Humanity’s problem is a meeting problem

Meeting problemIn 2009, the biologist E.O. Wilson described what he saw as humanity’s real problem. I think it’s also a meeting problem:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
E. O. Wilson, debate at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Mass., 9 September 2009

Wilson sees emotions, institutions, and technology as disjointed in time. Emotions have driven human beings for millions of years, our institutions are thousands of years old, and we can’t keep up with our advances in technology.

And so it goes with meetings.

Emotions

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, our emotions run us, not our rationality. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, wrote a long book about this. It’s why businesses sponsor meetings. It’s why we judge meeting experiences largely based on how they were perceived at their peak and at their end. And it’s why transformational learning occurs when a group experiences a positive emotional connection together.

Want more evidence? Well, information dumps from an expert lecturer are one of the worst ways to learn anything important. And simple workshops that support connection (which may be emotional) between participants around relevant content provide better learning experiences.

Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.

Institutions

The things we do reflect our culture. And the organizations we’ve constructed incarnate our culture. Our largest and most powerful institutions — political and religious — are also the oldest, with roots thousands of years in the past. What we think of as modern business meetings and conferences are hundreds of years old. Changes in their forms and traditions have been principally influenced by technology (see below) rather than any deep changes in human psychology.

The traditional top-down formats of meetings and conferences reflect the top-down structure of the institutions that still largely dominate our world. Traditional institutional norms discourage the creation of meetings that provide freedom for participants to steer and co-create learning and connection experiences that are optimally better for everyone involved. All too often, top-down institutional culture leads inexorably to hierarchical meeting formats.

So there’s a disconnect between what’s best for meeting participants, due to their fundamental psychological makeup, and the dictates of their institutional bosses and the organizations that organize the events.

Technology

And finally, there’s E.O. Wilson’s “god-like technology”. Even though technology is continually being redefined as anything that was invented after you were born, it’s impossible to ignore how rapidly technology has evolved and changed our culture and our meeting experiences. I carry in my pocket a phone that has more computing power and far more utility to me than a machine that filled an entire office building when I was a student. And the COVID-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated how technology has allowed us, almost overnight, to redefine what we have thought of as meetings for hundreds of years to a largely—at least for now—online experience.

Consequently, vendors flood us with technological “solutions” to problems we often aren’t even aware we have. In some cases, these solutions are actually manufactured for a plausible yet illusory need. But even when there’s a genuine problem that the right technology can solve, our emotions can make it hard for us to see its value, and our institutions may be resistant to implementation.

The tension between emotions, institutions, and technology at meetings

Wilson’s definition of humanity’s problem resonates for me. As I’ve shared above, our emotions, institutions, and technology also frequently conflict when we are planning meetings. There isn’t a simple solution that perfectly responds to these elemental forces that affect what we do. In the meetings industry, our best meeting problem solutions recognize the effects of these forces on our gatherings and use conscious design to take advantage of them.

That means designing meetings that incorporate active learning via creating emotional experiences together, working with institutional stakeholders to convince them of the value of emotion-driven, participant-driven, and participation-rich approaches, and using the right technology — often human process technology — to make our meetings the best they can be.

Yes, humanity’s problem is a meeting problem. But we have the tools to solve it. All we need to do is to use them.

These aren’t the unconferences you’re looking for

unconferences
I’m noticing that event promoters are increasingly using the word “unconference” to describe traditional conferences. <Sigh>. Please stop doing this! There’s a big difference between unconferences and traditional events.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines an unconference:

“An unconference is a participant-driven meeting.”
“Typically at an unconference, the agenda is created by the attendees at the beginning of the meeting.
Unconference, Wikipedia

Well, surely titan Google would accurately describe their annual Search Central conference?

Nope.
unconferencesIn case you can’t read that, it says:

“In particular, the word ‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend and actively participate in. You will shape the event by taking part in discussions, feedback sessions, and similar formats that need your input.”
The Search Central Unconference is back, Google Search Central Blog

Wow. According to Google, “‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend”. Umm, Google, that’s what happens at every conference! Oh, you also get to “actively participate in” sessions? Google, we call that “having a discussion” or “a breakout”.

