The other day, Celia and I were walking in Boston’s beautiful Arnold Arboretum when she asked me who’d responded to an email I’d sent. When I pulled out my phone to answer her question, she said she felt she was walking with a third person, a stranger.
There’s a better way to improve meetings than augmenting them with technology. As Finnish management consultant and polymath Esko Kilpi says:
“Human beings augmented by other human beings is more important than human beings augmented by technology” —Esko Kilpi, quoted by Harold Jarche
At face-to-face meetings, facilitating relevant connections and learning around participants’ shared just-in-time wants and needs is more effective than augmenting an individual’s learning via technology. We maximize learning when:
Participants first become aware, collectively and individually, of the room’s wants, needs, and available expertise and experience (i.e. “the smartest person in the room is the room” — David Weinberger, Too Big To Know);
We use meeting process that successfully matches participants’ needs and wants with the expertise and experience available; and
Time and space is available for the desired learning to take place.
And of course, this approach significantly improves the quantity and quality of relevant connections made by participants during an event.
So the smart choice is to invest in maximizing peer connection and learning via simple human process rather than elaborate event technology.
I’ve been at many events where time is wasted trying to use custom apps that aim to connect attendees in some useful way. Even when high-tech approaches use a simple web-browser interface, getting 100% participation is difficult due to technical barriers: all attendees must have a digital device readily available with no low batteries or spotty/slow internet access.
Well-facilitated human process has none of these problems. The value of having a facilitator who knows how to do this work far exceeds the cost (which may be zero once you have invested in training staff to fulfill this function).
When push comes to shove, modern events thrive in supportive, participatory environments. Attendees appreciate the ease of making connections they want and getting the learning they need from the expertise and experience of their peers, and once they’ve experienced what’s possible they rarely enjoy going back to the passive meetings that were once so common.
Yes, we can use technology to augment learning. But the majority of the high-tech event solutions marketed today are inferior and invariably more costly to implement than increasing learning and connection through radically improving what happens between people at our meetings.
While musing about Facebook’s recent changes to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people” over content from media and brands, Jeff Jarvis coins a new definition of journalism:
“…convening communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation, reducing polarization and building trust through helping citizens find common ground in facts and understanding.” —Jeff Jarvis, Facebook’s changes
That sounds a lot like much of the mission of the participant-driven and participation-rich events I’ve been championing for so long. While journalism can’t provide the connective power of face-to-face meetings, its potential for helping individuals and communities build trust and find common ground is worthy and welcome.
Why am I drawn to facilitation? I’ve often heard an uneasy inner voice that wonders if it’s about a desire or need for control and/or power. And yet I know through experience that when I am facilitating well, I have influence but no real control or power.
Then I read this:
“Freud said that psychoanalysis is a ‘cure through love,’ and I think that is essentially correct. The love is conveyed not so much in the content as in the form: the rapt attention of someone who cares enough to interrogate you. The love stows away in the conversation.” —Psychotherapist and writer Gary Greenberg, interviewed in “Who Are You Calling Crazy?”, The Sun, July 2016
Facilitation is not psychotherapy (though sometimes it may have similar results.) But they both have something in common when performed with skill: the gift of listening closely. And that gift of rapt attention is given out of love—not of the content but through the form.
Though I sometimes want to be in (illusory) control, I am drawn to facilitation out of love.
Why are you drawn (if, indeed, you are) to facilitation?
Last Saturday, the ashes of my wife’s beloved Tai Chi teacher were interred in our tiny town cemetery. People came from all over the world to celebrate her life, but some could not make the journey. I was asked if I could help distant friends and students in the United States, New Zealand, and Germany to connect in some way with the ceremony.
My mission is to facilitate connection between people, and I said “yes”.
A quick trip to the cemetery established that a weak cellular data signal was available on site. After obtaining permission from the family I set up a Zoom streaming meeting for the group, and arrived on the day with a simple iPhone setup.
