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We can talk about it

January 26th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

We can't talk about it 4015519496_e9515f879b_b

We can’t talk about how we could do things better around here
We can’t talk about what isn’t working
We can’t talk about the countless opportunities we ignore
We can’t talk about what hurts
We can’t talk about dignity
We can’t talk about how to make magic happen
We can’t talk to our boss, our employees, our board, our investors
We can’t talk about the things we can’t talk about

That’s a shame.
—Seth Godin, We can’t talk about it

One of the reasons we feel we can’t talk about things is that we are scared about who might hear—people who have, or might have, power or influence of some kind over us, like our boss (“You’re fired!”) or colleagues (“He’s weird!”)

Read the rest of this entry »

Mom killed that idea: One way that kids are smarter than adults—and the implications for events

January 19th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

lemonade stand — 516578887_edf3a51ccf_oIn his fascinating and thought-provoking book The Educated Mind, professor of education Kieran Egan tells the story of kids at a lemonade stand where a customer jokingly asked if they had any beer or scotch. The five-year-old proprietor went into the house and asked Mom “whether he could could have some beer and scotch for the stand. He emerged a minute of so later, shrugged, and told his siblings, ‘Mom killed that idea.'” His three and four-year-old siblings had no difficulty interpreting this sentence.

Egan emphasizes the important role of metaphor in learning. Studies have shown that very young children are capable of “prodigal production” of metaphors, that such metaphorical capacity declines as children become older, and “younger children’s production and grasp of metaphor are commonly superior to that of older children and adults.” We are amused by young childrens’ effortless invention of wonderful words to describe objects in their lives. My grandchildrens’ lovely constructions passerports (passports) and glovins (gloves) come to mind—these are delightful reflections of their minds’ ability to conjure up melanges of ideas and words that express their reality.

We often assume that we get smarter as we get older. By “smarter” I mean our abilities are superior and the likelihood we’ll use them higher. While this is true in many respects, our demonstrated decline in metaphorical capacity means that we are less likely and less able to use metaphors as adults.

This is a loss for event education, as metaphor is one of the most powerful methods for extending learning. The philosopher Max Black said “it would be more illuminating…to say that metaphor creates the similarity than to say it formulates some similarity antecedently existing.” Metaphor then, Egan says, “becomes a key tool in aiding flexible, productive learning.”  It “helps us to acquire knowledge about new domains, and also has the effect of restructuring our organization of knowledge.”

When I describe my recent experience of trying to get internet service restored at my home by comparing it to being stuck on an airplane for days waiting for it to take off without any announcements about what’s going on or when we might leave (if ever), or when my mentor Jerry Weinberg publishes a book about writing employing a single metaphor—building a fieldstone wall—to illustrate every stage of the process, we are harnessing a metaphoric plow to prepare the ground for seeds of learning [oops, I did it again.]

I wish more attention had been paid to metaphoric fluency in my early education, as I find it hard to summon up useful metaphors for ideas I’m trying to get across. For this we can perhaps blame Plato and his successors who insisted that the “poetic” be eliminated from intellectual inquiry. Consequently, literacy education discourages our use of metaphor.

Some people seem to have a natural ability to dream up apt metaphors, and they are usually engaging and memorable presenters (great comedians frequently share this gift too.) Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and Reagan’s “break down this wall” speeches obtain much of their power from metaphor.

How does all this this relate to event design? Eric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver‘s techniques for formulating meeting objectives and their Elementary Meetings model rely on the power of metaphor to create stakeholder buy-in for meeting objectives and design. And good production designers know the importance of choosing event themes that connect at a metaphorical level with underlying goals for the associated meeting.

I believe it’s worth cultivating our skill at employing metaphor, or seeking out those who are good at it. Better events may well be the result.

Photo attribution: Flickr user adwriter

Parallels between the evolution of journalism and events

January 12th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

There are fascinating parallels in the ways that journalism and events are evolving. Listen to the first minute of this interview of journalism maverick Jeff Jarvis by David Weinberger.

