Three better alternatives to the conference lecture

Ah, the ubiquitous conference one-hour lecture. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Actually I don’t need to do that since Donald Bligh listed them all in his classic book What’s The Use Of Lectures?, first published in 1972!

Rather than reiterate the shortcomings of broadcast-style teaching, I’ll go positive and describe three superior alternatives to sitting through an expert’s non-stop utterances.

As an example I’ll use a three-day conference I’m currently designing. The participants are four hundred scientists who work all over the world and only get to meet en masse every few years. Though it’s important to give them excellent opportunities to discover and connect with cross-disciplinary colleagues and ideas, they also need to share a massive amount of information about their current research in ways that maximize appropriate learning, fruitful connections, and future collaborations.

Here are three session formats we’re using for the middle of the conference arc. In my experience, each of them is far more effective than a traditional conference lecture.

1 — Short bursts of varied content followed by breakouts
Rather than schedule large numbers of simultaneous lectures, like most traditional academic conferences, we’ve designed sessions with multiple short serial presentations, aka lightning or speed talks. By “short” I mean four minutes per scientist. After a batch of these talks, each presenter moves to a separate space in the room and session participants are then free to meet in small groups with the presenter(s) they chose for in-depth discussions.

We’ve scheduled 165 lightning talks grouped into 16 thematic sessions.

The four-minute time limitation nudges each presenter to focus on the core aspects of what they want to share and how to communicate them as effectively as possible in the time available. In addition, audience attention remains high because the presenter and their material is changing every five minutes, well within the ten minutes Bligh and John Medina cite as a maximum before listener attention flags.

Each session is assigned a facilitator, a timekeeper, and a staffer who projects a pre-assembled master presentation slide deck for the four-minute presentations.

2 — Poster sessions
Poster sessions are a variant of the above format. Presenters stand in front of a standard size poster they’ve created that summarizes and illustrates their content. (We’re using e-posters, which not only eliminate the need for the presenters to print, pack, and securely transport a large poster to the conference but also make changing posters between sessions quick and efficient.)

One unfortunate side effect of simultaneous sessions is that anyone presenting can’t attend another presentation that’s taking place at the same time. In a thematic poster session, this prevents presenters from engaging with other presenters who are standing next to their own posters. To allow individual presenters the opportunity to engage with some of the other presenters and their content, we’ve divided each poster session into two 45-minute parts.

Each poster session begins with half the presenters giving a one-minute summary of their work/poster to everyone present. Attendees then spend the rest of the 45 minutes browsing content that interests them, with the poster creator available for explanations, elaborations, and discussions as needed. The process is repeated for the second set of presenters.

The need to create and deliver an effective one-minute presentation concentrates a presenter’s mind wonderfully!

Each session is assigned a facilitator/timekeeper and a staffer who makes the appropriate e-posters available for the presenters.

We’ve scheduled 125 poster sessions grouped into 7 thematic sessions.

3 — In-depth interactive sessions led by one or more experts
In addition this conference includes a small number of longer sessions on key organizational and science issues. The formats for these sessions vary, but they are all designed to incorporate ten-minute or shorter chunks of presented content or provocative questions interspersed with small group active learning activities.

Such sessions provide more effective and appropriate learning than a traditional lecture: learning that is personalized, and that will be remembered longer, in greater detail, and more accurately.

Given the sheer volume of information available from the assembled scientific minds at this event and the considerable investment of time and money to hold this conference, it’s important to use session formats like these. They maximize rich knowledge transfer and the likelihood of making the kinds of “aha” connections that can lead to significant advances in the conservation work and research these scientists perform.

Image attribution: Marisha Aziz


Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshops

I often design and facilitate workshops for association members who mostly haven’t met before. The desired outcomes are for each participant to gain useful and relevant professional insights, and to make significant new connections.

During the workshops each participant shares and receives consulting from a small peer group on a current personal professional challenge. The only technologies used are printed cards, paper-covered round tables, and colored pens.

