Blog

Welcome to the Conferences That Work blog. You're in the right place for the latest posts on conference design, facilitation, and peer conferences—or sign up for our RSS feed so you never miss another post.

Lessons from Anguilla: What meeting designers can learn from religious services

February 20th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

On my daily vacation walk to Island Harbour, I hear singing. As I turn the corner onto Rose Hill Road, the sound swells. It’s 7:30 am, but the morning service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church is in full swing and, as I pass, a familiar hymn from my youth washes over me, sung by a hundred enthusiastic voices. And yes, I admit it, during the second day of my vacation while enjoying the harmonies I hear, I’m jolted to think about religious meeting design…

Religious services are thought to be around 300,000 years old — by far the oldest form of organized meeting that humans have created. We know little about prehistory religious services, but the meeting designs used by the major world religions today date from the Middle Ages. Over the last thousand years, religious meetings developed a number of important features in order to maximize the likelihood that people would attend.

What’s interesting is that these features are largely absent from modern secular meetings!

So what can we learn from religious meeting design? I confine my observations to Christian and Jewish services, as they are the faiths familiar to me.

Don’t let any one person talk too long
The most frequent preaching length in Christian churches is 20 to 28 minutes. Although some pastors take more time, their number is decreasing. And in 2014, the Vatican recommended that sermons be limited to eight minutes or less!

While people joke about the length of boring sermons, contrast this relative brevity to modern conferences, where speakers typically speak for an hour. We know that listener attention drops sharply after ten minutes unless a speaker does specific things to maintain it. Religious institutions know this, and deliver short bursts of emotional content. Most meetings don’t, and attendee learning suffers as a consequence.

Include lots of communal activities
Singing is one of the most powerful fundamental, communal human activities; right up there with eating together. The oldest written music is a song, the Sumerian Hymn to Creation, dated before 800 B.C., and communal singing likely predates this by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Jewish and Christian religious services are filled with singing and praying. These are communal activities — each congregant contributes to a common endeavor. Some people have good voices, sing in harmony, and add pleasure to everyone’s experience. Even those who can’t carry a tune very well become part of something, a common endeavor, while they are singing a familiar and often beautiful hymn or prayer.

Communal activities are powerful because they align participants in a common experience: creating something beautiful and uplifting together. When was the last time you did something like that in a meeting?

Breaks aren’t communal activities
Most meeting organizers assume that the human interaction they’ve been told should be incorporated into their meetings is provided by breaks and socials. But breaks and socials aren’t communal activities — everyone is doing something different! The post-service Church Suppers and Jewish Kiddish give congregants time to meet socially, thus strengthening the communal experience provided by the service. In contrast, modern conferences expect attendees to bond after having primarily listened to lectures.

Religious services provide an emotional experience
Whatever opinions you hold about religious services, it’s clear that they are designed to create an emotional experience. Given a choice between emotional and “book learning” experiences, people will invariably choose the former. Religious services offer the kinds of experiences that people prefer, served up in a safe and familiar way. Most conferences offer little emotional experience directly related to their content and purpose; instead such experiences — entertainment and socials — are glued onto the program as unintegrated extras.

Conclusions
I’m not suggesting that we turn all our meetings into gospel revivals. But think about it — what could your meetings be like if they incorporated some of the features of religious services I’ve shared here?

Church service photograph courtesy of The Anguillan

The two must-do steps to hire the best professional help

February 13th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

When you need professional help, how do you select the best professionals?

Countless experts — such as accountants, plumbers, doctors, lawyers, and meeting planners — will take your money in exchange for advice or services. So, when it’s time to minimize your taxes, modernize the bathroom, diagnose that stabbing stomach pain, draft a complex contract, or organize multiple regional conferences — in short, get help with something you can’t do yourself — how do you choose great help?

It isn’t easy. If it was, we wouldn’t hear horror stories about accountants who can’t file a correct tax return, builders who make costly (and hilarious) mistakes, serious cases of medical malpractice, million dollar errors made by attorneys, and mistakes that meeting planners continue to make.

Why it’s hard to choose the right help
If you’ve never plumbed a kitchen sink in your life, how can you determine whether someone who says they’re a plumber really knows what they’re doing?

