videos); and — key — it’s searchable. While notes from distant conferences are confined to the Moleskine notepads on my shelves, rarely to be used again (it takes too much time to dig out a quote or a figure from hundreds of handwritten pages), the most recent ones are immediately accessible via a keyword search. For someone who writes, speaks and consults for a living, that’s no small advantage. And I’m happy if this can be of service to others.
    I would like to add a side note to your post, on the main hall vs overflow room thing: some conferences don’t have overflow rooms, so you find yourself sitting beside people who’re not blogging. The imperative is therefore to minimize the disturbance for them, and sitting on the side or on the back row is certainly advisable. But it’s also advisable to let people know what you’re doing: at least twice in the last months, at LIFT in Geneva and at Telekommarkt in Zurich, people had the impression I was typing away and not paying attention to the conference. For ex:

    “I sat next to Bruno during a session at the LIFT conference. He didn’t seem to be paying attention – he was busy typing on his computer. I began to get annoyed and I wondered why he bother to attend.”

    (from a comment on

    Busy with blogging, I hadn’t had the politeness to introduce myself. Only later, when I went on stage to moderate the panel, my neighbor understood what I was doing. So, if you sit in the main room, let people around you know that you’re not just e-mailing.

    Finally, a tiny detail: if (s)he doesn’t do it spontaneously, ask the conference host to broadcast (from the stage) an “official tag” for bloggers, flickrers, etc at the conference, so that everybody can keep track of everybody else’s writing.

    See you at the next conference, Ethan.

  12. Having been to a couple of conferences myself (albeit of a purely academic nature) I’d like to say one thing about the trade-off between documenting and discussing new ideas you pick up from speakers. In my experience it’s very rare to go back to the notes you kept from a talk – you will only refer to it if you’re involved in something very similar. The more talks you try to document the more this effect will occur. I have no clear solution to the problem other than shortlisting some notes and ‘starring’ them for future processing – and setting aside some post-conference time explicitly for this task. It is after all the digestion of the information that matters the most – right after documenting it for future reference.

  13. Burned laps? Is this a MacBook disease? :-)

    As for Windows users, I recommend using the BlogDesk editor which is perfect even for offline editing, has this macro function integrated and is optimized for different blog systems.

    Great post, Ethan, and thx for sharing your secrets with us! I understand most conferences wouldnt be that big if it wasnt for the live bloggers who actually do most of the coverage (as they are the once that get read). Hmm, live blogging as a business service?

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  15. Thank you so much for taking the time to post this excellent primer. I use a lap desk at home and the thought never crossed my mind to bring it to a conference. It may increase my dweeb factor but I reckon it is worth the risk.

    With a few conferences coming up that I’d like to blog ‘live’ the advice is invaluable.

    Also thanks to JKE for suggesting BlogDesk and to Bruno for the ‘speaker should brocast from stage the official tag for the speech’

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  24. Ethan I’m going to be blogging more conferences here in South Africa. So thank you very much for sharing your advice because I’m going to adjust my previous approach with your recommendation and report back the results.

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