Improve meetings by de-emphasizing old-school status

Improve meetings by de-emphasizing old-school statusYou can improve meetings by de-emphasizing status.

Apart from my first book, I haven’t written much about status at events. It’s time to revisit this important topic.

I think about status at events as the relative levels of proclaimed or perceived social value assigned to or assumed by attendees.

There are two key kinds of event status — let’s call them old-school and real-time.

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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.

Design conferences for a connection economy

conferences connection economy
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

Do you design your conferences for a connection economy or an industrial economy?

Photo attribution: Flickr user ch-weidinger

Give attendees experiences, not things

Give attendees experiences not thingsGive attendees experiences, not things.

Branded pens, tee shirts, mugs, tote bags, water bottles, and other tchotchkes are scattered around my home. Piled on shelves, they are eventually consigned to oblivion without a thought. Yes, it’s hard to attend a typical conference and not walk away with schwag.

All these promotional “things” cost organizers and sponsors significant money. Is this the best way to spend money on attendees?

I’d argue—and research backs me up—that giving relevant, immersive, interactive experiences instead of presents leads to superior long-term outcomes for both participants and conference stakeholders.

Cornell psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar found that:

“…experiential purchases (money spent on doing) tend to provide more long-lasting hedonic benefits than material purchases (money spent on having…”

“…the satisfaction [experiences] provide endures by fostering successful social relationships, by becoming a more meaningful part of one’s identity, by being less susceptible to unfavorable and unpleasant comparisons, and by not lending themselves to deflating regrets of action.”
We’ll Always Have Paris: The Hedonic Payoff from Experiential and Material Investments, Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar

Let’s look at the benefits of providing great experiences at conferences.

Fostering successful social relationships

Giving everyone the same tee shirt to wear at an event doesn’t generally foster anything except a kind of uniformity. But have you ever kept an event-themed tee shirt and worn it with pride long after the event was over? If so, you’re undoubtedly doing so because the tee shirt is a representation and reminder of a great experience. For example: that Feb. 14, 1968 amazing Grateful Dead concert at the Carousel Ballroom, or the communal excitement of Spot-The-Fed at Def Con 15 that says to the world “I was there! Were you?”

Experiencing something remarkable together bonds participants. For example, it’s no accident that many of the folks who participated in EventCamp 2010 and EventCamp East Coast are still in touch years after these experimental and experiential event industry conferences. We participated in something new together, and the memories and connections made still have power.

Powerful experiences have few downsides

Part of the reason we seem to get such little enduring satisfaction from possessions is that we quickly habituate to them. That moment when you unbox the latest iPhone you’ve just bought may be exciting; using it six months later, not so much. Even if an experience is negative, going through it with others provides bonding.

Everyone who was present remembers the communication problems that surfaced at the close of EventCamp Twin Cities in 2011—either because they were helpless with laughter at the comic scene that unfolded or because they were frantically trying to make things work. As Gilovich and Kumar say, “Even a bad experience becomes a good story.”

Fear Of Missing Out motivates!

Finally, research indicates that Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) can be an important motivator for experiential sessions at events. Again, Gilovich and Kumar: “…material purchases tend to prompt regrets of action, whereas experiential purchases are more likely to lead to regrets of inaction.”

Translation: Marketing the appropriate, exciting, and fun experiences you will be offering at your conference is a much more effective way to get registrants than to promise them schwag.

To conclude

I have seen so many useful, important, and long-term connections made through relevant, experiential, participatory conference activities. The resulting connected souls become champions of your event: the core of an engaged and loyal conference community that returns year after year and encourages other peers to attend. Investing in experiences, not things, at your events is a smart choice. So, the next time you’re considering providing promotional items to attendees, you might want to allocate some or all of your schwag budget to well-designed event experiences instead.

Photo attribution: Flickr user shahiran83

Two ways to make conferences better

make conferences better Attendees talking 7088326883_a77ef0d148_o

How can we make conferences better? Samantha Whitehorn of ASAE’s Associations Now recently wrote an interesting article on new staff roles for meetings and events and I’ve picked out two of her suggestions to comment on:

Attendee Concierge

“Full disclosure: I pretty much stole this one from our June Associations Now cover story about Terry Fong, member concierge for the California Dental Association, who calls 1,000 new members each year to welcome them and ask, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

What if you had a staffer call all new attendees after your meetings and ask them what they liked most and least about the meeting and what else you could be doing to get them to register for the meeting again?

You could also use a similar role onsite and assign new attendees to attendee concierges—in this case, maybe extra staff or member volunteers—and have them check-in with attendees throughout the meeting and then follow-up after.”

I think it’s crucial to check in with attendees during an event. This is something that I’ve done for years—and it’s easy to do. I like to concentrate on attendees I don’t know (the one’s I do are probably going to bend my ear anyway) and ask how the event is going for them. And listen. Do this and you’ll get tons of good in-the-moment feedback, build goodwill and relationships with the people you talk to, and get occasional opportunities to answer questions and solve problems they mention while the event’s still going on, rather than having to wait until next year. Don’t just ask new attendees, by the way; returning attendees can have equally valuable feedback for you. And take notes promptly so what you hear doesn’t evaporate from your brain from the conference heat.

Conference Connector

“I’ve blogged before about how the association education model needs an overhaul where the focus is put more on attendees learning and connecting with one another rather than just speakers on a stage or in front of a room.

