"I realized this morning that your event content is the only event related 'stuff' I still read. I think that's because it's not about events, but about the coming together of people to exchange ideas and learn from one another and that's valuable information for anyone." — Traci Browne
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“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one.” —Isabel, in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
I love science fiction, which Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas”. In a world where it sometimes seems change is impossible, science fiction explores how our future will be different. Science fiction is also especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time.
Above all, good science fiction excels at telling stories. Powerful stories. Stories that routinely predict the future: earth orbit satellites, the surveillance state, cell phones, electric submarines, climate change, electronic media, the Cold War were all foreshadowed by science fiction stories long before they came to pass. Science fiction introduces possible futures, some of which come to pass, by using the power of stories.
Events operate by stories
Like science fiction, events also create futures, and events operate by stories. Just as good stories have a story arc, coherent events have a conference arc. In addition, every event participant creates their own story at an event, just as each reader or viewer individually absorbs and experiences a book or movie story.
It’s incumbent on all of us who create and design events to think carefully and creatively about the stories our events tell. When we do so successfully, the power of stories shapes and maximizes participants’ individual and collective outcomes — and changes lives.
“Images of free market society that made sense prior to the Industrial Revolution continue to circulate today as ideals, blind to the gross mismatch between the background social assumptions reigning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and today’s institutional realities. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government[emphasis added].“
What else could you call the modern workplace, where superiors can issue changing orders, control attire, surveil correspondence, demand medical testing, define schedules, and monitor communication, such as social-media posts? —Nathan Heller on Elizabeth Anderson, The Philosopher Redefining Equality
Society’s structure and governance impacts almost every aspect of our lives. How civic discourse frames our actual structure and governance conditions what we think is ethical. Ever since Richard Cantillon and Adam Smith developed the concept of the free market, political economists have framed the choice for society as one between free markets and state control.
Here’s an example of why I love conference facilitation and design. After setting up a Personal Introspective this morning (25 minutes) I turned over what happens to the small groups. Watch the listening and involvement of every person as I weave my phone through the circles of chairs.
While Liberating Structures include many useful ways to improve meetings and organizations, one of the “simplest” offered — “1-2-4-All” — has a big problem. It claims to uncover a group’s “important ideas” in just twelve minutes. But in practice it invariably misses innovative ideas that need time for the group to understand and value.
Verizon is now offering free call filtering, but enabling it can be incredibly frustrating! Many reviews complain that, after downloading the Verizon Call Filter app, no option for the free version appears. Instead, you are only offered a free 10-day trial or the option to purchase a monthly subscription.
Here’s how to activate the free version of Verizon Call Filter
I found these instructions buried in a comment on the wonderful TidBITS website, posted by Paul7. I have cleaned up Paul’s explanation and added a couple of screen shots, but Paul deserves full credit for this solution.
Go to My Plans & Services and select Manage Products & Apps. Or your menu might look like the image below, in which case go to Plan and select Add-ons and apps.
Click on the Get Products tab and the Premium Products option.
Scroll down till you find the Call Filter app and select the Call Filter Free option.
You’ll see a Checkout box where you can add Call Filter Free to the lines in your plan. Select the checkboxes next to the lines you want, and click Confirm Purchase.
On your phone, close the Verizon Call Filter app if it’s currently open. Now, when you reopen it you’ll see that free call filtering has been turned on!
Paul notes that if you have more than two lines, you may have to go through this process multiple times since it only shows two lines at a time. Alternately, your My Verizon may offer this process for each device/line separately. If that’s the case, select each device in turn and repeat the above process.
1977: I earn a Ph.D. in applied elementary high-energy particle physics. Get a post-doc position and move to the United States. Work at major U.S. particle accelerators for a year. Leave academic research forever. Since 1978 — that’s 41 years! — every job I’ve had didn’t exist a few years earlier.
1978: I join the management of Solar Alternative, a solar energy manufacturing business founded the previous year. Five years earlier, there were no such businesses in the United States.
1983: I start teaching computer science using personal computers in the classroom. IBM introduced the PC in 1981.
1984: I begin IT consulting for clients using personal computers. Businesses didn’t start using personal computers until the early 80’s.
1992: I organize a conference where there are no expert speakers available (it’s a new field, there are no experts). Invent a way to make the conference successful based on the collective needs, wants, and experience of the attendees. (The conference has run annually for the last 27 years.) This is something new. Organizations hear about this and ask me to design and facilitate their conferences.
2005: I realize that the conference process I invented and since improved is incredibly popular with participants. I decide to write a book about it, and in…
2009: I self-publish Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love. (Five years earlier, self-publishing was a minor industry for vanity projects. Now it’s the most common way authors publish.) I quickly discover the size and interest of the meetings industry. In demand, I become a meeting designer and facilitator of participant-driven, participation-rich meetings. Yet another career that had not existed before.
A conventional career
My parents once suggested I become an accountant. I politely declined and continued studying physics. I have nothing against conventional careers, but my life hasn’t turned out that way.
If I had to guess, it probably won’t.
And it probably won’t for you either.
Has the job you’re doing now just been invented? Share your experience in the comments below!
What led to writing the book, Conferences that Work?
I invented the format by accident 26 years ago when there were no expert speakers to invite for a conference on administrative computing issues in small schools. We needed a format that would allow a room of strangers to learn about each other and the issues we were interested in by using the expertise in the room.
