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“It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.”
Listening to Taylor Swift’s lament in her beautiful and evocative “All Too Well: The Short Film” I feel my own grief well up. My last in-person engagement was a wonderful two-day workshop with several hundred cardiologists in Texas. January 28 and 29, 2020. As I’m writing this, that was twenty-two months ago.
Since then, I’ve worked with many groups online. But it’s not the same.
I’m sure you can relate. Yes, it’s wonderful to be instantly connected, with video and sound, to likeminded folks, friends, and family scattered around the country or globe. So much better than the only option in my youth — the telephone. Long-distance phone calls then cost so much that speaking to someone far away or, heaven help us, internationally was a rare treat.
But it’s not the same.
I miss doing what I love to do. Facilitating connection between people around what matters to them. Creating meetings that become what the participants want and need. The magic of the unexpected that appears when you least expect it, and, sometimes, changes peoples’ lives.
Online, we meet using group-focused platforms that don’t have the power, nuance, and flexibility of in-person meetings.
We can’t touch, hug, or connect physically.
Even if an individual’s camera is on, the resolution still isn’t good enough to read their micro expressions of emotion and body language that inform our experience of and connection with them.
We can’t move to different environments online like we can in person: from sharing in a circle to learning about other participants via human spectrograms, from sharing with a neighbor to talking while walking.
The platforms themselves impose additional restrictions. In Zoom, for example:
Spontaneous side conversations are restricted to private chat — if it’s enabled.
A facilitator can’t “feel the room” during small group work, because there’s no way to simultaneously monitor breakout rooms. This important task is far easier to do in person, by simply walking around and noticing what’s going on.
Attendee attention is hard to sense. Are they listening intently, ignoring what’s going on, or browsing TikTok? Even when their camera is on, it’s difficult to tell. And if their camera is off…
Online social platforms can provide an experience much closer to that of an in-person social. Participants can see who’s “in the room” and decide whom to talk with, either one-to-one or small group, in public or private. In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed holiday parties with folks who could never have practically got together in person, and these platforms are well worth exploring if you haven’t already.
But it’s not the same as hanging out with and making new friends in person.
And we’re back to the grief. “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.” I see a photo of a meeting I attended with so many friends, and I miss them, and wonder if/when I’ll see them again in-person rather than on a screen.
I feel it. It’s good to remember the past, to feel the pain of its absence now, to be in touch with it, to acknowledge its presence. And then I return to working on being in the present, with my grief a part of me.
The meeting is over. Did anyone learn anything? And how would you know?
An EventTech Chat discussion
I greatly enjoy participating in EventTech Chat, “a weekly conversation about meeting and event technology, including software, hardware, and audiovisual for in-person and online events” hosted by pals Brandt Krueger and Glenn Thayer.
During last week’s chat, one of the topics we discussed was whether there are differences in how people learn online, as opposed to face to face. This led to conversations about learning styles (be careful, they’re mostly mythical and barely useful), the importance of taking responsibility for your own learning at meetings, and how meeting formats affect what people learn.
Are you a regular reader of this blog? If so, you might have guessed—correctly—that I had plenty to say about these important issues. There is plenty of solid research on the best ways to support effective learning. We know that:
Which brings us to an important question we hardly ever ask about meetings…
Did anyone learn anything?
In my book Conferences That Work, I shared a story about when I—and everyone else in my graduate class—never admitted we didn’t understand what our teacher was teaching us for weeks.
…toward the end of my second year I was understanding less and less of a mathematics course I was taking. The professor seemed to be going through the motions—he asked few questions, and there was no homework. Elementary particle physicists are either mathematicians or experimentalists. I was the latter, so my lack of mathematical understanding was not affecting my research work. But the experience was disconcerting.
And, as the semester went on, the percentage of class material I understood gradually declined.
One day, our teacher announced that we would be studying Green’s Functions, a technique used to solve certain kinds of equations. After the first 20 minutes of the class I realized that I understood nothing of what was being said, and that I was at a crucial turning point. If I kept quiet, it would be too late to claim ignorance later, and it was likely I would not understand anything taught for the remainder of the semester. If I spoke up, however, I was likely to display my weak comprehension of everything the teacher had covered so far.
Looking around, I noticed that the other students seemed to be having a similar experience. Everyone looked worried. No one said a word.
The class ended and the professor left. I plucked up my courage and asked my classmates if they were having trouble. We quickly discovered, to our general relief, that none of us understood the class. What should we do? Somehow, without much discussion, we decided to say nothing to the teacher.
The class only ran a few more weeks, and the remaining time became a pro forma ritual. Did our teacher know he had lost us? I think he probably did. I think he remained quiet for his own reasons, perhaps uncaring about his success at educating us, perhaps ashamed that he had lost us.
When I didn’t speak up, I chose to enter a world where I hid my lack of understanding from others, a world where I was faking it…
…Probably you’ve had a similar experience; a sinking feeling as you realize that you don’t understand something that you’re apparently expected to understand, in a context, perhaps a traditional conference, where nonresponsiveness is the norm. It’s a brave soul indeed who will speak out, who is prepared to admit to a conference presenter that they don’t get what’s going on. Have you stayed silent? Do you?
