How do we get people to participate at meetings? How can we design for easier attendee participation?
We know that participants — people who are active learners — learn more, retain more, and retain more accurately than passive attendees. They are also far more likely to make valuable connections with their peers during the event.
Ask a hard question every time we go to a meeting…
All of these are choices, choices that require no one to choose us or give us permission.
Every time I find myself wishing for an external event, I realize that I’m way better off focusing on something I can control instead. —Seth Godin, What Would Happen
All good, but Seth begs this question. What can meeting designers do to make it easier for attendees to participate more at meetings?
Three things to do for easier attendee participation
First, we need to model participation throughout our event. In Spain last month, I was invited for dinner in a local family’s home. Besides being treated to amazing food, drink, and conversation, I was casually encouraged to use a branding iron to melt the sugar on our Crème Brûlée. I was politely asked to help wash the dishes. Being an active participant during the evening, even in these small ways, made me part of the experience. I was not a passive consumer. Participating added significantly to my enjoyment and connection to the kind couple who had invited me into their home.
And third, always remember that we can’t make people do anything. Ultimately what they do is their choice. So it’s important to convey that participation is always optional. I’ve found that when attendees know they have the option to opt out they are more likely to participate.
What approaches have you used to make it easier for your attendees to participate? Share your ideas in the comments below!
Replace “brain training” hype with something that works!
Driving home from the post office today, I finally heard one too many promotions for Lumosity brain training on my local NPR station. Lumosity, in case you somehow haven’t heard, is a subscription to online games that claim to improve memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, speed of processing, problem solving, and, for all I know, world peace too.
Despite the Federal Trade Commission slapping Lumosity’s creator, Lumos Labs, with a $50 million judgment (reduced to a $2 million fine) in January to settle charges of deceptive advertising that claimed — with no “competent and reliable scientific evidence” — that the games could help users achieve their “full potential in every aspect of life”, the company continues to bombard consumers with ads. Meanwhile, research on the efficacy of such programs has found little or no evidence that they make any difference to global measures of intelligence or cognition.
“I think claims these companies have been making — and Lumosity is not alone — have been grossly exaggerated. They’re trying to argue that we’re going to take you out of [the] active world … that we’re going to put you in a room alone in front of a computer screen and you’ll play a game that will make you smarter.” “There is no compelling evidence for that.” —Dr. Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity
At best, it turns out, these games somewhat improve the ability of players to … wait for it … play the games.
A simple suggestion
Which leads to a simple suggestion. Replace “brain training” hype with something that works!
In less than three minutes, you can improve almost any conference sessions with pair share (aka think-pair-share). The technique is simple: after pairing up participants and providing a short period for individual thinking about an appropriate topic, each pair member takes a minute in turn to share their thoughts with their partner. (More details can be found in Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation.)
Pair share is not the same as conversation, because pair share gives each person an exclusive minute of active sharing and a minute of pure listening. This balance rarely occurs during conversation, because typically:
One party speaks more than another, and;
Whoever isn’t speaking is often not fully listening to what is being said because they’re thinking about something they want to say themselves.
Improve conference sessions
Pair share improves conference sessions by:
Resetting every participant’s brain to a state of active engagement;
Providing structured opportunities for participants to share expertise and experience with their partner, and (if built into the subsequent session design) with others in the room; and
Each assigned topic must be central to the session’s purpose;
If the session is presenter-content heavy, hold a pair share roughly every ten minutes to explore and consolidate participant learning; and
Design the session to build on relevant expertise and experience uncovered by each pair-share.
I also like to incorporate a closing pair-share where partners each share three takeaways they’ve acquired during the session. I’ve found that when I use this in a session design like the fishbowl sandwich, participants inevitably stay around deep in conversation after the session is officially over. (That always looks and feels good!)
Finally, you can use pair share as a tool for introductions. Invite everyone to pair up with someone they don’t know and have each person take a minute to introduce themselves to their partner.
Improve conference sessions with pair share: it’s quick, simple, versatile, and effective. Use it!
How do you use pair share? Share with everyone in the comments below!