Here’s the relevant quote:

“What the internet changes is our relationship with the public we serve…What is the proper relationship for journalists to the public? We tend to think it’s manufacturing a product called content you should honor and buy…That’s a legacy of mass media; treating everybody the same because we had to…So we now see the opportunity to serve people’s individual needs. So that’s what made me think that journalism, properly conceived is a service.”

In parallel fashion, events are moving away from broadcast formats that treat everybody the same and evolving towards designs that allow individual participants to learn what they individually want and need to learn, as well as connecting with peers and peer communities that have real value for them.

Seeing your conference as a service that can provide what people want—rather than what you’ve decided they want, like the journalists of old—is key to keeping your events relevant, competitive, and successful.

[The rest of the interview is well worth the listen; David Weinberger always asks good questions! Jeff’s new book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News.looks like a good read too.]

My favorite to-do list manager

January 5th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Trello To Do

I’ve lost count of the number of To Do list managers I’ve tried over the years—there have been so many. Most recently, Omnifocus and Wunderlist were my repositories, but I eventually grew frustrated enough to dump them; nothing I’ve used has eliminated the time-honored alternative of writing notes on scraps of paper that get scattered around my desk.

Until now.

I have been using Trello for the last six months, and I’m very happy with it. Here’s what I like about this nifty piece of software.

  • It runs on my desktops and mobile devices, syncing seamlessly between platforms. I can update my To Do lists anywhere. (Trello runs on Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, iOS 7+, Android 4+, and, should the spirit move you, your Kindle Fire HD – 2nd Gen.)
  • It works flawlessly. (Wunderlist, I’m looking at you—I shouldn’t need to frantically email tech support when all my lists vanish; yes, you did restore them for me which is very nice for a free service but…)
  • Trello can handle much more than To Do lists. I keep all my To Do’s on one Trello “board”, but you can easily create additional boards for projects that have more than a few associated tasks if that works better for you. (Or you could color code a project’s items so they stand out on your main To Do board. Or you could tag them. Or…)
  • It’s very flexible without being over-complex (Omnifocus, I’m talking about you.) I use a combination of Getting Things Done and Kanban methodologies, and Trello makes it a snap to extend the core Kanban model (To Do, Doing, Done) in any way you like. Each Trello board can have any number of Lists, and each list can hold any number of Cards, which are your basic individual action items.  For an example look at my To Do board above, which includes a set of three priority To Do lists (cool, warm hot), a Brattleboro list (for things to do when I go into town), a Waiting list (off screen) for things I’m waiting for someone else to get back to me on, as well as Doing and Done lists.
  • Moving stuff about is a dream. On a desktop device, drag a card with your mouse to where you want it. No delay, just drag it to a new list and it pops into place. On a touch-screen, use your finger to drag; it works the same way. Wunderlist sometimes had annoying lags  (“did I move it or not?”) while Trello just works—Steve Jobs would be proud.
  • More features are available when you need them, but they don’t get in the way. See this intro Trello board that lists some of the things you can do that maybe I’ll want to do some day.

Trello Welcome

  • Trello is free for the functionality I need. If you start using it inside an organization, you can purchase Trello Business Class, which costs $5 per user per month or $45 per user per year and adds administrative controls and security (plus export in CSV format; see below). That’s how they make money. At the time of writing, Trello has ~5 million users.

Any quibbles?
Of course—nothing’s perfect! (But Trello comes close.) The main thing that’s a little disturbing is that all your data is stored by Trello and if the company’s massive server cloud was vaporized you’d lose all your lovely To Dos. The free version of Trello only allows export to JSON, which cannot be opened by Excel, and you’d need to use a JSON->CSV converter to get your To Dos in a form that us mere mortals can view and manipulate. The only other thing I find a little clumsy is the procedure to add or change a due date for a card, though writing this article led me to discover a world of Trello shortcuts which simplify such operations. (Yup, more evidence that the best way to learn about anything is to try and explain it.)