Silence isn’t golden
Silence during a presentation, and a lack of questions at the end does not mean that anyone learned anything. As Jonah Berger reminds us in Contagious, “Behavior is public and thoughts are private.”
If my teacher had bothered to periodically ask his class whether they understood what he was attempting to teach, or, better, asked questions to check, we’d likely have told or shown him we were lost.
So, how can we discover if anyone learned anything?
Ultimately, we can’t ensure or guarantee that anyone learned anything at a meeting. As Glenn pointed out during our EventTech Chat, the ultimate responsibility for learning is the learner’s. Attend a meeting expecting that the leaders will magically transfer learning to you without doing any work yourself? You probably won’t learn much, if anything.
Nevertheless, we can actively help people learn at meetings by implementing the principles listed above. (Check out my books for complete details.) But there’s one additional thing we can do to maximize and extend learning during our meetings.
How to help people consolidate what they learn at meetings
During our EventTech Chat, several participants shared how they consolidate learning during or immediately after an event. Folks who have learned the value of this practice and figured out the ways that work best for them may not need what I’m about to share (though even they can often benefit).
What I’ve found over decades of designing meetings is that the majority of meeting attendees do not know how to consolidate what they learn there. So I designed a closing plenary that gives each participant a carefully structured opportunity to review, consolidate, and reinforce what they have learned at the conference. They also get to develop the next steps for changes they will work on in their professional lives. It’s called a Personal Introspective, and takes 60 – 90 minutes to run. (You can find full details in Chapter 57 of The Power of Participation.)
Did anyone learn anything? There are no guarantees. But, following the above advice will make it significantly more likely that your attendees will learn what they want and need to learn. Do you have other thoughts on how to improve how you or others learn at meetings. If so, please share them in the comments below.
What are the fairest rules to use when running meetings? This might seem like an odd question. You might ask, “Fair to whom?” or, “What do you mean by fair?” I think it’s reasonable to concentrate on fairness to participants: the majority of those involved with the meeting. As to what being fair to participants might look like, let’s turn to the ideas of the moral and political philosopher John Rawls.
In his influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice , John suggested that “the fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”
All meetings have rules, whether overt or covert, conscious or unconscious, that influence how they proceed. These rules are embedded into every aspect of the meeting, from the seating arrangements (1, 2, 3, 4) to the meeting formats employed. We usually think of rules as guides to process. But, at a deeper level, rules instantiate issues of status and power.
Status and power at meetings
I think of status at events as the relative levels of proclaimed or perceived social value assigned to or assumed by attendees. And power at events is an individual’s capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of attendees.
Typically, but not always, higher status implies greater power at meetings.
In wider contexts, status is situational. The low status janitor at a big corporation may be the high status head of their family at home. Some say I have high status in the event industry, but when I’m facilitating a roomful of subject matter experts, I’m the most ignorant and lowest status person present.
At a traditional meeting, however, perceived status roles rarely change significantly during the event. This leads to a number of problems, which I described in my first meeting design book: Conferences That Work.
Here are the six agreements — The Four Freedoms plus two other agreements — that I’ve been using for years.
The fairest rules and my six agreements
Which brings us back to John Rawls’ intriguing and bold statement on what the fairest rules would be: “those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”
Let’s use Rawls’ suggestion to explore the fairness of using the above six agreements at a meeting.
The first agreement…
…is that everyone has the right to express their point of view. At many events, only high status people talk. I remember the physics conferences I attended as a lowly graduate student, where the prize-winning physicist lectured for fifty minutes, and only his (yes, they were all guys) colleagues and rivals spoke at the end. The tacit assumption was that you didn’t speak unless you had something brilliant to say.
The first agreement I have a group make is that anyone has the right to share their opinion with others in the group. For a low status person (like me at those conferences), that is a great freedom to have. If I had explicitly been given it, I might well have had the courage to speak all those years ago.
High status individuals at the physics conferences reinforced their high status by speaking publicly. They maintained or gained status, at the expense of others who did not. That was not fair.
I think my first agreement clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
The second agreement…
…is that everyone has the freedom to ask questions. Like the first agreement, this freedom allows low status group members to speak up. In particular, it removes the—often self-imposed—barrier to asking a “stupid” question. How often have you not understood what someone said, but failed to ask them a clarifying question “because it might make you look stupid”?
Of course, having the freedom to ask a question, even if you’re worried it might make you look stupid, often has an unexpected outcome. It frequently turns out that other group members have the same question! And it’s often the case that the reason many people have the question is that the speaker has been unclear about what they were saying, or perhaps even said something incorrect.
Speaking truth to power often involves questioning what a speaker has said. High status individuals may not like this. So I think my second agreement also clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
I introduce the third agreement at meetings…
…by saying, “it’s about the F-word.” <Pause>. “Feelings.”
