A free guide to creating peer conferences

free guide to creating peer conferences

The Association for Software Testing (AST) has just issued a free guide to creating peer conferences. I believe the software testing community adopted my term “peer conference” for their get-togethers after a conversation I had with pioneer software tester James Bach in 2004.

Reminiscent of my first book, Conferences That Work, AST’s guide provides a comprehensive entry-level guide to starting, preparing for, and running a peer conference. While it doesn’t offer the level of detail in Conferences That Work, it’s an excellent introduction to the key issues. Although it’s written for software testing conferences (hence the references to Lean Coffee and k-cards) first-time organizers of small conferences of any kind will learn a lot.

This short guide includes useful sections on:

  • defining the conference’s mission;
  • codes of conduct;
  • diversity;
  • dissemination; and
  • email templates and helpful checklists.

The text includes many links to more detailed explanations. As a result, the guide is a compact resource for anyone with little or no experience who wants to offer a great, well-run, conference.

So I strongly recommend this free guide to creating peer conferences. (Did I mention it’s free?)

Photo attributions: 2018 “QA or the Highway” software testing conference {top}. My old friend Fiona Charles at UKSTARConf 2019 {bottom}

Give meeting-goers many options!

give meeting-goers many optionsToday’s meetings need to give meeting-goers many options, not just a few. But this doesn’t mean filling the conference program with every conceivable session topic. To be enjoyable and productive, meetings need white space: free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do.

When we preschedule an entire conference program, each attendee’s only remaining choice becomes which sessions to attend. It’s like how the news industry uses of polls, as described by Jeff Jarvis:

“Polls are the news industry’s tool to dump us all into binary buckets: red or blue; black or white; 99% or 1%; urban or rural; pro or anti this or that; religious (read: evangelical extremist) or not; Trumpist or not; for or against impeachment. Polls erase nuance. They take away choices from voters before they get to the real polls, the voting booth. They silence voices.”
Jeff Jarvis, Polls subvert democracy

Predetermined meeting programs silence attendee voices in the same way.

So how do we give meeting-goers many options without taxing their stamina and powers of concentration?

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How to facilitate a community discussion using fishbowl

What’s the best way to facilitate a community discussion? Recently, I had to answer that question at short notice. My task: design and facilitate a two-hour community discussion in response to a bombshell announcement made by the largest employer in my tiny rural hometown of Marlboro, Vermont.

The community was in shock. Consequently, I felt it was important to use a discussion format that:

  • Supported respectful dialog from a variety of constituencies;
  • Created an environment that was as safe as possible for people to share;
  • Minimized the likelihood that people would monopolize the meeting;
  • Allowed both short statements and controlled impromptu conversations; and
  • Was efficient.

I ended up designing (and moderating the first half of) a fishbowl format. To be more precise, I used what I’d call “half a fishbowl sandwich“: an opening pair share plus a standard fishbowl. (All three of these techniques are covered in detail in my latest book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)

The pair share

I ran a one-minute-per-partner pair share with this question. “What do you think about the proposed Marlboro College plan to close down the school and transfer the endowment and campus to Emerson?

The fishbowl format

Now, watch this three-minute meeting video clip in which I explain how fishbowl works.

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Make your entire conference a braindate

entire conference a braindateWhy not make your entire conference a braindate?

One of Skift’s “10 event trends for 2020” is networking. The report predicts:

“Activities such as braindates that deliver more meaningful connections will become mainstream at events.”

The author, Julius Solaris, tweeted:

“…braindates are in our top 10 trends for 2020…Too much of an undervalued tool and approach. Time to end that.”
November 20, 2019 tweet

I like the braindate approach, but it doesn’t have to be something that’s grafted onto a conference. Why? Because good event design is about how a conference works.

Participant-driven and participation-rich meeting designs incorporate a braindate’s purpose — one-to-one or small group connection around relevant content — organically into every session. In addition, the beginning of a peer conference uncovers the topics that people want to talk about, as well as providing plentiful opportunities for participants to discover others who share their challenges and interests.

So there’s no need to add a braindate process to a well-designed meeting. Instead make your entire conference a braindate!

Photo attribution: Flickr user viejozapato

David Adler BizBash Live interview: the best formats for live experiences

At BizBash Live DC, BizBash CEO and Founder David Adler and I took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Building for a wide-reaching interview on the best formats for live experiences in front of an invited crowd of several hundred meeting professionals.