Conclusion
Sign up today! It doesn’t cost anything, and no salesperson will call. If you’d like to patiently explain to me why the To Do list manager you use is way better than this, then type away in the comments.

Should Linda go to TradConf or PartConf?

December 31st, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Two_paths_into_Kingsford_Forest_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1185904Ask me about an environment for learning and I recall sitting in a classroom full of ancient wooden desks, hinged lids inscribed with the penknife carvings, initials, and crude drawings of generations of semi-bored schoolboys. A thin film of chalk dust covers everything, and distant trees and blue sky beckon faintly through the windows at the side of the room. The teacher is talking and I am paying attention in case I am called on to answer a question. If it’s a subject I like—science, math, or English—I am present, working to pick up the wisdom imparted, motivated by my curiosity about the world and the desire to not appear stupid in front of my classmates. If it’s a subject I am not passionate about—foreign languages, history, art, or geography—I do what I need to do to get by.

When asked to think about creating an environment for learning we tend to focus, as I just did, on the physical environment and our motivations for learning.

But there’s a third element of the learning environment that is largely overlooked. Did you spot it? If you’ve read my post Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way you probably did; we have not yet mentioned the learning processes we use as a key component of our learning environment. These processes are so deeply associated with our experience of learning in specific environments that we’re rarely conscious of how much they affect what and how we learn.

Let’s meet Linda, who’s about to discover why using good process can be so impactful.

About Linda
Linda’s waiting to get her badge and information packet at a conference registration table. She’s nervous because she’s new to the industry and has only previously briefly met a couple of people on the list of registered attendees. Linda likes her profession, but came principally in order to receive continuing education credits that she needs to maintain her professional certification. She wants to learn more about certain industry issues, get some specific questions answered, and is hoping to meet peers and begin to build a professional network.

At this point, let’s see what happens when Linda experiences two somewhat different conference designs.

Linda goes to TradConf
Linda is a first-time attendee at TradConf, a small annual association conference that has pretty much the same format since it was first held in 1982. She received a conference program six months ago and saw a few sessions listed that look relevant to her current needs. After picking up her preprinted name badge she enters the conference venue and sees a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there she knows. She drifts over to a refreshment table and picks up a glass of soda water, hoping to be able to finesse her way into one of the groups and join a conversation.

Linda meets a few people before the opening session, but no one who she really clicks with. Still, she’s grateful that she can at least associate a few names with faces.

Linda doesn’t find the opening keynote especially interesting. The speaker is entertaining but doesn’t really offer any useful take-aways. And sitting and listening for 80 minutes has taken a toll on her concentration. She follows the crowd to the refreshments in the hallway outside and tries to meet some more people. Linda’s not shy, but it’s still daunting to have to repeatedly approach strangers and introduce herself. By the end of the first day, Linda has met one person with whom she has a fair amount in common, and she bumped into one of the people she knew before the conference. The three of them spend the evening talking.

The next couple of days’ sessions are a mixed bag. Some of the sessions are a rehash of things Linda already knows, rather than covering new techniques, while another turns out to focus on something very different from the description in the conference program. Linda picks up a few useful nuggets from a couple of sessions, and gets one of her pressing questions answered. She connects with someone who asked an interesting question at the end of a presentation. She spends most of her time between sessions with her old connection and two new friends.

The conference closes with a keynote banquet. Linda sits next to an stimulating colleague, but doesn’t get much time to talk to him because the keynote monopolizes most of their time together. They swap business cards and promise to stay in touch.

Afterwards, Linda has mixed feelings about her TradConf experience. She met some interesting people and learned a few things, but it didn’t seem to be an especially productive use of her time, given that she has to get back to work and still grapple with the majority of her unanswered questions. She doesn’t feel like she’s built much of a professional network. Perhaps things will be better when she goes next year?

