On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma tore across the tiny island nation of Anguilla. Every power pole was destroyed. Roofs were torn off schools, government buildings, and the hospital. The Category 5 hurricane’s 185 mph winds and driving rain caused severe interior damage and destruction to most buildings on the island. After the storm, every road on the island was blocked with fallen polls, trees, and debris, and there was no power for weeks. Amazingly, only two people died.
Six months later, we are visiting; amazed at the recovery that has taken place in such a short time. While most Caribbean islands, such as neighboring St Maarten, remain heavily damaged, Anguilla’s 13,000 inhabitants have worked their hearts and bodies out to bring life here back to something approaching normal. Power has been restored all over the island, internet and phone is largely back, and the majority of the colorful beach restaurants and shops serving Anguilla’s crucial tourist industry have been completely rebuilt.
On my daily vacation walk to Island Harbour, I hear singing. As I turn the corner onto Rose Hill Road, the sound swells. It’s 7:30 am, but the morning service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church is in full swing and, as I pass, a familiar hymn from my youth washes over me, sung by a hundred enthusiastic voices. And yes, I admit it, during the second day of my vacation while enjoying the harmonies I hear, I’m jolted to think about religious meeting design…
Religious services are thought to be around 300,000 years old — by far the oldest form of organized meeting that humans have created. We know little about prehistory religious services, but the meeting designs used by the major world religions today date from the Middle Ages. Over the last thousand years, religious meetings developed a number of important features in order to maximize the likelihood that people would attend.
What’s interesting is that these features are largely absent from modern secular meetings!
So what can we learn from religious meeting design? I confine my observations to Christian and Jewish services, as they are the faiths familiar to me.
While people joke about the length of boring sermons, contrast this relative brevity to modern conferences, where speakers typically speak for an hour. We know that listener attention drops sharply after ten minutes unless a speaker does specific things to maintain it. Religious institutions know this, and deliver short bursts of emotional content. Most meetings don’t, and attendee learning suffers as a consequence.
Include lots of communal activities Singing is one of the most powerful fundamental, communal human activities; right up there with eating together. The oldest written music is a song, the Sumerian Hymn to Creation, dated before 800 B.C., and communal singing likely predates this by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.
Jewish and Christian religious services are filled with singing and praying. These are communal activities — each congregant contributes to a common endeavor. Some people have good voices, sing in harmony, and add pleasure to everyone’s experience. Even those who can’t carry a tune very well become part of something, a common endeavor, while they are singing a familiar and often beautiful hymn or prayer.
Communal activities are powerful because they align participants in a common experience: creating something beautiful and uplifting together. When was the last time you did something like that in a meeting?
Breaks aren’t communal activities Most meeting organizers assume that the human interaction they’ve been told should be incorporated into their meetings is provided by breaks and socials. But breaks and socials aren’t communal activities — everyone is doing something different! The post-service Church Suppers and Jewish Kiddish give congregants time to meet socially, thus strengthening the communal experience provided by the service. In contrast, modern conferences expect attendees to bond after having primarily listened to lectures.
Keep ’em moving! People don’t sit still at most religious services. They stand to sing and pray. In some congregations, dance is a normal component of the service. Physical movement during events is important because blood flow to the brain starts to decline within ten minutes of sitting still, leading to decreased attention. Sadly, it’s rare for meeting sessions to include any kind of body movement.
Provide an emotional experience Whatever opinions you hold about religious services, it’s clear that they are designed to create an emotional experience. Given a choice between emotional and “book learning” experiences, people will invariably choose the former. Religious services offer the kinds of experiences that people prefer, served up in a safe and familiar way. Most conferences offer little emotional experience directly related to their content and purpose; instead such experiences — entertainment and socials — are glued onto the program as unintegrated extras.
Conclusions I’m not suggesting that we turn all our meetings into gospel revivals. But think about it — how would your meetings be improved if they incorporated some of the religious services features I’ve shared here?
Every day of my annual visits to Anguilla, right after waking up, I’ve taken a 25-minute walk (red line below).
I’ve written about the importance of my morning route.