Meeting participants don’t, in general, spend much time expressing how they feel. Although that’s often the case because feelings aren’t relevant to a group discussion, sometimes people think or feel it’s inappropriate to share how they feel with others, especially to a group of strangers.
This agreement says it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling. It gives individuals permission to talk about sensitive issues, if desired. Besides being potentially healthy for the sharer, it is often validating and helpful for group members who feel the same way. Talking about how you’re feeling reduces power inequities in meetings where dominant members try to push through a contentious decision. Giving participants the freedom to share how they feel can help ensure that more voices are heard.
Like the first two rules, this rule also supports low status and low power individuals in a group. So it also implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
The fourth agreement…
…is a meta-agreement that gives participants the freedom to say that they don’t feel the three preceding agreements are being followed. Though I’ve never heard this freedom invoked at any conference I’ve facilitated, I feel confident that its existence, and the group awareness that everyone has agreed to it, helps prevent the kind of dismissal, shaming, and bullying behavior that can surface at traditional meetings.
In some ways, this agreement is the closest framing of Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion. It says not only have we agreed on rules that minimize power differentials but we also have the right to call out instances when these rules are not being followed.
The fifth agreement…
…is about keeping what is discussed while the group is together confidential. I’ve written in more detail about the value of this important agreement here. Interestingly, this agreement potentially benefits all participants, whether high or low power/status. Why? When anyone shares, they potentially reveal something about themselves. A group confidentiality agreement helps increase people’s feeling of safety, possibly making it more likely they will share something sensitive.
The corporate CEO risks confessing that they have been neglecting a company-wide issue for too long. A mid-level manager shares their difficulties working with their boss. A new hire summons the courage to ask what they think is a basic question, to which they believe they should know the answer. All these actions are more likely when the initiator trusts that the group will respect their confidentiality.
The fifth agreement, therefore, is probably the easiest agreement for high status group members to agree to. They have something to gain too. It epitomizes Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion.
The sixth agreement…
…is about staying on time.
A meeting may have a predetermined schedule, or the schedule may be negotiated and constructed on the fly, as typically occurs at peer conferences (aka unconferences). I have been at too many conferences where unchecked, self-important presenters run way over their allotted time, causing an inevitable train wreck with subsequent sessions truncated and even cancelled. (Here are a couple of my own unhappy experiences.)
Applying Rawls’ suggestion would mean that all presenters would agree to present as if they had been scheduled at any point in a meeting program: the first or last session, or at any time between. As the above article explains, the resulting program, where everyone stays on time, offers many advantages to everyone involved.
How do your meeting rules fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?
How do my six agreements fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?
Pretty well, I think!
Take a few minutes to think about the rules — overt or covert, conscious or unconscious — that you use to run your meetings. How does their fairness fare? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
If you discover you are still enabling power and status imbalances at your events, you are not serving your participants well.
I do not have a magnetic personality. I would never have been cast as the lead in the classic ad series “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen“. Yes, I’m a recovering academic, so I love to talk. But that doesn’t mean that people always hear me.
And that can occasionally be a problem when I’m facilitating group work.
Ultimately, as we’ll see, it’s a good problem to have. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
But, obviously, people need to listen to me sometimes, so I can facilitate them doing their work. And, there are certain situations when they have a hard time listening to me.
If you facilitate group work, you probably know what I’m talking about. Effective group work includes periods when group members are working with each other, not you. And when they’re having these conversations, they are not listening to you. They are (well, hopefully) listening to each other.
Which means that getting their attention is difficult.
On this occasion, we used a setup I’ve never experienced before. Dan and the students were together in person, and they decided to display me on a front-of-room screen but also run a simultaneous Zoom meeting so I could see the students individually and talk with them one-on-one.
(Production pros will recognize this arrangement is susceptible to audio feedback problems, which did indeed hold up the class a bit. To minimize them, have participants use headsets when possible. Otherwise turn off individual computer speakers and all mikes except for the one in-person participant currently talking.)
I began the class with a quick pair share between students, giving each pair a couple of minutes to share with each other why they were taking the class.
At which point, I completely lost everyone’s attention.
The ignored facilitator
Two minutes went by, and I asked the students to stop sharing so we could move on to the main segment of the class, where I answered any questions they wanted to ask me.
Nothing happened. The students kept on talking. They were enjoying learning about each other and they didn’t want to stop.
I asked again. Several times. I increased my speaking volume, but it was as if I had been banished from the meeting. I was 1,600 miles away, the students weren’t listening to me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Dan to the rescue!
Thankfully, Dan noticed that I was being ignored. He was in the room, and his students are used to listening to him. After a couple of announcements, the students’ conversational hubbub diminished, and I was back in contact with the class.
The rest of the class went well. I closed with another pair share for students to share their takeaways with each other. However, before this one started I made sure to ask Dan to bring it to a close!
Hear me! Getting a group’s attention
Even when I’m present in the room, the same scenario often happens! Yes, there are people who can usually get the attention of an energetically conversing crowd. But I often find it hard. Knowing this, I’ll sometimes find someone in the group who has this gift, and ask them to get the group’s attention for me when needed. Alternatively, you can pick a leader who’s known to the group, like Dan was, for this role.