There’s a simple reason why it’s tricky to pick great professionals. If you need help, obviously you lack crucial knowledge or experience. So when you seek help, you don’t know if someone who claims to be able to help really can!

Don’t despair! Here are the two essential steps for hiring great professional help.

Ask for and check references
Everyone knows that you should ask for references for a professional who’s going to do work for you. Unfortunately, knowing you should do something doesn’t mean you will actually do it. How often do you ask for references from a professional you’re planning to hire? Do you ask a potential builder? An accountant? A doctor? In my experience, I am rarely asked for references.

In addition, many people ask for references but don’t check them! You may think that professionals are only going to give you the names of people who are satisfied with their services. While that’s usually true, talking to references will invariably turn up useful information. For example, you may discover that a plumber does good work but doesn’t finish in a timely fashion. Or an attorney writes competent contracts but his drafts need to be carefully checked to make sure that changes you request are actually incorporated. It’s not uncommon to hear information from a reference that immediately makes you decide not to employ the professional.

So getting and checking references before hiring is an essential step if you want to minimize unpleasant surprises. These days, crowd-vetted online sites like Angie’s List and houzz provide a helpful starting place, but you can’t beat talking directly to clients of professionals you’re considering.

See if they’ll say, “I don’t know”
My mother had an unusual set of medical symptoms, and had the misfortune to pick a doctor who was unable to admit that he didn’t know what was wrong with her. Instead, he told her that she had multiple sclerosis, which caused her much emotional upset. Years went by without the relapses or progressions normal to her illness, but she refused to believe that his diagnosis was wrong. Finally I called him up and confronted him, and he admitted that she did not have the disease. Years of suffering could have been avoided if we had ascertained at the outset that he was incapable of admitting that he didn’t have all the answers.

Checking to see if a professional will say they don’t know when they actually don’t is an important hiring step that is rarely performed. Interview the professional and ask them questions about the work you want them to do. Listen carefully to how they respond to your questions. You are looking for them to show that they know the limits of their abilities, and that they are willing to share their limits with you.

If necessary, ask whether they can do something that is a little outside their stated expertise and listen carefully to how they respond. If you hear an unwillingness to admit that they are not able to fulfill your request, you are receiving an important warning. Ignore it at your peril!

Choosing professionals who are aware of and clear and honest about their own limits ensures not only that they can actually do the work you need, but also that they will let you know when they are unequipped to handle any that problems. These are the people you want to work for you.

That’s it!
Faithfully execute these two simple steps when choosing professionals and you’ll avoid the common problems that occur when obtaining help with life’s challenges. These must-do steps have made it possible for me to pick competent, trustworthy help for years. I hope they help you too.

Reasons to leave a job

February 6th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

My mentor Jerry Weinberg, consultant extraordinaire, has written an excellent list of reasons to leave a job.

In my career, I have left jobs when:

  • The job I was hired to do was finished.
  • The job I was hired to do could not be finished.
  • The job I was hired to do would be finished just fine without me.
  • I was not able to do the job I was hired to do.
  • The job I was hired to do wasn’t worth doing.
  • I was no longer learning new things (that’s my most frequent reason for leaving).
  • They told me that my pay was going to be “temporarily” delayed.
  • They asked me to do something illegal or unethical.

—Jerry Weinberg, What is the right reason to leave a job?

I’d like to add one more reason for leaving a job:

The pain of the job isn’t worth the gain.

Though this is related to Jerry’s 5th reason, I think it’s worth being explicit about the effect of a job on your mental, physical, or spiritual being. Many years ago I took on a client where every interaction was unpleasant. The owner argued with me about my recommendations, groused about my bills, and repeatedly implemented something different from what I had proposed and complained about the results. It took me a while, but one day I sat down and wrote him a letter that said I was unable to work for him anymore. It was the right decision, it felt good, and since then I’ve been better able to disengage in a timely fashion from work that isn’t working for me.

Sometimes you have no choice but to continue with a job you’d leave if circumstances were different. Sometimes you have no choice but to leave a job. But when you have a choice, don’t overlook your own needs because of a commendable but perhaps now misguided loyalty to the commitment you made when you began.

