For years I’ve been reading to 3rd & 4th grade students at the Marlboro Elementary School, my amazing local public school. It’s a tiny school that currently serves around 100 pre-kindergarten – 8th grade children (4 – 13 years old).
I read during noon recess, after outdoor play. A student rings the bell and children stream back into their classrooms. But before they get their lunch and listen to me, they sit on the floor in a circle and share answers to a simple question:
What went well during recess?
As I listen, it’s clear that kids feel comfortable talking about how they worked together. They build forts, play games, and do all the things kids have done for years when they play in the wooded grounds of our rural school. They don’t talk in generalities. Rather, they name specific classmates and thank them for collaboration, support, and the fun they created together.
The power of public appreciations These simple public appreciations create a palpable social awareness in the group. You can see relationships strengthen as one child acknowledges another. The children’s interactions are shaped by largely invisible norms of behavior that the teacher expertly introduces during the first few weeks of school.
It’s not all sweetness and light. Inevitably some conflicts come up too. So the teacher sometimes lets the kids delve into what happened, and sometimes reserves discussion for a private chat later in the day.
What strikes me is how easy this is to do and how powerful the results. Group sharing like this was absent during my school years. Instead, our teachers encouraged us to compete with each other academically. They never asked us to talk about positive things our classmates had done.
Appreciative Inquiry Surprisingly, asking what is currently being done well is the first crucial step of Appreciative Inquiry(AI): a powerful process for exploring productive organizational change. AI starts with a focus on what works in an organization, not what needs fixing. Stories also play an important role.
“Tim paused ever so slightly, and what seemed unscripted (at least I hope it was unscripted) he asked all Apple employees present in the auditorium to rise up from their seats. With a round of applause initiated by Tim, he thanked everyone for their hard work, their creativity and their commitment to the launch and everything leading up to the day.” —Dan Pontefract, Apple CEO Tim Cook and his moment of open culture
At the end of Apple’s September 2014 blockbuster product launch of the iPhone 6, Apple Watch, and Apple Pay Tim Cook did a simple thing. He publicly acknowledged the work and commitment of Apple employees in making these new products and services possible.
I’m assuming that you —at least—privately recognize the work of your team and volunteers. Taking a minute or more to publicly recognize the people who made your event possible is an easy thing to do: a small but significant gift to the workers, and an opportunity for participants to show their appreciation. It’s the right thing to do—yet sadly missing from many events.
I’m still sorting out the lessons I learned from facilitating and organizing EventCamp East Coast, and I’ll be writing about them soon. But, while the memories are still fresh, I want to offer appreciations here for the incredible contributions the organizers, volunteers, and participants made to the event. During lunch on Saturday I shared these thoughts with the participants, and now I want to share them with the online community.
CAUTIONS: 1) I’m 59 and my memory is not what it was. If I’ve left people or assistance out or got details wrong, let me know and I’ll make it right. 2) This is my personal experience of EC²—I attended just three of the thirteen sessions offered, and did not manage to talk with every attendee, so please forgive me if your contributions and sterling qualities are not given the acknowledgment they deserve.
Volunteers Paige Buck, you came all the way from San Francisco as a Conferences That Work trainee, and threw yourself into helping in every way you could: scribing the roundtable, working effectively on the peer session determination, facilitating the session Time, tools, & tactics: addressing planners’ pain points, and assisting with every logistical need you could. I appreciate you for the skills, charm, wisdom, and humor you brought to EC², and look forward to working with you in the future.
Carolyn Ray, you traveled from Montreal to volunteer at EC², and I was struck by your infectious calm & cheerful demeanor as you seemingly effortlessly dealt with a myriad of issues as they came up. Oh, and besides efficiently helping with peer session determination, you also led two sessions: Learning from event successes and failures and Conflict management & negotiation for event professionals (bet you didn’t expect that). I appreciate you for your enthusiasm, passion, warmth, and your willingness to share your surprising knowledge with others.
