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.

Six reasons to change our conferences

In my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons why the meetings industry must change conference formats to stay relevant to today’s attendees.

Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time they’ve been summarized in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.

Enjoy!

Sessions provide no connection around content
Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.

At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.

Lectures are a terrible way to learn
We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.

Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything we’ve been told. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.

The rise of online
Most broadcast content is now readily available online. Expert content is available anywhere with an internet connection, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!

Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom
Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.

Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.

Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share
Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!

Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs
Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning, and you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.

Conclusion
All of these themes are explored in detail in my first two books. To get the full story, buy ’em!

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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