Dave Smart’s blog post My experience of the Google Search Central unconference makes it clear that Google chose the entire conference program beforehand.

Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Sorry, Google, but calling your conference an unconference doesn’t make it one.

Let’s call what you’re doing an ununconference.

Sadly, Google is not alone.

A few examples of ununconferences

Here are three ununconferences that people promoted this week. I noticed several others, but adding all those black bars to remove identifying information takes time. Twitter is full of folks who already know they’ll be “speaking” at an ununconference (e.g., the second example). The last example announces that their “unconference” is closing session proposal submissions six months before the actual event!
unconferences

Conference programs that are predetermined with attendee input are not unconferences

I have been convening and facilitating unconferences for 29 years. (I prefer the term peer conferences, but no one else cares.) Why? Because they provide a far better conference experience. Better, because creating the conference program in real time at the start ensures that the event optimally meets participants’ in-the-moment wants and needs.

In 2o10, I explained why asking attendees in advance for program suggestions doesn’t work. And a couple of years later, I shared why a program committee or the mythical “conference curator” don’t do any better:

“In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want.
Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator, February, 2012

Seth Godin puts it this way: “We have no idea in advance who the great contributors are going to be.” Just about every unconference I’ve convened or attended, has brought to light participants whose valuable knowledge, expertise, experience, and contributions were unknown to the conveners (and most, if not all, of the attendees). You can’t do this effectively at a traditional conference with a predetermined program.

Unconference is not a marketing soundbite

Marketers: stop using “unconference” as an event marketing buzzword. We’re not selling cereal here. Robert Kreitner says, “Buzzwords…drive out good ideas.” Unconferences are participant-driven, which involves building the program in real time during the event. Having (well-designed) discussion sessions during an event is great, but that doesn’t make a meeting an unconference.

Meeting conveners: Learn about what unconferences actually are before calling your event one. (Any of my books will give you detailed information about these meeting formats, and how well they work.)

I care about how people use the word “unconference” because I’ve met too many folks who believe that an event that’s billed as an unconference must be one. Then they attend and are underwhelmed. I’d hate to see unconferences suffer because marketing folks see the word as a way to make an event sound hip, sophisticated, and cool. Let’s banish the ununconference instead!

Presentation versus interaction at meetings

What is the mix of presentation versus interaction at your meetings? What should it be?

Traditional meetings focus heavily on presentation. Interaction is limited to a few questions at the end of sessions, plus conversations “outside” the formal sessions. And this has been the norm for hundreds of years.

The written word

Let’s explore the popularity of the written words presentation versus interaction over time. If you do this, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, you’ll notice a curious thing.
presentation versus interaction
In 1804, the earliest year included in the Google Books database, the word interaction barely appears. The word presentation is a hundred times more frequent. Both words slowly become more common over time, but presentation stays predominant. But, in the 1950s, something strange happens. The popularity of interaction abruptly rises. In 1964, interaction becomes more frequently used. It has remained in first place ever since.

Presentation versus interaction at meetings

Society, as reflected by books in English, now talks about interaction about twice as often as presentation. But our meeting designs, in large part, haven’t changed to reflect this shift in cultural awareness. Presenters still rarely incorporate interaction into their sessions, even though there are ample reasons why they should.

Since my first book on participant-driven and participation-rich was published 12 years ago, I’ve been gratified to see how the meeting industry has at least started talking more about the importance of bringing interaction and engagement into meeting sessions. But, despite all the talk, meeting owners and presenters still all too often serve up the same lecture-style sessions that are far less effective and engaging than learning in community through well-designed interactive process.

In the 1960s, we finally began focusing on interaction versus presentation in our culture.

That was half a century ago.

It’s time to practice what we preach.

How to provide new experiences at meetings

new experiences at meetingsHow can we provide new experiences at meetings? Not new F&B, decor, or glitz. Something deeper.

Here’s a story…

A memorial service

Last month, I staffed an online memorial service for E, a friend who died tragically, at age 42, of breast cancer. With over a hundred attendees, most listened as friends and family spoke. When the main service ended, I hosted one of several breakout rooms for those who wanted to stay and talk.