There are many methods that teachers and trainers use to get attention. To learn more about them, see Chapter 22 of my book, The Power of Participation.
Although the difficulty of getting a group’s attention is a problem that facilitators face regularly, in the big picture it’s a good thing.
Why? Because, when a competent facilitator has trouble getting attention, it means that participants are actively working with each other. Have you ever left a meeting session full of excitement and ideas for future work, perhaps having made important new connections in the process? (Or have you hung around afterwards, continuing conversations?) When this happens, the facilitator has done their job well.
So if you’re facilitating, and sometimes find it difficult to bring group members reluctantly back from engagement, don’t fret. Remember that your pain is their gain.
Image attribution: “2010 IACA Conference – evening reception at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum” by Corvair Owner is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. and modified with additional graphics.
What do we need to understand to mediate connection effectively today? Inventor and computer scientist Danny Hillis gives us some helpful context:
“We humans are changing. We have become so intertwined with what we have created that we are no longer separate from it. We have outgrown the distinction between the natural and the artificial. We are what we make. We are our thoughts, whether they are created by our neurons, by our electronically augmented minds, by our technologically mediated social interactions, or by our machines themselves…
…We are our perceptions, whether they are through our eyes and ears or our sensory-fused hyper-spectral sensors, processed as much by computers as by our own cortex. We are our institutions, cooperating super-organisms, entangled amalgams of people and machines with super-human intelligence, processing, sensing, deciding, acting…
…Our networks of commerce, power and communications are becoming as richly interconnected as ecologies and nervous systems. Empowered by the tools of the Enlightenment, connected by networked flows of freight and fuel and finance, by information and ideas, we are becoming something new. We are at the dawn of the Age of Entanglement.” —Danny Hillis, The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement
Mediating connection via technology
People usually think of technology as “anything that was invented after you were born”, as Alan Kay put it. But it’s much more useful to think of technology as anything made to solve a problem. Defining technology in this way opens our eyes to technologies that we all unthinkingly use every day, technologies that are essentially invisible because they have always been part of our lives.
We’ve been creating and using what I call human process technology — which includes language, writing, and science — for a very long time. Language, in all its forms, is the oldest human process technology:
“Every culture and tribe has its own language it has invented to solve the problem of real-time communication between its members. These technologies are so old that they are invisible to us. They are part of our culture, the human air we breathe. Language, writing, and science are tools outside our conventional, narrow-scope view of technology. We instantiate these tools using invented conventions: sounds, gestures, and symbols. These sounds, gestures, and symbols, however, are secondary features of these ancient technologies. Ultimately, language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.” —Adrian Segar, Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way
Clearly, we are groping our way towards mediating connection with each other via technology. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a dramatic example. In a few months, we moved from meeting primarily in person to meeting online. Our connection became mediated by screens showing live video of others and speakers broadcasting their voices. Printing, telephones, fax machines, email, and messaging have all impacted how we connect, but nothing has been swifter than our switch to meeting in real time online.
Mediating connection in an increasingly entangled future
If artificial intelligence systems can perform the above tasks now, it’s not fanciful to predict that they will progressively take over human activities that currently mediate connection.
For example, future systems might be able to moderate group meeting conversations. (Imagine a Zoom breakout where an intelligent virtual assistant facilitates a small group’s conversation on a topic.)
Or consider meeting curation: a task that is taxing, if even possible for humans. Perhaps it will eventually be possible that an IVA for real-time meeting curation could do a comparable job to the crowdsourcing human processes I’ve developed during the last 29 years.
Ten years ago, the idea of speaking to your phone to tell it to do something was laughable. Today, the development of deep feedforward networks for acoustic modeling has made such technology invisible to my grandchildren. They just use it—and it (nearly always) works.
So let’s keep in mind how Danny Hillis concludes his article:
“We can no longer see ourselves as separate from the natural world or our technology, but as a part of them, integrated, codependent, and entangled.”
As our technology advances, it will become, more and more, a normal and largely invisible contributor to how we mediate connection. Its benefits—and drawbacks—remain to be discovered.
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the in-person meeting industry. Though it took too long to recognize that COVID-19 spreads via air transmission, we finally have effective procedures (vaccine mandates, masking, air quality standards, and social distancing) to reduce infection risk at in-person meetings. Now, meeting planners can add an affordable air quality tool to their site visits.
How can you determine air quality at a prospective venue?
Look around the room at an in-person event and you’ll see if masking and social distancing are taking place. We can implement vaccination mandates using third party vendors such as sharemy.health, CLEAR Health Pass, Safe Expo, and others. But how can we determine the air quality at a prospective venue?
Currently, we don’t know how to detect airborne COVID-19 viruses. (This is likely to be true for a long time. We still have no test for airborne tuberculosis bacterium (TB) transmission two centuries after identifying TB as a distinct disease.)
Luckily, under conditions I’ll outline below, we can obtain useful information about a venue’s air quality by using a device that measures a proxy for air pollution: carbon dioxide (CO₂).
