“Experiential” is the new hot adjective used to describe events. “No more listening to speakers; you’re going to have experiences!” But there are genuine and phony experiential conferences.
Sadly, many so-called experiential events are phony. The promoters slap a novel environment (e.g., clowns walking around or chairs suspended from the ceiling) onto a conventional format (e.g., a social or a group discussion) and claim their event is now “experiential”.
So what are the differences between genuine and phony experiential conferences?
One of the easiest, yet often neglected, ways for meeting professionals to improve their craft is to obtain (and act on!) client feedback after designing/producing/facilitating an event. So I like to schedule a thirty-minute call at a mutually convenient date one or two weeks after the event, giving the client time to decompress and process attendee evaluations.
During a recent call, a client shared their conference evaluation summaries that rated individual sessions and the overall conference experience.
This particular annual conference uses a peer conference format every few years. The client finds the Conferences That Work design introduces attendees to a wider set of peer resources and conversations at the event. This year, The Solution Room, was a highly rated session for building connections and getting useful, confidential peer consulting on individual challenges.
As the client and I talked, we realized that the evaluations had missed an important component. We were trying to decide how frequently the organization should alternate a peer conference format with more traditional approaches. However, we had no attendee feedback on how participants viewed the effectiveness of the annual event for:
making useful new connections;
getting current professional wants and needs met; and
Adding ratings of these KPIs to conference evaluations provides useful information about how well each event performs in these areas. Over time, conveners will see if/how peer conference formats improve these metrics. I also suggested that we include Net Promoter Scores in future evaluations.
The client quickly decided to include these ratings in future conference evaluations. As a result, our retrospective call helped us to improve how participants evaluate his events. This will provide data that will allow more informed decisions about future conference design decisions.
Do your evaluations allow attendees to rate the connection and just-in-time learning effectiveness of your meeting? Do they rate how well your meeting met current professional wants and needs? If not, consider adding these kinds of questions to all your evaluations. Over time you’ll obtain data on the meeting designs and formats that serve your participants best.
Here are (drum roll!) two meeting types and three situations when you should NOT use a Conferences That Work design:
— Most corporate events
Many corporate events have a tight focus. Management have desired outcomes for the meeting: e.g. developing new products and services, communicating changes in company strategic goals, training and incentivizing sales teams, implementing successful product launches, etc. The function of such meetings is primarily top-down: effectively communicate management objectives, answer questions, and get employee buy-in. Fixed agenda corporate meetings are not a good fit for peer conference designs because they are predominantly about one-way broadcast-style communication; participants are there to listen and learn rather than to determine what’s individually useful to them or to build intra-company connections.
— Special events
Special events involve a mixture of entertainment, celebration, and raising money. While some may include impromptu participant involvement, they concentrate on creating a wonderful experience for attendees. Special events are carefully choreographed in advance and participant interaction is generally limited to the traditional social forms of meals and parties, so they are not a good fit for the spontaneous generation of topics, themes, and participant-determined process that peer conference designs generate.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this mistake made … well … that would pay the bill for a very nice dinner out.
— When time is short
Participant-driven and participation-rich events are messy and, by the standards of a content-dump-into-listeners-ears event, relatively inefficient. You can share some good information in a ten-minute talk, even if most of the audience will have forgotten it a month later. If you’re attempting to build connections and learning in a group of a hundred people in ten minutes, however, little of any significance is going to happen in such a short time.
Valuable peer learning and connection takes time. It’s worth it. If you don’t have enough time, remember that a peer conference isn’t like a podcast you can speed up and still understand what’s said. Schedule the time actually needed for the process to work and wonderful things will happen. Shortchange the time needed, and you and your attendees will be frustrated and unhappy.
— When a meeting is significantly about status rather than learning and connection
Sadly, in my view, some meetings are primarily about asserting and demonstrating status. Government, political, and, to a lesser extent, academic conferences often fall into this category. If your conference attendees come from a culture where power and influence is firmly controlled by the people in charge, a peer conference will be a poor fit, as the powers that be will be threatened by a format that does not reinforce their dominance.
So when should you use the Conferences That Work design?
I thought you’d never ask. If you have all attendees’ attention and enough time to for the process to work (see above), a Conferences That Work meeting design is a fantastic (I would argue, the best) approach for meetings of communities of practice (this link explains in detail what communities of practice are). That includes all conferences, colloquia, congresses, conventions, and symposia.
Association and client conferences are clear candidates for Conferences That Work. Traditional conference elements are easily integrated into the design, so desired sessions like up-to-the-minute research findings, recognition ceremonies, social events, etc. are not excluded.
Existing conferences can be made more participant-driven and participation-rich by carefully incorporating peer conference process into future events. Over the years I have helped many associations successfully make this transition.
But the best time to implement Conferences That Work is at a brand-new conference! (A good example is the edACCESS peer conference, now in its 26th year, and still going strong.) Why? Because conferences are typically started when a group of people finds the need to meet for a new purpose. At that moment in time, invariably, there are no obvious experts to invite. Opening with a peer conference design allows a group of relative strangers with a common interest to make fruitful connections and learn productively about and from the expertise and experience in their midst. The experience is so powerful, that I don’t know of a group that has decided to stop using the format.
Like books, conferences are changing inexorably as new formats and technologies transform and replace the broadcast framework we’ve used for hundreds of years.
But one thing won’t change. Our conferences will still be containers for ideas. Although our conferences will become places where participants will share and co-create ideas, rather than simply listen.
As our events increasingly embrace today’s reality that knowledge is social, the ideas they contain will be those of the many, not just of the few.