Participation techniques you can use in conference sessions

by Adrian Segar

Here’s the summary handout for my workshop on participation techniques you can use in conference sessions that I’ll be leading at MPI’s World Education Congress 2011. Sources for additional information on these techniques can be found in the notes at the end of the list.

Technique: Setting ground rules ‡*
Brief description: Setting ground rules before other activities commence clarifies and unifies participants’ expectations.
When to use: Start of session, workshop, or conference.
Helpful for: Setting the stage for collaboration and participation, by giving people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other. Increases participants’ safety and intimacy.
Resources needed: Paper or online list of ground rules.

Technique: Human spectrogram
Brief description: People stand along a line (one dimension) or in a room space (two dimensions) to answer session questions (factual or opinions).
When to use: Usually at the start of a session. Can be used as an icebreaker before or during the three questions.
Helpful for: Allowing participants and the group to discover commonalities. Can also be used to pick homogeneous or heterogeneous groups/teams. Also can be used to hear a spectrum of comments on an issue and then view any resulting shifts in opinion. Gets people out of their chairs!
Resources needed: A clear corridor space between walls (one-dimension), or a clear room (two dimensions).

Technique: The three questions *
Brief description: Three questions answered in turn by every participant to the entire group within a given time limit, typically 1½ – 3 minutes.
How did I get here?
– What do I want to have happen?
– What experience do I have that others may find useful?

When to use: Normally, right after ground rules have been set.
Helpful for: Learning about each participant, exposing topics and questions of interest to the group, uncovering formerly unknown useful expertise for the group to share.
Resources needed: Question cards and pens, circle of chairs. Do not replace cards with the three questions posted on a wall or screen.

Technique: Fishbowl *
Brief description: An effective technique for focused discussion. Works by limiting and making clear who can speak at any moment.
When to use: During any conference content or topic oriented session. Can also be used for conference closing discussion.
Helpful for: Keeping group discussions focused. A plus is that contributors need to move to and from discussion chairs, maintaining alertness and engagement.
Resources needed: Chairs, either set in two concentric circles or in a U-shape with discussant chairs at the mouth.

Technique: Personal introspective *
Brief description: A session where attendees privately reflect on their answers to five questions. All attendees then have an opportunity but not an obligation to share their answers with the group.
When to use: Towards the end of the event, usually just before the final group session for a short event. At multi-day events, sometimes held as the first session on the last day.
Helpful for: Reinforcing learning and concretizing changes participants may wish to make in their lives as a consequence of their experiences during the event.
Resources needed: Chairs, either set in small circles or one large circle, personal introspective question cards and pens.

Technique: Affinity grouping †*
Brief description: A technique to discover and share ideas that arise during the conference and group them into categories, so they can be organized and then discussed.
When to use: Can be used at any session to elicit and gain group responses to ideas. Also useful as a closing process if action outcomes are desired.
Helpful for: Future planning, and uncovering group or sub-group energy around topics and actions. Can be used to guide decision-making by the group.
Resources needed: Cards and/or large sticky notes, pens, pins or tape if cards used, walls for posting.

Technique: Plus/delta *
Brief description: A simple review tool that allows participants to quickly identify what went well and what could be improved.
When to use: Normally during a closing session.
Helpful for: Quickly uncovering, with a minimum of judgment, positive comments on and possible improvements to a conference or other experience.
Resources needed: Flipcharts and, optionally, ropes or straps.

Notes
How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules and Two principles for designing conference ground rules.

† An expanded description of affinity grouping is available in The Workshop Book: From Individual Creativity to Group Action.

* A complete description of this process can be found in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, available from this website, Amazon, or any bookstore.

Other resources
The Knowledge Sharing Toolkit is a useful list of participative processes that can be used with groups.

Photo attribution: Flickr user choconancy

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  • Adrian:

    So glad to see you sharing these here on your blog and at MPI’s WEC 2011. We need more advocates for new types of audience-participation-driven sessions at conferences for sure.

    I’m a fan of all of these. As you’ve stated above, the human spectogram is an excellent one to use to see where people stand on a specific issue related to the education session. Then at the end of the session, have participants stand again for the spectogram to see if there has been any attitude changes. It’s a great way to quickly measure if the presenter was good at persuading people to think differently.

    Break a leg at MPI’s WEC 2011 with this!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Jeff!

      Actually, I am planning to experiment with a slight variant on what you describe for the human spectrogram.

      Here’s my idea. I’ll ask people to remember where they stood at the start of the session. Then, at the end of the session, I’ll ask them to stand in the same place again. When they’ve recreated their opening position, I’ll ask them to move to where they are on the spectrum now. This will allow everyone to see dynamically if the session has had any effect on the participants. Risky perhaps, but Mr. Transparency, that’s me :-).

      • William

        I’d like to have some element of this, even if it’s jsut the discussion on these tyes of things at EIBTM in Barcelona.

        • William, I’d love to do a session like this at EIBTM, but can’t find any information about how to submit a proposal. Do you have a suggestion on how to proceed?

          • Great overview of techniques @adriansegar:disqus looking forward to more uses of this. 
            Hi Adrian and William, I suggested this to Greame Barnett after we did the Visual Shift | Solution room experiment at MPI’s European Meetings & Events Conference in Dusseldorf in Feb 2011 which we will be repeating at WEC2011 so great co-incidence! See the film clip with the testimonial and challenge we discussed right after the session in this post: http://tnoc.posterous.com/attendee-led-session-experiment-what-attendee and here: http://tnoc.posterous.com/the-visual-shift-solution-room-experiment-at
            Also just did one at the #Convention4U in Austria Yesterday with the human graph which was documented in a post here: http://tnoc.posterous.com/meeting-architecture-applied-the-second-conve

            Looking forward o your iobservations/comments. 
            Best regards, 
            @ruudwjanssen:twitter 

          • Ruud, it’s wonderful that some of us are working on introducing these new techniques and approaches to the meetings community. For many years I have seen the benefits of integrating appropriate participatory activities into meeting designs, and I’m so excited about the increased visibility and, perhaps, acceptability of this work. I love your examples—hopefully we can work together in the future. I’m looking forward to finally meeting you at WEC2011!

  • William

    Great to see this type of thinking. Having run conferences for oh, a lot of years, I think it’s very important to make sure that if you are going on this little journey with delegates you make sure you tell them about any new innovation. Not a good idea to spring it on to your normal attendee. It might also be a cultural thing. Us Brits tend to clam up in formats like this. But hey, if you are planning a journey I’ll happily jump on your bus!

    • I agree completely, William, about the importance of carefully introducing novel techniques like these to delegates. (And, as an ex-Brit, I know about the clamming up.) But I’ve found it surprisingly easy to create an environment that feels safe for people to experience these new ways of interacting and sharing during sessions. I hope you’ll get the opportunity of experiencing them yourself!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Adrian, as a highly visual learner, I plan to hunt for some visual evidence to support the aforementioned techniques.

    • Jeff, the next time I do one of my participation techniques workshops in the DC area, please attend. You’ll get plenty of visual (and auditory & kinesthetic—in fact ALL the senses) evidence while you’re participating!

  • If you’re reading this far, I should mention that all these techniques and many more are comprehensively covered in my 2015 book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action, available from this web site, or Amazon or, well, pretty much anywhere you can buy books.

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