Here’s an annotated video of our 20-minute conversation:

Annotated video

00:00 How the thousand-year history of conferences affects the way we meet today.
02:20 Lectures are terrible ways to learn.
03:00 The forgetting curve and how it reduces the learning at traditional conferences.
04:15 Why I created my first participant-driven and participation-rich meeting in 1992.
06:20 The conference arc.
07:45 Uncovering participants’ wants and needs via crowdsourcing.

11:00 Some crowdsourcing rules of thumb.

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Event Crowdsourcing free chapters!

Want to get a taste of my new book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need? Here are some Event Crowdsourcing free chapters for your enjoyment.

Read Event Crowdsourcing free chapters

Event Crowdsourcing free chapters

Read testimonials for Event Crowdsourcing here.

Buy Event Crowdsourcing (ebook or paperback or both) at the lowest possible price here!

Creating Conferences That Work with Adrian Segar

For an excellent summary of the work I do, check out this interview and podcast, Creating Conferences That Work by Celisa Steele of Leading Learning. The podcast recording is nicely summarized in the show notes, so you can just read about what interests you, and then listen to any or all of the interview sections from the links on the page.

Here’s an overview:

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Why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it

switching to active learning
A September 2019 research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences clearly illustrates why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it!

Lecturing has been the core modality in our education systems for centuries. Sadly it still is, even though we know that active learning provides superior quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning beats the pants off the “receiving knowledge” model drummed into our heads through years of listening to teachers. (For a full explanation of why active learning modalities are superior, see Chapter 4 of my book The Power of Participation.)

So why do we continue to use broadcast-style formats?

The NAS study gives us some important new information:

[M]ost college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods…We find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.
Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, L Deslauriers, L S McCarty, K Miller, K Callaghan, and G Kestin

Let’s look at these three conclusions in the context of meeting design.

Most meeting presenters still lecture

The majority of college STEM teachers choose traditional teaching methods. And most meeting session presenters resort to lecturing as their dominant session modality.

Attendees learn more when presenters use active learning modalities

We have had research evidence for the effectiveness of active learning modalities for more than a hundred years. (The pioneer of memory retention research, Herman Ebbinghaus, published his seminal work in 1885.)

A large body of research over the last twenty years clearly shows the superiority of active over passive learning.

“Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment. Extensive research supports this observation, especially in college-level science courses (16). Research also shows that active teaching strategies increase lecture attendance, engagement, and students’ acquisition of expert attitudes toward the discipline (3, 79).”

College students are the focus of this research. There’s no reason to believe that these conclusions would not apply to adult learning during meeting sessions.

Superstar lecturers and motivational speakers

Here’s a striking conclusion from the NAS research:

“Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments. This suggests that attempts to evaluate instruction based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods. For instance, a superstar lecturer could create such a positive feeling of learning that students would choose those lectures over active learning.

Including highly paid keynote speakers at meetings is a meeting industry fixation. I’ve argued that the evaluations of such sessions are unreliable. Now, the NAS research buttresses my point, by providing an important explanation why expensive keynote lectures are so popular at meetings. People perceive that they learn more from a smooth lecturer, while the reality is that they learn less!


There is overwhelming evidence that we can improve meetings by switching to active learning from passive lectures. And we now know that the popularity of fluent lectures, as measured by session evaluations, is based on an incorrect belief by attendees that they are learning more than they actually do.

Finally, the NAS report indicates that a simple intervention can overcome false perceptions about the efficacy of lectures.

“Near the beginning of a physics course that used… active learning …the instructor gave a 20-min presentation that started with a brief description of active learning and evidence for its effectiveness. …At the end of the semester, over 65% of students reported on a survey that their feelings about the effectiveness of active learning significantly improved over the course of the semester. A similar proportion (75%) of students reported that the intervention at the beginning of the semester helped them feel more favorably toward active learning during lectures.”

Consequently, we need to educate stakeholders, presenters, and meeting attendees about the benefits of active learning modalities at meetings.

Image attribution and original inspiration for this post: Inside Higher Ed & Kris Snibbe / Harvard University

Thank you Stephanie West Allen for bringing the above research to my attention!