The dark side of stories at events

January 30th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

Hans Bleiker tells a story about a group of scientists who spent several years carefully researching how to maintain the health of a deer herd, and determined that some minor changes in state hunting regulations would be very effective. At a public hearing, their entire case was undermined in 15 minutes by the testimony of a guy who loudly protested that his great-grandfather had helped his father shoot his first deer, his father had gone with him to shoot his first deer, and he’d be damned if some bunch of scientists were going to stop him help his son to shoot his first deer.

It’s been hard to miss the deluge of books and articles pointing out (correctly) that presenters who tell relevant, well-told stories have far more impact on listeners than those who recite a litany of facts. It’s not surprising that the most popular and highly paid professional speakers are those with a vivid story to tell — one that often follows some variant of the hero’s journey

Stories have great power to change our minds. They can do wonderful things: challenge our ingrained beliefs, make us aware of injustice, inspire us to be better human beings, and motivate us to act for the greater good.

Unfortunately, such power can also be used for evil. Stories can be used to inflict great damage.

Examples abound. Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen” has shaped U.S. welfare policy for 40 years. Chimamanda Adichie tells how childhood reading warps our view of the world. Stories of parents whose children developed the symptoms of autism soon after vaccination have led many people to not vaccinate their children, leading to the resurgence of preventable diseases even though scientific research has shown no connection between vaccination and autism.

Stories are dangerous, because, even with good intentions, stories can be wrong. And, more dangerously, they can be purposefully misleading. A child’s default belief is that stories they hear are true, and we tend to carry that belief into adulthood despite increasing experience that stories can be seriously biased and deceptive. The terrible way in which it has recently become routine for authority figures to publicly lie in order to achieve their own objectives is leading to a world where “alternative facts” are becoming the norm.

As event planners, we are often involved in selecting and supporting presenters who are given a platform to tell their stories to an audience, hopefully for good but possibly for nefarious reasons. While acknowledging the power of stories, let’s not forget that they can evoke dark passions in those who hear them. As people who make events happen, we bear a responsibility to decide whether we want to tacitly support those storytellers among us who use stories for immoral and unethical ends.

Photo attribution: Flickr user campascca

To build connection and engagement at events — give up control!

January 16th, 2017 by Adrian Segar

How can we build connection and engagement with people with whom we work?

My wise consultant friend Naomi Karten tells a short story about a client’s unexpected reaction. Frank had a bad experience with an earlier information technology project, so Naomi’s team gave him three possible approaches to a major system design and a list of the pluses and minuses of each.

“The plan was to let him select the approach he preferred in hopes that he’d gain more trust in us as a result…”

“…Frank jumped up, shouted, ‘How dare you develop options without my input!’ and marched out of the room…”

“…Instead of his seeing the options as giving him a say in our efforts, he may have seen us as preventing his input into the very idea of options. We saw ourselves giving him some control. He may have seen us as taking it away.”
—Naomi Karten, The Importance of Giving Others a Sense of Control

At traditional conferences, attendees choose from predetermined sets of sessions chosen by conference organizers. Think about your experience of such events. Have you found that much of the time, none of the choices supply what you actually need and/or want? Sadly, we’re so used to this state of affairs, we accept it as normal.

Conferences don’t have to be designed this way. Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve discovered that peer conferences, where participants determine the choices, provide a much better fit between the wants/needs of the attendees and the conference program they construct on-the-fly. This leads to significantly greater connection, engagement, and satisfaction.

Sometimes, giving people a limited number of options is not enough. Giving up control over the choices at your conferences by handing it over to the participants — using proven process, of course —is one of the best ways to build trust, connection, and engagement at your events.

Photo attribution: Flickr user kt

Friends don’t let friends give away their content

January 9th, 2017 by Adrian Segar


Friends don’t let friends give away their original content to third-party platforms
I’ve been saying this for years, but do people listen? No they don’t.

Let me be clear, by all means share your content for free on any of the gazillion social media platforms available. And if you can get paid appropriately for creating content for others, good for you. Otherwise, make sure that your content remains under your control.

Why? Well, here are a few reminders:

  • Geocities was once the third most visited site on the internet. 38 million user-built pages! Nothing but a distant memory now, unless you live in Japan.
  • Remember when your friends saw everything you posted on Facebook? Not any more, unless you pay up.
  • Ah, those glorious days when you posted something in a LinkedIn group and a significant number of people would read it! Long gone.

