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Event Engagement: How to Get Attendees Excited About Complex Concepts

“Event engagement” is the holy grail two word sentiment for most organisers. However, it comes with a few complications. For one, it’s a bit ambiguous.

Event engagement could range from something as simple as someone raising their hand in a Q&A session to a business partnership getting started off the back of an idea two people picked up during a presentation.

Additionally, getting people to truly engage with your event is, put simply, very hard. Plus, if your conference or event focuses on complex topics and themes, your attendees might end up overwhelmed if you don’t put in extra work to make your sessions and events interactive and tangible.

With all that in mind, today we’re sharing a conversation I recently had with Paul Rayner, founder of Explore DDD Conference, a domain-driven design-focused event that takes place annually in Denver, Colorado.

A brief Google search will tell you everything and nothing you need to know about DDD if you’re new to the acronym. Even calls for it to be explained as simply as possible seem daunting. Even, in fact, if you ask for it to be explained like you’re five years old, but somehow Paul manages it (which we’ll see a little further down in this post) alongside his team.

So, how does he keep his community coming back? How does he share what makes him so passionate about DDD in a way that people can appreciate and reciprocate? Let’s have a look:

Paul Rayner’s headshot

How did Explore DDD get started?

“The idea of the conference was to put all of the beautiful minds in one place and provide a space where people can interact in deeper ways and experience something together.

“I’ve been in software development as long as I can remember. Part of the reason why I wanted to do the conference was because I wanted to grow a community and grow a movement around this in the United States.

“I had been talking to a few people about starting a conference in the US many times, but always chickened out. I’m not trained in conference organisation or conference design. The impetus was seeing what was happening with DDD in Europe and how a conference is a really special place to create an arena for people to connect, and build relationships. I went to conferences to connect with my peers and to learn. 

“I read a lot and I watch a lot of talk videos, but there’s just something about being in the same space and all being excited about the same thing that being at a conference seems to provide. That was a driver among others for doing this.

“When I considered starting the conference, I thought: ‘I’m probably not the best person to run this conference, as there are way more people that have more experience with running conferences, but I believe we could create a high quality event.’ That was the ‘let’s do it’ moment. I’m still learning.”

What is Domain-Driven Design?

“Domain Driven Design is a software design discipline. Eric Evans, who originally wrote the book on DDD, he boiled it down to three guiding principles back in 2004 . They’ve shifted and matured and changed and people are still experimenting, but the guiding principals are still the same.”

  1. Focus on the core domain.
  2. Do model exploration in a creative, collaborative way.
  3. Pay attention to language and context and ensure that concepts are expressed clearly in the code.

If we look at those concepts in a little more depth:

1. Focus on the Core Domain

“Focus your design efforts in the software where it’s going to provide the most value to your business and your customers. That seems pretty straightforward, but that’s actually a pretty tough thing to pull off. Because that means knowing what’s most valuable about the software.”

2. Do Model Exploration in a Creative, Collaborative Way

“Software design and software modelling is going to provide the most pay off when you’re running a complex domain and the business problems you’re trying to solve are really tricky. 

“With Tito for example, you’ve got this nice thing where you’ve got a lot of flexibility in the way the tickets work because you can group them as Activities.

“Whoever came up with that idea, it’s something I really like about the software, because you’ve got this concept of an Activity that crosses over multiple tickets that allows you to group tickets together in ways that the designers of Tito didn’t have to come up with, right? The introduction of that concept of an Activity is a way of developing that model of how a conference registration system should work.”

“DDD is very much about getting the business people and the developers in the same room collaborating together to explore those concepts.”

“That also means finding out where concepts are lacking or missing and making them explicit and expressing them in the code and making them part of the system. It’s very much geared towards having that creative collaboration and bridging that gap so it’s not throwing that idea over the wall and saying ‘Do this!’

“In the case of Tito, that conversation could look like ‘Do we call it an Activity or is there another way that we could handle this?'”

3. Pay Attention to Language and Context

“The third one that’s quite distinctive to DDD is the idea of a very rigorous focus on language and expressing language clearly and growing a language for a particular area. And doing that collaboratively as well.

“For a team that’s doing Scrum or XP, that language is being used in the user stories, in the code, in the documentation. So, if we go back to the concept of an Activity, for example, everyone knows what that means. When you look at the code, it talks about Activities. It doesn’t talk about some other thing. 

“I’ve worked with some teams where you look at the code and you say, ‘Oh right, well that’s what this thing is called.’ And then you talk to the team and they say, ‘Well actually it’s not called that. We have to call it something else.’ You’re always constantly translating in that type of situation.

“Whereas, this third guiding principle is to be very rigorous with that language and evolve that language over time as you come up with new concepts in the model exploration step. So it becomes this cycle of looking for missing concepts and adding those to the model and expressing them in language and having that expressed in the code.”