I asked people, “If this conference could be amazing for you, what would it be about?” Then I built a program around those topics, with people in the room leading impromptu sessions. Often, the results are unexpected. The sessions are not polished; there is no PowerPoint. Often it is more like a discussion than a presentation, but that is why it is effective. My research shows that asking in advance doesn’t work. At traditional conferences with fixed programs set in advance, at best half of sessions offered are what attendees want.
That participant-driven conference is still going as a four-day program, with sessions generated over the first half-day.
I discovered that people love the format, and that led to writing the book 10 years ago. I was an amateur in the meeting industry, and that led to some mistakes, but it also gave me a fresh perspective at a time when meeting design wasn’t really a “thing.”
Stay on time! Though it’s clearly sensible to keep a conference running on schedule, we’ve all attended meetings where rambling presenters, avoidable “technical issues”, incompetent facilitation, and inadequate logistics have made a mockery of the published program.
So one of the agreements I always ask for at the start of a session or conference is for organizers and participants to stay on time. (By which I mean, of course, don’t run late!)
It seems obvious to do this. When meetings don’t stay on time:
It’s unfair to the later presenters and sessions.
It becomes OK to be late. (“If that session overran, mine can too.”)
Participants don’t know what the actual schedule is. Chaos and cynicism follow.
Meals and breaks are abbreviated or, in extreme cases, eliminated.
When meetings don’t stay on time, the event is out of control. I can’t think of any situation where this is a plus. (Well, maybe a conference on world domination by a quintessentially evil cabal, where failure would be a good thing.)
In particular, there are a couple of ways in which out-of-control schedules can wreak havoc on sessions. I’ll illustrate them with examples from a presenter’s point of view (mine).
“You’ll need to shorten your session by twenty-five minutes.”
A client asked me to run a 75-minute interactive session on participant-driven and participation-rich meetings at a daylong conference. They scheduled me for the last session before the closing social. During lunch, the A/V crew asked the two remaining presenters to check our slide decks were ready to go. I did so, and noticed that the other presenter did not.
You guessed it. When the afternoon sessions began, the entire 150-person audience sat around for twenty minutes while the first presenter fiddled around trying to get her laptop to project.
She then added insult to injury by exceeding her allocated time, with no correction from the conference organizers.
When she was finally finished I asked if we could run late so I could get the session duration I’d planned for.
“No, sorry, you’ll need to shorten your session by twenty-five minutes,” was the reply.
Experienced presenters are able to creatively improvise in response to last-minute changes to their environment. However, losing a third of my time with no notice was a challenge. I did a good job, but had to omit the major exercise planned for the session. The resulting experience was less impactful than it could have been. Ultimately, the attendees are the losers when this happens. They don’t know what they missed — and, of course, I don’t come across as well as I might deserve.
“Sorry, but we’re starving and exhausted.”
Here’s another less obvious way that chronic lateness can sabotage a session. A client asked me to facilitate a 90-minute workshop for 600 attendees. It was scheduled as the last session of the day, in a distant ballroom separated from earlier sessions by a five-minute walk. With a scheduled 30-minute break before my session, there was plenty of time for participants to get to my room.
Or so I thought.
The session required extensive set up, so my crew and I worked solidly for three hours to get the room ready and rehearse our workshop tasks. But when it was time to start, no attendees appeared.
We waited for 30 minutes before people began to trickle in. Clearly, the entire day’s schedule had been running severely behind all day. Luckily, an organizer told me I could still use my full time for the workshop. That was a relief to hear.
Hundreds of people were standing as I was about to start. But then the conference owner arrived and asked to present an award first. He made a short introduction of the recipient, who embarked on a long, rambling thank-you speech.
Finally I began my workshop, which required participants to be present for the entire session. (Early leavers would significantly impact their working groups.)
I’ve run this workshop many times, and in the past when I’ve announced this requirement (“If you have to leave before [finishing time], I’m sorry but you should not participate in this workshop”) typically two or three people leave.
To my astonishment, hundreds of people — two-thirds of the room — left!
Dumbfounded, I nevertheless knew that the show must go on.
It was a great workshop for the folks who remained. (No one left when it was over; they simply sat and talked with each other for at least ten minutes before anyone left the room. And several people came up and thanked me.) But I was disappointed and puzzled that so many attendees had missed out on an excellent experience. Obviously, I wanted to find out why. But first we had to break down the room set, and by the time this was over the attendees had dispersed.
At breakfast the next morning the reasons for the mass exodus finally became clear. The morning program sessions had run over so extensively, that the organizers slashed the lunch break to 30 minutes. Since lunch was not provided at the conference that day, many attendees didn’t have time to eat any lunch at the restaurants nearby.
The afternoon sessions also overran, so the organizers also eliminated the scheduled 30-minute break before my session. When the hungry and exhausted attendees appeared in my room, only to be asked to attend my entire workshop in its entirety, the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back and most of them walked out.
As a participant, I would have probably joined them.
Stay on time!
From my perspective as a presenter and facilitator, I’m not sure there’s much I can do when others cause truncation of my contracted sessions or fill them with hungry, tired attendees. Perhaps a contract clause that doubles my fee if the session starts late or my available time is slashed?
I can dream.
Regardless, the moral is pretty obvious. Stay on time! That goes for everyone: conference organizers, emcees, facilitators, presenters, and attendees. Ultimately this is a matter of careful planning, firm and effective time management, and simple respect for everyone who spends time, energy, and money attending and producing an event.