(Event photos: http://bit.ly/2iTMFaS)
It wasn’t exactly clear to me, at least immediately, whether a workshop about chatbots and conversational interfaces would be of interest to the general public. Sure, those of us in tech who are embedded in the bot community understand and embrace the explosive growth of the chatbot landscape over the past year. But, for most people, chatbots and conversational interfaces are only just beginning to hit their radar (hello Amazon Echo!), and many aren’t really sure what conversational interfaces are.
But here is what I knew for a fact when developing the idea for this workshop: the general public may not understand chatbots, or be fully aware of just how much they engage with conversational interfaces, but they need to know about this emerging technology because it will only grow and become more prominent in their lives in the coming years. Furthermore, if they are given the opportunity to learn about chatbots, people will embrace the potential of this technology and will likely want to participate in developing it, to some extent. At least that’s what I’d hoped.
So, when I launched the chatbot workshop (“Battle of the Chatbots & Conversational Interfaces in 2017”), targeting the general public, taught by two bot entrepreneurs, the question looming over the event was: will non-technical people care to learn about chatbots and conversational interfaces?
Here is a short version of the answer to our question:
The workshop sold out before we had a chance to market it to our entire network. With a maximum of 75 attendees allowed to attend, tickets sold out in less than a week, while the waitlist expanded to over 30 people.
A diverse group of people (NYU students, Baby Boomers, chatbot experts and developers, chatbot newbies) poured into NYU Entrepreneurial Institute to learn about chatbots and, to our surprise, they stayed fully engaged throughout the entire workshop.
Recipe for a Killer Chatbot Workshop
Everyone, including attendees, sponsors, and our guest speakers, had a great time and learned a lot. Most importantly, we had a great time learning together (who knew learning about technology could be so fun). We laughed a lot and walked away having made substantive connections with a diverse group of people.
Here’s a few key ingredients that made this Tech 2025 workshop a success and engaging for everyone:
Find the Common Ground
We make the topic accessible and personal instead of overly-technical and intimidating. The event description made it clear that this was a workshop for everyone and emphasized the importance of tech developers and the general public coming together to discuss this new technology and to explore solutions to problems in it together. In my opening remarks to the group, I told attendees:
“Tech 2025 is about having real, grounded conversations about emerging technologies changing our world. Our workshops and events are non-technical. If you want to learn how to code or how to build these technologies, there are plenty of great schools and online learning platforms you can look into. Here, however, we learn about emerging technologies in a personal, hands-on way, and emphasize thinking critically about how they will impact our society and us personally.”
Because of this mission (which is core to the Tech 2025 model), we had a workshop that actually had both chatbot experts (developers who have built bots professionally), and people who were new to chatbots, but who were curious to understand what all the fuss is about. And, of course, there were marketers in the audience. There are always marketers (I say that as a marketer myself — no shade).
Recruit Killer Speakers Who Are at the Forefront of Building the Technology
We lucked out big time. When I extended an invitation to two influential voices in the chatbot community to present at the workshop, they agreed to do it without hesitation and were excited to share their insights with people who want to learn about this space.
Clara De Soto (co-founder of Reply.ai) and Alec Lazarescu (Sr. Director Engineering at K12, Inc., founder of admiral.ai, ) each gave a presentation that had attendees on the edge of their seats. From the history of chatbots, to an overview of the explosive growth of the ecosystem in 2016, to what we can expect in 2017, they covered it all.
They both offered nuggets of illuminating insight that can only come from personal experience developing the technology and building viable businesses around the technology. I wasn’t surprised that so many attendees told me how much they enjoyed their presentations. At the end of the day, it’s all about quality, thought-provoking content. Clara and Alec made the topic approachable, engaging and personal for everyone. It also helps that they were warm and funny.
DO Something! Put the “work” Into “Workshop”
We work with the guest presenters (collaboration is key) to create an activity for the attendees that will get them to interact with each other, present a problem that they need to solve, and help them to understand the technology in a new more substantive way.
What better way to learn about chatbots than to try to build one yourself! Clara had attendees break into smaller groups and asked them to create a Valentines Day Bot. She then handed them post-its and told them to map out their chatbot’s conversational flow. I wasn’t sure if attendees would go for it, or find it engaging enough, but once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Check out a photos from our workshop breakout session below!
One by one, each team gave a presentation explaining their chatbot and their bot’s conversational flow. Thanks to the enthusiastic creativity of attendees, the following chatbots were born:
BotChikawawa / CupidBot fifth / VDayDDay / Botonist / LoveRBot / The Lonely Heart Bot
Below, Ann Griffin and guest instructor, Alec Lazarescu, present their Valentines Day chatbot (BotChickawowow):
After attendees finished giving their presentations, Clara announced that the winning chatbot (the presentation with the most applause) would be built by her on the Reply.ai platform. Attendees liked that a lot!
The number of people who told me after the workshop that they really learned a lot, and that they now think differently about chatbots, blew me away. One person even commented that she had no idea that creating realistic conversations for chatbots would be so hard!
This is a great example of why, when it comes to emerging technologies, learning by doing is key. Informative presentations are great, but it’s the hands-on, group exercises that really leave a lasting impression and creates a positive networking experience. We call it, simply enough, “Learning & Networking.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work!
We had a great team helping out at the workshop. They setup, got people settled in, brought incredible energy to the evening, and never stopped smiling (seriously, what IS that?). Thank you Jade, Chris, and Grace!
Sponsors Make the World Go ‘Round!
We not only had two incredible sponsors who supported our event, but they also participated in the event as well! This greatly contributed to the success of the workshop.
NYU Entrepreneurial Institute generously allowed us to use their beautiful space (the Blackstone Launchpad at 16 Washington Place, NYC). Visit their website to see all of the amazing programs and events they have going on for student entrepreneurs (I only wish I had such a program when I was in school!). Desiree Frieson (NYU Program Manager) and Sarah Maibach (NYU Events Manager) could not have been more hospitable and helpful. They even took photos of attendees and engaged with them throughout the evening.
Our Food & Beverage Sponsor, The Yard, not only sponsored the pizza and soda, but a manager from The Yard, the ever-jovial Riley, attended and participated in the workshop from beginning to end. You know you have something special when even your sponsors are building chatbots!
It may not seem like much, but these things matter tremendously when you are bringing people into a learning environment to discuss a topic that might, at first, seem intimidating. This is just a first step, of course, and we couldn’t possibly cover everything about chatbots in two hours, but it was an important step in fostering a dialogue about this technology that will be more inclusive and less technical.
The success of this workshop is, for me, a bright indication that people really DO want to learn about (and discuss) emerging technologies in unique, engaging ways, and with each other! Thanks to the attendees of this workshop, and to the sponsors, 2017 is off to a great start for Tech 2025. We have much more to come. Check out our upcoming workshops HERE and subscribe to our blog on Medium.
The Yard is also offering Tech 2025 members the first month free at their brand new location City Hall Park and 20% off their first month at any of their other 7 locations across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Score!
More Tech 2025 awesomeness to come in 2017!