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The advantages of supporting connection during meeting sessions

April 20th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

 In 2011 I ran a two and a half hour participative techniques workshop on the last afternoon of a four-day conference. After we ended, a participating supplier came up to me and told me that he had made many more useful connections in that one workshop than during the 3 days preceding it.

I believe that the great majority of people hunger for connection with others. Without it, our lives suffer. Indeed, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, his sobering opus on social change in America, states that about half the observed decline in life satisfaction among adult Americans over the last 50 years “is associated with declines in social capital: lower marriage rates and decreasing connectedness to friends and community.” And the sociologist James House tells us that “the magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.”

And yet, when we hold a conference in our culture—an occasion when we bring together people with a common interest in a subject—we give low priority to the potential for connection with our fellow conferees. Our sessions are mostly broadcast, with little or no opportunity for attendees to connect with each other. This is so even though we have an ideal requisite for directly enjoying each other’s company—sharing a common interest!

The need for connection with others is becoming increasingly important as we move to a world where people’s knowledge and expertise are a function of the networks—both face-to-face and online—they possess rather than the contents of their heads. If in our work lives we are spending more time learning socially than being trained in the classroom, our meetings must provide the same relative opportunities.

Traditional conferences leave connection time to the breaks, meals, and socials. This is why so many people report that hallway conversations during breaks are the best parts of such meetings. When sessions fail to meet our connection needs, we connect outside the official schedule. The broadcast design of most meeting sessions relegates connection with peers to an afterthought, as something you’re supposed to do on your own. And this is not easy. Even if you somehow know exactly the new people and old friends you want to meet, arranging to do so is hard enough without also competing with loud dance music, fixed meal seating, and lunchtime entertainment or talks. And if you expect to readily meet the most interesting people (to you) at such events by chance from a crowd of hundreds or even thousands, then you have not been to many conferences.

Our consistent demotion of connection to second-class status must be reversed if meetings are to effectively support the social learning that’s now essential for performing our jobs well. We need to provide opportunities for participants to connect and share in the sessions themselves. This doesn’t mean turning sessions into speed-dating or adding irritating “icebreakers.” Instead, it means taking advantage of:

  • Improvements in learning that result from actively engaging with others around content rather than listening to it or watching it.
  • The rich and extensive knowledge and experience of participants in the room.
  • Increased opportunities to meet like-minded peers via discussion of session content, ideas, and questions.

Active learning increases the quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning is inextricably entangled with connection; you can’t really learn from your peers without simultaneously learning about them. Because making connections is a powerful and important motivation for attending events, providing appropriate opportunities to connect during sessions is attractive, smoothing the way for the active learning that follows.

Connecting with peers during a session allows participants to access expertise and experience beyond what an expert at the front of the room can provide. Using participative techniques that uncover and develop useful connections to those with relevant knowledge, participants can discover and take full advantage of the collective wisdom in the room.

Image attribution: recode.net

Do you review event evaluations like a Chinese censor?

April 13th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

101807127_2f67f9f623_ofascinating piece of research published in Science concludes that the Chinese government allows people to say whatever they like about the state, its leaders, or their policies—except for posts with collective action potential, which are far more likely to be censored.

Which reminds me of the meetings industry’s common response to event evaluations. Read the rest of this entry »

Promise engagement at your meetings, not perfection

April 6th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Man & woman dancing

To dance with customers in an act of co-creation: This is part of 37Signals’ secret. From their book to their blog to their clearly stated point of view about platforms and the way they do business, they invite customers to debug with them in an ongoing dialogue about finding a platonic ideal of utility software. They don’t promise perfect, they promise engagement.
—Seth Godin, What is customer service for?

Sometimes you go to a meeting where not screwing anything up seems to be more important than anything else. Such meetings often execute impeccably—and yet something is missing. Read the rest of this entry »

Everyone I know who is changing the world…

March 31st, 2015 by Adrian Segar


The always thoughtful Sasha Dichter writes about “modern, techno-optimistic” solutions to important problems, as characterized by the quick-fix phrase “I’ve just heard about a great new ______ that will solve the ______ problem!”
Read the rest of this entry »

Meetings in Day Million

March 30th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

“On this day I want to tell you about, which will be about a thousand years from now, there were a boy, a girl and a love story…”

From my earliest days as a reader I have loved science fiction. I think this is because good science fiction is the literature of ideas, as Pamela Sargent described it: a fascinating place where the consequences of making different assumptions about the world can be explored and expanded on in a myriad ways creatively tied to our human experience.

