The Stranger on the Airplane

airline passenger - davitydave - 3362787991_48b494a46e_oLong ago, when I was a British college student, I would set off to explore Europe each summer. There were no budget flights in those days, so I traveled by train. Some of my trips lasted days, but I loved the journey because of the people I met. I still remember the G.I. returning from Vietnam who’s now a Denver judge, the Belgium cabinet minister who tried for several hours to convert us to communism, and the cute Irish postgraduate student who…well never mind.

Now I live in the U.S. where trains are a rarity, at least in my part of the world, so I fly when it doesn’t make sense to drive. And I still enjoy striking up conversations with the stranger(s) sitting next to me. I’m not pushy—some people don’t want to talk, and that’s fine—but, more often than not, we end up exploring each other’s lives for a few hours. Over the last few years I remember, among others, the French airline executive who kissed me on both cheeks when we parted, the nun who visited prisoners and showed me years of correspondence, the fascinating sales director of a major internet hosting company, the lay ministry provider of counseling support for military families, and the British basketball agent who also owned a debt collection agency.

Some of these people shared intimate things about their lives during our time together; things I doubt they shared with most of the people they worked with every day. They did this because we were never going to meet again. For a few hours, they were with the Stranger on the Airplane. And, of course, they were my Strangers on the Airplane, and sometimes I told them intimate things as well.

I’ve seen a similar thing happen at Conferences That Work. The intimacy is not as deep initially, because, I think, attendees are aware that they may meet another time if the conference is held again. On the other hand, if they do meet a sharer again, attendees have an opportunity to go deeper. I find it strange, yet enjoyable, to meet people once a year and expand my connection on each occasion in unforeseen ways.

In my experience, the majority of people (on airplanes and at conferences, at least) enjoy talking quite freely with strangers who they trust. Because the ground rules support a confidential, safe environment this potential of intimacy is present at Conferences That Work. I like that. How about you?

Image attribution: flickr user davitydave – creative commons share alike 2.0 generic

6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences

using volunteers at conferences
I’ve never run a conference without using volunteers. I’ve spent over thirty years organizing meetings. Here are 6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences.

1) Is this conference marketable?

One of the most important ways I use volunteers is during the earliest conference planning stages to determine whether a proposed event is marketable.

Here’s my simple rule of thumb when deciding whether an idea for a conference might work.

Can I find at least five people enthusiastic enough about the proposed combination of topic/theme, audience, location, and duration to volunteer their time and energy to make the event happen?

If I can’t easily find at least five volunteers enthusiastic about a conference, I’ve (painfully) learned that the event is almost always not viable.

2) Use volunteers for creative work

You’ve got a bunch of willing volunteers—what should you have them do? I try to use my volunteers for creative jobs at conferences. There’s research that indicates that paying people to do work they find interesting can make them less motivated! Here are some examples of conference tasks well suited to volunteers:

  • greeting arriving attendees
  • introducing attendees to each other
  • facilitating sessions
  • organizing and running fun activities

In general, I use volunteers for creative work, and reserve mechanical tasks for paid staff.

3) Check in with your volunteers

Talk with each volunteer individually well before the event. Ask them how they’d like to help, and come to a clear understanding as to what’s expected from them.

4) Plan to have enough volunteers

Volunteers are sometimes less reliable than paid staff. Make sure you have a few people who can cover for last-minute gaps in your volunteer staff during the event.

5) Reward your volunteers

Reward your volunteers throughout the event. Make sure volunteers receive refreshments, meals, and access to conference amenities. If they are attending the conference, offer them reduced or free admission. Reimburse them for any incidental expenses they incur.

6) Never take your volunteers for granted!

Make sure you recognize their contributions, not only publicly, using appropriate perks, awards, and publicity, but also privately. Show them you genuinely appreciate their contributions, and they will become your biggest boosters.

These are the 6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences.

How do you use volunteers at your events? What lessons have you learned?

Image attribution: flickr user sanjoselibrary – creative commons share alike 2.0 generic

Creating something beautiful with others

Brattleboro community chorusFor the last three months I’ve been rehearsing for the Brattleboro Concert Choir’s performances this weekend of Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Kakodesh. Looking back, I realize that I’ve been singing with the BCC for the last ten years.

The first weeks of rehearsal of a new piece are not much fun. I don’t know the music well, and I’m not a great sight-reader. Unless there’s a practice CD available, I usually spend a significant amount of time creating a soulless electronic version of the part I’m singing, precise tones with precise timings, which I share with my fellow tenors. I attend at least one two-hour rehearsal each week. All this work adds up to a large commitment of time and energy to the two, sometimes three, annual concert performances.

So, given the many other interests in my life, and the large number of attractive opportunities I reluctantly turn down, why do I choose to sing with the Concert Choir year after year?

Part of the answer is my pleasure, as the performance dates approach, of my ability to sing increasing competently at points in the music. Sometimes I experience singing beautifully, even if it’s only a portion of a phrase that suits my vocal abilities, and feeling in harmony with the musical moment is emotionally satisfying.