Linda goes to PartConf
Linda is a first-time attendee at PartConf, a small annual association conference first held in 1993. It has a good reputation, but it’s hard to understand what the conference will be like, because, apart from an interesting-sounding keynote from someone really well known in the industry and a few other sessions on hot-topics, the program doesn’t list any other session topics. Instead, the preconference materials claim that the participants themselves will create the conference sessions on the topics that they want to learn about. This sounds good in theory to Linda, but she is quite skeptical how well this will actually work in practice.

A few weeks before the event, Linda gets a call from Maria, who identifies herself as a returning conference participant. Maria explains that all first-time PartConf attendees get paired with a buddy before the conference. Maria offers to answer any questions about the conference, meet Linda at registration, and introduce her to other attendees if desired. Linda asks how the participant-driven conference format works, and Maria is happy to share her own positive experience. They swap contact information and agree to meet at registration.

Linda calls Maria as she waits on line to register. As she picks up her large name badge, she notices it has some questions on it: “Talk to me about…” and “I’d like to know about…” with blank space for answers. Maria appears and explains that the questions allow people with matching interests or expertise to find each other. Linda fills out her badge, and the two of them enter the conference venue and see a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there Linda knows, but Maria brings her over to one of the groups and introduces her to Yang and Tony. “Based on what you’ve told me about your interests,” Maria says, “I think you guys have a lot in common.” A glance at Yang’s and Tony’s badges confirms this, and Linda is soon deep in conversation with her two new colleagues who introduce her to other attendees.

By the time the opening session starts, Linda has met six people who are clearly going to be great resources for her. She’s also surprised to discover that a couple of other people are really interested in certain experiences and expertise she acquired at a previous job.

The opening session is a roundtable. Linda has been preassigned to one of five roundtables being held simultaneously. Two of her new friends join her in a large room with a circle of forty chairs. A roundtable facilitator explains how the roundtable works, and provides some ground rules for everyone to follow. Over the next 90 minutes, everyone gets a turn to share their answers to three questions. Linda learns much about the other participants and gets a comprehensive overview of group members’ questions, issues, topics, experience and expertise. Human spectrograms, held roughly every twenty minutes, get people on their feet to show experience levels, geographical distribution, and other useful information about the group. Linda notes the names of four more people she wants to talk to during the conference, and discovers that her former job experience is of interest to other people in the room.

At the first evening social, Linda enjoys getting to know her new friends. Everyone spends some time proposing and signing up for “peer sessions” to be held over the next few days, using a simple process involving colored pens and sheets of paper. Peer sessions can be presentations, discussions, panels, workshops, or any format that seems appropriate for the participants’ learning and sharing. Linda suggests several issues she is grappling with and a couple of the sessions she wants get scheduled. Although another topic doesn’t have sufficient interest to be formally scheduled, she notes the names of the people interested and decides to try to talk with them between sessions. She is surprised to find that quite a few people want to learn from her former job experience, and ends up facilitating a discussion on the topic the next day.

The next couple of days’ sessions are incredibly productive and useful for Linda. She gets all her questions answered, meets several people who can advise her on potential future issues, enjoys being an unexpected resource herself, and has begun to build a great professional network by the time the conference draws to a close.

The last couple of sessions provide Linda an opportunity to think about what she has learned and what she wants to do professionally as a result. She now feels confident about beginning a major initiative at work, sketches out the initial steps, and gets helpful feedback from her colleagues. She even has some time to reconnect with now-familiar peers and make arrangements to stay in touch. The last session starts with a public evaluation of the entire conference: what worked well and what might be improved. Linda makes several contributions, gets a clear idea of how the conference has been valuable to the many different constituencies present, and several great ideas emerge on how to make the event even better next year, together with next steps for their development.

Afterwards, Linda has very positive feelings about her conference experience. She got all her questions answered, learned much of value, and built the solid beginnings of a significant professional network. And she’s certain PartConf will be even better when she returns next year!