People were allocated to the breakout rooms randomly. A woman in my room looked quite upset, and I asked her how she knew E. She shared that they met each other in high school, and were friends for many years. They eventually drifted apart, and only reconnected when she heard about E’s cancer.

The woman looked really upset. So I asked her if she wanted to tell us more. She burst into tears. “We found out we had breast cancer at the same time, and both went into treatment.” She sobbed harder. And then she cried out, “But I survived. I’m OK.”

We talked a little about her guilt at surviving. We gave her the gift of listening. Afterwards, she looked better, and perhaps she felt a little better too.

New experiences

We gave the woman an opening to share her feelings of guilt. She gained a new experience, one that I think was significant to her.

It was also a significant new experience for me. At the start of the breakout, I had no idea what would happen. I felt happy to be able to give this woman a place to voice her feelings. It’s the kind of work I love to do, my ikigai.

Providing new experiences at meetings can be as simple as this.

Creating environments and opportunities for new experiences to happen.

Fear of new experiences

To an infant, all experiences are new. Rapidly though, as we grow older, experiences repeat and they become comfortable and familiar. It’s tempting to desire to try and relive old, pleasant experiences, rather than seek out new ones. That’s understandable. New experiences can be scary. Not only for the person experiencing them, but also for society. As D.H. Lawrence said a hundred years ago:

“The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences…The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can’t pigeon-hole a real new experience.”
D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

This universal fear is the reason the meeting industry continues to struggle with incorporating new experiences into events. Often, we sidestep the issue and tell ourselves that some novel venue, decor, food and beverage, or lighting will provide attendees with “a new experience”.

We choose to forget that magic happens outside one’s comfort zone.

And another opportunity for providing meaningful new experiences at an event is missed.

The alternative? Be brave, and explore and implement the practical suggestions below!

How to provide valuable new experiences at meetings

There’s a simple answer to the question: “How can we provide valuable new experiences at meetings?”

It requires a shift of perspective. At traditional meetings, it’s assumed that the meeting conveners are responsible for specific new experiences. This implies that the attendees are passive receivers of the program. They have no role in its creation. At traditional meeting after meeting, the onus is solely on the conveners to provide valuable new experiences. The temptation is to come up with cosmetic changes that, while possibly entertaining to some degree, do not fundamentally change what happens at the event.

Here’s what to do instead.

Instead of dreaming up changes to the physical environment of the meeting — the F&B, decor, etc. — provide a process environment that supports and encourages appropriate new interpersonal experiences around the content they want and need.

Doing this makes the participants co-creators of experiences that matter to them.

And doing this isn’t hard! I, and many others, have been designing and facilitating such meeting environments for decades. Here are the books I recommend that explain what you need to know and how to implement. And here’s how to make it easier for attendees to risk having new experiences at your event.

If you want to know how well this works, take a look at the randomly chosen comments that participants have made about my events over the last thirty years, and that appear in the sidebar of this blog.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

If I can help you in any way create an environment for new experiences at your meetings, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Original image attribution: Flickr user tauw under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Lessons learned from online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic

lessons online meetings COVID-19The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) has published some useful lessons learned from organizing six online scientific meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is my summary of what I think are the most interesting findings, plus some commentary. All quotes are from the article Virtual Growing Pains: Initial Lessons Learned from Organizing Virtual Workshops, Summits, Conferences, and Networking Events during a Global Pandemic in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin. Check it out for full details!

Online meetings improve access and attendance

Clearly, online conferences can make it easier for people to attend who might otherwise not be able to do so:

…participation [at in-person meetings] can favor more privileged scientists (e.g., well-funded, connected, established) while excluding talented but less privileged scientists who may not have available funds or flexible schedules to overcome barriers such as financial resources, travel time, disabilities (De Picker 2020), dependent care responsibilities (Calisi and A Working Group of Mothers in Science 2018), or visa acquisition (Matthews et al. 2020)

Conferences are an important learning and support resource for early career scientists. Online events make it easier for them to attend.

“…a hiatus from scientific meetings would also have come at a cost, especially for early career researchers (ECRs) who rely on scientific meetings to share their work, find career opportunities, and establish a peer cohort that provides emotional, mental, and personal support in addition to professional support.”