Peer session determination Mitchell Beer, Andrea Sullivan, & Traci Browne – you, with Paige & Carolyn made peer session determination at EC² one of the easiest processes I’ve led recently. You worked with me late into the night while others were partying. I appreciate you for your quick thinking, expert advice on how to cluster topics, and whether to combine them, and unfailing good humor during the whole 14-step process.
Scribes Paige I’ve already mentioned, but Cameron Toth, you were the scribe that gave that extra I hadn’t even thought to ask for: documenting the roundtable process and, without being asked, jumping up to fill flip chart paper with the salient points from the group spective. I appreciate you for your boundless energy, willingness to help in any way you could, and your continual flow of ideas and possibilities. Oh, let’s not forget your fashion style!
Carolyn Ray (Learning from event successes and failures and Conflict management & negotiation for event professionals) and Paige Buck (Time, tools, & tactics: addressing planners’ pain points) – see above
Traci Browne (Tradeshow layouts that encourage attendee interaction) – see below.
Jenise Fryatt (Social media 101 and Applied improv) – Jenise, I appreciate you for your ability to say YES when the moment comes, your thoughtfulness and accompanying clarity of expression, your kindness to all, your enthusiasm for new experiences, and your infectious cheerfulness and tact. AND… you’re a superb teacher of improv!
Debra Roth (Using design as a tool: how do color, form, and style affect your attendees) Deb, it was a treat to be invited into your creative world. I appreciate you for your straightforward manner, your kindness, your calm guidance during the session, and your evocative, creative talents.
Mitchell Beer (Repackaging conference content) I wish I could have attended your session, Mitchell. I appreciate you for your enthusiasm for my event design, your cheerful professional demeanor, and the blush worthy positive feedback you bestowed which means a lot to me, given your 27 years experience attending and recording conferences.
Andrea Sullivan (Brain-friendly ways to keep attendees engaged) This was the session I most regret missing. I appreciate you for the experience, ideas and energy you possess, and am looking forward to talking with you further next week.
Sam Smith (Integrating web and mobile technology at events) Sam, thank you so much for coming to EC², and your calm acceptance and positive response to an event design so different from what you dazzled us with at EventCamp Twin Cities. I appreciate you for your depth, your knowledge, your ability to make wise choices, your fundamental fairness, and your vocal support for this event.
Jay Daughtry (Social media 101), Jonathan Vatner (Beginning writing workshop), Kiki L’Italien (Advanced social media). Jay, Jonathan, and Kiki: I don’t know you well enough to say much (though I’m skeptical about that bacon-flavored vodka, Kiki), but I appreciate the three of you for stepping up to the challenge of leading event sessions with little warning, and reappearing triumphant at their successful conclusion.
Caterers Susan and Ernie of The Twisted Gourmet – what a feast you provided us at EC²! What more could we have asked for? Thank you!
Hostess Beth Brodovsky, what a hostess you turned out to be for our Friday night party! I appreciate you for graciously offering the use of your home by fifty strangers, and for your unflappability as we moved furniture from one room to another during the party, stuck paper all over your living room walls, and prepared food in your kitchen. (And on an unrelated note, I also appreciated your incisive contributions to Deb’s design session.) We all owe you a big vote of thanks!
EventCamp East Coast was held because Traci, whom I met at the original EventCamp in New York, bought my book, became excited about the event design and wanted to see what Conferences That Work was all about. When she asked me to help create a regional EventCamp, I accepted immediately. Without Traci’s belief in me and my work, EC² would never have been born. So Traci, I appreciate you for possessing that trust and belief. But there’s much more. I also appreciate your passion that fed us as we worked through one logistical problem after another, your forthright temperament to “tell it like it is” coupled with a surprising flexibility and tact that made you a delight to work with, your sense of humor, your integrity, and, perhaps most important, your big heart hiding under that superficially cynical exterior. I’d work with you again in a minute, and hope to do so often.