People breathe in air, typically containing about 0.04% CO₂. They breathe out a mixture of gases containing about 4 – 5 % CO₂. People with COVID-19 co-exhale respiratory aerosols containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
If an occupied building space has effective ventilation, the occupants’ excess exhaled CO₂ is quickly diluted with fresh air, and the CO₂ level in the air remains close to normal values. Measuring the level of CO₂ in the air can, therefore, tell us whether effective ventilation is present or not.
Here are the generally accepted standards for CO₂ levels:
~400 parts per million (ppm) – Normal outdoor air level. 400 ~ 1000 ppm – Typical value level indoors with good ventilation. 1,000 ppm – the OSHA/ASHRAE recommended maximum level in a closed room. > 1,200 ppm – Poor air quality – requires ventilation to the room. 2,000 ppm – This level of CO2 typically produces a significant increase in drowsiness, tiredness, headaches, lower levels of concentration, and an increased likelihood of spreading respiratory viruses.
Until recently, meters that measure CO₂ levels in the air cost hundreds of dollars. (Some models with especially accurate sensors or the capability to measure other air pollutants still do.) But today we can buy an affordable air quality tool — a hand-held CO₂ meter for under $100. The one I just purchased (illustrated above) cost $80, and there’s a wide variety to choose from (for example, from here or here).
My 3.27″ (diameter) x 1.26″ (depth) meter measures CO₂ levels from 0 – 5,000 ppm. It can run on standby for 18 hours, supports USB charging, and includes a battery level indicator and temperature and humidity readings. While its specifications omit accuracy, inexpensive CO₂ meters are typically reliable within ±100 ppm. This is good enough to provide a decent estimate of the air quality in an enclosed space.
My unit shows a concentration of ~350 ppm CO₂ outside my rural Vermont home, which was built tightly. In my home office, the level increases to about 450 ppm, and rises to about 525 ppm if I’m sitting next to the unit for a while. Slightly cracking open a window quickly brings down the reading.
I haven’t had time to explore other buildings yet, but am looking forward to seeing what I find out when I do.
Is a CO₂ a proxy for indoor air quality in occupied spaces?
Can measuring CO₂ levels give us a useful indication of indoor air quality?
The answer is a qualified yes. It depends!
First of all, we need to measure CO₂ levels in occupied spaces. A meeting planner doing a site visit should take CO₂ readings in occupied meeting rooms, restaurants, hotel lobbies, etc. Taking measurements in empty spaces will only show high readings if the building ventilation system is grossly inadequate (with CO₂ infiltrating from other areas.) Also bear in mind that increasing the number of occupants in a space increases the likelihood that an infectious person will be present and the number of people possibly infected. Doubling occupancy can thus cause a four-fold increase in risk of transmitting COVID-19.
Finally, air treatment options, such as MERV 13 or better filtering, or possibly ultraviolet-C radiation, may reduce the prevalence of active COVID-19 aerosols. When venues employ these mitigation strategies, CO₂ levels will not be decreased. Of course, if a venue has deployed these preventative measures, they will surely inform you about them when asked!
Due to these factors, you shouldn’t rely solely on measurements of CO₂ levels to determine whether a space is ventilated enough to mitigate transmission risk.
However, a simple CO₂ meter like the one I now own can be an effective air quality tool, providing valuable information to anyone who wants to investigate the air quality of occupied spaces at venues, hotels and properties, restaurants, and other meeting locales. I’ll be bringing mine when I travel, and I encourage you to do this as well!
More information on the relationship between CO₂ levels and COVID-19 exposure
If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between CO₂ levels and COVID-19 exposure risk, here are some useful references:
In 2009, the biologist E.O. Wilson described what he saw as humanity’s real problem. I think it’s also a meeting problem:
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” —E. O. Wilson, debate at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Mass., 9 September 2009
Wilson sees emotions, institutions, and technology as disjointed in time. Emotions have driven human beings for millions of years, our institutions are thousands of years old, and we can’t keep up with our advances in technology.
Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.
The things we do reflect our culture. And the organizations we’ve constructed incarnate our culture. Our largest and most powerful institutions — political and religious — are also the oldest, with roots thousands of years in the past. What we think of as modern business meetings and conferences are hundreds of years old. Changes in their forms and traditions have been principally influenced by technology (see below) rather than any deep changes in human psychology.
The traditional top-down formats of meetings and conferences reflect the top-down structure of the institutions that still largely dominate our world. Traditional institutional norms discourage the creation of meetings that provide freedom for participants to steer and co-create learning and connection experiences that are optimally better for everyone involved. All too often, top-down institutional culture leads inexorably to hierarchical meeting formats.
So there’s a disconnect between what’s best for meeting participants, due to their fundamental psychological makeup, and the dictates of their institutional bosses and the organizations that organize the events.