Here’s what you might see on a stroll through a typical workshop:

An example
At one workshop, association staffers noted that no one touched a cell phone, and intense conversations with frequent bursts of laughter filled the entire two-hour event.

A participant started crying and his group members rushed to console and support him. (We learned later that he had been unfairly fired earlier in the day.) Afterwards, we saw many people swapping business cards and making arrangements to meet up again. Before leaving, the man who’d been fired told me that, despite his dire circumstances, he had had a very positive experience and made several good new friends in his group. Other participants shared during post-workshop conversations that the experience would be memorable because of their personal learning and the new connections made.

Follow up evaluations confirmed that participants obtained meaningful peer support and advice, and began new friendships with other workshop participants.

Such workshops routinely meet the outcomes they’re designed to achieve: creating useful and memorable learning experiences and connections.

Why are these workshops successful?
These workshops are not successful because of the:

  • excellence of a speaker;
  • beauty/novelty of the venue/F&B/entertainment; or
  • extraordinary facilitation.

(Full disclosure:  the facilitation needs to be competent!)

They are successful because of the process design that supports participants learning from each other while simultaneously enjoying a positive emotional connection together.

Adult professional peers can learn much from each other, and when they meet they are hungry to find solutions to current problems, explore issues, and make connections with others who work in the same sphere.

The successful workshops I’ve described above do not have a single expert sharing content. (Rather, it’s fair to say, they tap the expertise and experience of everyone present.) All they need for success is good process, competent facilitation, and a few low-tech items.

They are also simple. Every process element is a strategic ingredient of the workshop design. Running these workshops helps me continually refine the design, stripping away components that distract focus from the desired outcomes.

Many organizations focus on getting the “best” experts to speak at their meetings. Ironically, in my experience it’s almost always easier to create memorable learning and valuable connection for attendees by employing participatory workshop formats. Why? Because they take full advantage of the group’s combined expertise, hone in on what people actually want and need to learn, and build lasting relationships in the process.

What’s most important about an event, the gift or the wrapping?

While writing about seeing the gifts in people and events I remembered one of my favorite scenes in Love Actually (2003). With his wife shopping nearby, Harry (Alan Rickman) impulsively purchases an expensive necklace for his mistress — only to be tortured by the fear of discovery as Rufus (Rowan Atkinson) slowly wraps his gift.

Watch the 2-minute video clip.

Discussing this amusing scene, my wife pointed out that the two components of a present, a gift and a wrapping, suggest a metaphor for an event. The gift symbolizes the purpose of the event — the connections made, the learning that takes place, the consequent outcomes — while the wrapping equates to the logistical necessities and sensory glitz that makes the event viable (people need to eat and drink, have somewhere to stay, and enjoy being entertained or impressed).

If you’re asked “what’s most important about a present, the gift or the wrapping?” the answer is easy. A beautifully wrapped empty box is at best a joke, at worst an insult. A naked gift, shorn of all wrapping, is still a present.

And yet, all too often, we attend events that are like beautiful yet ultimately disappointing boxes of chocolates. The wrapping is gorgeous; our excitement mounts as we open the box, only to discover that the eagerly expected chocolates are missing, sparse, or stale.

Without a useful, meaningful, and successfully implemented purpose, the most beautiful event is a hollow shell. A stunning wrapping that contains no valuable core. Attendees can be sumptuously fed and entertained, but if the event’s purpose remains missing, obscured, or unsuccessfully delivered, then, as Shakespeare said, the event becomes something “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

As an event designer, I frequently hear that there’s “no budget” for meeting process design that would make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose. Curiously, there always seems to be enough money budgeted for meeting logistics: the nice venue, F&B, fancy decor and AV, and the seemingly obligatory entertainment and big name speaker(s). That’s sad, because competent meeting process design costs far less than any of these traditional logistical components.