For some reason (perhaps the weak cellular data strength?) Zoom was not able to stream much of my audio, though the iPhone video was quite good, and I could easily hear the viewers’ comments. During the ceremony, I loved the group’s delight at various points; they were so happy they could experience something of what was going on.
I was moved by the service, which included raucous opening and closing parades with noisemakers around the cemetery, poetry, and a beautiful Double Fan Form performed by the Tai Chi group. Although I am a fan of low-tech and no-tech solutions at events, sometimes hi-tech is the only way to facilitate important connections under circumstances like these, and I am grateful to live in a time when we can bring people who are thousands of miles away into the heart of what is happening around us.
Although some say that comments on blog posts are passé, I still think they provide valuable feedback and connection for communities that develop around posts and the topics covered on a blog.
So I’m happy that,as of today, readers of this niche blog (albeit one that will surpass 6M pageviews this year) have shared 1,000 comments on the 343 Conferences That Work posts I’ve written over the last five years. Many commenters are now friends, and some of you I met first through a comment on a post.
In early 2010, at the first EventCamp, I discovered the wonder and power of meeting people face-to-face whom I had previously only met online. Perhaps the wonder is stronger for me than most, living in rural Vermont, 100+ miles from any city. Nevertheless, when I travel to a major metropolitan area these days and have a few hours free I try to bring people together.
I love bringing people together in ways that work for them—in fact that’s my mission. So it was a pleasure to host these three casual meetups for event and association management professionals. What was amusing, however, was how often people thanked me for bringing them together. I had to laugh—here was a guy from Vermont facilitating connection between people who all lived near each other, people who could easily arrange to meet frequently. And yet…they didn’t.
Sometimes people need permission to connect. In this case, a small outside impetus was all that was required. An hour of my time to send emails out to my local connections, find somewhere to meet, and track/answer questions from those who were coming. No big deal. And I doubt it hurt my professional life to be a connector, an initiator for the enjoyable and interesting connections that subsequently occurred.
Yes, we’re all busy. But let’s not forget that our work in the event and association spheres is fundamentally about facilitating connection between others. And that should, once in a while, include ourselves—our peers—both known and new. So, pass it forward, my friends. Once or twice a year, send out some invites for a casual get together with your peers. It needn’t be elaborate or have a specific marketing focus; just meet somewhere for drinks or a meal. Publicize the event to your local network and welcome anyone who hears about it and wants to come.
You’ll be bringing people together. Who knows what the pleasant consequences will be?
I’m back in Anguilla. I’ve written before about my morning walk here. Out of bed, a little sleepy, I throw on swim-trunks, shirt, socks and shoes, perch my white Tilly on my head, and I’m off before the sun gets too hot.
Two words that no one would ever use to describe me would be sports fan. Yet I’ve been moved by my friend John Chen‘s epic adventure into high-end Super Bowl madness this week. Which brings me to what Seth Godin writes today on the eve of the game itself:
“…every year, the [Super Bowl] commercials disappoint, while the game includes eleven minutes of action over the course of four hours of not so much.And yet we do it again and again. Because the corporate hoopla is beside the real point, which is a chance for all of us to talk about the same thing at the same time. This is part of what it means to belong.
…these occurrences happen often in much smaller tribes as well. The buzz about Fashion Week or CES or the latest from Sundance are micro varieties of the same desire to be in sync. Your customers and your employees want to feel what it feels to do what other people are doing. Not everyone, just the people they identify with.
It’s easy to be persuaded that this event is somehow about the game, or the coverage or the hype, but it’s not. Like Groundhog day, it’s a pointless thing we do over and over again, because hanging out with people you care about…is almost always worth doing.” —Seth Godin, Groundhog day and the Super Bowl
This is the opportunity and the promise of participant-driven and participation-rich conferences, with the additional benefit of coming together around not just a “pointless thing” but a topic, an industry, a cause that we all care about.
Photo attribution: John Chen’s current profile picture on Facebook