Have you ever been to a silent disco? It’s a dance party where instead of the music being played over speakers, it’s transmitted to individual headphones. Oftentimes there are two or three channels with different music to listen to. Attendees choose what they like and just dance away.
Silent discos are interesting to observe because you don’t hear any music, yet you see people getting down and having a great time. They’re interesting to participate in because you know the outside people watching you can’t hear your music, and you don’t know if the others who are dancing are listening to the same thing you are.
There are various iterations of this theme, including Battle of the Band concerts, where three bands play simultaneously and the audience decides which to listen to. Or silent theater, where the actors may not speak but headphones provide guidance and music. Or even XDP, where we had three simultaneous speakers on the stage and the audience simply tuned into the speaker they wanted to hear. (Or if you were like me, you kept jumping from speaker to speaker, to get the flavor of everything).
The Power of Sound
These applications are interesting because they are novel. We expect to be surrounded by music at a club or a concert, so to be given the option to experience it differently creates curiosity. But the actual experience of being in public space and listening to your own music is extremely common. Every subway ride is its own silent disco, without the dancing (usually). So, it’s not actually the use of headphones by themselves that’s unique, but rather it’s the use of headphones to replace the normal experience that creates a memorable experience.
Pause on that for a moment and reflect on the transformational nature of music. Who hasn’t had the moment of riding in the car, and that perfect song comes on, and suddenly you are in a music video or a movie scene? Or you are walking or running with your earbuds in, and you find that you move differently whether you are listening to classical, rock, or a podcast. Music is highly emotionally resonant, and there is even science behind why different chords make us feel different ways. We all know how powerful it is: from the swelling orchestra at the pivotal point in the movie, to the first dance at a wedding, to you rocking out in your car, music makes us feel things deeply.
Now, add to that the idea of a silent retreat. I have a friend who attends one every year. It’s a set period of time where there is no talking. There is reading and studying, and perhaps listening to someone else present. But you do not speak the entire time. (It sounds glorious to my introvert side—no small talk, no awkward interactions. Sign me up!) She says it is an amazing opportunity to reflect and look inward, and spend time thinking about big things.
Have you figured out where I’m going with this? Silent disco + individual listening + silent retreat = silent conference.
Really, A Silent Conference?
What would a silence conference be like? It would have to be very purposeful. People come to conferences typically for one of two reasons—to learn and to connect with others. Making it silent turns it into an introspective learning experience. This is not a place to be trading business cards.
The general session would work well. People are typically silent during those anyway. But it might feel really strange to move to breakout rooms in silence. I could see creating a curated song playlist for people to listen to as they walk. It could resonate with the themes from the opening session and hopefully reinforce some takeaways.
The idea of not talking really allows for that space to reflect on the content being presented. We do not do a good job of allowing white space at our events for people to really think about the content and their own takeaways. Schedules always have us moving quickly from room to room, then to food, and then to the reception. A lot of conferences feel like a whirlwind of activity, and you don’t really breathe until it is over.
But moving through an event in silence would mean that you can focus on what you are trying to take way. It creates space for thinking and introspection. It might encourage more “a-ha!” moments, as ideas are threaded together.
It’s a thought experiment, but I could see actually trying the moving through the halls with a curated playlist piece. That would put people in a transformative, learning space, and it could be really interesting.
So much of experience design is focused on sight. Is silence the next thing to try? If you are interested in thinking about how to involve the other senses, be sure to check out our LimePaper on the Four Dimensions of a Live Event.
“(Of course, you’d likely need to regulate phone use—or encourage people putting phones away – as some people just fill silence with online work or play—but that’s a big issue for another post). “