How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules

by Adrian Segar

Remember kindergarten? O.K., I barely do either, but when I go into my local elementary school to read to the kids, I see ground rules like these posted on the classroom walls. The teachers create them for the younger classes, and I’m told that the Junior High comes up with their own ground rules (probably with some judicious teacher input). So it seems that explicit ground rules are useful in the pre-adult classroom.

Moving to the adult world, professional facilitators who work for more than a few hours with a group or team will usually have the members establish their own ground rules, not only because group-developed ground rules handle the specific needs of the group, but also because the process of development creates buy-in for the rules that are chosen.

Yet traditional conferences don’t have explicit ground rules!

Perhaps you’re thinking: We’re adults, we know how to behave! or What’s the point, we’re only together for a few days!

Here’s why the right explicit ground rules will improve your conference.

The right ground rules fundamentally change the environment of a conference.
The six ground rules used at Conferences That Work are not about nitpicking issues like turning off cell phones & pagers in sessions (good luck!) Instead they are designed to create an intimate and safe conference environment, by sending participants these powerful messages:

“While you are here, you have the right and opportunity to be heard.”
“Your individual needs and desires are important here.”
“You will help to determine what happens at this conference.”
“What happens here will be kept confidential. You can feel safe here.”
“At this conference, you can create, together with others, opportunities to learn and to share.”

Introducing and having attendees commit to the right ground rules at the start of the event sets the stage for a collaborative, participative conference, because the rules give people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other.

And when attendees feel safe to share and empowered to ask questions and express what they think and how they feel, what happens at a conference can be amazing.

In fact, setting good ground rules at the start of a conference may be the single most transformative change you can make to improve your event!

Two tips on adding ground rules to your conference design
Before you rush to add ground rules to your conferences, bear in mind two points:

  • Don’t attempt to brainstorm and negotiate ground rules amongst attendees at a first-time conference! The time required to do a good job would be prohibitive. Use some time-tested rules, like mine (here are four of them), or the four principals and one law of Open Space events.
  • Think twice before adding ground rules that embody participant empowerment to a traditional event that consists mainly of pre-scheduled presentation-style sessions. Your ground rules and your design are likely to be seen as conflicting!

Do you use explicit ground rules in your events? What has your experience been? Want to know more about using ground rules at conferences? Ask away in the comments below! (If you can’t wait, <shameless plug> you could also buy my books, which describe in detail both the ground rules used at Conferences That Work, and how to successfully introduce them to attendees.)

Image attribution: http://quality.cr.k12.ia.us/Photo_Album/Ground_Rules/groundrules.JPG

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