But barriers to attending online conferences still remain:

“…the online format removed potential barriers and likely increased participation by peers unable to participate in previous years. Still, some barriers remained, and new barriers arose, such as access to a reliable computer and internet connection, time zone management for conferences with a globally distributed audience, the unexpected energy demand of sustaining online attentiveness (the newly coined term “Zoom fatigue”), and finding time for dependent care as many schools, nurseries, eldercare services, and similar facilities enacted restrictions or limited services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Nevertheless, attendance at three of the meetings was significantly higher than when previously held in-person. (The three other meetings did not share historical attendance data.)

“Attendance increased 50% over previous successful conferences with a significant portion (40%) of first-time symposium attendees.”

“The in-person meeting was space-limited to 65 participants. The virtual format opened registration to anyone. In total, 205 people had registered to access the workshop materials, with 150 individuals and 110 individuals consistently joining on days 1 and 2, respectively. Instead of the original limit of 15 in-person graduate students, the conference welcomed over 50 graduate and undergraduate students.”

“Initially planned as an in-person, ~ 50-person workshop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A., the inaugural workshop took place 18–20 August 2020, virtually over Zoom … In total, 1038 registrants from over 30 countries participated, with individual session attendance in the low-hundreds.”

The full article also describes an overall increase in diversity of attendees at their online conferences. However, expanding presenter diversity wasn’t successful at one of the meetings.

Online platforms and tools used

The six meetings used a variety of online platforms and tools: Zoom (used in every meeting), webex, Voice Thread (used for poster sessions), SlackWhova, Poll Everywhere, QUBES Hub (an online community for STEM activities), Slido, and Google Forms. Attendees were largely happy with these tools, with only a few problems reported. Read the article for details.

There was a general consensus that socializing opportunities online were inferior to in-person meetings. This was despite the use of backchannel communication platforms such as Slack during several of the events.

“Communication software, such as Slack, could not really replace the casual “hallway chats,” but did provide more complete documentation of conversations and a forum that could continue following the meeting.”

None of the meetings used one of the online social platforms I’ve described on this blog (1, 2, 3). I suspect that incorporating such platforms into future conferences would provide a better social experience for participants.

Online program fatigue

Several meetings reported their attendees experienced fatigue:

“Aside from programmatic needs, the community learned that mental and physical fatigue are inherent to both in-person and virtual formats. Much like an in-person, session-packed meeting, virtual meetings occurring for long hours, across multiple time zones can drain energy. Although a virtual format may more easily afford attendees the chance to “log-off” from the meeting, building in diverse events, such as social hours, breakout or working group sessions, and mixed presentation formats are crucial to prevent attendees from logging off too often or feeling drained by a meeting.”

I’ve written about how frequent scheduled breaks will help minimize online meeting fatigue. Some of the meetings reported that distributing their typical in-person program over a longer time period (e.g., a few hours per day over several days) helped reduce fatigue and maintain attendance.

Closed-captioning content

Three of the meetings added closed-captioning to pre-recorded talks, and attendees found this helpful. One of the report’s conclusions:

“Closed-captioning content benefits many, especially non-native English speakers.”

When online meetings use prerecorded videos, adding closed-captioning is an easy way to improve the viewing experience. Hopefully, real-time closed-captioning will become more accurate, affordable, and common in the future.

Hybrid meetings in the future

Several of the meeting groups expect to hold hybrid meetings in the future:

“GLEON is increasingly aware of barriers for meeting attendance, despite a long running sponsorship program. Hence, some form of a hybrid style meeting may offer the best way forward.”

“Hybrid models tailored to a specific society’s resources and needs could incorporate components of both the in-person and virtual experiences. One variant could be offering both the in-person and virtual components simultaneously, allowing attendees, who are not able or willing to travel, to partake in in-person sessions and panels through video-conferencing software. Here, an alternative hybrid form could consist of regional in-person meetings, to minimize travel, while still being connected to other regional meeting hubs via a shared online program. Another hybrid model could be re-envisioning the in-person conference altogether, where traditional presentation and poster sessions are conducted virtually, and a companion, asynchronous in-person conference parallels the themes of the virtual meeting but with a focus on working groups, networking, and research products.”