One evening in 1966, Frederik Pohl wrote Day Million: a classic science fiction short story that starts with the sentence above, and paints—in two thousand words—an ordinary yet unbelievable day in the future.

Take three minutes to read the story here.

The story ends with one of the most perfect final paragraphs I’ve ever read:
Read the rest of this entry »

How to convert a traditional conference into a connection-rich conference

March 23rd, 2015 by Adrian Segar

When people are asked why they go to meetings, the top two reasons they consistently give are to learn and to connect with others. Both reasons are rated of similar importance (although there’s some evidence that connection is becoming more important than learning recently.)

So why do we structure traditional conferences like this?
Conference connection.001
Conference lectures only focus on learning (that is, of course, assuming people are learning from the lecture, which is by no means certain.) No connection between attendees occurs during a lecture. Connection at a traditional conference is, therefore, supposed to happen somehow outside the sessions, in the breaks and socials. Unfortunately, breaks and socials aren’t great ways to connect with people at conferences.

So traditional conferences are heavy on lecture-style learning and light on the connection that attendees desire!

Luckily, there’s a simple way to redress the balance between connection and learning at meetings.
Read the rest of this entry »

Ground rules at the Lost Levels unconference

March 16th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

REMINDERS at lostlevels

“Game makers find inspiration at Lost Levels, an intimate and involving gathering where anything seems possible”
Laura Hudson, The radical games event where the next speaker is you

The Lost Levels four-hour gaming unconference incorporates these ground rules:

  • Make space for others!
  • Watch out for blocking views
  • Be an active listener

There’s a lot to be said for incorporating them into your events.

Image attribution: Laura Hudson, boingboing

Is your conference more like a pharmacy or a bookstore?

March 9th, 2015 by Adrian Segar


A traditional conference is like a pharmacy. Content is prescribed, and you pick it up in a session. Hopefully it will fix what ails you. Have you met anyone interesting in a pharmacy? Did you create one of the drugs sold there? Probably not.

A peer conference is like a friendly bookstore. Browse the shelves looking for what interests you, satisfies your wants and needs. Relax on a comfy sofa, and check out anything that looks interesting. Fall into conversation with other folks nearby. Yes, you can be guided by those little “staff picks” notices, but perhaps the guy sitting opposite you has some suggestions. And perhaps, one day, you’ll write a book of your own…

Cartoon by Harry Bliss

Produce for a micro conference market

February 23rd, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Lego_Dreamforce_02

Fifty years ago, producers and marketers got smart. They saw the miracle of mass marketing and they adopted it as their own. They amped up mass production and bet on the masses.
The smart creators today are seeing the shift and doing precisely the opposite:
Produce for a micro market.
Market to a micro market.
—Seth Godin, Mass production and mass media

Despite the status associated with big conferences, most meetings are small meetings. Whether by accident or design, in today’s world this is a good thing. The heyday of the large amorphous conference—where plenaries consist of well-known people trying to entertain or inspire you, meeting important people by chance is unlikely, and you’re uninterested in most of the sessions—is past.

Read the rest of this entry »

38 conference participation techniques

February 16th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Jazz dance 1804807649_075a097c67_oI can guarantee there will be at least a few unfamiliar terms in this glossary, given that I invented some of them myself. This glossary contains brief definitions; see my upcoming book for more information.

Affinity Grouping: This technique allows a group to discover and share ideas that arise at a session or conference and group them into categories, so they can be organized and discussed. Sometimes called “cards on the wall.”

Anonymous Voting: Any voting method that preserves the anonymity of those voting.

Badge It!: Using participant badges to share useful personal information besides the traditional elements like name, company, etc.

Body Voting: See Human Spectrograms.

Card Voting: Provides each participant with an identical set of colored cards that can be used in flexible ways: typically for voting on multiple-choice questions, consensus voting, and guiding discussion.

