Good things come in threes. Though I usually overlook anniversaries, I noticed one this morning. The first peer conference I convened and designed was held June 3 – 5, 1992 at Marlboro College, Vermont. So, as of today, the community of practice that eventually became edACCESS has enjoyed 27 years of peer conferences. [That’s 3 x 3 x 3. I told you good things come in threes.]
Twenty-three people came to the inaugural conference. At the time, I had no idea that what I instinctively put together for a gathering of people who barely knew each other would lead to:
a global design and facilitation consulting practice;
over 500 posts on this blog, which has now become, to the best of my knowledge, the most-visited website on meeting design and facilitation;
three books (almost!) on participant-driven, participation-rich meeting design; and
plentiful ongoing opportunities to fulfill my mission to facilitate connection between people.
However, none of this happened overnight. For many years, designing and facilitating meetings was a vocation rather than a profession, usually unpaid. Furthermore, it was an infrequent adjunct to my “real” jobs at the time: information technology consulting, and teaching computer science.
27 years of peer conferences. From little acorns, mighty oaks. I would never have predicted the path I’ve traveled — and continue to look forward to the journey yet to come. Above all, thank you everyone who has made it possible. I can’t adequately express the gratitude you are due.
Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of designing and facilitating the annual Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Peer Conference. It’s an honor to work on a classic Conferences That Work-style peer conference that’s turned out to be one of the most powerful tools for building inclusive, equitable, and sustainable communities in my home state.
“It’s been clear from the beginning of the Web that it gives us access to experts on topics we never even thought of. As the Web has become more social, and as conversations have become scaled up, these crazy-smart experts are no longer nestling at home. They’re showing up like genies summoned by the incantation of particular words. We see this at Twitter, Reddit, and other sites with large populations and open-circle conversations.This is a great thing, especially if the conversational space is engineered to give prominence to the contributions of drive-by experts. We want to take advantage of the fact that if enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert.” —David Weinberger, Globalization of local experience
This is exactly why the Conferences That Work format works so well. Peer conferences allow participants to discover the experts in (what was formerly known as) the “audience” they want to meet, connect with, and learn from. Instead of restricting teachers to the few folks at the front of the room, peer conferences allow us to tap the experience and expertise of anyone that’s present.
In other words, Conferences That Work extend the effectiveness of the online conversations that David describes above to face-to-face meetings.
I like this idea! Walking potential attendees through the flow of the event helps to clarify and demystify conference process, especially if people haven’t attended an event format like Conferences That Work before. Here’s an example, written for the October 2013 1st Annual Vermont Leadership Network Conference.
Want to better understand what will be happening at the 1st Annual Vermont Leadership Network Conference? Here’s an annotated schedule!
Thursday, October 17, 2013 Registration will be open between noon and 2pm.
At 2pm, after a brief welcome and an explanation of conference ground rules, we’ll start with opening roundtable(s). Roundtables provide a structured, safe way for you to learn about other participants early in the conference. During the roundtable, you’ll discover topics of interest to explore, get a sense of the depth of interest in these topics, and find out who has experience and expertise that you want to connect with and explore further. We’ll include frequent breaks and refreshments during the roundtable, ending around 4:30pm.
After an hour break, we’ll hold peer session sign-up during dinner. In peer session sign-up we’ll visually document our wishes and suggestions for the upcoming conference sessions. Then, we’ll determine which of the suggested peer session topics are popular and schedule the chosen sessions into a conference program. This is a short process that will be held during the dinner and subsequent socializing, with a small group subsequently using the resulting information to create Friday’s program. The end result will be a Friday conference schedule that optimally matches desired topics with the resources of the group.
Friday, October 18 We’ll have time for four sets of (usually) one-hour concurrent sessions on Friday, with breaks between each and lunch served between sessions 3 and 4.
What might these sessions look like? They are typically informal: often facilitated discussions, presentations, panels, workshops, walks, etc. As an example, five years ago the class of ’08 used this conference format for a reunion—here are the topics that were chosen (8 sessions in concurrent pairs):
Fun and team camaraderie in the workplace • Fundraising • The political process – running for office • The systematic development of informed consent • Am I doing what I want to be doing? • Technology – social networking & other applications • Getting Things Done • Appreciative Inquiry
After these sessions are over, at 2:40pm we’ll end with two facilitated closing sessions, a personal introspective and a group spective.
The personal introspective will give you a structured opportunity to think about what you have experienced at the conference, how your experiences may impact your life in the future, and what changes you may want to make as a result. After reflection, you’ll then have an opportunity to share your answers in small groups.
After a break, a group spective will start at 3:50pm. The group spective will provide facilitated time for participants as a group to evaluate the conference and suggest and begin to develop future initiatives for Vermont Leadership and the Snelling Center. We’ll use a variety of techniques to do this.
The conference will end at 5pm, and all are welcome to stay and socialize with their classmates and new friends at a reception hosted by the Snelling Center immediately following the conference.
As you can see, participation on Thursday will make a big difference to your conference experience and your influence on its form and content. Please attend the whole event if at all possible!