What’s the best learning model for conference sessions? We don’t usually think about the learning models we employ during conference sessions. I believe our events would be better if we did. Conventional conferences assume a ready supply of experts. We listen to them while they cover the learning advertised for their sessions. Here’s how Jeff Hurt describes this approach, which he calls surface learning, contrasting it with deep learning where attendees discover through exploratory activity:
Content Covered Or Discovered “In surface learning, the session reflects the knowledge and skills of the speaker. Knowledge is considered a thing that can be deposited into the minds of the listener. The attendee consumes as much as the speaker says as possible and tries to store it in the mind. The speaker covers as much as they can as fast as they can.
As explained in my books, we know that the active learning that occurs through attendee discovery is indeed more effective than the learning that may result from sharing information with passive listeners. More is learned, more is retained, and overall retention is more accurate. So I agree with Jeff that discovered learning trumps covered learning. But from whom do we discover this learning?
Even when we incorporate active learning into a conference session, invariably the assumption remains that we are learning about content provided exclusively by a speaker or presenter. What we discover is limited to the content they can provide.
I know this to be true from my own experience. When I’ve led a conference session using process that supports and encourages participants to contribute their own expertise and experience, I’ve always learnt something new! Extending our resources for active learning to the entire room uncovers relevant and useful knowledge from everyone present. Active learning then becomes social learning, reflecting today’s reality that knowledge is a social construct, no longer something residing in an individual head. When we incorporate social learning into our events we all benefit. Because, as David Weinberger says: “The smartest person in the room is the room.”
Three learning models
Let’s summarize the three learning models I’ve described.
Covered learning is an outdated, inferior learning model.
Discovered learning is an improvement, because we are actively involving attendees in the learning process, though the focus is just one person’s content.
Uncovered learning further improves discovered learning by increasing the resources for active learning to include the expertise and experience available in the entire room. If a presenter or facilitator knows how to effectively uncover learning, they will be using the best learning model available.
To successfully implement uncovered learning, we need to use process that, as Weinberger puts it: “improves expertise by exposing weaknesses, introducing new viewpoints, and pushing ideas into accessible form.” Such process is the focus of the peer conference designs and associated participation techniques that I’ve been developing and writing about here and in my books. Studying how to facilitate and then adopt this process is perhaps the most effective way you can improve the learning at your events.
This is a Public Service Announcement for meeting stakeholders everywhere.
When conferences focus on content-delivery, there’s no downside to making sessions shorter. Program organizers of such conferences think like this:
“Let’s include more speakers than we originally planned. There’s no problem. We’ll just shorten presenter time and add more sessions. After all, if our speakers are given half the time, they’ll cover half their original content. Simple!”
However, in my experience, if you want to create conferences that blow attendees minds, you need to replace traditional brain-dump session formats.
Lectures rarely create significant change.
Instead, use participation-rich session formats that actively involve participants in learning and facilitate relevant connections during the session.
And here’s where the old idea of shortening sessions to cram more into the program breaks down, and Briefer Madness raises its ugly head.
Participatory formats are necessarily messy. Active learning, in pairs or small groups, takes time because everyone needs relevant opportunities to think and speak and share and respond, not just a single presenter. Consequently, participatory formats do not scale like broadcast-style formats!
…reveal[ing] the rich, messy complexity of the real world…takes time and often feels like a diversion from what we might think is the real work. People default to workaholic notions of what meetings should achieve; they should be efficient, follow an agenda, achieve set outcomes…but all of these pressures tend to keep us locked in stereotypes and assumptions.
Choosing to disrupt this can be risky. Proposing a playful approach, or suggesting a reflective walk, will sound crazy to some participants. Surely that would be a waste of time? I increasingly find the opposite is the case; the more disruptive approaches can dislodge fixed ideas that are really holding us all back. Stereotypes—Johnnie Moore
Give skilled meeting designers or facilitators enough time to work with during your meetings. Then they can design or facilitate sessions that are more likely to generate powerful individual and group change and outcomes.
If you succumb to Briefer Madness by cutting that time in half, then, at best, a whole redesign will be needed. At worst, you’ll be asking for something that’s impossible to do well.
