How to design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings

Although you’d never guess it from reading meeting industry trade journals, most meetings are small meetings, and this is a good thing if you want effective and relevant connection and learning to take place.

Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, can supply impressive spectacle, are appropriate places to launch campaigns and mass announcements, and can be very profitable. But they are poor vehicles for creating the useful participant learning, connection, and outcomes that well-designed small conferences can deliver.

So if you are (un)fortunate enough to be the owner or designer of a large meeting, what can you do to maximize participant value?

You need to satisfy four core requirements for optimum learning and connection:

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Why you should run The Solution Room at your next event

The Solution Room is rapidly becoming a popular meeting plenary. Invented at MPI’s 2011 European Meetings and Events Conference, the session fosters active meaningful connections between attendees, and provides peer support and solutions to the real professional challenges currently faced by participants.

I’ve facilitated many Solution Room sessions, and it’s been consistently rated one of the most effective and appreciated formats I use. Participants really enjoy the opportunity to meet a small group of peers in a safe, intimate, and relevant manner, and be both a consultant and a consultee on current professional challenges that each group member chooses. Here are some testimonials from an MPI session:

Unlike many participatory formats, The Solution Room scales beautifully, whether there are 30 or 1,000 people in the room. Apart from the preliminary table set up (small rounds covered with paper tablecloths), the resources needed are modest: colored Sharpies, sound reinforcement, and a good facilitator.

Although the format was originally conceived as a closing session, I’ve found it to be a great opening plenary, especially if time or space constraints prohibit running The Three Questions roundtables. By ensuring that each small group contains a mixture of newcomers, experienced, and veteran professionals, first-time attendees get to know peers with industry experience (and the veterans often learn a thing or two from the younger folks at their table).

You can tell that Solution Room sessions are a success when they end — and no one leaves. Instead, the small groups go on talking about everything they’ve discussed; they don’t want to stop sharing. I see a lot of enthusiastic business card swapping at the end, and participants have told me later that they made valuable long-term connections through the meeting and sharing that took place during the session.

Want to learn  more about how to incorporate The Solution Room into your next event? You’ll find everything you need to know to run The Solution Room in Chapter 34 of The Power of Participation. Or contact me — I’d love to facilitate a session for you!

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.


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.

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.

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.