It’s a feast of the senses. Warm air on my skin. The sweet smell of almond croissants—alarming numbers of calories beckoning, reluctantly resisted—waft from the French bakery. Bass notes thud from several houses, random patterns until I am close enough to hear the melody. I pass trailers cradling gleaming powerboats: Pure Pleasure, Wet Dreamz, Drippin’ Wet, and Royal Seaduction (notice a theme here?) The gentle return uphill gradient calls for a quick dip in our pool. As I cool down I hear the clamor of bananaquits on the veranda railing gobbling up the raw sugar we’ve set out for them. Connection: A morning walk in Anguilla
But one day last year, with no advance warning, several of Daddy’s First Son’s dogs leaped over the low wall around Son’s house, snarling loudly, and one of them bit my leg (nothing too serious). For the remainder of the stay, I carried a rolled-up newspaper, which I was forced to use, luckily successfully, on a second occasion.
On returning this year, I didn’t want to carry a dog-repelling device, or worry each time passing Son’s house whether today would be the occasion of Attack Number Three.
Almost everyone I see on my walk responds in some way. On foot, the standard greeting is mornin’. The people who drive past me raise a hand in greeting, and sometimes hoot the horn. These are not, usually, people I know or have ever met before, and I may never meet them again. And yet, there’s invariably a moment of connection.
Every day, unexpected responses. The speedy truck driver who takes both hands off the wheel, palms facing me to say hi as I walk towards him, the hedge on my right leaving me no place to go if his steering is not true. The beautiful woman who shoots me a dazzling smile as she leaves her driveway for work. Two locals walking in the same direction who, as I pass with a mornin’, say fast walkin’ admiringly to my back. Nuanced respectful nods from respectable Anguillan lady drivers. The grandmother who pivots from conversation to pipe a melodious good morning. Her granddaughter in cream blouse and green skirt uniform, waiting for her ride to school, murmurs hello as I pass. A businesswoman gripping the top of her steering wheel, fingers flying up like rabbit ears when I wave. The minister, waiting for a ride to preach to his church who lifts his hand and our eyes connect. Then I’m past, turning the corner, moving towards the next meeting.
Such simple moments of connection. So little to give, so much received. Growing warmth. A wonderful way to start any morning.
Sometimes, the lessons we learn from what doesn’t change are the most important lessons of all.
Because, as social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman explains, human beings are wired to be social:
“The message is clear; our brain is profoundly social, with some of the oldest social wiring dating back more than 100 million years. Our wiring motivates us to stay connected.” —Matthew Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect
There are significant practical benefits that arise from being social. Lieberman documents the measurable increase in well-being from such social activities as volunteering, (equivalent to moving from a $20K/year to a $75K/year salary), giving to charity (equivalent to doubling one’s salary), or having a good friend (equivalent to making an extra $100K/year). He notes that colleges have found that it makes sense to design their dorms for social connection, with modern dorms devoting about 20% of their expensive floor space to places for social connection. (Compare that to the amount of social space available in a modern apartment!) And he references the work of economist Arent Greve, who found that in the companies he studied, social capital, as opposed to human capital, accounted for most of the increased benefits in productivity.
How do we maximize social connection at events? Well, don’t rely on traditional socials to do a good job. Instead of filling our sessions with content, we need to make connection an integral component of every session. Carefully interspersing content (short bursts, twenty minutes max) with time for connection (reinforcing and reflecting on the content, and developing ideas with others) increases the quality of learning that takes place while strengthening personal connections around relevant content and consequently building engagement and community. When we maximize social connection around relevant content we maximize the event’s value to participants.
I’m lucky. Facilitating productive event process like this for tens or hundreds of people is one more thing that brings me joy.
I’m back in Anguilla. I’ve written before about my morning walk here. Out of bed, a little sleepy, I throw on swim-trunks, shirt, socks and shoes, perch my white Tilly on my head, and I’m off before the sun gets too hot.
Walking in Anguilla Every morning for the last three weeks I’ve been taking a brisk 25-minute walk in Anguilla, a 35 square mile British Overseas Territory in the Virgin Islands. Today I kept track of interactions on my walk. (Yes, I know this sounds weird but keep reading and you’ll see the point.) Here’s what happened:
——– Interaction type ——–
# passing me
Twelve of the fourteen cars that passed me waved or hooted (one driver waved and hooted). I swapped a “morning” with the one guy I passed on foot. The two cars with no interaction were driven by an Anguillian woman and a tourist.