And finally, there’s E.O. Wilson’s “god-like technology”. Even though technology is continually being redefined as anything that was invented after you were born, it’s impossible to ignore how rapidly technology has evolved and changed our culture and our meeting experiences. I carry in my pocket a phone that has more computing power and far more utility to me than a machine that filled an entire office building when I was a student. And the COVID-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated how technology has allowed us, almost overnight, to redefine what we have thought of as meetings for hundreds of years to a largely—at least for now—online experience.
The tension between emotions, institutions, and technology at meetings
Wilson’s definition of humanity’s problem resonates for me. As I’ve shared above, our emotions, institutions, and technology also frequently conflict when we are planning meetings. There isn’t a simple solution that perfectly responds to these elemental forces that affect what we do. In the meetings industry, our best meeting problem solutions recognize the effects of these forces on our gatherings and use conscious design to take advantage of them.
That means designing meetings that incorporate active learning via creating emotional experiences together, working with institutional stakeholders to convince them of the value of emotion-driven, participant-driven, and participation-rich approaches, and using the right technology — often human process technology — to make our meetings the best they can be.
Yes, humanity’s problem is a meeting problem. But we have the tools to solve it. All we need to do is to use them.
I’m noticing that event promoters are increasingly using the word “unconference” to describe traditional conferences. <Sigh>. Please stop doing this! There’s a big difference between unconferences and traditional events.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines an unconference:
“An unconference is a participant-driven meeting.” “Typically at an unconference, the agenda is created by the attendees at the beginning of the meeting.” —Unconference, Wikipedia
“In particular, the word ‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend and actively participate in. You will shape the event by taking part in discussions, feedback sessions, and similar formats that need your input.” The Search Central Unconference is back, Google Search Central Blog
Wow. According to Google, “‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend”. Umm, Google, that’s what happens at every conference! Oh, you also get to “actively participate in” sessions? Google, we call that “having a discussion” or “a breakout”.
Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Sorry, Google, but calling your conference an unconference doesn’t make it one.
Let’s call what you’re doing an ununconference.
Sadly, Google is not alone.
A few examples of ununconferences
Here are three ununconferences that people promoted this week. I noticed several others, but adding all those black bars to remove identifying information takes time. Twitter is full of folks who already know they’ll be “speaking” at an ununconference (e.g., the second example). The last example announces that their “unconference” is closing session proposal submissions six months before the actual event!
Conference programs that are predetermined with attendee input are not unconferences
I have been convening and facilitating unconferences for 29years. (I prefer the term peer conferences, but no one else cares.) Why? Because they provide a far better conference experience. Better, because creating the conference program in real time at the start ensures that the event optimally meets participants’ in-the-moment wants and needs.
“In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want. —Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator, February, 2012
Seth Godin puts it this way: “We have no idea in advance who the great contributors are going to be.” Just about every unconference I’ve convened or attended, has brought to light participants whose valuable knowledge, expertise, experience, and contributions were unknown to the conveners (and most, if not all, of the attendees). You can’t do this effectively at a traditional conference with a predetermined program.
Unconference is not a marketing soundbite
Marketers: stop using “unconference” as an event marketing buzzword. We’re not selling cereal here. As Robert Kreitner says, “Buzzwords…drive out good ideas.” Unconferences are participant-driven, which involves building the program in real time during the event. Having (well-designed) discussion sessions during an event is great, but that doesn’t make a meeting an unconference.
I care about how people use the word “unconference” because I’ve met too many folks who believe that an event that’s billed as an unconference must be one. Then they attend and are underwhelmed. I’d hate to see unconferences suffer because marketing folks see the word as a way to make an event sound hip, sophisticated, and cool. Let’s banish the ununconference instead!
Sadly, while I acknowledge and appreciate Freeman’s significant work on the case for recommencing meeting in person, I believe this claim is misleading, and the underlying modeling and research include flawed assumptions.
I have two broad concerns about Freeman’s summary of research “Inside LIVE: The data you need to navigate the Delta variant for events” on the safety of in-person events. You can watch Freeman’s 55-minute webinar, posted on August 25, 2021, below.
1—Freeman’s overall conclusion is misleading
My first concern is that Freeman’s big picture conclusion that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” is a misleading characterization of the statistics they present.
Here are the statistics (from the next webinar slide).
This slide compares the mid-August, 2021 rate of COVID cases amongst the entire population in the United States with the reported rates from four recent large in-person events. The second column shows the infection rate as a percentage.
Because the statement conflates the risk of a masked visit to a grocery store with the overall risk in the United States of getting infected! The latter regrettably includes a significant fraction of the U.S. population who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, don’t wear masks to protect against airborne transmission of COVID-19, and don’t social distance. The risk of contracting COVID-19 during a grocery store masked visit is far less than the overall risk for everyone in the U.S.
The headline statement is, therefore, comparing apples to oranges. You’d expect any event that implements precautions against COVID-19 transmission to have a lower infection rate than the entire United States. That doesn’t mean that attending an event is a safe enough choice for attendees and staff.
This brings us to what’s actually important to people trying to make a decision whether to attend an event. The event modeling, performed for Freeman by Epistemix, and discussed later, suggests that those who are currently likely to attend a large in-person business event that implements mitigation strategies such as vaccination requirements, masking, and social distancing, are significantly more likely to be vaccinated (~80%). That statistic seems credible to me.
