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Dear Adrian: Answers to participant-led event questions asked at a MeetingsNet webinar

by Adrian Segar

innovativeportalbannerCurtiss Reed and I enjoyed presenting our thirty-minute MeetingsNet webinar Participant-Led Meetings: A Case Study on February 4, 2014, and I’m happy to announce that the webinar is now available free on demand (until February 4, 2015). Just go to the registration link and complete the short sign-up to receive a link to the webinar.

We received a good number of good questions during the webinar, and were not able to answer them all in the time available. So I’ve listed them here, together with my answers. I hope you find them useful!


Angie Patel: Do you find most participants are organically prepared to participate in the peer sessions? Or do some come with data, slides, etc.?

When using the Conferences That Work format I do find that participants are willing and able to participate in the peer sessions, by the time they begin (typically the morning of the second day.) The combination of the ground rules, roundtable experience, and the peer session sign-up act to ease the vast majority of attendees into the role of participants.

As far as preparing attendees for the possibility that they may have given a relevant presentation previously or have resource materials that might be relevant to the conference, what we do is to send out pre-conference information—a couple of weeks before the meeting—that includes language similar to the following:

“If you’ve worked on something that you think may be of interest to other attendees, or have experience or expertise in a given area or topic, we encourage you to bring any useful supporting or presentation materials or links to the conference. All sessions are informal, so you don’t need to bring or prepare anything polished for distribution.”


Tara Taylor: How do I find out if and where there might be opportunities to observe/attend participant-led events?
Alethea Session: How do you find these events?

For Conferences That Work format events, check out my events calendar which lists events I’ve heard about that use the Conferences That Work format, or elements of it. (Many are, unfortunately, unlisted because I don’t know about them; if you’re running one please let me know and I’ll list it for free!) You can also fill out my training opportunities form, which allows me to inform you of events that you may be able to staff.

For other participant-led event formats, check out the relevant links in the resource document I provided for the webinar.


Elizabeth Campbell: If you have a meeting that has to be more structured (due to regulations, like continuing medical education) can you do a hybrid? If so, what elements can you successfully integrate?
Chris Kirchner: Is a “hybrid” approach worth discussing? Exp : Day 1 pre-planned agenda, Day 2 – participant led content?

You can indeed do a hybrid event that incorporates participant-led and traditional sessions, provided that you have enough time to do both well.

For example, I do not know how to include traditional elements into a 1½ day Conferences That Work format event without unduly rushing the participant-led components. On the other hand, if I have 2½ days or more, there is no problem integrating a keynote/plenary/trade show into such a time frame.

The edACCESS annual conference I’ve now been running for 22 years lasts 3½ days and uses the Conferences That Work format together with a trade show, one or two preplanned plenaries, and sometimes a keynote. The rest of the time is filled with peer sessions.

Incorporating such traditional elements can also help with marketing—people see the program and say “Well, I don’t really understand this participant-led stuff, but so-and-so is going to be speaking and there’s a session on such-and-such so I’ll sign up.” (Invariably, they end up evaluating the peer sessions higher than the traditional ones, but that’s OK; the latter helped them make the decision to attend.)

One more point: on the order in which these two kinds of sessions are presented. It’s best to blend both formats, participant-led & traditional, into a single conference rather than separating them into a traditional day and a participant-led day. That way, people get exposed to both approaches and come to appreciate the latter—otherwise some people will avoid it because they aren’t familiar with its benefits.


Doreen Ashton Wagner: I’m curious: what if the sign-up-to-sessions process means that one or a few participants don’t find anything that appeals to them? That’s where I’ve been disappointed with Open Space formats in the past…I didn’t share the concerns of others!

Open Space, which has a minimalist structure, can suffer from its opening format where people are asked, often with little or no preparation, to suggest topics they want to be discussed. Without easing attendees into a participant mindset—as happens during the first half-day of Conferences That Work—attendees may only hear topics from the more extravert attendees, leading to the others ultimately feeling unrepresented. By the time that the peer session sign-up occurs during Conferences That Work, nearly everyone comfortable sharing the topics in which they are interested. And if you’ve added your own topics to sign-up sheets—i.e. you participate :)—the things you’re interested in are going to be seen by the other attendees. Subsequently, it’s rare that absolutely no one else is interested in every topic that any one person suggests.


Lee Pucker: How do you get companies to pay for people to attend without publishing a defined agenda for them to use to prove the ROI for the company?

I hope Curtiss gave you a useful answer from a client’s viewpoint during the webinar. There’s no question that until participant-led events become more main-stream it’s hard to start participant-led events from scratch when there’s no one yet available to testify to a specific event’s benefits. The capability to form more and better connections that these formats allow is probably the most concrete outcome for someone who needs to justify on an ROI basis. “I’m likely to make three times as many better quality connections at this event than at a traditional conference. That’s three times as many better qualified sales leads…” etc.


Amy Forgette: With the roomset being so radically different (room for 200 to accommodate 70 in a circle) …how do we get VENUES to take our programs?

I’ve found that the issue is less about getting venues to take our programs (venues are almost always eager for business) and more about finding venues that fit the space needs of participant-led events. You may need to look beyond standard hotel business meeting rooms and event spaces that focus mainly on special events. Interestingly, educational institutions often turn out to provide great venues for many of the events that I run. I’m a big fan of non-traditional venues. And there are an increasing number of commercial venues that are aware that these event formats are becoming more popular and have adapted or reconfigured their space to fit.


Chris Kirchner: Any best practices on pre-conference marketing without a published agenda?

I hope I was able to answer this question during the webinar. Here are the articles I mentioned that should be helpful:

Finally, Chapter 17 of my book covers this topic.


John Boyle: What makes a “well run” event? Is it facilitators?

I think there are two important components:

1) A participant-led format that is established and has a good track record. Any of the formats covered in the webinar poll meet this definition, except sometimes events advertised as “unconferences” or “barcamps”; terminology which people sometimes slap onto “alternative” events without having a clear meeting design in place. The latter certainly can be well run and useful, but such labels are occasionally used to describe events that turn out to be relatively unstructured, prone to hijacking by a vocal few, and unnecessarily chaotic.

2) What’s more important is indeed the caliber and experience of the facilitators of the event. That’s not to say that someone with good facilitation skills can’t do a decent job running one of these formats the first time she tries, but if there’s some risk being taken to hold the event, it’s worth working with people who have a track record, with references available, of successful participant-led events.


John Boyle: What is the ideal size for a participant-led event? Is it scalable? For instance, can you have events within events or concurrent events to serve a larger group?

My book covers events that are up to 100 attendees. For an answer that covers events larger than this, please download my free book supplement and check out Chapter 5.


Doreen Ashton Wagner: With crowdsourcing tools and online collaboration, couldn’t this exchange [of topics for the conference] be done, at least in part, ahead of the event?

This is one of the most common questions I’m asked, and it’s a good question. For my answer, see Does asking attendees in advance for program suggestions work?


 

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