Although many attendees hoped to return to in-person conferences, they generally agreed that online meetings have shown their value and will remain an important option for future meetings.

Conclusion

Some of these insights may be familiar, some less so. Let’s thank the numerous scientists who took time to share lessons learned from holding online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic! Such information is helpful to everyone working to make meetings better.

Image attribution: composite image created from images in Volume 30, Issue 1 of the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin.

It’s not an entrance it’s a layer

At a Marlboro Music Festival rehearsal last week, I heard the words entrance and layer used in a single sentence. And it made me think about meeting design.

entrance layer
Marcy Rosen, right, leads a rehearsal

The rehearsal

On August 8, my wife and I attended a rehearsal of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 at the 2021 Marlboro Music Festival. Such free rehearsals give the casual audience an opportunity to hear world-class musicians play and learn together. They are very different from a formal concert, and surprisingly, in some ways, better!

After the start of (I think) the third movement, the players stopped, and I heard the cellist Marcy Rosen — “one of the intimate art’s abiding treasures” — say:

“It’s not an entrance, it’s a layer.”
—Cellist Marcy Rosen

They began again.

I heard the difference.

Instead of creating a transition, an entrance to the movement, they created a shimmering context, a layer.

And, me being me, I thought about what Marcy had just said in the context of meeting design.

It’s not an entrance it’s a layer

As spectators, our lives are full of transitions.

And meetings are no exception.

The session ends. A social begins. A chime marks the end of hallway conversations, and we walk to another room to listen to someone else.

When we’re spectators, we notice transitions.

But when we are fully engaged in a meeting, we are just there, immersed in and responding to what is happening. We aren’t looking at our watches or phones. We aren’t thinking about where we’ll go for lunch. Instead, we are in the moment, living in a layer of context.

The art and craft of the meeting designer

It’s a meeting designer’s job to create these contextual layers. Each layer is an environment that supports and enables full participation in and active experience of what’s going on.

A good example of a key meeting layer is safety.

A layer of safety

We don’t hold meetings in burning buildings, on rapidly melting ice floes, or in the middle of a sandstorm. Attendees want to feel safe. But even when our meeting venues are conventionally safe places, they may not feel emotionally safe for attendees to participate in what is going on.

A good meeting designer and facilitator knows this, and designs to create and support emotional safety for participants. For example, they may model participation throughout the event, and allow participants to opt out of any activity. They can also create a culture of listening, obtain agreement on group-wide covenants, strive to give clear instructions, and provide process that is comfortable for introverts.

Designs that incorporate optimal protective process provide an important layer of safety that maximizes participants’ levels of comfort and their readiness to participate in the event.

Other important layers at a meeting

Other important process layers at a meeting include:

  • Incorporating event crowdsourcing which allows participants to design the event and sessions they want and need; and
  • The design of the conference arc, which includes everything necessary for participants to discover, learn, connect, and engage around the topics or issues that brought them together.

And the traditional layers that professional meeting planners provide:

  • Consistent quality of service and experience, e.g., food and beverage, decor, and production;
  • Reliable, timely, and clear information about the program, sessions, meals, exhibits, and socials.
  • A comfortable physical environment throughout the event.

Focus on layers as well as transitions

Sometime, meeting stakeholders concentrate on the transitions at meetings at the expense of the layers. It’s tempting to focus on creating dramatic build-ups to peak moments, or how we will then move participants to an outdoor social. While a session or social is taking place, we may get a little breathing space. Our planning energy switches to preparing for the next transition.

Of courser, transitions during a meeting are both unavoidable and important. But unduly focusing on them at your event can lead planners to overlook the value of creating an environment that powerfully engages participants and builds significant connections between them.

By also focusing on the meeting layers I’ve identified above, you’ll create an improved environment that will amplify value for participants and stakeholders throughout and after your event.

Image attribution: Journal Register Co.