Such potential attendees, who are already more careful than the average American about how they live their lives in a pandemic, aren’t interested in whether an event environment provides a risk of getting COVID-19 comparable to the average risk of the entire population of the U.S. Rather, they want to know if attending the event will significantly (defined by them) increase their likelihood of contracting COVID-19. And that brings me to the second concern about the assumptions made by Epistemix’s event risk model.
2—The event risk model used for risk calculations is flawed and incomplete
When I heard about the Freeman webinar (thanks Julius Solaris!), I posted some initial responses. Freeman’s Jessica Fritsche was kind enough to reach out to me and arrange a Zoom call with John Cordier, the CEO of Epistemix, to walk through the data modeling used in the research. And John generously offered an hour of his time for us to talk. We were also joined by Sarah Shewey, Founder/CEO of Happily who was also interested in learning more about how infection rates at meetings could be modeled.
During our hour together, John shared an overview of the Epistemix model. This gave me a better understanding of Epistemix’s approach. The model essentially attempts to simulate the entire population of the United States at an impressive level of detail. It includes numerous geographic and social factors that affect infection risk. However, during our conversation I asked about a number of important factors that I believe Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks.
Probably the most important of these is adequately modeling the air quality at the event, given the paucity of information available about the safety of specific venues and properties from an air quality perspective. In addition, the model does not include the additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event. Though it’s likely possible to model the increased risk during (unmasked) eating and drinking social activities during the event, it doesn’t appear that the Epistemix model does this. Finally, though the Epistemix model incorporates information about COVID-19 variants as they become known, I’m skeptical that it can accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new COVID-19 variants.
In the following sections, I’ll expand on these issues in more detail.
Flaws and omissions in Epistemix’s meeting model
First, a tiny introduction to modeling human systems. All models are an approximation of reality. Consequently,
I learned to program computers in high school, over 50 years ago. Through a series of summer jobs, undergraduate and graduate work, and consulting assignments, I’ve spent years creating computer models of city traffic systems, the interactions of high energy particle beams bombarding matter, the consequences of obscure physics theories, and the functions of complicated administrative systems.
Two fundamental considerations when building and trusting computer models are:
The assumptions one makes in building a model are key to the model being actually useful rather than wrong. Computer models are very seductive. They seem precise and authoritative, and it’s hard to discover and accept their limitations and/or even their completely wrong predictions. Choosing the right assumptions is an art, not a science. One poor assumption can doom a model’s reliability.
Even if you choose good assumptions, implementing them correctly in computer code is difficult. It’s hard to be sure that an implementation faithfully reflects core assumptions. An incorrect implementation of a potentially useful model typically leads to incorrect predictions. If you’re lucky, it’s obvious that a model’s outputs are wrong. But sometimes, predictions are subtly wrong in ways that are easy to overlook.
I’m going to assume that Epistemix models faithfully implement the assumptions made to create them (#2 above). However, I’ve identified four factors that I feel Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks. Some of these factors are interlinked.
1—Adequately modeling airborne COVID-19 transmission at a specific event
While talking to John, it became clear to me that the current Epistemix approach does not adequately model the air quality—and the consequent risk of COVID-19 transmission—at a specific event. The model has some capacity to estimate risks (which are generally minimal) in very large, high-ceiling spaces like convention halls. But, of course, the typical meeting venue contains multiple meeting spaces, some of them small, and, critically, the venues do not in general have a good handle (if any) on the air quality in those spaces. (Or, if they do, they’re not talking publicly about it.)
I know such upgrades can be costly, but you’d think that venues and properties that have implemented them would love to promote themselves as having air quality that meets current pandemic-based standards.
To date, I have not been told of a single venue that is now compliant with ASHRAE pandemic recommendations. (I hope that by now there are some, and that they will let this be known.) During the webinar, Freeman said that such work has and is being done. Please share this information, folks! Meeting planners want to know!
Frankly, without this information a) being made available and b) being incorporated into the Epistemix model it’s hard to have much confidence in the infection risks Epistemix’s model predicts.
2—Additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event
Epistemix’s model does not include the additive risks for attendees (and staff) traveling to and from an event. The main concern is air travel. The air industry has stressed that air change rates in aircraft are high (over 10 air changes/hour) and, now that masks are mandatory, infection risks should therefore be low. An excellent investigation by the New York Times “How Safe Are You From Covid When You Fly?” has tempered this assessment somewhat. Of particular interest are comments from a couple of readers who monitored the carbon-dioxide level—an excellent proxy for air quality—during their entire travel. They found that boarding and deplaning air quality was drastically reduced, as well as during the last thirty minutes of one person’s flight. Exposure at terminal restaurants, where masks must be removed, is also potentially risky.
Quite apart from the “event” itself, staying in a venue may greatly increase one’s risk of infection. I wrote about venue and property ventilation concerns in detail in April, 2021, and later articles by PCMA (1, 2) and the New York Times (1) have echoed this concern.