Yes, meeting times are never unlimited. Yes, address vital content needs.
Don’t constrain designers and facilitators to time periods that guarantee mediocre outcomes. Try asking them how much time they’ll require to be truly effective. Respect their answers. Don’t treat what they suggest in the same way you’d treat a program of lectures that can be sliced and diced to satisfy diversity of content needs without any ill effects.
Resist the seduction of Briefer Madness!
This has been a Public Service Announcement for meeting stakeholders everywhere. My apologies to devotees of the cult classic film Reefer Madness.
Not long ago, my friend Jeremy Birch told me about the recorded announcement you hear—in English—when Japanese buses approach a bus stop:
“Please remember what you were about to forget.”
No, Japanese bus companies are not promoting distributed practice, where learning activity is spread out over time to improve overall learning (chapter 4 of The Power of Participation has more on this).
Instead, they are merely reminding people who are getting off the bus to check for anything they may be leaving behind.
Nevertheless, I like the (probably unintended) playful construction of “Please remember what you were about to forget”.
And perhaps, having typed it a few times here, I’m a little more likely to carry it out…
In 2011 I ran a two and a half hour participative techniques workshop on the last afternoon of a four-day conference. After we ended, a participating supplier came up to me. He told me that he had made many more useful connections in that one workshop than during the 3 days preceding it. Supporting connection at the workshop gave him more value than the rest of the event.
Hunger for connection
I believe that the great majority of people hunger for connection with others. Without it, our lives suffer. Indeed, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, his sobering opus on social change in America, states that about half the observed decline in life satisfaction among adult Americans over the last 50 years “is associated with declines in social capital: lower marriage rates and decreasing connectedness to friends and community.” And the sociologist James House tells us that “the magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.”
And yet, when we hold a conference in our culture—an occasion when we bring together people with a common interest in a subject—we give low priority to the potential for connection with our fellow conferees. Broadcast-style sessions predominate. There is little or no opportunity for attendees to connect. This is so even though we have an ideal requisite for directly enjoying each other’s company—sharing a common interest!
The need for connection
Supporting connection with others is becoming increasingly important. We are moving to a world where people’s knowledge and expertise are a function of the networks—both face-to-face and online—they possess rather than the contents of their heads. If in our work lives we are spending more time learning socially than being trained in the classroom, our meetings must provide the same relative opportunities.
Traditional conferences leave connection time to the breaks, meals, and socials. This is why so many people report that hallway conversations during breaks are the best parts of such meetings. When sessions fail to meet our connection needs, we connect outside the official schedule. The broadcast design of most meeting sessions relegates connection with peers to an afterthought, as something you’re supposed to do on your own. And this is not easy. Even if you somehow know exactly the new people and old friends you want to meet, arranging to do so is hard enough without also competing with loud dance music, fixed meal seating, and lunchtime entertainment or talks. And if you expect to readily meet the most interesting people (to you) at such events by chance from a crowd of hundreds or even thousands, then you have not been to many conferences.
Provide opportunities for participants to connect
We must reverse our consistent demotion of connection to second-class status for meetings to effectively support the social learning that’s now essential to perform our jobs well. We need to provide opportunities for participants to connect and share in the sessions themselves. This doesn’t mean turning sessions into speed-dating or adding irritating “icebreakers.” Instead, it means taking advantage of:
Improvements in learning that result from actively engaging with others around content rather than listening to it or watching it.
The rich and extensive knowledge and experience of participants in the room.
Increased opportunities to meet like-minded peers via discussion of session content, ideas, and questions.
Active learning increases the quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning and connection are inextricably entangled; you can’t really learn from your peers without simultaneously learning about them. Making connections is a powerful and important motivation for attending events. So, providing appropriate opportunities to connect during sessions is attractive, smoothing the way for the active learning that follows.
Connecting with peers during a session allows participants to access expertise and experience beyond what an expert at the front of the room can provide. Using participative techniques that uncover and develop useful connections to those with relevant knowledge, participants can discover and take full advantage of the collective wisdom in the room.