Good meeting design is cheaper than special effects

good meeting designFar too much money is spent on meeting glitz at the expense of good meeting design. Seth Godin makes an analogous point in this post…

Good writing is cheaper than special effects

“In movies, that’s obvious. It costs far less to make The Big Lebowski than a Marvel movie.

But the metaphor applies to just about any sort of creative project.

We often err on the side of ‘special effects’. It’s easier to staff it up, to spend the money…

…But the race to spend more and more on special effects…it might be worth more to take the time and invest the effort to design something great instead.”
Seth Godin, Good writing is cheaper than special effects

“There’s no budget”

I’ve noticed over the years that every meeting has a budget for F&B. There’s usually a budget for decor and production—sometimes a big budget. There’s often a budget for a dramatic big-name speaker or two. If you ask about a budget for event design, stakeholders think you’re talking about decor and drama. But “there’s no budget” for core event design, which is actually about designing great meeting process. Meeting conveners have a blind spot about the importance of meeting process design: what happens for stakeholders at their meeting.

It turns out that designing good process into your meeting is cheaper than paying for special effects. For the price of a coffee break, you can make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose and its impact on participants. Learn how to do this from my books, from the hundreds of articles on this blog, or get in touch!

[P.S. In case you’re wondering, I fed the two words “meeting design” to an AI program, which generated the animated image accompanying this post.]

 

Do they want to be here?

We’re at a workshop, conference, or session. Do I want to be here? Do they want to be here?

Sometimes we simply don’t.

Swap the perspective

Now, you are leading a workshop, conference, or session. It’s very likely there are people present (perhaps a majority, perhaps all of them) who don’t want to be there.

How can you best serve them?

Here’s a simple answer.

A helpful exchange

A month ago, experiential trainer Shannon Hughes asked members of Facebook’s Applied Improvisation Network private group for thoughts about her frustrating experience running a workshop.

want to be here
June 30, 2021 post on Facebook’s Applied Improvisation Network private group

Here’s what she wrote:

“Just finished a 90-min workshop that was like pulling teeth from start to finish. Visibly distracted, clearly checking emails, no engagement or dialogue during debrief. I’m exhausted!
I know it’s no reflection on me, but I can’t help wondering if this is at all “telling” of the way the session was marketed to participants beforehand and/or whether it’s a sign these are not my ideal client.
Am I naive or acting a martyr for asking these questions? I’d love to get a convo going around how we manage our own expectations and energy when our sessions fall flat.
Thoughts?
Yours truly.
Shannon Hughes

A helpful comment

Among many great comments, Edward Liu‘s stood out.

“Lot of good suggestions so far. The only thing I can add is from one of the best work trainings I ever did, where the first thing the instructor asked was, “who’s here because they want to be and who’s here because they were told to be?” The majority were “told to be,” which she acknowledged and said, “I was told to be here, too, here’s what I suggest to make our experience a little better for the 2 days we all have to be here” and then outlined her expectations and some basic ground rules. I can’t even remember what they were, because I was so struck by an instructor acknowledging that maybe we didn’t really want to be in the class.

She was good enough that we all wanted to be there after an hour or two, and also happened to teach a bunch of management techniques that I can now frame in applied improv terms. But I’d say her very first question was itself an improv technique: Listen to your partner, recognize what they want, and then do your best to give it to them. More often than not, trying to do that means they’ll reciprocate. In this case, your partner is the whole class and you can use the question to intuit what it is they actually want vs what you were hired to do, and then improv your way to ensuring you both get to group mind about the session as a whole as soon as you can.” [Emphasis added.]

Lots of good stuff! Here’s my take.

How to work with folks who don’t want to be here

1. Ask the key question that Edward shared:

At the start of your workshop, conference, or session, ask who chose to be here and who was told they had to be.

2. If there are people who don’t want to be here, then immediately sympathize with them! If possible and appropriate, gently find out why they had to attend.

3. Next, explore what you might be able to do to optimally meet attendees’ wants and needs:

Perhaps you can modify your workshop or session appropriately. In some cases, the Powers That Be may prescribe the entire curriculum, and there’s little or nothing you can do. But in most cases, you’ll have some latitude to adjust what happens while you’re together. If so, first use pair share to get participants thinking about what they’d ideally like to happen. Then run Post It! to hear what they’ve come up with and create a revised plan that takes the expressed wants and needs into effect.