But the major rush I, and probably all my fellow choristers, feel is the joy of creating, being a part of, and sharing a beautiful musical experience with others. No one person alone, however talented, can bring our performance into being. To do so, our musical director, our soloists, our choristers, and our orchestra are all needed, and must collaborate effectively at many different levels.

At both performances this weekend, there were times when audience members were weeping.

The conferences I design and facilitate are not rehearsed, and what happens does not flow from a central musical score. But what the BCC performances and Conferences That Work share is the joy of connecting with others to create experiences that are meaningful, and sometimes profound.

I love being a part of both of these worlds.

And I hope you are lucky enough to also have the opportunity to experience this connectedness in some way in your life.

Fifteen hundred years of broadcast learning

Physics lecture at OxfordForty years ago, I was one of the students in this picture (the physics lecture theatre at Oxford University). They’ve repainted the walls and replaced the seating, but the room layout has remained unchanged.

When Oxford University was founded, nine hundred years ago, this is how you were taught. And the early universities grew out of the monastic schools, established in the 5th century, where abbots and abbesses inculcated the young men and women novices.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that we have a hard time taking seriously other modes of learning. After all, we’ve been told for fifteen hundred years that sitting and listening to someone who supposedly knows more than you do is how you learn.

Image attribution: Martin Wood

Are you willing to be disturbed?

Holding hands

Working on a video trailer for my book recently reminded me of Margaret Wheatley’s beautifully written turning to one another and its short chapter entitled willing to be disturbed.

She points out how we’re not trained to admit we don’t know, and how difficult it is for us to give up our certainties. Margaret believes, as do I, that curiosity about what others believe is what we need, and that we need to be willing to admit that we’re not capable of figuring out things alone.

She recommends that we listen for what surprises us. If what you say disturbs me, she says, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position.…If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them.

When I talk about attendee-driven conferences, while some people “get” the inherent possibilities, many find it hard to believe that a group of people can create a rich, optimal agenda for the event within a few hours from their initial meeting. Sustaining such disbelief is uncomfortable, and one common response is to stop listening for differences. Although I often feel frustrated when I sense that people aren’t listening in this way, I do my best to continue to listen to their truth, because that’s how I can stay open to learning from them.

Margaret concludes: I expect to be disturbed by what I hear from you. I know we don’t have to agree with each other in order to think well together. There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.

Are you willing to be disturbed?

Image attribution: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A potential drawback to hybrid events

Virtual audience 603737821_e39a2d268d_o

Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz in the events industry about what are being called hybrid events where there are two audiences: people physically present, the local audience, and people connected to the event remotely, via Twitter, chat, audio, and video streams, the remote audience.

Event planners are excited about this new event model because it has the potential to increase:

  • overall audiences
  • interaction between attendees
  • exposure for the event
  • exposure for event sponsors and the hosting organization
  • the value of attendee experience through new virtual tools
  • the likelihood that a remote attendee will become a face-to-face attendee in the future

Because of these positives, I think it’s likely that events that include local and remote audiences will become more popular over time, as we gain experience about what formats work and become proficient at resolving the technical issues involved in successfully hosting these event environments.

But there’s one thing we may lose if we add a remote audience to our events.

At the face-to-face conferences I run, attendees start by agreeing to a set of ground rules. These ground rules create an environment where participants can speak freely and ask questions without worrying that their individual statements or viewpoints will be revealed outside the event.

It’s hard to convey the difference this assurance makes to the climate at Conferences That Work unless you’ve attended one. The level of intimacy, learning, and community is significantly raised when people feel safe to ask “stupid” questions and share sensitive information with their peers.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to create the same environment of trust when an unseen remote audience joins the local participants. Believing that everyone will adhere to a set of ground rules is risky enough when everyone who agrees is in the same room as you. To sustain the same trust when an invisible remote audience is added is, I think, a significant stretch for many people. If I’m right, the end result of opening up a conference to a remote audience may be a reversion to the more common environment of most conferences today, where asking a question may be more about defining status than a simple request to learn or understand something new.

Do you think that hybrid events can be designed so that they are still safe places for people to ask questions and share around sensitive issues? Or do you think I’m over-blowing the whole issue?

Can we measure ROI in social media? – Part 2

ROI in SM part 1-4193339222_b6c7e45098_bIn my last post Can we measure the ROI in social media? – Part 1 I argued that it’s pointless to try and calculate ROI in social media. If convinced you might ask, “In that case, how can I justify the allocation of resources towards social media marketing?”

Perhaps the following will help.

As I previously explained, the problem with applying classic ROI to SM marketing is we can’t quantify the Return monetarily. This is because we can’t tie increases in sales or profits directly to specific social media actions or programs. This inability blocks us from talking about ROI at all.

But wait—surely what we really want to do is to make decisions about allocating resources amongst different marketing channels? Since we need to market our products and services, the real question is how and where do we spend our marketing budget? Here’s David Meerman Scott again, emphasizing this point in his usual forthright fashion.