The impact of good process on the learning environment
Linda’s story illustrates the tremendous effect good process can have on the learning environment. The attendees at TradConf and PartConf are the same; only the processes used are different! PartConf’s participation-rich process gave Linda a learning experience that was much more tailored to her and the other attendees’ actual needs and wants than the predetermined program at TradConf. Linda also made useful connections with many more people at PartConf compared to TradConf.

The PartConf design also allows participants to make changes to the conference processes used, either at the event or future events. The learning environment at PartConf extends to the event design—the conference can “learn” itself through participant feedback and suggestions to become a more effective vehicle for participants’ needs and wants.

I have been running conferences like PartConf for over twenty years. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the vast majority of those who attend these events come to greatly prefer such designs over the TradConfs that have been the rule for hundreds of years.

Image attribution: Wikimedia

Two powerful ways to open a conference

December 22nd, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Solution Room edACCESS 2014 2If we’re creating conferences primarily for the benefit of attendees, rather than organizers/sponsors/presenters/etc.—yes, I know, it’s a radical concept—what are good things to do during the opening after the customary welcome and housekeeping? Although the answer depends on conference scope, desired outcomes,  group composition, time available, and so on there are a couple of approaches I find especially useful. (My new book on the topic covers these and several other openings in detail.)

After agreeing on ground rules—essential in my view before doing group work—here’s an outline of two techniques I use extensively:

The Three Questions
Three questions:

  • “How did I get here?”
  • “What do I want to have happen?”
  • “What expertise or experience do I have that others here might find useful?”

are printed on a large card given to each person. I explain that they cannot answer these questions incorrectly, share some examples of answers, allow participants few minutes to answer them in writing on their card, and then give everyone in turn the same amount of time to share their answers with the group. You can run The Three Questions in small groups, or with as many as 60 people in a roundtable. For large groups it’s important to break up the sharing every 20 minutes or so for activities that get the group members to learn more about the group.

The Three Questions make a clean break with the convention that at conferences most people listen and few speak. They publicly uncover a rich stew of ideas, themes, desires, and questions that is bubbling in peoples’ minds. And they expose the collective resources of the group—the expertise and experience that may be brought to bear on the concerns and issues that have been expressed.

(Want to learn more and can’t wait for my new book? My first book has all the details you’ll need to run The Three Questions at your next event.)

The Solution Room
The Solution Room is an opening conference session, typically lasting between 90 and 120 minutes, which both engages and connects participants and provides peer-supported advice on their most pressing challenges. By facilitating peer interaction and consultation at the start of an event, The Solution Room creates a conference environment that embodies participation, peer learning, and targeted problem solving. By the end of the session, every participant will have had the opportunity to receive advice and support on a challenge of his or her choosing.

A session of 20 or more people starts with a short introduction, followed by a human spectrogram that demonstrates the amount of experience available in the room. Next, participants are given some time to think of a challenge they have for which they would like to receive peer advice. A second human spectrogram follows which maps participants’ comfort level.

Participants are then divided into small equally-sized groups of between six and eight people, each group sharing a round table covered with flip chart paper and plenty of colored markers. Group members then individually describe their challenge on the paper in front of them using mindmapping. Each participant in turn has the same amount of time to explain his issue to the others at the table and receive advice and support.

When sharing is complete, two final human spectrograms provide a public group evaluation that maps the shift in comfort level of all the participants and the likelihood that participants will work to change what they’ve just shared.

Try ‘em!
Both of these techniques allow people to learn about each other and connect around issues that are personally/professionally meaningful. In my experience, they lead to much more powerful and authentic participant engagement than the generic “icebreakers” (hate that term!) typically used.

