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. Could I help distant friends and students in the United States, New Zealand, and Germany to connect in some way with the ceremony? To facilitate connection between those present and those far away?
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. But 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.
The service moved me. It 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. I am grateful to be able to bring people who are far away into the heart of what is happening.
Thank you for your feedback! 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.
Thank you for your feedback!
[January 2021 Update: Although the pace of commenting has slowed, we’re up to ~1,700 comments. I continue to appreciate and welcome your feedback on my posts, and thank everyone who has taken the time and trouble to write back.
Sadly, I had to remove the Disqus comment system a year ago. It was slowing down the site and occasionally conflicted with other plug-ins. This removed some of the nice display and threading features we used to enjoy.]
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 bringing 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?
It’s time for my morning walk in Anguilla. I’ve written about it before. 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.
A feast of the senses
Warm air on my skin. The sweet smell of almond croissants—alarming numbers of calories beckoning, reluctantly resisted—waft from the French bakery. Bass notes thud from several houses, random patterns until I am close enough to hear the melody. I pass trailers craddling gleaming powerboats: Pure Pleasure, Wet Dreamz, Drippin’ Wet, and Royal Seaduction (notice a theme here?) The gentle return uphill gradient calls for a quick dip in our pool. As I cool down I hear the clamor of bananaquits on the veranda railing gobbling up the raw sugar we’ve set out for them.
The warmth I feel during my walk doesn’t just come from the slanting rays of the morning sun. Every day, another kind of warmth envelopes me; the warmth of the people I meet.
Almost everyone I see on my walk responds in some way. On foot, the standard greeting is mornin’. The people who drive past me raise a hand in greeting, and sometimes hoot the horn. These are not, usually, people I know or have ever met before, and I may never meet them again. And yet, there’s invariably a moment of connection.
Every day, unexpected responses
The speedy truck driver who takes both hands off the wheel, palms facing me to say hi as I walk towards him, the hedge on my right leaving me no place to go if his steering is not true. The beautiful woman who shoots me a dazzling smile as she leaves her driveway for work. Two locals walking in the same direction who, as I pass with a mornin’, say fast walkin’ admiringly to my back. Nuanced respectful nods from respectable Anguillan lady drivers. The grandmother who pivots from conversation to pipe a melodious good morning. Her granddaughter in cream blouse and green skirt uniform, waiting for her ride to school, murmurs hello as I pass. A businesswoman gripping the top of her steering wheel, fingers flying up like rabbit ears when I wave. The minister, waiting for a ride to preach to his church who lifts his hand and our eyes connect. Then I’m past, turning the corner, moving towards the next meeting.
My morning walk in Anguilla. Such simple moments of connection. So little to give, so much received. Growing warmth. A wonderful way to start any morning.
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. And there’s an additional benefit. 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
One of the reasons I love facilitating peer conferences that use the Conferences That Work format is my enjoyment in experiencing the wonderful support and development they provide for communities of practice (COPs). What are COPs? Why are they important? How do peer conferences support them? Read on!
Communities of practice
Communities of practice—a term coined by educational theorist Etienne Wenger—are a group of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common. COPs include three key elements: a shared domain of interest; a group whose members interact and learn together; and the development of a shared body of practice, knowledge, and resources.
While the term is relatively new, communities of practice have existed in human societies for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Systems of apprenticeship and professional guilds, developed in the Late Middle Ages, all incorporate the three COP elements. In fact, COPs have been the predominant modality for professional learning for most of human history!
Why are COPs important?
The Middle Ages are long gone and today we can learn in many new ways. Does this mean that COPs have outlived their usefulness? By no means. Here’s what Harold Jarche thinks about the role of communities of practice in creating effective working environments:
My recommendation has been to support workplace activities that are both cooperative and collaborative and also to provide the necessary support structures. However, my observations to date show that a third piece is required, and that is the fostering of communities of practice to connect the two. These communities, internal and external, are a safe place between highly focused work and potentially chaotic social networking. I also see the support of communities of practice, through skill development and structural support, as a primary role for learning & development staff. —First structure the work system, Harold Jarche
In other words, as shown in Jarche’s diagram above, COPs provide an essential link between the work performed by individuals and teams in organizations (where the rubber meets the road) and the rich possibilities for interaction and learning now available from our social networks, both face-to-face and online.
How do peer conferences support communities of practice?
So where do communities of practice reside today? In Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love I argue that participation-rich and participant-led peer conference formats like Conferences That Work provide a wonderfully rich environment for communities of practice. At a (well-planned) traditional conference, conference planners invest significant time and effort before the event attempting to determine who can potentially provide an “above average” contribution on the conference subject, but peer conferences make no such a priori assumptions about who is a teacher and who is a learner. Rather, they promote an environment in which teaching and learning are ever-fluid activities; the teacher at one moment is a learner the next. Sometimes, everyone in an interaction is learning simultaneously as social knowledge is discovered, constructed, and shared.
Peer conferences don’t assume that every attendee will significantly contribute to the event. Rather, peer conference process provides the opportunity for anyone to contribute, perhaps unexpectedly, but ultimately, usefully.
