“I read once that the first time they put an escapologist in a tank of water, he or she will have one of two reactions, and which one determines the course of their life.
The first sort of escapologist is an ordinary person who has come to the trade organically, by whatever curious sequence of opportunity and happenstance—and that sort will panic. There is very little that is more appallingly unnatural or frightening than being lowered, bound, into a confined space containing an atmosphere you cannot breathe. … Some people just never go back in the tank. … Some get right back in and they master their fear and they go on to be as good as their skill allows. These last are most compelling to watch.
Good things come in threes. Though I usually overlook anniversaries, I noticed one this morning. The first peer conference I convened and designed was held June 3 – 5, 1992 at Marlboro College, Vermont. So, as of today, the community of practice that eventually became edACCESS has enjoyed 27 years of peer conferences. [That’s 3 x 3 x 3. I told you good things come in threes.]
Twenty-three people came to the inaugural conference. At the time, I had no idea that what I instinctively put together for a gathering of people who barely knew each other would lead to:
a global design and facilitation consulting practice;
over 500 posts on this blog, which has now become, to the best of my knowledge, the most-visited website on meeting design and facilitation;
three books (almost!) on participant-driven, participation-rich meeting design; and
plentiful ongoing opportunities to fulfill my mission to facilitate connection between people.
However, none of this happened overnight. For many years, designing and facilitating meetings was a vocation rather than a profession, usually unpaid. Furthermore, it was an infrequent adjunct to my “real” jobs at the time: information technology consulting, and teaching computer science.
27 years of peer conferences. From little acorns, mighty oaks. I would never have predicted the path I’ve traveled — and continue to look forward to the journey yet to come. Above all, thank you everyone who has made it possible. I can’t adequately express the gratitude you are due.
“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.
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.
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.
“Experiential” is the new hot adjective used to describe events. “No more listening to speakers; you’re going to have experiences!”
Sadly, many of these so-called experiential events are phony. The promoters slap a novel environment (e.g., clowns walking around or chairs suspended from the ceiling) onto a conventional format (e.g., a social or a group discussion) and claim their event is now “experiential”.
So what are the differences between genuine and a phony experiential conferences?