Based on my three weeks’ experience, this is typical in Anguilla. Almost everyone says hello in one way or another. Exceptions? Well, tourists rarely interact as you pass. Most female Anguillian drivers don’t either, but they wave more frequently than tourists, about the same frequency as Caucasian locals. (You can tell an Anguillian local’s car because the license plates start with “P” for personal. Isn’t that fun?)
Friendly culture The behavior I’ve described is built into Anguillian culture. As native Anguillian Denise Crawford says:
“Anguillians are a friendly lot. To pass someone and not greet him with a wave or a ‘good morning’ whether you know the person or not is considered ill-mannered.” —Leaving Island Life, Denise Crawford
This makes it simple to get to know Anguillians. They will respect your privacy if you don’t want to talk, but otherwise it’s easy to fall into conversation with them. Anguillians are brought up to be this way.
Can we “Anguillianize” conference attendees? Although we know that conference attendees crave appropriate connection with their peers at least as much as their desire for appropriate content, most conferences do not supply an environment for easy connection. We’ve all had the experience of being thrust into a room of strangers, wondering how and with whom to strike up a conversation. If most attendees have never grown up in a culture like Anguilla’s, can we at least make it easier for attendees to connect—”Anguillianize” them?
Creating a supportive conference environment for connection Though we can’t change the past cultural experience of conference attendees, we can provide an environment that supports and encourages connection. Here are three ways to create such an environment:
Provide opportunities for attendees to connect during conference sessions Stop hoping that attendees will meet each other during meals, mixers, and socials. That’s the old model, and you’re doing your attendees a disservice if you stick to it. The best way for attendees to connect each other is via shared experience—and there’s no better place to provide this than the conference sessions themselves.
Use small group and pair work regularly Attendees do not connect with each other while listening to someone talking at the front of the room. They connect when they are discussing content with one other person, or in small groups of not more than a few people. (They also learn better too; an added plus.) Providing attendees regular opportunities—every ten minutes or so—to work with their peers on a topic of mutual interest turns them into participants in their learning and creates a host of safe places for connections to occur.
Set up small group and pair work to include the exchange of contextual information Anguillians invariably strike up conversations with tourists with the question “Firs’ timer?” The answer and how it’s communicated leads to further possible questions: why did you come, how long you’ve been coming, where you’re from, etc. We can adopt this approach as well. When designing interactive small group and pair work in conference sessions, incorporate reasons for participants to share appropriately about themselves in the context of the discussion. For example, instead of simply asking participants which course of action they would choose in a given situation, have them share the relevant past experience that leads them to make that choice.
Lessons from Anguilla I’ve been vacationing in Anguilla for the last twelve years and always seem to learn something during my time on this delightful island. Here are some other Lessons from Anguilla.
Photo attribution: “The site formerly known as Bob Green’s Anguilla News”
This is the third of my blog posts written while vacationing in Anguilla.
Anguilla is a country of 14,000 people and four supermarkets. I like Anguillan supermarkets. None of them are chains and each has its own character, which makes shopping interesting, rather than the typically predictable American experience.
Nearly everything is imported. When we first started vacationing here, food arrived by ship once a week, usually making Thursday night peak shopping time. As the days passed, popular items like milk and vegetables vanished, only to reappear shortly after the container ships steamed into the harbor at Sandy Ground. Nowadays the shelves are stocked more regularly, but you still never quite know what you may find when you venture inside one of these idiosyncratic stores.
Each store has different strengths and weaknesses. One boasts an extensive liquor department, but seems to have something against vegetables. Another is clearly aimed at retired colonialists, with a fine display of British brand name staples and household knickknacks, while everyday staples are shortchanged. And a third provides the best assortment of local foods, but little in the way of candy for the kids.
What’s interesting is the evolution of these establishments over time. The older supermarkets used to have a monopoly on certain goods; if you wanted cream you had to go to Supermarket A, while Supermarket B was the sole supplier of Pampers. With more sources of supply, the possibilities have multiplied—and the stores have responded in very different ways.