Now the blog host site Medium announces a layoff of a third of its staff. There are millions of posts on the site. Will Evan Williams pull the plug some day?  Will social journalism survive? Who knows?

Get the picture? Posting your original content exclusively on someone else’s platform puts you at their mercy. Don’t do it!

Instead, invest in your own website
There are plenty of great platforms available, and lots of fine web hosting services to run them on. For example, this site uses WordPress on a Dreamhost VPS (Virtual Private Server).

Though this route involves more work and/or money than posting on a third-party platform, you:

  • Control your own content. You can add, edit, delete, and control comments on it at any time.
  • Determine how your content is presented. Want to insert an offer for your services or products in the middle of a blog post? No problem.
  • Retain full rights to your content. (One example: the rights to anything you post to Huffington Post belongs to them. And they don’t even pay you for the privilege of writing for them!)
  • Build your own brand, authority, and SEO, not that of a third-party site.
  • Maintain access to your content. If your web hosting service goes bankrupt or is unsatisfactory, you can transfer your content to a new host. As long as the internet is up and you pay your hosting service, your content will be available.

Seven years ago I started the website you’re reading. As expected, hardly anyone visited initially. As I steadily added content (at least once per week) viewership grew. According to my weblogs, this site is now one of the most popular websites on meeting design and related issues, with 31 million page views to date, 25 million of which were made in the last three years.

As a result, this website is now the largest source of client inquiries for my consulting and facilitating services — something I would never have predicted when it went live in 2009. And the ever-growing body of articles on this blog and the inbound links to them continue to build my brand, authority, and SEO.

This has been a PSA from Adrian Segar.

Why meetings are more important than you think

January 2nd, 2017 by Adrian Segar

As 2017 begins, take a moment to think about meetings in a wider context. OK, a very wide context.

“Who am I?” We’ve all wondered about some form of this question. While the answer is left for an exercise for the reader (and this writer), Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, argues that our identity is not contained so much within us, but between us.

As Dan puts it:

“The self has been falsely characterized as being embedded in your body … The self being embedded in your body is not only wrong, it is a destructive belief … We have an internal-self of a ‘me’, and we do have an interconnected-self of a ‘we’. Both are important.”
Dr Daniel Siegel, “Why Compassion is Necessary for Humanity

Here’s the two-minute conclusion of Dan’s video:

While our primary relationships are usually with family and friends, professional relationships are also important, and meetings are typically the most effective way to form and develop then.

If then — as interpersonal neurobiology would have it — we are ultimately who we are because of our relationships, it follows that meetings are central to our being, our understanding of ourselves.

Cool!

Meetings. They’re more important than you think.

[Hat tip to Bernie De Koven, who provided the inspiration for this post and the video clip.]

Photo attribution: Flickr user Craig Sunter

Replace “brain training” hype with something that works

December 26th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

Driving home from the post office today, I finally heard one too many promotions for Lumosity brain training on my local NPR station. Lumosity, in case you somehow haven’t heard, is a subscription to online games that claim to improve memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, speed of processing, problem solving, and, for all I know, world peace too.

Despite the Federal Trade Commission slapping Lumosity’s creator, Lumos Labs, with a $50 million judgment (reduced to a $2 million fine) in January to settle charges of deceptive advertising that claimed — with no “competent and reliable scientific evidence” — that the games could help users achieve their “full potential in every aspect of life”, the company continues to bombard consumers with ads. Meanwhile, research on the efficacy of such programs has found little or no evidence that they make any difference to global measures of intelligence or cognition.

“I think claims these companies have been making — and Lumosity is not alone — have been grossly exaggerated. They’re trying to argue that we’re going to take you out of [the] active world … that we’re going to put you in a room alone in front of a computer screen and you’ll play a game that will make you smarter.”
“There is no compelling evidence for that.”
Dr. Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity

At best, it turns out, these games somewhat improve the ability of players to … wait for it … play the games.

Which leads to a simple suggestion.

Instead of paying for programs that claim to “train your brain”, figure out what you want to do that actively engages your mind — and do it!

You’ll probably learn a thing or two about something that actually interests you. And, though I can’t guarantee that your mind will become healthier, your bank account definitely will be!