This work is well worth doing, if only to let attendees know that you’re thinking about their wants and needs right from the start. But you can almost always improve your time together by simply asking Edward’s opening question and responding sensitively to the answers you receive.

A closing story

I once taught Computer Science for a decade at a small liberal arts college. Every year, I’d teach an introductory class. One year, the class felt very different. Students were more disengaged than usual. The whole classroom environment seemed different. It took me a few weeks before I was bold enough to share my experience with the students. When I did so, I learned that a third of the class was there to fulfill a degree requirement I didn’t know about, imposed by a new joint degree program with another institution. At every class I’d taught previously, all the students had chosen my class voluntarily. I was getting a crash course in teaching students who didn’t want to be here.

I wish I’d thought to ask my students at the first class why they were there. Perhaps I could have made the class a bit better for those who had no choice.

If you are leading a workshop or session and have any suspicion that some attendees may not want to be there, ask them! Your experience and theirs may be all the better for it!

Hub and spoke meetings

Ever since my first encounter with the hybrid hub and spoke meeting topology at Event Camp Twin Cities in 2011, I’ve been a big fan of the format. Yesterday [see below], I realized that hub and spoke is a great format for purely online meetings too. But first…

…What’s a hub and spoke meeting?

A hub and spoke meeting is one where there’s a central hub meeting or event that additional groups (aka “pods”) of people join remotely.hub spoke meetingHub and spoke is an event network topology. The hub event and each pod may be either in-person or online.

A terminology reminder
In-person meeting: participants are physically together.
Online meeting: participants are connected to each other via an internet platform like Zoom or Teams.
Hybrid meeting: A meeting with in-person and online components as defined above, plus additional forms explored below.

The benefits of hub and spoke

Increased learning, interaction, and connection

If you want maximum learning, interaction, and connection at a meeting, small meetings are better than large meetings. Using good meeting design, simply splitting a single large group of participants into multiple small groups in an intelligent way provides increased opportunities for each group’s members to connect and interact around relevant content.

Flexibility

Hub and spoke topology allows tremendous design flexibility for a meeting.

In-person pods can be set up at any convenient geographical location, reducing travel time and costs for pod participants while still providing the benefits of in-person interaction.

You can segment online pods to reflect specific “tribes”: groups of people with something in common. For example, think about a conference to explore the implications of a medical breakthrough. One pod could be for patient groups that the discovery will affect. Another might include medical personnel able to deliver the new technology or procedure. Yet another group could contain scientists working on next iterations. [A hat tip to Martin Sirk for suggesting this example!]

Creating pods that reflect event participant segments allow different communities’ goals and objectives to be optimally met while sharing with all participants a common body of learning and experiences via the hub.

Convenience

As noted above, using in-person pods can dramatically reduce the travel time and cost for event participants without sacrificing the benefits of meeting in-person. This allows more people to attend the hub and spoke meeting, and makes it easier for them to do so.

Hub and spoke variants

Depending on the choices made, a hub and spoke event will take one of the following forms:

In-person hub and in-person pods

This is the classic hybrid hub and spoke format that we used 10 years ago at Event Camp Twin Cities (ECTC).

Producing Event Camp Twin Cities 2011

Here’s a little information about the groundbreaking ECTC. Besides the attendees at the in-person hub event in Minneapolis, seven remote pods in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters were tied in to a hub feed that—due to the technology available at the time—was delayed approximately twenty seconds. As you might expect, this delay led to a number of communication issues between the hub and pods. I wrote about ECTC in more detail here.

There will always be some communications delay between the hub and pods, though these days it can be reduced to a fraction of the delay at ECTC. Such delays should be taken into account when designing hub and spoke events.

Online pods

My recent experience of being in an online pod viewing an online hub event made me realize that online pods can be used to great effect with either in-person or online hub events.

