The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

I’ve been attending conferences for over forty years. Most of them are dull and largely irrelevant. This seems to be the norm, because when you talk to attendees you find they set a low bar for satisfaction, e.g. “It’s OK if I learn one new thing a day, oh, and if I make a useful connection or two that would be great!

For twenty years I assumed this was how conferences were supposed to be. And when I began creating conferences myself, I used the same standard format: invite experts in the field to speak to audiences.

Then in 1992, circumstances forced me to do one thing different. Ever since, thanks to that happy accident, I have been designing and facilitating peer conferences that people have loved for over a quarter-century.

“…gets an award for most/best/most thoughtfully organized conference I think I’ve ever been to.”

“I’m an introvert. I’ve never shared as much at a conference before. Your process is brilliant. Thank you.”

“…the truest sense of community I’ve ever felt and it was beautiful to experience. I hope you have the opportunity to experience something like this in your lifetime. It changes everything.”
—Three recent participants on their experience at three different peer conferences

What’s the one key thing I do that almost no one else does?

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What’s better than people augmented by technology at meetings?


There’s a better way to improve meetings than augmenting them with technology. As Finnish management consultant and polymath Esko Kilpi says:

“Human beings augmented by other human beings is more important than human beings augmented by technology” —Esko Kilpi, quoted by Harold Jarche

At face-to-face meetings, facilitating relevant connections and learning around participants’ shared just-in-time wants and needs is more effective than augmenting an individual’s learning via technology. We maximize learning when:

  • Participants first become aware, collectively and individually, of the room’s wants, needs, and available expertise and experience (i.e. “the smartest person in the room is the room” — David Weinberger, Too Big To Know);
  • We use meeting process that successfully matches participants’ needs and wants with the expertise and experience available; and
  • Time and space is available for the desired learning to take place.

And of course, this approach significantly improves the quantity and quality of relevant connections made by participants during an event.

So the smart choice is to invest in maximizing peer connection and learning via simple human process rather than elaborate event technology.

I’ve been at many events where time is wasted trying to use custom apps that aim to connect attendees in some useful way. Even when high-tech approaches use a simple web-browser interface, getting 100% participation is difficult due to technical barriers: all attendees must have a digital device readily available with no low batteries or spotty/slow internet access.

Well-facilitated human process has none of these problems. The value of having a facilitator who knows how to do this work far exceeds the cost (which may be zero once you have invested in training staff to fulfill this function).

When push comes to shove, modern events thrive in supportive, participatory environments. Attendees appreciate the ease of making connections they want and getting the learning they need from the expertise and experience of their peers, and once they’ve experienced what’s possible they rarely enjoy going back to the passive meetings that were once so common.

Yes, we can use technology to augment learning. But the majority of the high-tech event solutions marketed today are inferior and invariably more costly to implement than increasing learning and connection through radically improving what happens between people at our meetings.

Everybody likes me, nobody tweets me, guess I’ll post on LinkedIn

The effectiveness of Twitter as a connective social media channel is declining
In July I wrote about why 2017 is a tipping point for Twitter, noting that the rate at which users follow established accounts has slowed dramatically. As the year draws to a close I’m seeing further evidence that conversations in the twittersphere are drying up too. 

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Six reasons to change our conferences

In my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons why the meetings industry must change conference formats to stay relevant to today’s attendees.

Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time they’ve been summarized in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.

Enjoy!

Sessions provide no connection around content
Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.

At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.

Lectures are a terrible way to learn
We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.

Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything we’ve been told. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.

The rise of online
Most broadcast content is now readily available online. Expert content is available anywhere with an internet connection, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!

Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom
Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.

Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.

Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share
Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!

Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs
Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning, and you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.

Conclusion
All of these themes are explored in detail in my first two books. To get the full story, buy ’em!

The Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

So you’re holding a conference. How are you going to get your audience tuned in and engaged?

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Guaranteeing audience engagement at your events

engagementMost people won’t ask questions at meetings. So how can you get authentic audience engagement at your events?

In a thoughtful article “Audience Engagement – at the Heart of Meetings“, Pádraic Gilligan writes:

“…We all want audience engagement so why doesn’t it take place?…While the speaker can be to blame for lack of audience engagement, in my experience, it’s usually the fault of the audience!”

I disagree.

I’ve found that lack of audience engagement is due to the generally poor process used during most meeting sessions.

A different workshop
Last Wednesday I led a two-hour workshop in Boston for 160 members of a national education association. Every participant was active during ~80% of the workshop: discovering the concerns and experience of other participants, moving around the room while forming human spectrograms to learn about each other and the group (I used three participant-created chair sets during the session) and learning and connecting around issues and topics relevant to them throughout.

The hardest task of the workshop was getting people to stop talking with each other so we could move to the next part!

Pádraic suggests that hi-tech polling methods can be used to increase engagement. I agree that such technology can help engagement, but it’s not necessary. During my workshop, I showed 12 slides, but would have been fine without them. Other technology I used included 5″x8″ cards, pens, and large post-it notes. No high tech was needed with one optional exception — we projected a Google Doc at the end, to capture and display all the group feedback during the closing public workshop evaluation.

In 25 years of experience, I’ve found that most people have a fundamental need and desire to connect with others with whom they share something in common. When you use good group process to safely facilitate appropriate connection, ~98% embrace the opportunity and learn, connect, and engage effectively with their peers. Anonymity, if needed, can be readily supplied by no-tech/low-tech process, but it turns out that it’s needed a lot less than people think.

Every person in the workshop received a copy of my book The Power of Participation, which explains why participant-driven and participation-rich sessions are so important, how to create an environment for this kind of learning, connection, engagement, and resulting action, and how and when to use a large organized compendium of appropriate process tools. The participants I spoke with after the workshop told me how excited they were: planning to read the book and start putting what they had experienced into improving their professional development work in education.