Six years ago, Supermarket C was the most haphazardly stocked of the three we patronized. Its marketing philosophy seemed to be we’ll take anything we can get out hands on, stack it in an aisle, and see if it sells. Their stock gyrated so widely from visit to visit that we avoided shopping there unless we felt like being truly surprised. Not surprisingly, it was rare to see more than a few cars in the parking lot. Meanwhile Supermarkets A & B relied on their exclusive arrangements to offer, between them, a fairly comprehensive, if somewhat unreliable, selection of useful food and household products.
Fast forward to today. Supermarket C has been transformed. The premises are the same, but the shelves are now stocked with a comprehensive range of useful goods. And in addition, unlike competitors A & B, the store is open every day until late. As a result, it’s hard to find a space in the parking lot.
Meanwhile, Supermarkets A & B have rested on their laurels. We don’t have to shop in both places to get what we want any more. C is now our go-to store. And yet, though their traffic is down, we still notice customers shopping at A & B.
These days, those of us who don’t live on a small island know that failure to keep up with competitors in a commodity-driven retail market invariably leads to swift economic extinction. In Anguilla’s laid back environment, such change will probably occur more slowly, but eventually, unless they make significant changes, Supermarkets A & B will not survive.
You’ve probably guessed how this relates to the future of conferences. Think of Supermarkets A & B as set-in-their-ways organizers of traditional conferences. Think of C as progressive event planners who realize that people prefer to attend events that give them what they want rather than going to multiple events to get a piece here and a piece there.
In Anguilla, people’s needs for supermarket goods didn’t change, but improvements in the supply of imported goods into Anguilla allowed Supermarket C to change what it offered to better match what people wanted. Likewise, people’s professional needs for relevant content, meaningful engagement and networking haven’t changed. But we now have a host of new ways to supply content outside the traditional conference, and a host of new ways to find out what conference attendees actually want to do while they’re together. Ignore them at your peril. See you in the aisles at Supermarket C!
This is the second of my blog posts written while vacationing in Anguilla.
This morning, the waves in front of Tropical Sunset at Shoal Bay East, Anguilla were just right.
In the water I was hypnotized by the unceasing movement of my body, rising and falling as the blue water swells ran towards me. Their energy rushed at and around me over and over again, and I floated through them, buoyant.
An unknown amount of time passed. Finally, I became aware that I was hungry. Lunch beckoned.
When I turned back to shore, the waves, breaking on the white sand, crashed at my legs and sucked me back towards the sea, saying please, don’t go.
Leaving a good conference is like leaving those waves. You don’t want to go. You don’t want to leave the friends you’ve made, the energy that you felt while you were together.
But it’s time.
The only consolation is that you’ll be back next year.
This is the first of my blog posts written while vacationing in Anguilla.
I’m in the middle of a three-week idyllic vacation in Anguilla, a tiny Caribbean island. Colonized by the British in the 17th century, Anguilla today is an internally self-governing overseas territory (Google it!) that still retains charming traces of its colonial past: driving on the left, Cadbury’s chocolate, the ubiquitous use of “Good morning”, etc.
It’s getting harder to think of topics for blog posts as Celia & I are plied with fiendish rum drinks concocted by Susan, one of the three women doctor friends who are visiting us this week. (Yes, I know I’m on vacation, but, after lying for hours on a stunning powder-sand beach in the shade of a coconut palm, watching the hypnotic ebb and flow of perfect blue translucent waves, I begin to worry that I will never be able to think a coherent thought again – and, alarmingly, this is starting to seem O.K.)
This is our fifth vacation in Anguilla. And besides some of the most beautiful beaches in the world (with almost no one on them), goats that ramble all over the place, excellent restaurants, and plentiful mango coladas, there are about 14,000 other reasons why we keep coming back.
Just about everyone I’ve met who lives here has been friendly and engaging. Once in a while, all of us have a bad day, but Anguillans seem to stay upbeat regardless. There is a sense of acceptance of life’s realities here, and a tendency to look on the bright side of everyday trials and tribulations.
Anguilla’s economy is almost totally dependent on tourism. So how locals respond and interact with tourists like me is critical to their livelihood. In my experience, Anguillans are uniformly pleasant without being obsequious. From my outsider’s point of view, they are running a 24/7 event which I’m attending. And they do it with style and an open heart, just being themselves.