Since February, 2021, my friend, tech producer, and meeting industry educator Brandt Krueger has been hosting weekly EventTech Chats on Zoom, together with another friend, his talented co-host, “The Voice of Events”, Glenn Thayer. Yesterday, Brandt was presenting at an MPI event on hybrid meetings, so Glenn shared the event so we could kibitz. Seven of us were in a Zoom, watching a Zoom…

hub spoke meeting

I commented about the recursive nature of this…

…and Anh Nguyen replied that the experience was like Inception. She also mentioned Giggl, which, in similar fashion, allows a group to interact (text and voice) on a shared internet portal. This could be useful if you don’t have a Zoom license.

Our pod experience

The MPI meeting had over 150 viewers. We noticed that there was little interaction on the MPI Zoom chat. Our little group was much more active on chat. We were a small group with a common set of interests, and we all knew each other to some extent.

It’s clear to me that we had a much more interactive, useful, and intimate discussion than the hub event group.

Yes, this is one anecdotal example. But I hope you can see how being in a small pod of connected folks can lead to a better experience than being one of many attending the same event at a hub.

The ease, with today’s technology, of creating an online pod with whomever you please to watch and comment on a hub event, makes this an attractive option to attending the hub event directly online. (If you wanted to, of course, you could do both—as Glenn Thayer did for our pod.)

In-person and online pods

Finally, there’s no reason why a hub event can’t support a mixture of in-person and online pods. (In fact, ECTC had a small number of individual remote viewers as well, though I suspect they could only watch the hub stream.) Once the hub stream is available, one can share it with an online pod, or on a large screen with an in-person pod. Mix and match to satisfy event stakeholders’ and participants’ wants and needs!

Conclusion

I believe that hybrid meetings, catapulted into industry awareness by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a permanent fixture of the meeting industry “new normal”. Once we’ve firmly established the design and production expertise needed for hybrid, hub and spoke is a simple addition that promises the many advantages I’ve described in this post.

It may take a while, but I think we are going to see a growing use of this exciting and flexible format.

What do you think about hub and spoke meetings? Have you experienced one, and, if so, what was it like? Do you expect to use this format in future events? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Is the end of an event important?

end event importantIs the end of an event important?

It’s complicated.

8 years ago, I wrote about how to create especially memorable events. Including many different kinds of short experiences during our meetings, allows us to hack the peak-end rule to maximize the impact of an event on attendees.

Here’s what I said…

…the peak-end rule suggests that we judge experiences largely based on how they were perceived at their peak and at their end. This implies that we should concentrate on making sure that our events end powerfully. That’s because the peak-end rule implies that we’ll better remember an event with a peak and then a powerful finish than one with two peak experiences sandwiched in the body of the event.
Hack the peak-end rule to maximize conference impact, April 2013

So, clearly, we should ensure that events end with a “powerful finish”, so they’ll be especially memorable.

Right?

Well, maybe not.

What can we learn from professional speakers?

Think about good professional speakers for a moment. They know about the peak-end rule. Professional speakers invariably include one or more peak moments during their presentation, and end powerfully. They do this to be memorable.

Good professional speakers have an emotional impact, which makes them memorable. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, there’s no guarantee you’ll learn anything more from them than a “poor” presenter covering the same content.

The danger of focusing on a powerful event ending

There’s nothing wrong with employing a powerful event ending to make it memorable.

Unless—we do so at the expense of making the entire event not only memorable but also useful.

Because memorability is great while it lasts. But it actually isn’t usually important in the long term.

What is important is that the entire event ends up satisfying stakeholders’ goals and objectives as much as possible.

Here’s Seth Godin’s take on the danger of what he calls the focus on the last thing:

“…We focus on the thing that happened just before the end. And that’s almost always an unimportant moment.

Things went wrong (or things went right) because of a long series of decisions and implementations…

When you get to the thing before the last thing, don’t sweat it. It’s almost certainly too late to make the outcome change. On the other hand, when you’re quietly discussing the thing before that before that before that before that, it might pay to bring more attention to it than the circumstances seem to demand. Because that’s the key moment.”

—Seth Godin, The focus on the last thing

So, is the end of an event important?

The answer is yes.

And, so is everything that leads up to it!

To make an event maximally useful and productive, concentrate on its conference arc rather than a grand climax.

That’s the way to create a truly memorable event for everyone involved.