Case Studies and Simulations: Ways to create a classroom or conference environment where participants can create and explore in a semi-realistic way alternative roles, points of view, puzzles, and positions. Case studies use a story as a jumping-off place for group analysis and discussion, while simulations immerse participants into an experiential situation.

Conference Arc: An approach to design that concentrates on event chronological parts—openers, middles, and endings—and the consequential progressive experience of participants.

Consensus voting: Voting techniques that gauge the degree of group consensus on a point of view or course of action.

Continuum Voting: See Human Spectrograms.

Dot Voting: A technique for public semi-anonymous voting where participants are given identical sets of one or more colored paper dots which they stick onto paper voting sheets to indicate preferences.

Fishbowls: Group process that facilitates focused discussion, either by assuring that the conversation at any moment is restricted to a few clearly defined people or by allowing representatives of both sides of a point of view time in turn to listen to and question representatives of the opposing viewpoint.

Group Spectives: Closing conference sessions that provide time for attendees to collectively take stock, reflecting on where they started, the path traveled, and the journey yet to come.

Guided Discussions: Guided small discussion groups used regularly during a session to expose different answers, viewpoints, and levels of understanding and create multiple simultaneous rich customized learning environments in the room.

Hand/Stand Voting: In hand voting, participants raise their hands to indicate their answer to a question with two or more possible answers. Stand voting replaces hand raising with standing.

Human Graphs: See Human Spectrograms.

Human Spectrograms: Also known as body voting, continuum voting, and human graphs. A form of public voting that has participants move in the room to a place that represents their answer to a question. Human spectrograms can be categorized as one-dimensional, two-dimensional, or state-change.

One-dimensional Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants position themselves along a line in a room to portray their level of agreement/disagreement with a statement or a numeric response (e.g. the number of years they’ve been in their current profession.)

Open Space: Open Space is a simple method for participants to create their own meetings.

Openers: Participation techniques that are especially useful during the early stages of a group’s time together.

Pair Share: Develops and reinforces learning via discussion of a topic or question with a partner during a session.

Participatory Voting: Any form of voting that provides public information about viewpoints in the room and paves the way for further discussion

Personal Introspectives: Two-part closing conference sessions that guide participants through a review of what they have learned and a determination of what they want to consequently change in their lives.

Plus/Delta: A review tool that enables participants to quickly identify what went well at a session or event and what could be improved.

Post It!: A simple technique that employs participant-written sticky notes to uncover topics and issues that a group wants to discuss.

Pro Action Café: Pro Action Café is a blend of World Café and Open Space that facilitates reflection, discussion and consolidation of ideas, and moving to action.

Public Voting: Voting methods that allow a group to see the individuals who have voted and how they voted.

Roman Voting: Roman Voting is a public voting technique for gauging the strength of consensus.

Roundtables: Structured conference openers that employ The Three Questions to 1) define and model an active, interactive, and safe conference environment; 2) provide a structured forum for attendees to meet and learn about each others’ affiliations, interests, experience, and expertise and 3) uncover the topics that people want to discuss and share.

Seat Swap: Seat Swap increases conversational partners at seated meals through having diners switch seats at appointed times.

Semi-anonymous voting: Voting techniques where others can only determine how individuals vote by watching them closely during the voting process.

Short Form Presentations Pecha Kucha and Ignite: Very short stylized presentations that offer a rapid introduction to a topic, an idea, or an experience and that act as a jumping off place for stimulated viewers to start learning more via engagement afterwards.

Small Group Discussions: Techniques that use small groups to improve learning, connection, interaction, and engagement.

State-change Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants move en masse from one point to another to display a change of some quantity (e.g. opinion, geographical location, etc.) over time.

Table Voting: A technique used for polling attendees on their choice from pre-determined answers to a multiple-choice question, and/or for dividing participants into preference groups for further discussions or activities.

The Solution Room: An opening or closing conference session which engages and connects attendees and provides peer-supported advice on their most pressing problems.

The Three Questions: Supports and encourages a group of people in learning about each other, their wishes for the time they are together, and their relevant experience and expertise.

Two-dimensional Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants position themselves in a two-dimensional room space to display relative two-dimensional information (e.g. where they live with reference to a projected map.)

World Café: Provides a format for dialogue in small groups around questions that have been determined in advance.

Photo attribution: Flickr user teo_ladodicivideo

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