Making the Conceptual Practical

Since it seemed that DDD was a highly conceptual discipline, I asked Paul how he manages to make the conference content usable for people who attend, upon returning to their day jobs:

“A lot of it comes down to talks, hands-on sessions and workshops that are very pragmatic and that take those principles and apply them in very practical ways.”

Explore DDD conference promo video for 2019

“I would much rather somebody come to the conference and say ‘I’m not sure I completely understand these principles, but I’ve got a new set of tools for my tool belt that I can take back to my team and start applying right away.’”

“There’s a mixture of intro-level talks for people that want to have practices that they can take away, and some more advanced ones for people that are maybe more on the software architecture side and working with large, distributed systems, legacy systems, etc.”

Curating Event Engagement

“I like a good war story. I think other people do too. I think those make it more approachable.”

“We build our hands-on sessions and open space and, as much as we can, try to give people an opportunity to apply what they’re learning at the conference.

“Talks tend to be more of a passive experience where people are sitting there and they’re getting great information and perhaps asking questions at the end, but people need time to process that. Having good breaks and being able to make connections with each other are so important to turning that information into something they can act upon.

“The things that I love about unconferences are the ability for anyone to show up and be engaged. An unconference provides that spontaneity. Maybe somebody goes to a workshop and says, ‘I’ve just learned this new technique. I’d love to practice it and pitch it as a session.’ Or somebody says ‘I’d love to start a meetup in my area. I’d be interested in some people helping me figure out some good practices for that.’

“That high-fidelity engagement and collaboration and making that part of the DNA of the conference is really important to me. Then, combining that with awesome content and world-class speakers and really challenging material for people to engage with is a given. Every year, we try to raise the bar. It’s a smaller event. When you have a conference that’s around 200+ people, there’s a level of involvement you can have that you can’t have at a larger conference.

“Kicking off the conference on Wednesday evening after people are done for the day or have just arrived or maybe have just finished the workshop and being able to come up for a few hours to just have drinks and relax is so valuable.

Explore DDD Conference details.
Website: https://exploreddd.com.
Follow on Twitter @ExploreDDD.

“We also have pre-conference workshops where people can level up on their skills by taking a class with an expert instructor and then bring that knowledge into the conference and be able to unpack some of that and practice it with people at the conference as well. I think that’s valuable.”

Measuring Event Engagement

“Every year I make it a priority to have a number of experience reports because I think that’s tremendously valuable, to hear people say, ‘We tried this. These things worked for us. These things didn’t. Here’s why. Here are our takeaways.’

“I’m most proud of the event having a community feel. Many people have commented that it’s the kind of event where you can come along and dig in and get involved with what other people are doing. My goal has always been to grow a community.”

“What I mean by community is a group of people where they have mutual concern for each other.”

“They want each other to grow. They’re assuming good intent. They’re invested in each other. A conference provides an arena for that kind of interaction to happen which means you need things like healthy discourse and respectful disagreement and face-to-face is the best way to do that. Not on Twitter.”

“So much of social media interaction is people talking past each other.”

“With many of the conferences I go to, I go to see what I can get out of it which involves going to as many talks as I can and trying to absorb that. I really wanted to create something that felt more like everyone coming along and contributing to this event.

Explore DDD’s banner image: A shot of the Denver skyline with decorative circles.

“One specific example of that is, the conference closes on the Friday afternoon with us clearing out an entire area of the conference of all the chairs and everyone stands around in a circle.”

“I run around like a mad man with a microphone and just ask people, ‘What’s your takeaway from this conference?'”

“That was something that I took from Open Spaces as a closing ceremony. Just to hear those vignettes at the end of the conference, that’s what makes me excited about doing it for the next year.”

Creating an Engaging Conference Environment

“We’re lucky to have an incredible venue. This’ll be the third year we have it on the 38th floor of a skyscraper in Denver. You have full 360 degree views of the city. You get to see the sun go down over the Rockies in the background. I wanted to have a space that was special. The Grand Hyatt has this really unique space. I think we’re going to out-grow the venue. It’s good for 200-300 people, but next year we’re moving.”

A YouTube video about the Grand Hyatt Denver

“I wanted to find a venue that would create even more of that sort of feeling of being in a special space with a group of people and making people want to interact with each other and do things. Next year we’re moving the entire conference up into the mountains into Keystone Resort. People will be able to walk out of the conference space and go for a hike or walk around the lake.”

“It’s all about how do we enable those conversations? How do we provide space for people to get to know each other and get passionate about what they’re learning.”

“It’s very much about getting people involved and providing opportunities for everyone who’s at the event. We have a lightning talks session. We had some people last year who had never given a talk and who gave a five minute lightning talk about something that they’d learned about the conference and that was awesome.

“It’s super encouraging to have participants be able to engage in that way and encourage that level of event engagement.”

If you’re interested in more information about Explore DDD or Paul’s work, you can follow the conference on Twitter, as well as Paul.