To summarize, here’s the outline of the conference schedule for Thursday and Friday.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
12:00PM – 02:00PM
02:00PM – 02:10PM
02:10PM – 03:10PM
03:10PM – 03:30PM
03:30PM – 04:30PM
05:30PM – 07:00PM
Dinner and peer session sign-up
Informal chat, socializing, music, etc.
Friday, October 18
08:30AM – 08:40AM
08:40AM – 09:40AM
Peer session 1
09:40AM – 09:50AM
09:50AM – 10:50AM
Peer session 2
10:50AM – 11:05AM
11:05AM – 12:05AM
Peer session 3
12:15PM – 01:30PM
01:30PM – 02:30PM
Peer session 4
02:30PM – 02:40PM
02:40PM – 03:40PM
03:40PM – 03:50PM
03:50PM – 05:00PM
Optional: class reunions, etc.
Notice that I’ve added a regular schedule at the end of the annotation, so attendees can still easily see when all sessions take place.
Familiarizing people with something different in advance is a great way of reducing the common resistance to trying something new. Thanks for the suggestion, Judy!
I’m happy to announce that a free 9,000 word update to my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love is now available!
Many improvements and refinements are included—the outcome of four years of feedback and experience since the book was published in 2009. Highlights include a long-awaited chapter on extending Conferences That Work to larger events, and important additions that make the established format (now tried and true for over twenty years!) even better.
Here’s a list of the contents:
CHAPTER 1 Why did I write this supplement?
CHAPTER 2 What’s included?
CHAPTER 3 Acknowledgements
CHAPTER 4 Avoid one-day peer conferences
CHAPTER 5 Running Conferences That Work with more than 100 participants
CHAPTER 6 Give people permission and opportunity to take a break!
CHAPTER 7 Break up roundtables approximately every twenty minutes
CHAPTER 8 Make peer session determination more efficient
CHAPTER 9 Improve personal introspectives by running them in small groups
CHAPTER 10 How to choose what to do at a group spective
CHAPTER 11 Include a first-timers session for repeat events
CHAPTER 12 Consider implementing a buddy system
CHAPTER 13 Use shared Google Doc for roundtable themes and plus/delta sharing
CHAPTER 14 Have people stand while speaking during the roundtable
CHAPTER 15 Use alternate colors when recording on flip charts
CHAPTER 16 Focused discussion = fishbowl — and an alternative format
CHAPTER 17 Consider using a conference app instead of a face book
CHAPTER 18 Consider running plus/delta with tape columns on the floor
CHAPTER 19 Use plus/delta as a tool for action
CHAPTER 20 Consider adding “Curious about?” column to plus/delta
CHAPTER 21 Where to buy stiff 5 x 8 index cards
CHAPTER 22 A closing note about appreciations
The supplement, provided as a free ebook <pdf>, will be updated from time to time and the latest version will always be available for free on this website. Comments and corrections are always welcome.
What a long strange trip it’s been The first Conferences That Work event was held June 3–5, 1992, at Marlboro College, Vermont. If you had told me then that the format would spread all over the world, and that twelve years later I would devote my entire professional life to designing, facilitating, and evangelizing participant-led and participation-rich events I would have said you were crazy.
Even last week, glimpsing a couple of copies of my book lying on a table behind a Swiss conference organizer during a Skype call evoked a moment of disbelief, though it was quickly followed by a mixture of excitement and pride.
That original 1992 conference has been held every year since, adding an extra day and becoming, in the words of one participant, “The best education focused tech conference on the planet.”
Hardly a month goes by these days without my hearing about events organized by people who have purchased Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and it’s becoming clear to me that there are many Conferences That Work taking place that I’ll probably never know about.
A free gift for you Although I’m hard at work finishing my next book I haven’t forgotten Conferences That Work. The format continues to evolve, so I’m writing a supplement that describes the improvements, both large and small, that I and many collaborators have suggested and implemented since Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love was published in 2009. I’ll publish the supplement as a free ebook in the next few months.
Want a copy? Let me know using the form below and I’ll send you a copy when it’s ready.
Think of it as a 21st birthday present to my creation and its practitioners. This drink’s on me!
The first Conferences That Work peer conference held in Japan begins today! The five day event is being held by Federation EIL, the worldwide network of The Experiment in International Living (EIL). Founded in 1932, EIL was one of the first organizations of its kind to engage individuals in intercultural living and learning. Originating in the United States, The Experiment introduced the homestay concept to the world by carefully preparing and placing “Experimenters” in the homes of host families to study other languages and cultures firsthand.
This is the third year that Federation EIL has used the Conferences That Work format for its annual member meeting. The first meeting, held in Paris, France in April 2010, was disrupted by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull Icelandic volcano which caused 75% of European flights to be cancelled, and prevented half the registrants from attending. Federation EIL staff told me recently that had they been using a conventional conference design, the event would have been cancelled because of so many absent speakers. But the Conferences That Work design “routed around the damage” and the event was a success!