How to create amazing conference programs that don’t waste attendee time

Do your conference programs include pre-scheduled sessions you belatedly discover were of little interest or value to most attendees? If so, you’re wasting significant stakeholder and attendee time and money — your conference is simply not as good as it could be. Now imagine you could learn how to routinely create conference programs that reliably include the sessions attendees actually want and need? How much value would that add to your event; for your attendees, your sponsors, and your bottom line?

Read the rest of this entry »

Does the world of events need more exposure to the new?

Most of the event technology I’ve been using for the last quarter century is hundreds of years old. It works incredibly well. So, when you’re designing your next event, bear in mind this observation of Seth Godin’s:

You might not need more exposure to the new. Instead, it might pay to re-see what’s already around you.
—Seth Godin, What do you see?

Re-seeing technology is hard because technology is anything that was invented after you were born. Technology that’s older than you is mostly invisible, taken for granted like the air you breathe. Only when the wind blows you might notice, for a moment, that something important is all around you — but your attention quickly returns to the smartphone in your hand.

Yet none of the event technology that can drastically improve your events requires a smartphone or even spending much money.

Don’t ignore the wind. Instead, harness it and explore its possibilities.

Photo attribution: Flickr user 64700647@N06

The Conference Arc — the key components of every successful participation-rich conference

Traditional conferences focus on a hodgepodge of pre-determined sessions punctuated with socials, surrounded by short welcomes and closings. Such conference designs treat openings and closings as perfunctory traditions, perhaps pumped up with a keynote or two, rather than key components of the conference design.

Unlike traditional conferences, participant-driven and participation-rich peer conferences have a conference arc with three essential components: Beginning, Middle, and End. This arc creates a seamless conference flow where each phase builds on what has come before.

Participant-driven and participation-rich peer conference designs improve on traditional events because they don’t treat openings and closings as necessary evils but as critical components of the meeting design.

Let’s examine each phase of the peer conference arc in more detail.

Read the rest of this entry »

The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

I’ve been attending conferences for over forty years. Most of them are dull and largely irrelevant. This seems to be the norm, because when you talk to attendees you find they set a low bar for satisfaction, e.g. “It’s OK if I learn one new thing a day, oh, and if I make a useful connection or two that would be great!

For twenty years I assumed this was how conferences were supposed to be. And when I began creating conferences myself, I used the same standard format: invite experts in the field to speak to audiences.

Then in 1992, circumstances forced me to do one thing different. Ever since, thanks to that happy accident, I have been designing and facilitating peer conferences that people have loved for over a quarter-century.

“…gets an award for most/best/most thoughtfully organized conference I think I’ve ever been to.”

“I’m an introvert. I’ve never shared as much at a conference before. Your process is brilliant. Thank you.”

“…the truest sense of community I’ve ever felt and it was beautiful to experience. I hope you have the opportunity to experience something like this in your lifetime. It changes everything.”
—Three recent participants on their experience at three different peer conferences

What’s the one key thing I do that almost no one else does?

Read the rest of this entry »

What’s better than people augmented by technology at meetings?

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.

The parallel missions of journalism and participant-driven and participation-rich events

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.

Image attribution: Nectar Media

Why digital tools aren’t always the right choice for events

Every day I receive a barrage of pitches for event technologies. Each one markets digital tools, like apps for marketing, registration, venue booking, staffing, sponsorship, engagement, etc. Newcomers to the meeting industry who experience this onslaught could be forgiven for believing that digital software and hardware technologies are the only tools available and worth considering for meeting improvement.


The reason that event professionals’ mailboxes and feeds are filled with digital tool marketing is simply that there’s money to be made when these technologies are purchased. Much more money than from tools like the participation techniques covered in my book The Power of Participation, which require either no “technology” at all or inexpensive tools like paper, Sharpies®, and Post-it® notes.

Yes, digital event technology has had a big positive impact on events. For example, no one (except the companies that printed them) regrets the demise of the massive printed conference guides that attendees had to drag around, most attendees appreciate the quantity and timeliness of information available on their mobile devices from well-designed event apps, and voting apps and throwable microphones allow greater interaction between presenters and audiences.

Nevertheless, in my experience, the human process tools I’ve been using and improving for the last twenty-five years provide more benefits more effectively (and, obviously, at lower cost) than current digital tools.

Let me illustrate with a current story taken from one of my earlier careers.