Again, travel risks are not included in Epistemix’s model. They can be significant, and have to be included to determine the relative risk for an event attendee who is choosing whether to participate or staff an event, or not.
3—Modeling the increased risk when masks are off for socials and group meals
Most in-person meetings include meals and socials, when masking is not possible. Unless you hold such unmasked get-togethers outdoors or in safely ventilated venues, airborne transmission of COVID-19 amongst everyone present (attendees and staff) is a potentially significant and unknown risk. Outdoor locations are only possible for limited periods in much of the U.S. As mentioned above, venues and properties remain silent on whether they’ve upgraded and certified their facilities to current ASHRAE recommendations on air quality.
We have also seen reports of numerous cases of reduced, unmasked social distancing at socials and meals. This is understandable in a world where we’ve been masked and apart for so long. But it is still a risky activity, especially in spaces where ventilation is inadequate.
My understanding (which may be incorrect) of Epistemix’s model is that masking is a global parameter for an event. The model does not handle unmasking in specific event spaces for periods of time. Even if the model does have this flexibility, the lack of knowledge of whether such spaces are safely ventilated prevents an accurate risk assessment.
4—Can Epistemix model the appearance of brand new COVID-19 variants?
But John and I didn’t have time to fully explore this issue, so this concern may be overblown.
Are in-person events COVID safe?
I really appreciate John Cordier’s willingness to share an overview of Epistemix’s infection risk model for events. Obviously, my brief introduction means there’s no way I can authoritatively review the extensive assumptions that are built into the model. Epistemix’s model is impressively detailed and, if correctly implemented (which I have no reason to doubt), seems to comprehensively cover core demographics, the data needed to model infection spread in regional populations, and most major components for predicting infection at a specific event.
When I brought up the concerns I’ve listed in this post, I felt that John largely talked past me, continuing with an explanation of the model without responding directly to what I was asking. This was somewhat frustrating. The two exceptions to this were:
My question about whether the model could accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new variants. This arose at the end of our meeting. John indicated that he believed the model was able to do this, but we didn’t have enough time to explore this issue fully. I’m still skeptical, though he might well have been able to convince me otherwise if we’d had more time.
My primary concern about modeling air quality in detail. John admitted during the meeting that the model does not currently handle specific venue air quality architecture at the detail that’s necessary to simulate, say, what happens when you have a session in a smaller classroom with an HVAC system that is not up to current ASHRAE recommendations. It also omits risks due to event participants (and staff) spending time in properties that may have inadequate air quality. He wrote to me afterwards that “he’d be glad to follow up on the air-quality parameters that you think are most important”.
I’ve seen so many pretty models of systems over the decades. To a casual viewer, they look impressive. It’s only because I spent years building and validating such models that I know how misleading they can be, and the difficulty and importance of identifying the key factors and approximations that form the basis of the model and limit its scope and/or accuracy.
Leaving out detailed venue specific air quality modeling, plus the incoming and return travel risks and accommodation risks during an event, plus inadequate modeling of the risk of transmission during socials and food & beverage sessions make the outputs of the Epistemix model suspect. And I’m skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion.
Finally, I haven’t covered in this article the feasibility of implementing the various mitigation strategies that are available to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection at meetings. Personally, I’d insist on proof of vaccination (no exceptions) and maximal masking at any event I’m likely to attend in the near future. But I’ll just add here this observation from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society‘s HIMSS21 Las Vegas conference for 19,000 attendees. Vaccination was mandatory for all attendees. There were six positive test results (0.03% infarction rate). However, this PCMA article on the event includes the statement: “…you will not be able to service your show if you require every single vendor employee, every single supplier employee, every single temp employee to be vaccinated — there’s just not enough labor out there.” Something to bear in mind.
Are in-person events COVID safe? Ultimately, each of us needs to decide the answer to this question. But, in my opinion, until the COVID-19 case count drops drastically and/or venues can show that their facility ventilation is safe, it’s a violation of our professional duty of care to mislead attendees and those who work in our industry by telling them “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store”.
What is the mix of presentation versus interaction at your meetings? What should it be?
Traditional meetings focus heavily on presentation. Interaction is limited to a few questions at the end of sessions, plus conversations “outside” the formal sessions. And this has been the norm for hundreds of years.
The written word
Let’s explore the popularity of the written words presentation versus interaction over time. If you do this, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, you’ll notice a curious thing.
In 1804, the earliest year included in the Google Books database, the word interaction barely appears. The word presentation is a hundred times more frequent. Both words slowly become more common over time, but presentation stays predominant. But, in the 1950s, something strange happens. The popularity of interaction abruptly rises. In 1964, interaction becomes more frequently used. It has remained in first place ever since.
Presentation versus interaction at meetings
Society, as reflected by books in English, now talks about interaction about twice as often as presentation. But our meeting designs, in large part, haven’t changed to reflect this shift in cultural awareness. Presenters still rarely incorporate interaction into their sessions, even though there are ample reasons why they should.