When we design and implement an event, its purpose must remain at the center of our attention, energy, and budget. If we focus on the wrapping at the expense of the gift, our events will be a tragic waste of everyone’s time.

How to design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings

Although you’d never guess it from reading meeting industry trade journals, most meetings are small meetings, and this is a good thing if you want effective and relevant connection and learning to take place.

Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, can supply impressive spectacle, are appropriate places to launch campaigns and mass announcements, and can be very profitable. But they are poor vehicles for creating the useful participant learning, connection, and outcomes that well-designed small conferences can deliver.

So if you are (un)fortunate enough to be the owner or designer of a large meeting, what can you do to maximize participant value?

You need to satisfy four core requirements for optimum learning and connection:

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How to help meeting design clients figure out what they really want and need

Great — a client who doesn’t know what they want!
Recently, a client asked for help designing a new conference. Thirty minutes of discussion with three stakeholders revealed they hadn’t yet settled on the event’s specific purpose, scope, and format.

From my perspective this is actually a great problem to have.

Why? Because most clients engage me after they are committed to programs and logistics that are not optimum for what they’re trying to accomplish!

The needs assessment trap
Conference design clients who “know what they want” have already decided on their “why?” and “who?“, have often fixed their “when?” and “where?“, and typically bring me in to consult at the “how?” stage. I understand their perspective, because I also feel the temptation to pin down specifics — number of participants, duration, venue, budget, etc. — hoping that in the process the event’s purpose and desired outcomes will become clearer.

It’s true that focusing on these details can help uncover what the client wants, and whether it’s realistic {“Hmm, I think we’d need a lot more than $10K to bring together 200 scientists to plan how to eradicate malaria in Southern Africa”}. But this is a roundabout way of avoiding the all-important question that is rarely fully and productively explored:

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Rethinking event formats

The other day I attended my lovely nephew Julian’s high school graduation.

Ah, the joys of graduation! Where graduates wait in long lines, sit for hours on uncomfortable chairs, get sunburn, and listen to (mostly) boring speakers someone else chose. All to hear their name read off amid hundreds of others, walk across a stage, and get a blank diploma (the real one gets mailed later).

And there’s more — your loved ones enjoy the same multi-hour experience, except they get to watch your fleeting stage walk from uncomfortable chairs a long way away!

A graduation is an Elementary Meeting: a social event that consists of obligatory, tacitly agreed series of actions performed by those taking part. I’ve written about the power of Elementary Meetings to create original event designs — but some Elementary Meetings are poorly designed by today’s standards. Because they are embedded in our culture, we tend not to critically evaluate or rethink them, resigning ourselves to going through the ritual one more time.

Which is why it’s refreshing that Seth Godin applied design thinking to graduations and suggested some improvements:

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Three ways to create truly surprising meetings

One sunny morning in 2105, two hundred of us arrived for the opening breakfast at a Canadian conference to discover There Was No Coffee. The young first-time volunteer staff had forgotten to brew it.

Three days later, people were still grumbling about CoffeeGate. I’ll bet that even today, if you asked attendees what they remembered about the event, most would immediately recall the There Was No Coffee moment. A memorable moment, yes, but not a good one.

Experienced meeting planners know that every meeting has its share of unexpected surprises. While some thrive on the adrenaline rush of dealing with them, most of us work to minimize surprises by anticipating potential problems and developing appropriate just-in-case responses.

Minimizing surprises like CoffeeGate is default behavior for meeting planners. We do not want events to be poorly planned and/or executed, because the inevitable result will be unhappy attendees and chaos of one kind or another.

Surprising Meetings
But not all meeting surprises are bad. Because meeting professionals want to minimize the likelihood of unexpected surprises during execution of the events, there’s a tendency to unconsciously minimize planned surprises for the attendees. And that’s unfortunate — because planned surprises are one of the most wonderful ways we can improve attendees’ experience of the event!