A massive difference
Before accidentally entering the meeting industry, I spent twenty-three years as an independent information technology consultant. During this period I was an active member of the global software development community and my friends included some of the leading practitioners of this challenging art.

Large software projects involve teams of programmers who work together to develop complex systems where a single error can have far-reaching consequences. Everyone makes mistakes, and one of the hardest tasks when developing software in teams is to implement design process that provides the required system functionality while minimizing flaws. Because the system implementation is constantly changing during development, continual software testing is an essential component of the whole process.

As you might expect, software developers are leading-edge creators of software tools. Sophisticated code repositories, automated testing suites, and complex project management tools are routinely used and constantly improved.

And yet, it turns out, some of the most important tools are not digital. Here’s an illustrative tweet from Mathew Cropper, an Irish software developer, and a follow-up response from Canadian consultant Dave Sabine.

“Last week we moved from a purely digital backlog to using a physical wall. The quality of conversation improved massively. It’s like talking with a different group of people.”
Mathew Cropper tweet

“If a team hasn’t yet tried a big, visible, physical wall of roadmaps/backlog/tasks… then any discussion about digital tools is like buying new tennis shoes in order to quit smoking.”
David Sabine tweet

The most sophisticated digital tools that money can buy are no match for a wall full of sticky notes!

Successful process for software development and meetings
There are many reasons why a wall of sticky notes is a useful and powerful tool for successful team software development and effective conference program crowdsourcing and engagement. Both human process environments thrive because a sticky note wall provides:

  • One place to easily capture every piece of information that any individual thinks is relevant;
  • A public display of information that can be easily viewed by many people simultaneously for as long as needed;
  • Simple public manipulation options, such as note clustering, inclusion/exclusion, ranking, and public modification;
  • Somewhere for appropriate people to document and discuss progress and develop and implement process; and
  • A natural focus for easy spontaneous conversation, communication, and creativity.

It’s hard for current digital tools to provide any of these benefits as simply and well. Let’s compare for each of the points above:

  • Information capture: Wall requires writing with pens on sticky notes; digital tools require access to a digital device for each attendee plus the interface knowledge necessary to use it.
  • Public display: Wall requires a flat surface for notes to be placed; digital tools require a BIG (expensive) screen.
  • Public manipulation options: At the wall simply pick up a note and move it; digital tools would require a big touch screen plus some form of note-dragging interface. [aka Minority Report wizardry]
  • Document and discussing progress & implementing process: Wall layout can easily be repurposed/redesigned whenever needed to accommodate different process tools such as project management or ranking to-dos; digital tools typically require specific process techniques to be precoded.
  • Focus for conversation, communication, and creativity: Because walls provide all the above functionality simply and in ways accessible to any attendee, they are natural foci for conversation, experimentation, and creativity. The barriers listed above for digital tools make them far less accessible for such purposes.

Given these significant advantages, coupled with much lower costs, it’s a shame that more conference organizers haven’t discovered the value of simple process tools like sticky note walls and are still seduced by the relentless marketing of digital tool suppliers. To learn more about many other powerful human process tools and how to use them effectively, buy my “tool chest” book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

How to get attendees to risk doing something new at your event

Getting your attendees to do something new at your event can be hard. Seth Godin illustrates the problem:

“Want to go visit a nudist colony?”

“I don’t know, what’s it like?”

“You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.”

“Show me some pictures, then I’ll know.”

Well, actually, you won’t.
You won’t know what it’s like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people.
The only way you’ll know what it’s like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience.
Not by looking at the experience.
By having it.
—Seth Godin, Experiences and your fear of engagement

Now you’re probably not taking your attendees to a nudist colony for the first time — nudist associations, I did say probably — but introducing a new event format where an attendee has to do something different, like interact with other attendees or play a game, will usually evoke uncomfortable feelings for some or many attendees, ranging from mild unease to outright fear.

So how can we encourage attendees to take the risk to try something new?

By having them do something new together.

A caveat — allow attendees to opt out
Whatever we are asking attendees to do, it’s important to always provide an option for individuals to opt out. How this is done depends on the circumstances. For example, if the activity is run as a concurrent breakout or an add-on to the main program, this implies that no one is expected to take part. But if the activity is a plenary session, then an opt-out provision should always be given after the activity has been introduced and before participation starts.