In my experience, peer conferences are high-quality incubators for communities of practice. They provide a wonderful way for a group of people to explore the potential for creating an ongoing community. The majority of peer conferences that I have facilitated have turned into regular events, but, even when this does not happen, a peer conference inevitably leads to new long-term relationships and communal projects of one kind or another. Conversely, communities of practice can use regular peer conferences to effectively explore and deepen their collective learning and intragroup relationships.
In conclusion, I think of peer conferences as being essential tools—like the radios and scanners used by the other kinds of cops—that support the construction of social knowledge and appropriate learning for communities of practice. Add them to your workplace and conference toolkit and your COPs will reap the benefits!
Mine is bigger than yours It’s common to be impressed by a big meeting. Size implies status, and seemingly success. Walking onto the floor of IBTM World—a European tradeshow attended by more than 15,000 event professionals each year—you’re likely to be blown away by the size of the event. (The video above shows perhaps a third of the tradeshow floor.) You think to yourself: this event must be successful because it’s so [expletive] big.
But size isn’t everything.
A quick exercise (Have someone read this to you s…l…o…w…l…y for the full effect.)
Close your eyes.
Now think of the most important conversation you ever had in your life.
Take your time—I’m not going to ask you what it was about.
Here’s the question. How many other people took part in your conversation?
It’s a small world I’ve run this exercise at numerous presentations and asked the audience to share their answers via a show of hands. The most common answer is “one”, followed by 2-3, with a few people reporting small group numbers.
No one has yet reported a most-important conversation with ten or more people.
Want significant connection (and effective learning) at your events? Then attendees need to spend significant time talking, interacting, and thinking in small groups. Not just at meals or socials, but in the conference sessions!
Design for content versus design for connection We know that the two most important reasons people attend meetings are for content and connection. Every meeting includes a mixture of these, but let’s concentrate on some differences between meetings that concentrate on content (100% content versions are called trainings) and those that concentrate on connection around content.
Content-delivery meeting economics improve with size. The income from more attendees covers the cost of the expensive keynoter. And to a lesser extent, it’s often possible to get more glitz for the buck at bigger events, where those little touches for decor and food and beverage become feasible for larger numbers of attendees.
Meetings that concentrate on connection, however, aren’t significantly cheaper per person as meeting size increases. This is because you can’t spread significant fixed costs over more attendees. In fact, to provide the same level of connection at a large meeting that’s possible at a small meeting requires sacrificing valuable face time at the event in order to get everyone into the right small groups needed for effective participation.
If you hold the mental model that when a large number of people are in one place they need to all be doing the “same” thing, then you will fail in running an effective participation-rich event. Two hundred people cannot “participate” simultaneously in a traditional meeting format (though elaborate, carefully designed simulations can be valuable). The trick is to determine how to divide a large group into smaller sub-groups that can use any one of a number of tested designs to facilitate and support participative learning and connections.
For example, a couple of years ago I designed an afternoon for a 500-attendee medical conference. For this group, we split the attendees into ten groups by medical specialty, allowing each group independently to use small group techniques to determine the topics they wanted to cover and then explore them.
Size isn’t everything Large meetings are not going away. When there is a clear need for them, someone is going to capture the market by executing the demanding logistics of a large meeting better than anyone else. But we are often so stuck on a size definition of success—my 2,000 delegate conference is better than your 100 delegate conference—that we overlook the limitations and frustrations that working effectively with a large group imposes.
Unlike broadcast learning (which doesn’t work very well for adults), participative learning (which research has shown over and over again is superior) doesn’t scale. At a large conference it’s very difficult to deliver the just-in-time learning that attendees need via the rich stew of connection generated by small group process. By carefully dividing up large groups, we can create conference environments that mirror the intimacy and effectiveness of small conferences, but it’s significant work to do this, and requires facilitators who know how to do it right. A well-designed small meeting with carefully targeted attendee demographics offers a much simpler environment for supporting effective connection, interaction, and engagement. That’s one good reason to keep your meetings small!
With hundreds of people in your audience, every minute you’re speaking solo at a conference session sucks up hours of people’s time. Time that they could have used to connect with their neighboring peers.
“…if you want to prepare people not just for the next job, but for the one after that, you need to help them think through the relationships they have and what they learn from the people around them. Understanding people isn’t just an HR skill for managers. For better or worse, in a risk economy with an increasingly interdependent global workforce, these are skills that everyday people need. Building lifelong learners means instilling curiosity, but it also means helping people recognize how important it is that they continuously surround themselves by people that they can learn from. And what this means is that people need to learn how to connect to new people on a regular basis.”
Prepare workers for a connection-rich future
How can workers learn to connect to new people regularly? The best way is to give them plenty of opportunities to safely practice. And what better place than a conference of their peers?
Sadly, most conferences provide no support for making connections. It’s assumed that all that needs to be done is to bringing people together in one place and include a few ineffective mixers and socials. As a result, any connections that attendees make at such events are almost completely via their own efforts.
Luckily it’s easy to do better. Here are three ways to create a supportive conference environment for connection that will greatly increase the quantity, appropriateness, and quality of the connections your participants make. Integrate them into your conferences, and participants (and their organizations) will be better able to survive in tomorrow’s economy. These days, maintaining the traditional conference environment is doing your attendees a disservice. As danah pointedly asks at the end of her talk:
“…my question to you is simple: are you preparing learners for the organizational ecosystem of today? Or are you helping them develop networks so that they’re prepared for the organizational shifts that are coming?”