It’s possible to create amazing learning and connection though approaches I’ve outlined above. When I facilitate longer conferences I can assure you that almost everyone will ask questions in public at some point during the event.

Conclusion
If you aren’t getting excellent audience engagement, don’t blame the audience! Change the processes you use in your sessions, and engagement will be guaranteed!

You can experience how to use process tools to significantly improve the effectiveness of your sessions and events at one of my 1½-day workshops in North America and Europe. If you can’t participate in a workshop, buy a copy of The Power of Participation to learn the why, what, and how of building better learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes into your events.

Design conferences for a connection economy

Connections_17204781164_e80dd1bc82_k
Useful knowledge increasingly resides in our social networks, not in our individual heads. Consequently, we are moving from an industrial economy to a connection economy: one which creates value by concentrating on building relationships rather than stuff.

In the connection economy, there’s a dividing line between two kinds of projects: those that exist to create connections, and those that don’t.
—Seth Godin, First, connect

Are your conferences designed for a connection economy or an industrial economy?

Photo attribution: Flickr user ch-weidinger

Lessons from Anguilla: Learning from what doesn’t change

Daddy’s First Son’s dogs made me do it.

Every day of my annual visits to Anguilla, right after waking up, I’ve taken a 25-minute walk (red line below).
searocks walk 2

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.

I reluctantly changed my route.

With no alternative loop available, I chose a destination itinerary: to the tip of Island Harbour’s wharf and back.

Anguilla new walk

No more returning home via a pleasant loop, no more glimpses of Royal Seaduction—and, thankfully, no more fierce, territorial, unrestricted dogs.

The new route is longer, 40 minutes. It includes more main road, where occasionally one faces reckless Anguillian drivers speeding a little faster than pedestrians on the narrow verges like.

But there are compensating vistas: for example, the poignant Eduarlin Barber Shop:

2016-02-28 07.20.47

The Anguilla Sea Salt Company/Miniature Golf/Ice Cream Parlor Anchor Complex (how’s that for synergy?!):

2016-02-28 07.22.28

Sunny Time Grocery:

2016-02-28 07.41.56

And, of course, the beauty of Island Harbour itself.

2016-02-28 07.29.30

Island Harbour

After a week of these changed morning excursions, I am still discovering new aspects of my path—and this is sure to continue.

But what’s most important is my experience and realization of what has not changed.

The Anguillians I meet each day, whether walking past or whizzing by in their cars are still the warm, connecting people they’ve always been.

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.

Why we shouldn’t (but do) play music at conference socials

Can't hear you!Even though socials aren’t the best ways to meet new people at conferences, strong cultural pressure makes socials mandatory for most events. And if you want to make socials a maximally effective opportunity for interaction and engagement keep them music free.

Why? Well, you’d be horrified if loud construction noise invaded the ballroom at the beginning of your elegant pre-dinner mixer. Any kind of competing sound makes it harder for people to hear each other, reducing the quantity and quality of interaction. Yet plenty of meeting planners seem to believe that music acts as a kind of obligatory social lubricant when people get together. Jackhammers are not OK, but “background” music is, somehow, mysteriously exempt.

Why is music often inflicted on us during socials? While I don’t know for sure, here are a couple of misconceptions that may be to blame.

 — Music can improve creativity and enjoyment, so doesn’t it improve social situations?
Research indicates that the right kind of music can improve creativity when working and improve efficiency when performing repetitive tasks. For example, I find that listening to certain music helps me write, and improves my mood while stacking wood. So, some might conclude that playing music at socials could benefit the quality of interaction and engagement.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that social interaction is improved when music is introduced. Research findings of creativity improvements are confined to solo work. In addition, research suggests that positive effects of music depend on familiarity—i.e. music heard for the first time is not helpful—so it’s not possible to play one piece of music to a crowd of people and obtain uniformly positive results. Finally, music with lyrics is especially distracting to people trying to converse, and should be avoided.

 — Bars and restaurants play music while we drink and eat, so shouldn’t we have music during our event socials too?
Have you ever been to a bar where there wasn’t music playing or a TV on? Me neither. In my experience, the majority of restaurants play background music. Bars and restaurants are in business for people to meet socially, so surely they must have found that playing music improves customers’ social experience, or they wouldn’t do it!

Well, actually, no. Bars and restaurants play music, not for their patrons’ benefit but for their own! Background music that’s loud enough to make it challenging to talk to a friend but not loud enough to drive you out of the establishment has been shown to increase sales. From a 2008 French study“high level [sound] volume led to increase alcohol consumption and reduced the average amount of time spent by the patrons to drink their glass”. And 2008 British research concludes that “people do, at least partly, drink because they can’t talk to each other”. So the reason we’re surrounded by music in commercial social spaces is not to increase social interaction, it’s to decrease it and have consumers buy more!

We also need to bear in mind people—typically older folks like me—who have hearing loss that impedes their comprehension of conversations. Anything we can do to provide a better acoustical environment at our events will help the auditory challenged to have a better experience.

When is it OK to play music at events?
Are there times when it’s appropriate to use music during conferences? Sure. Here are some examples, feel free to add more in the comments:

  • Sessions where music is used as an important sensory, emotional, or learning component.
  • Parties! (But be sure to provide alternative quiet spaces for folks who don’t like the loud music and/or just want to talk.)
  • Corporate social responsibility and sustainability activities, especially if they involve repetitive activities—e.g. packing toys for needy kids.

In conclusion, avoid reflexively ordering music background for your events. It’s a fundamental distraction that, apart from a few specific situations, reduces communication, connection, and engagement. And, according to the above research, if you cut out the house music during the mixer, your food and beverage bill may be reduced a little too!