Illustration components from Flickr users isaacmao and gambort

 

Virtual Meetings Lower Costs … and Interaction

December 19th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

“Intel’s annual meeting was entirely virtual. There was no in-person gathering site, the questions were submitted in advance, and management and the board made all of their presentations online.”
Steven Davidoff Solomon, New York Times, Online Shareholders’ Meetings Lower Costs, but Also Interaction

I spent the summer of 1973 working for the Long-Range Studies Department of the British Post Office, a long-defunct group that attempted to predict the exciting future that new technologies would surely bring about. The Post Office had just built a few hideously expensive teleconferencing studios, connected by outrageously expensive telephone trunk lines, and one of our jobs was to find out what they could be used for. Could businesspeople be persuaded to stop traveling to meetings, to sit instead in comfortable local studios hundreds of miles apart, handsomely equipped with cameras, microphones, screens, and speakers that magically allowed them to meet as well as if they were all in the same room? Why yes, we concluded brightly in our final report:

“A substantial number of business meetings which now occur face-to-face could be conducted effectively by some kind of group telemedia.”

Forty years later, “group telemedia”, now known as virtual meetings, are firmly established and increasingly popular. Solomon’s New York Times article quoted above explores how some corporate shareholder meetings are now held virtually. The biggest advantages of virtual meetings are clearly convenience and much lower costs: no travel, venue, or F&B expenditures.

There are, however, some downsides.

Solomon points out that virtual shareholder meetings typically pre-empt meaningful shareholder interaction; convenient if management is facing awkward questions.

“It was no coincidence that the CSX Corporation held its 2008 meeting at a remote rail yard in New Orleans, the same year it was the focus of a shareholder activist putting up a proxy fight. In previous years, it had held those meetings at the luxurious Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, which the railroad owned at the time. A virtual meeting eliminates the potential for a public relations disaster.”

He contrasts such approaches with what some companies do:

“Think about the extravaganza that is the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. Days of talking and showing off the company’s products, including copious amounts of treats from Dairy Queen, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary. The Walt Disney Company’s meeting is also known for highlighting the company’s latest movie or ride. Even children can ask questions; one recent interaction led Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, to give a private tour of Pixar to a child. Some companies are local legends where the entire town will gather. It is at these meetings that connections are made between the company and its shareholders.

Solomon concludes:

“By forcing everything onto the web, we lose the personal interaction. Everyone logs in and watches a preprogrammed set of questions and answers. And then everyone goes away. Management’s worldview is reaffirmed in the 10 or so minutes it allows for questioning, and there is no engagement except with those investors who own a portion of shares large enough to personally meet with management. It’s a modern world that is frightening in its disengagement.”

Online meetings offer a convenient and low-cost way to receive content, and they can provide limited interactivity. Yet you can also abandon one with the click of a mouse. Such meetings require little commitment, so it is harder to successfully engage participants when the cost of leaving is so low.

If you think of a meeting primarily as a way of transferring content, then online meetings seem attractive, inexpensive alternatives to face-to-face events. If, however, you value meetings as opportunities to make meaningful connections with others, face-to-face meetings offer significant advantages.

I believe that the unique benefits of face-to-face meetings will continue to be valued. The advantages of being physically present with other people, dining and socializing together, the serendipity of human contact, the opportunity to meet new people in person rather than hear a voice on the phone or see an image on a screen, the magic that can occur when a group of people coalesces; all these combine into more than the sum of their parts, building the potential to gain and grow long-term relationships and friendships. Anyone who has been to a good face-to-face conference knows that these things can happen, and that, either in the moment or in retrospect, they may even be seen as pivotal times in one’s life.

 

Book covers

Thirty minutes free consulting included with book purchase on this site!

Download five free chapters here!

Where To Buy

Purchase eBook ($11), paperback ($26) or both ($32) at lowest available prices via PayPal on this site. Signing and U.S. shipping included. Paperback versions are also available from online bookstores everywhere.

Twitter LinkedInGoogle+

Subscribe to my posts

Testimonial

Your book has been the biggest influence on my professional thinking in 2013.

— Chris Collins Principal, Eventwerx
Event Pro Update
  • Blog Post Archive

  • Cart

  • Meta