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Why you should run The Solution Room at your next event

The Solution Room is rapidly becoming a popular meeting plenary. Invented at MPI’s 2011 European Meetings and Events Conference, the session fosters active meaningful connections between attendees, and provides peer support and solutions to the real professional challenges currently faced by participants.

I’ve facilitated many Solution Room sessions, and it’s been consistently rated one of the most effective and appreciated formats I use. Participants really enjoy the opportunity to meet a small group of peers in a safe, intimate, and relevant manner, and be both a consultant and a consultee on current professional challenges that each group member chooses. Here are some testimonials from an MPI session:

Unlike many participatory formats, The Solution Room scales beautifully, whether there are 30 or 1,000 people in the room. Apart from the preliminary table set up (small rounds covered with paper tablecloths), the resources needed are modest: colored Sharpies, sound reinforcement, and a good facilitator.

Although the format was originally conceived as a closing session, I’ve found it to be a great opening plenary, especially if time or space constraints prohibit running The Three Questions roundtables. By ensuring that each small group contains a mixture of newcomers, experienced, and veteran professionals, first-time attendees get to know peers with industry experience (and the veterans often learn a thing or two from the younger folks at their table).

You can tell that Solution Room sessions are a success when they end — and no one leaves. Instead, the small groups go on talking about everything they’ve discussed; they don’t want to stop sharing. I see a lot of enthusiastic business card swapping at the end, and participants have told me later that they made valuable long-term connections through the meeting and sharing that took place during the session.

Want to learn  more about how to incorporate The Solution Room into your next event? You’ll find everything you need to know to run The Solution Room in Chapter 34 of The Power of Participation. Or contact me — I’d love to facilitate a session for you!

Nine conference mythodologies

Mythodology 3564715180_40dc1bb7f8_oLong ago, consultant Tom Gilb coined the term “mythodology” to describe erroneous but commonly held beliefs about how something should be done. Here are nine mythodologies about conferences.

Mythodology: We know what our attendees want to learn about.
Reality: No, you don’t. At least half the sessions programmed at traditional conferences are not what attendees want.

Mythodology: Event socials are a good way to meet people.
Reality: People tend to stay with people they already know at event socials. Participant-driven and participation-rich events provide far more opportunities to meet people you actually want to meet.

Mythodology: A “conference curator” can improve the quality of your conference content.
Reality: Sadly, conference curators don’t exist. But discovering the content wants and needs of participants at the event and satisfying them with the collective resources in the room is routinely possible and significantly improves the quality of your conference content.

Mythodology: Learning occurs through events.
Reality: Learning is a continual process; formal events only contribute a small percentage to the whole.

Mythodology: Conference programs should be stuffed full of sessions so there’s something of interest for everyone.
Reality: Downtime is essential for effective learning and connection, so providing conference white space is essential. (Trick: Stuff your program if you must, but give attendees explicit permission to take their own downtime when they need it.)

Mythodology: Adding novelty to a meeting makes it better.
Reality: Novelty is a one-time trick. Next time it’s old. But making your meeting better lasts. Go for better, not just different.

Mythodology: Big conferences are better conferences.
Reality: Better for the owners perhaps (if the meeting is making a profit) but not better for participants. Today’s most successful conferences are micro conferences. (And, by the way, most conferences are small conferences.) 

Mythodology: We know what attendees like, don’t like, and value about our meeting.
Reality: If you’re using smile sheets or online surveys, you’re learning nothing about the long-term value of your meeting. This is the meeting industry’s biggest dirty secret. Use long-term evaluation techniques [1] [2] instead.

Mythodology: We can contract a venue for our meeting before we design it.
Reality: Sounds silly when put like that, but it happens all the time. Designing your meeting and then choosing a venue that can showcase your design will improve your meeting experience (and can save you big bucks!)

I bet you can think of more mythodologies. Share them in the comments!

Image attribution: Flickr user dunechaser