So why not use a slightly different metric, one that allows us to compare the effectiveness of different marketing channels in ways we can measure. Let’s call it the Relative Return On Investment (RROI). RROI sidesteps the problem of assigning a monetary value to Return. Instead it concentrates on providing a practical comparison between investments allocated to specific marketing channels and our desirable and measurable marketing outcomes. (For example: increasing traffic to websites, new product suggestions, time spent on sites, active memberships, or brand mentions.) In effect, we’re replacing Return with the changes in concrete metrics that we believe are important to our marketing objectives. The units of RROI are then [change in metric] per unit of currency invested, e.g. increase in daily page views per dollar, or decrease in weekly customer support calls per euro.

Using RROI we can do experiments and make decisions about where we want to allocate marketing resources. Our experiments won’t be as precise as those possible in the past, when only targeted audiences saw broadcast marketing. But by using tagged indicators of traffic origins and existing analytics we can probably get a good sense of the relative effectiveness of alternative marketing strategies. That’s useful.

Be aware that using RROI in this way won’t tell you how much you should invest in marketing. That can be answered by ROI analysis performed across potential profit opportunities available to a business. But if measuring ROI in social media is a fantasy, perhaps using RROI in its place is an honest reflection of what’s practically possible.

Is RROI a useful, relevant way to think about investments in social media? Or am I just blowing smoke? As always, your comments are welcome!

Can we measure ROI in social media? – Part 1

ROI in SM part 1-4193339222_b6c7e45098_b

Can we measure ROI in social media?

Last month Samuel J Smith moved back to the U.S. from Switzerland and, needing to buy some insurance, asked for a recommendation on Twitter. Having had car insurance with Progressive Insurance for a number of years, and liking the ease of accessing my policy and payments online as well as the competent Vermont representatives I worked with when dealing with several claims, I tweeted Sam this information.

Five minutes later, the following tweet from @Progressive appeared:

@ASegar Saw your tweet – we appreciate you spreading the word ; ) Glad you’ve had such a positive experience.

What can we say about the Return On Investment (ROI) for this little social media interaction?

Read the rest of this entry »

Five lessons event planners can learn from the iPad launch

Seth Godin wrote a powerful post today—Secrets of the biggest selling launch ever—about why Apple sold 300,000 iPads on the first day. Here are five of his secrets that are 100% relevant to the fundamental challenges facing event planners today.

Seth Godin head

2. Don’t try to please everyone. There are countless people who don’t want one, haven’t heard of one or actively hate it. So what? (Please don’t gloss over this one just because it’s short. In fact, it’s the biggest challenge on this list).

Designing events so that they will appeal to the least adventurous attendee guarantees the same-old snooze-fest. Event planners need to aim higher and use innovative formats, even at the risk of jolting people who didn’t expect to be jolted.

3. Make a product worth talking about. Sounds obvious. If it’s so obvious, then why don’t the other big companies ship stuff like this? Most of them are paralyzed going to meetings where they sand off the rough edges.

How many events have you attended that you still remember years later? (Or a month later?) It’s possible to create events that are memorable. And the best ones are memorable not because they had great content or great presenters, but because wonderful, unexpected things happened there. We know how to create events like this: by using participant-driven approaches. But we are afraid to take the risk of trying event formats that are different. If we event planners won’t take the risk, who will?

6. Create a culture of wonder. Microsoft certainly has the engineers, the developers and the money to launch this. So why did they do the Zune instead? Because they never did the hard cultural work of creating the internal expectation that shipping products like this is possible and important.

Until we fully embrace the belief that it’s possible to successfully employ powerful interactive formats at our events, we’re going to be churning out more Zunes than iPads.

7. Be willing to fail. Bold bets succeed–and sometimes they don’t. Is that okay with you? Launching the iPad had to be even more frightening than launching a book…

Apple has been willing to make mistakes: the Lisa and the Newton come to mind. You can’t have great success without risking some failure.

Every time I facilitate an event I welcome the possibility of failure. Not the kind of failure where the event is a total bust—I’m not that far out on the edge—but the failure of a session’s process, or the discovery of a flaw in a new approach. And you know what? The new things I try that succeed more than outweigh the failures I experience. And, extra bonus, I get to learn from my mistakes!

So take some risks with your event designs. Have the courage of your convictions, trust your intuition and be willing to make mistakes.

9. Don’t give up so easy. Apple clearly a faced a technical dip in creating this product… they worked on it for more than a dozen years. Most people would have given up long ago.

I think we face a long hard road in changing peoples’ perceptions of what is possible at an event. It’s not easy to challenge hundreds of years of cultural history that have conditioned us to believe that we should learn and share in certain prescribed ways. But the rapid rise of the adoption of social media has shown that people want to be active participants in their interactions with others, and we need to change our event designs to satisfy this need when people meet face-to-face.

I’m willing to work on these issues over the long haul. Will you join me?