Lindsey, at Saturday lunch at EventCamp East Coast I described you as “a force of nature”. (That, in case anyone is unclear, is a good thing.) Lindsey, I am so grateful you joined Traci and me and took on so many of the responsibilities of making EC² a success—we could never have done what we did without you. I appreciate you for your wonderful, unique mixture of drive (don’t step in her way, folks) and charm (Lindsey can put anyone at ease in about ten seconds), as well as your burning integrity, the passion you wear on your sleeve, your hard work ethic, and, like Traci, a big heart.
Lindsey & Traci, I appreciate you so much for taking responsibility for the event logistics so I could concentrate on facilitating EventCamp East Coast.
You Finally, I want to acknowledge all of the attendees of EventCamp East Coast. You created this event. None of you were passive spectators. I appreciate you for actively participating, for shaping EC² into the event it became, for freely sharing your knowledge and experience for the benefit of all, and for taking risks in what you said and did while we were together. Together, we made EventCamp East Coast into something unique and wonderful. Thank you!
I’ve never run a conference without using volunteers. Here are six lessons I’ve learned from thirty years of conference organizing.
1) 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) 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
organizing and running fun activities
In general, I use volunteers for creative work, and reserve mechanical tasks for paid staff.
3) 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) 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 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.
Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.
“…once we become aware of the level of support involved to sustain our lives we quickly realize how our debt grows daily in spite of our efforts to repay it.” —Greg Krech, Director of the ToDo Institute
Patricia Madson’s ninth maxim is “Wake Up to the Gifts.” Gifts? What gifts? Well, although this post is about giving appreciations at conferences, first we need a little context.
The Japanese practice of Naikan, an art of self-reflection, uses three questions to examine our relationships with others:
What have I received from (person x)?
What have I given to (person x)?
What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?
When I meditate on the answers to these questions for a significant person in my life, I usually quickly discover that my list of what I have received is far longer than what I have given. When you extend these questions to the things that surround and support us in our daily lives this imbalance immediately becomes apparent. I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to the countless people who grew and prepared the food I eat, who designed, manufactured, and delivered the computer I’m writing this on, who made it possible for me to live in and enjoy this world in so many ways.
It’s hopeless for us to be able to “pay off” these debts. But one thing we can do is to acknowledge them. And that’s why I include time for appreciations at every conference.
Appreciations are more than thanks. Imagine that Susan is standing before the gathered attendees, publicly thanking people, including you, Bob, for your work organizing a conference. Here are some examples of what she might say. After you read each one, take a moment to notice how you feel.
[Susan faces audience] “The organizers contributed a lot of hard work putting on this conference.”
[Susan faces audience] “Bob worked hard to get out the face book.”
[Susan faces audience] “Thank you, Bob, you worked hard to get out the face book.”
[Susan points to you and then faces the audience] “I appreciate Bob, who worked hard to get out the face book.”
[Susan asks you to come out from the audience, faces you, makes eye contact, and speaks directly to you] “Bob, I appreciate you for working hard to create the draft face book in time for our conference roundtable, and for rapidly producing an accurate and attractive final version. This helped all of us get to know each other quickly, and gave us a valuable reference for keeping in touch after the conference ends.”
Did you find that you felt appreciated more by each successive version, and that the final version had much more power than the others? If so, you’re not alone. In the final version, Susan:
Invited Bob out in front of the room;
Spoke to Bob directly, making eye contact;
Used an “I” message—“Bob, I appreciate you…”; and
Described specifically to Bob what she appreciated and why.
Each of these four actions strengthened the power of Susan’s message.
There’s more about giving appreciations in my book. They offer a simple, effective, and powerful way to significantly increase bonding and connection in your conference community. And, regrettably, good appreciations are so rare in our everyday life that, when people receive one, they are likely to remember it for a long time.
So, wake up to the many gifts you are receiving every day! And actively, openly, appreciate the givers when you can. You will be giving a great gift yourself when you do.