(This doesn’t mean that attendees necessarily get to pick and choose how they will be involved with the activity. For example, when I run The Solution Room I make it clear that those present who choose to attend can do so only as participants and not as observers. If they choose not to participate, they are asked to skip the session.)

Strong scientific research performed over fifty years ago has shown that groups are more likely to accept taking risks than the members individually (e.g. see diffusion of responsibility and level of risk taking in groups for supporting research). Seasoned facilitators know this: when working with groups we are routinely able to get members to do things collectively that they might well baulk at as individuals.

Simply asking a group to do something perceived as risky, however, is not all that’s required. Supplying or obtaining agreements on how the group members will work together helps create a safe(r) working environment for risk-taking. If the group members are mostly strangers to each other, it can be helpful to provide appropriate and meaningful activities for them to get to know each other before moving into new kinds of work. Finally, beginning with low-level risk activities and then moving to those perceived as more risky will help a group obtain experiences that they would have resisted had they been asked to participate right away.

The power of group process
Change is hard. The potential of group process to successfully introduce people to beneficial experiences that might be judged beforehand as scary or risky allows us to create powerful new experiences for attendees at our events. New experiences that incorporate valuable learning and build new personal connections are one of the most powerful ways to make meetings relevant and memorable.

That’s why I love to design and facilitate group work at conferences. I’ll probably never get to facilitate the kind of exposure in Seth Godin’s example (and that’s fine by me) but the power of group work to engage and transform attendee learning and connection in ways that cannot be matched by conventional broadcast sessions means that it should be top-of-mind for every event professional who wants to hold engaging and successful meetings.

Image attribution: Lyndi & Jason, Dallastown Pa, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When the audience can’t stop talking about what they did

Last week, I led The Solution Room for a group of New York City attorneys. When it ended at 8 pm, after two hours of continuous intense conversation and connection, no one left. The participants, despite having worked a full day before my evening session, hung around and talked and swapped business cards while venue workers patiently reset the room for the law firm’s next business day.

For me, having people unwilling to leave after one of my sessions is over is a sign of success. It’s an example of what Set Godin calls viral work.

Important work is easily dismissed by the audience. It involves change and risk and thought.
Popular work resonates with the people who already like what you do.
Viral work is what happens when the audience can’t stop talking about what you did.

Every once in awhile, all three things will co-exist, but odds are, you’re going to need to choose.
—Seth Godin, Important, popular or viral

I like Seth’s definition of viral work, but I’d change one word to better describe my facilitative work.

“Viral work is what happens when the audience can’t stop talking about what they did.”

Because, it’s not about me.

How often do you get to do viral work? Share your successes in the comments below!

[P.S. I don’t usually photograph the challenge representations drawn by Solution Room participants because they can contain personal information, but I made an exception for the charming image that graces this post.]

What your conference evaluations are missing

One of the easiest, yet often neglected, ways for meeting professionals to improve their craft is to obtain (and act on!) client feedback after designing/producing/facilitating an event. I like to schedule a thirty-minute call at a mutually convenient date one or two weeks after the event, giving the client time to decompress and process attendee evaluations.

During a recent call for an event that I designed and facilitated, a client shared his conference evaluation summaries that rated individual sessions and the overall conference experience.

This particular annual conference uses a peer conference format every few years. The client believes that the Conferences That Work design introduces attendees to a wider set of peer resources and conversations at the event. An addition this year, The Solution Room, was a highly rated session for building connections and getting useful, confidential peer consulting on individual challenges.

As the client and I talked, we realized that the evaluations had missed an important component. We were trying to decide how frequently the organization should alternate a peer conference format with more traditional approaches. Yet we had no attendee feedback on how participants viewed the effectiveness of the annual event for:

  • making useful new connections;
  • building relationships;
  • getting current professional wants and needs met; and
  • building community.

Adding ratings of these KPIs to conference evaluations provides useful information about how well each event performs in these areas. Over time, it allows conveners to see if/how peer conference formats improve these metrics. I also suggested that we include Net Promoter Scores in future evaluations.

The client quickly decided to include these ratings in future conference evaluations. Our retrospective call helped us to improve how participants evaluate his events. providing data that will feed more informed decisions about future conference design decisions.

Do your evaluations allow attendees to rate the connection and just-in-time learning effectiveness of your meeting? Do they rate how well your meeting met current professional wants and needs? If not, consider adding these kinds of questions to all your evaluations, allowing you to obtain data over time on the meeting designs and formats that serve your participants best.