What led to writing the book, Conferences that Work?
I invented the format by accident 26 years ago when there were no expert speakers to invite for a conference on administrative computing issues in small schools. We needed a format that would allow a room of strangers to learn about each other and the issues we were interested in by using the expertise in the room.
I asked people, “If this conference could be amazing for you, what would it be about?” Then I built a program around those topics, with people in the room leading impromptu sessions. Often, the results are unexpected. The sessions are not polished; there is no PowerPoint. Often it is more like a discussion than a presentation, but that is why it is effective. My research shows that asking in advance doesn’t work. At traditional conferences with fixed programs set in advance, at best half of sessions offered are what attendees want.
That participant-driven conference is still going as a four-day program, with sessions generated over the first half-day.
I discovered that people love the format, and that led to writing the book 10 years ago. I was an amateur in the meeting industry, and that led to some mistakes, but it also gave me a fresh perspective at a time when meeting design wasn’t really a “thing.”
After a one-day Participate! Lab for Dutch professional moderators, Otto Wijnen interviewed me about presentation and speaker tips for making presentations more effective by incorporating active learning. Apart from a brief introduction and closing in Dutch, the 13-minute interview is in English.
Honored to be included on MeetingsNet’s annual Changemaker list, which “recognizes 20 outstanding meetings professionals for their efforts to move their organizations and the industry forward in unique and positive ways”. Here’s the description of my “quest to topple outdated models, including the one based on the idea that ‘content is king’.”
Making Change I’ve spent 27 years working on changing outmoded mindsets about what we should be doing in meetings. Historically, topics had to be determined in advance, the meeting format was mainly lecture and did not encourage interaction, and content was king. To stay effective and relevant today, meetings must:
Respond to what participants actually want and need to learn
Adapt to the reality that we primarily learn from our peers rather than experts
Provide appropriate opportunities to connect with relevant peers in the sessions around content
And it is changing. The meetings industry is far more aware of the importance of treating and supporting attendees as active participants rather than passive consumers of education. You see this in the increasing number of industry articles about good meeting process, the rise of the term “meeting design” being applied to the group process we use in sessions as opposed to, say, F&B or production design.
I don’t take full credit, of course, for these changes, but I feel proud to have been an instigator and passionate promoter of them through speaking, and authoring Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love and The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action. I also moderated the #eventprofs Twitter chats for several years, and until recently, ran the weekly #Eventprofs Happy Hour Hangout for meeting professionals.
What’s Next I am now writing another book with the working title of The Little Book of Event Crowdsourcing, and I’m starting to offer workshops where meeting professionals, designers, and stakeholders can learn first-hand about the power of the participatory techniques I’ve written about and use. And I continue to design and facilitate meetings, which is perhaps the most effective way to change mindsets: exposing participants to what meetings can be like when you adopt a participant-driven and participation-rich approach.
Best Business Advice One of my mentors, Jeannie Courtney, taught me to trust my intuition and helped me see the power and joy that is possible when I respond to opportunity rather than what I used to think of as taking a risk by trying something new—and scary. Like much of my most important learning, that change of perspective happened experientially, rather than from a piece of advice.
Gota Spare Hour? I would do yoga and meditation if I haven’t yet fit them into my day. I like to read a wide variety of nonfiction, mysteries, and science fiction. And I am active in my local nonprofit communities—I’ve been running or on the board of multiple associations continuously for over 30 years.
Simon Waddell‘s ten minute video interview of me at EIBTM 2012. How Conferences That Work were developed, why they are growing in popularity, and the problem of getting meeting owners to buy into participant-driven events.
Nick is building a interesting collection of interviews with facilitators about the processes they use. His site is well worth checking out. The interview is under half an hour and includes an extremely cute intruder around the 23 minute mark.