Three differences between genuine and phony experiential conferences

phony experiential conferences “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?

Here are three.

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What your conference evaluations are missing

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;
  • building relationships;
  • getting current professional wants and needs met; and
  • building community.

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.

Five reasons NOT to use a Conferences That Work meeting design

Conferences That Work meeting design I’ve been promoting the Conferences That Work meeting format for so long that some people assume I think it’s the right choice for every meeting. Well, it’s not. 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. Why? 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.

When simultaneously scheduled alongside traditional meeting formats

Much as I would like to tell you that participant-driven and participation-rich event formats are common these days, it just ain’t so. As a result, many conference attendees have not encountered these designs before and have not experienced how effective they can be in creating valuable connections and learning with their peers. When meeting planners add participant-driven sessions as a track to an existing schedule of traditional presentations, few attendees will pick the unfamiliar. Unfortunately, this convinces the organizers that few people are interested in these formats, reinforcing a return to a familiar predetermined program.

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.) Try 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.

I’ve run the core Conferences That Work design in a day numerous times, and it’s always a rush. A day and a half is the minimum for a group to really benefit. A peer conference design such as Open Space doesn’t need so much time—a few hours can be useful—though it omits some of the features that make Conferences That Work so effective.

Valuable peer learning and connection takes time. It’s worth it. If you don’t have enough time, a peer conference isn’t like a podcast you can speed up and still understand. Schedule the time actually needed for the process to work and wonderful things will happen. Shortchanging the time, guarantees frustrated and unhappy attendees.

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 Conferences That Work meeting design will be a poor fit. A format that does not reinforce their dominance threatens high status individuals.

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. You can easily integrate traditional conference elements into the design, like keynotes, up-to-the-minute research findings, recognition ceremonies, and social events, etc.

You can make existing conferences 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 people typically create new conferences when they find 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.

Image attribution: Flickr user apionid

Conferences are containers for ideas

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Conferences are containers for ideas.

“Books, those bound paper documents, are part of an ecosystem, one that was perfect, and one that is dying, quickly…

…We still need ideas, and ideas need containers.”
Seth Godin, An End of Books

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.

Photo attribution: Flickr user nanpalmero

Another way to make conferences memorable

I have great respect and admiration for those event designers who can make conferences memorable by creating spectacle and wonder through a creative fusion of decor, environment, flow, entertainment, and technical production.

Concentrating on these issues (and filling the holes) is especially appropriate when the process is a human ritual, like a meal, a wedding, or an awards ceremony. We know what happens at such events. We will serve food and drink. Two people will join in matrimony. And worthies will be honored, all in ways that are familiar components of our cultural experience. These processes have been performed countless times before. So, provided the food tastes good, the best man remembers the ring, and the speeches don’t go on too long, convention will be satisfied and the event will be deemed a “success”, at least as far as its process is concerned.

The challenge of ritual events

When we use a ritual event process, the only way left to distinguish the event from a myriad of others is to create spectacle through creative decor, environment, flow, entertainment, and technical production. And this is tough. That’s why, when someone comes up with a new creative wrinkle, like the JK Wedding Dance we’re all pretty impressed:

Another way

I tip my hat to those who can create impressive spectacle at a ritual event. But not all events are ritual events. Conferences—events that are fundamentally about people meeting around a common interest—are about getting content and connection around that common interest, whether it be particle physics, comic books, garden center management, or improv. Many conferences, however, try to be memorable by concentrating on the same elements of spectacle as ritual events.

I’ve already written about one way to make your conferences memorable: give your attendees time and a supportive conference environment to tell their stories to each other. Well, there’s another way, as suggested by this Tim Brown aphorism:

“Design behaviors, not objects.”
—From a blog post by David Weinberger about a talk given by industrial designer Tim Brown of Ideo

Conferences don’t have to be ritual events!

The mistake we make with conferences is to treat them as though they have to be ritual events. (Welcome, keynote, plenaries, breakouts, nice dinner, plenary, breakouts, motivational closing session—sound familiar?)

At ritual events the process is more or less prescribed, so we have to concentrate on the event trappings to make our event memorable.

Conferences don’t need to be ritual events! No one needs to marry at a conference. Conferences are not fundamentally about eating a great meal or awards. The sad reality is that we run the majority of conferences as ritual events either because the organizers have never considered an alternative or they are scared to do something different.

The routine behavior at most conferences is that of sitting and listening to someone talk. Passive listening is the core ritual process that pervades conferences. The more we buy in to this ritual, the more we feel the need to spice up our event.

But we do not have to stay bound to the listen-to-the-speaker ritual at our conferences. Once we escape the notion that there are only a few “correct” (in reality “feel safe”) ways to run conferences we can move our focus from designing memorable trappings to designing creative process, which leads to creative behaviors and consequent memorable experiences at our conferences.

Making conferences memorable

You don’t need to include an elaborately choreographed, surprise dance extravaganza to make your next conference memorable. Some of the best conferences I’ve ever attended took place in ghastly, windowless, and anonymous hotel conference rooms. They weren’t memorable because of the environment (except in a negative sense); they were memorable because their process led to intense interaction, powerful learning, and a ton of fun.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with providing a great environment as well as great process at our conferences. At the San Francisco Applied Improv Network 2012 World Conference (AIN12), the window wall on one side of the main conference room gave us a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge. And Greens’ Restaurant and fine food trucks were a minute’s walk away. These amenities didn’t hurt. But what was far more important in my experience was that during the four-day conference we never spent more than fifteen minutes listening to anyone. We were interacting, playing, and exploring new possibilities with each other the whole time.

When you stop seeing conferences as a ritual event, you open up a whole new realm of possibilities for making your event memorable. A few examples: the simple improv games at the AIN12 welcome reception; the Spot The Fed contest at DEFCON; or the simulation workshops at the AYE Conference. No longer restricted to traditional formats, these and many other conferences provide memorable experiences by facilitating novel ways for people to be with each other, interact, connect, and learn.

You can do it too.

The effects of three centuries on our conferences

“Our organizations are built on 19th century learning styles coupled by 20th century leadership models fused with 21st century technologies.”
—Dan Pontefract, Future of Work

Replace “organizations” with “conferences” in Dan’s great quote, and you encapsulate much of what is wrong with conferences today.

What are you going to do about it?

(Ironic) Powerpoint photo courtesy of Flickr user wmcap