‘Twas the Hangout before Christmas…

December 19th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

‘Twas the Hangout before Christmas, when all through the net
#Eventprofs were stirring, their email to get;
The BEOs were hung on clipboards with care,
In hopes that the caterers soon would be there;
Attendees were nestled all snug in their chairs;
While visions of aerialists danced in the air;
And friends on their laptops, and I on my Mac,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s hack,
When out on Twitter there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my Steelcase to see what was the matter.
Away to my browser I flew like a flash,
Quick opened a new tab and beefed up the cache.
The glow of the screen on my new bluetooth keyboard,
Gave a lustre of ROI promised reward,
When what to my wondering eyes did arrive,
But a whole slew of tweets and +Thom Singer alive
With @PinkDeb +Brandt Krueger +Brad Wilson — a riot!
Followed by +Dan Parks & dear +Jenise Fryatt
+Sue Pelletier +Brad Wilson +Andrea Gold — a battalion!
+Heidi Thorne +Elizabeth Glau & +KiKi L’Italien
So I whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
Now +Tahira Endean, you grand superstar
+Anne Thornley-Brown +Dahlia El Gazzar
To the top of the page! to the top of the list!
Duck under the velvet rope, come to be kissed!
As leaves that before the room turnover rise,
When they meet with an obstacle, we all improvise;
So up to the hangout the #eventprofs they flew
With the click of a mouse, and some first-timers too
Appeared on the chat with a beer in their hand
Or an old-fashioned cocktail (all fresh, nothing canned)…

So come join us shortly if that’s what you’d like
If we say we can’t hear you please unmute your mike!

Details: Google Plus Private Hangout Friday December 19, 2014, 4-6pm ET
You’ll need an invite—if you want one just contact me on Google Plus!

Status and event design

December 15th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

We all like to feel important some of the time. Having status in some of our human relationships is important to our psychological well-being. As psychologist Matthew Lieberman explains:

“We desire status because it suggests that others value us, that we have a place of importance in the group and are therefore connected to the group.”
—Matthew Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

The problem with many conferences is that limited, unchangeable status is frozen into the event structure. The people who have high status are the ones who have been predetermined to be at the front of the room. Everyone else is just one of the lower-status crowd.

The beauty of a peer conference is that it provides many more opportunities for each participant to be high-status some of the time. The Conferences That Work opening roundtable format guarantees that everyone gets a short time (the same amount for each person) at the front of the room. During the event, you can be a learner (lower status) one moment and a teacher (higher status) the next. And it’s far more likely that expertise or experience you have that others value will be recognized and turned into a learning experience for others.

Let’s be clear—peer conferences don’t impose similar status on everybody. An industry veteran is likely to spend more time in higher-status situations than the novice first-time participant. But a peer conference makes no initial assumptions about who has something to offer, and I’ve seen plenty of situations where an industry novice turns out to have valuable contributions to make from her prior experience in another field.

Isn’t a conference format where everyone gets to be appropriately high-status once in a while healthier than one where a tiny minority get it all? I think so, (and thousands of evaluations back me up!)

Thank you for your feedback

December 4th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

1000 commentsAlthough some say that comments on blog posts are passé, I still think they provide valuable feedback and connection for communities that develop around posts and the topics covered on a blog.

So I’m happy that,as of today, readers of this niche blog (albeit one that will surpass 6M pageviews this year) have shared 1,000 comments on the 343 Conferences That Work posts I’ve written over the last five years. Many commenters are now friends, and some of you I met first through a comment on a post.

Thank you for your feedback!

Change is a verb not a noun

December 1st, 2014 by Adrian Segar

metronome_2397582359_9e3e7bbb9b_bTo make something change, we need to act.

Yes grammar wonks, “change” can be a noun. But change(-noun) is about the past or the future—”He dyed his hair! orI’m determined to lose a few pounds!”

Change(-noun) is static.

Change(-verb) involves us.

We can observe, wish for, or announce we’re in favor of change until we’re blue in the face. No action required.

The change that counts is a verb.

Photo attribution: Flickr user odolphie

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