At ASAE’s 2013 Great Ideas Conference, Thom Singer, served as “Conference Catalyst.” Over the course of the meeting, he gave attendees networking tips and helped them to engage and connect with one another. And at the California Society of Association Executives’ Annual Conference in April, Jeff Hurt served in a similar role, helping attendees keep the conversation and learning going between sessions and during lunch by having organized chats about what they recently learned.

What if you had a full-time staff person who helped form these small-group discussions to not only help members engage but also to help process and remember what they learned in the larger sessions?”

Thom and Jeff are doing great work around this important topic. But rather than simply adding opportunities for connection piecemeal into our events we can make conferences even better. We can build opportunities for meaningful connections right into our entire event design. This means that we need to adopt meeting and session formats throughout our events. Formats that facilitate effective participation, connection, and engagement in the sessions themselves. We’ve known for years that the learning and connections that occur when we do this are far superior to what happens at traditional meetings. This is not rocket science—I’ve been designing and facilitating meetings like this for over twenty years. Participants love them. And more and more of them are taking place, all over the world. Let’s do this!

Photo attribution: Flickr user michigancommunities

Prepare workers for the new economy with connection-rich conferences

prepare workers danah boyd
danah boyd

Tomorrow’s workers will challenge today’s organizations

How can we best prepare workers for our rapidly changing economy? A presentation at ASTD TechKnowledge 2013 by social media scholar danah boyd (she doesn’t capitalize her name)—“Networked Norms: How Tomorrow’s Workers Will Challenge Today’s Organizations”is well worth reading in full. danah discusses ways in which old organizational models “are being challenged and disrupted by communities who don’t take the bounded logic of the organization for granted”:

“…if you want to prepare people not just for the next job, but for the one after that, you need to help them think through the relationships they have and what they learn from the people around them. Understanding people isn’t just an HR skill for managers. For better or worse, in a risk economy with an increasingly interdependent global workforce, these are skills that everyday people need. Building lifelong learners means instilling curiosity, but it also means helping people recognize how important it is that they continuously surround themselves by people that they can learn from. And what this means is that people need to learn how to connect to new people on a regular basis.”

Prepare workers for a connection-rich future

How can workers learn to connect to new people regularly? The best way is to give them plenty of opportunities to safely practice. And what better place than a conference of their peers?

Sadly, most conferences provide no support for making connections. It’s assumed that all that needs to be done is to bringing people together in one place and include a few ineffective mixers and socials. As a result, any connections that attendees make at such events are almost completely via their own efforts.

Luckily it’s easy to do better. Here are three ways to create a supportive conference environment for connection that will greatly increase the quantity, appropriateness, and quality of the connections your participants make. Integrate them into your conferences, and participants (and their organizations) will be better able to survive in tomorrow’s economy. These days, maintaining the traditional conference environment is doing your attendees a disservice. As danah pointedly asks at the end of her talk:

“…my question to you is simple: are you preparing learners for the organizational ecosystem of today? Or are you helping them develop networks so that they’re prepared for the organizational shifts that are coming?”

A hat tip to Harold Jarche for the reference to danah’s presentation!

Two ways to create better connections at a seated meal

connections at a seated meal
This is NOT the MPI CBS dinner. To protect the guilty, no photos were taken.

How can we create better connections at a seated meal?

I was lucky enough to be at the above-tweeted Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Chapter Business Summit dinner last week. (Boy, can those MPI folks party!) Despite significant brain haze caused by surprise free rounds of José Cuervo (thank you Araceli Ramos!) and port (anonymous benefactor, thank you!) I noticed two ways to create better connections during our boisterous dinner.

About twenty of us were seated at one long table in the private room at Bob’s Steakhouse in The Dallas Omni. Even if the acoustics had been perfect and your intrepid correspondent was not going deaf, that was far too many to hear the many conversations occurring around and across the entire table.

For a while I enjoyed myself immensely getting to know my immediate neighbors (hi, Sherrie Hill & Jo-Anne Rockwood!) but connecting reliably with people further away seemed impossible.

Connection improvement number one

Suddenly, Cindy D’Aoust, the MPI COO seated two chairs away from me, clinked her wineglass, got us to quieten down for a moment, and made a simple suggestion. She asked everyone to share about themselves for a few minutes. Each person got to choose who spoke next.

What happened then was delightful. There were a huge variety of responses—informative, unexpected, funny—and we learned a great deal about who was there. There were a lot of interesting people around that table. And we would never have got to know them all without Cindy’s request. As the drinks took effect, latecomers started to join us from other dinners, and they too were encouraged to share about themselves (with many showing off a brief dance move—don’t ask).

If you have a larger gathering with diners seated at separate tables, I suggest that this be done at each table. This avoids the attempts at shout-across-the-round conversations that severely frustrate yours truly (and, I suspect, many others).

Connection improvement number two

Later in the evening’s proceedings Ruud Janssen suggested that the ladies stand and change places so we would all get new conversational partners. Ruud’s normally persuasive manner did not sway us on this occasion. But he immediately reminded me of this other great option for increasing networked conversations that I first encountered at the FRESH dinner at EIBTM 2011. This dinner meeting embodies what Maarten Vanneste calls CLAMP, where the “M” stands for “Mixing”:

M: Mix participants: after each course half the participants (e.g. all the men) change places. Conversation varies and networking is optimal

This is a great way to mix up diners during a meal. It creates a complete set of new conversation partners. I experienced it at the FRESH dinner and it works!


So there you have it: two simple ways to increase the number of connections at a seated meal. Do you have more ideas?

Photo credit: Flickr user tnoc (aka Ruud Janssen!)