How to use dot voting to choose the sessions your attendees need and want

How do we build conference programs that attendees actually want and need? Since 1992 I’ve experimented with multiple methods to ensure that every session is relevant and valuable. Here’s what happened when I incorporated dot voting into a recent two-day association peer conference.

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How to crowdsource conference sessions in real-time

Here’s a real-life example of how to crowdsource a conference program in real-time.

In May 2017 Liz Lathan, Tom Spano, and Nicole Osibodu invited me to design and facilitate the session crowdsourcing at the first Haute Dokimazo unconference in Austin, Texas. Eighty invited participants from around the U.S. spent a joyful and productive day at the Austin Children’s Museum’s Thinkery where we crowdsourced a program focusing on event portfolio needs and wants of brands and agencies.

Watch this three-minute video for a taste of the event — then read on to learn how we crowdsourced the program.

Pre-crowdsourcing work
Every peer conference has an arc that includes and integrates three elements: a beginningmiddle (the program itself), and end (reflecting, evaluating, and developing individual and group outcomes & next steps).

The beginning is when crowdsourcing takes place, and before crowdsourcing it’s critical that participants get to learn about each other as much as possible in the time available. The best way I know to support initial inter-participant learning and connection is The Three Questions process I devised in 1995 (see my books for full details).

After quickly introducing and having the group commit to six agreements to follow at the event, we had forty-five minutes available for The Three Questions. To ensure each person had time to share, we split the participants into four equal sized groups, each led by facilitators I had trained the previous evening.

Once group members had learned about each other, we reconvened to crowdsource the afternoon program.

How we crowdsourced the Haute Dokimazo program
Crowdsourcing took just 25 minutes. Participants used large colored Post-it™ notes to submit session topics. Pink notes were used for offers to facilitate or lead a session, and other colors were used for wants, as explained in the diagram below.

As topics came in, they were read out aloud. Once we had everyone’s responses, the participants left for their morning workshops while Liz Lathan and I moved the note collection to a quiet space, clustered them…

…and worked out what we were going to run, who would facilitate or lead each the session, and where it would be held.

The resulting sessions
During lunch we checked that the session leaders we’d chosen were willing and available for the schedule we’d created. Finally, we created a slide of the resulting sessions, added it to the conference app, and projected the afternoon program on a screen in the lunch area.

This is just one way to crowdsource a conference program in real-time. Want a comprehensive resource on creating conference programs that become what your attendees actually want and need? My next book The Little Book of Event Crowdsourcing Secrets contains everything you need to know. Learn more, and be informed when it’s published in 2018.

Avoid this common mistake when planning meeting programs


Although I have good reasons to champion meeting designs where the participants get to choose what they want and need to discuss and learn rather than a program committee, there is invariably a place for some predetermined presentations at conferences. Unfortunately, most program committees use a flawed process to select session content.

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The meeting industry’s biggest dirty secret

There are some things that the meeting industry doesn’t like to talk about in public. For example:

But our biggest dirty secret is so embarrassing, we don’t even talk about it in private.

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The interpersonal dynamics of silent retreats

Can meetings where no one says a word exhibit significantly different interpersonal dynamics? After completing my third Vipassana silent meditation retreat (this one at the headquarters of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts), I’m gonna say: yes they can!

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Create Powerful Meetings Instead of Power-over Meetings

All meetings incorporate power relationships that fundamentally affect their dynamics and potential. Traditional conferences unconsciously promote and sustain power imbalances between the “speakers” at the front of the room and the audience. Such events invoke a version of power Tom Atlee calls Power-over: “the ability to control, influence, manage, dominate, destroy, or otherwise directly shape what happens to someone or something”.

People often tolerate this form of power on their lives (or seek to wield it) because they hold an underlying belief that when you lose control everything turns to chaos. Meeting stakeholders and planners typically subscribe to this viewpoint because they can’t conceive of (usually because they’ve never experienced) a form of meeting that successfully uses a different kind of power relationship: Power-with.

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Six ways to keep attendees comfortable and improve your event

While stuck in cramped seats during a six-hour Boston to San Francisco flight recently, my wife gently pointed out that I had become quite grumpy. She helped me notice that my lack of body comfort was affecting my mood. Luckily for me, Celia remained solicitous and supportive, reducing my grouchiness, and once we were off the wretched plane my spirits lightened further.

Unfortunately, I tend to be oblivious for a while of the effects of physical discomfort on my feelings. Until I notice what’s really upsetting me, I typically and unfairly blame my irritability on innocent culprits, for example:

  • The tediousness of gardening because insects are swarming around my head.
  • The delay in waiting for my food to arrive in a noisy restaurant.
  • A presenter’s inability to capture my full attention while I’m sitting with my neck twisted permanently towards him in an auditorium.

I suspect I’m not alone in these errors of judgment. Pivoting to the world of events, this means if we want to give attendees the best possible experience, we need to minimize the quantity and severity of physical comfort issues that are under our control.

Here are six common mistakes you’ve probably experienced, together with suggestions for mitigating their impact. (Feel free to add more in the comments below!)

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Children shouldn’t sit still in class — and neither should adults

It’s amazing that established research on ways to improve children’s learning is ignored when designing adult learning environments.

Some examples. We know that kids shouldn’t sit still in class. Short bursts in physical activity are positively linked to increased levels of attention and performance. Watch Mike Kuczala’s TEDx talk “The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning through Movement.” Michelle Obama’s 2010 “Let’s Move” initiative works to increase movement and healthy eating in schools. Classroom movement programs like GoNoodle are now used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the United States. [More links to research can be found in Dr Ash Routen’s and Dr Lauren Sherar’s article “Active lessons can boost children’s learning and health“.]

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