We are biased against truly creative event design

We are biased against truly creative event designWe are biased against creativity. Though most people say they admire creativity, research indicates we actually prefer inside-the-box thinking.

“In an article for Slate, Jessica Olien debunks the myth that originality and inventiveness are valued in US society: “This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it.” She cites academic studies indicating that people are biased against creative minds. They crave the success of the result, but shun the process that produces it.”
—Sarah Kendzior, The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

The meeting industry is no exception. We define creativity as a subset of what is actually possible.  A “creative” event design is one with a novel venue and/or decor and lighting and/or food and beverage. Consequently, planners restrict the entire focus of creative event design to novel visual and sensory elements. The meeting industry has redefined novelty as creativity.

Truly creative event design
We are biased against truly creative event design. Watering down creativity biases stakeholders against the value and promise of truly creative event design, which:

  • Starts with the key questions “who’s it for?” and “what’s it for?”
  • Moves to “what should happen?“; and finally
  • Takes a hard look at the process changes needed to develop a more effective event.

Truly creative event design questions, for example, whether we need to have a keynote speaker, relegate significant participant discussions to breaks and socials, or supply entertainment during meals.

I’ve experienced plenty of bias against comprehensive event design since I began developing participant-driven and participation-rich meetings in 1992. Despite over 25 years’ evidence that such designs improve meetings for all stakeholders, most traditional event owners shy away from exploring change that is creatively significant. Even potential clients who are experiencing some combination of falling attendance, evaluations, or profits have a hard time facing changing what happens at their events.

Can we overcome bias against truly creative event design?
Though millions of meetings take place every year, thousands of meeting organizers know how to create truly creative conference designs. The steady rise in popularity of participant-driven and participation-rich designs like Conferences That Work continues.

We can do better than novelty at our meetings. The first step is to acknowledge our bias against creativity, and how we distract stakeholders with novelty instead. The second is to incorporate truly creative design into our events and experience the resulting benefits.

Image attribution Rob Donnelly

The creative event design tool that all #eventprofs should use

The creative event design tool that all #eventprofs should use

Here’s a powerful tool you can use to generate creative event designs.

You can use this tool for every aspect of event design. Stylists working on the look and feel of an event often use it to stimulate fresh thinking about the venue, the décor, the lighting, the food and beverage, entertainment, and so on.

Rarely, however, is this tool used to design events that creatively incorporate, illuminate, and support core desires and outcomes for the meeting.

With this tool, you can generate something truly original — like in 2009, when Jill and Kevin Heinz invented a brand new trope: the wedding entrance dance.

What’s the tool? Seth Godin gives us a clue:

Read the rest of this entry »

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!

Walking to work: loving my treadmill desk

Walking to work

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to improve my productivity. My latest discovery, which is really working for me, is a treadmill desk (shown above). Here’s why.

I’ve noticed that as I get older, regular exercise is becoming an increasingly important necessity for me to stay sharp and focused. (Here’s a New York Times article on the positive benefits of exercise on the functioning of the brain.) Walking along some of the 60 miles of dirt road in my Vermont town is my preferred exercise activity (as well as stacking wood in the spring) but bad weather can make this onerous, so five years ago I purchased a Sole F80 treadmill and used it when I couldn’t stand the thought of going outside. I didn’t use it much—about 150 miles per year.

Over the last few years I’ve seen a growing number of articles about standing and treadmill desks. Standing desks do not appeal to me; if I’m thinking on my feet I like to be moving (I often pace around the room while on a phone call). But the concept of exercising while working intrigued me. I’m writing my next book, which involves cranking out 600+ words a day until it’s done and I’d been having trouble staying focused on my writing while meeting my daily word count target. I didn’t want to exercise all day, but I thought even an hour walking while writing daily wouldn’t hurt.

Turning my treadmill into a treadmill desk

So a month ago I purchased a SurfShelf Treadmill Desk for the modest sum of $39.95.

Quite simply, this has been one of the best productivity investments I’ve ever made.

Writing while walking has turned out to be a fantastic way for me to maintain focus & creativity. I’m still using the 20+5 work sprint method that works so well for me, but the time on the treadmill flashes by and I’m eager to get back on the treadmill to write more. I have the Sole set at 1.7 miles/hour and an incline of 4%, creating a 2/3-mile walk and 100 calorie burn every twenty minutes according to the who-knows-how-accurate Sole readouts.

Walking to work

Currently, I use the treadmill for 3+ 20-minute sessions a day, equivalent to walking a couple of miles and burning 300 calories each day. Over a week, if I don’t eat more, that translates to a weight loss of about a pound, though that’s not my main objective. It will be interesting to see if I increase the number of sessions over time; I suspect I will.

The SurfShelf fits just about every treadmill, stationary exercise bike, elliptical trainers, and stair masters out there. I didn’t have much problem installing it on my Sole, though I hung it lower than recommended so my keyboard wouldn’t be too high and added a second horizontal strap from an old messenger bag around the vertical straps to cinch it in tight to the F80 faceplate.

Calling the SurfShelf a “desk” could be a little hyperbole as my 17″ laptop completely covers its work surface, leaving no room for anything else. That works for me, since I just want to write. But my large laptop does fit, and is held securely in place by a single Velcro strap that can be installed and removed in seconds. As you can see from the photo, on the Sole I’ve set the keyboard sloping forward; not ideal for typing all day, but perfectly comfortable for a few twenty minute periods with breaks.

Conclusions? As the Gizmodo SurfShelf review and the Amazon reviews indicate, I am not alone admiring this inexpensive gadget. If you have an underutilized treadmill—or can buy an inexpensive used unit—this could be a great way to increase your work productivity through increased focus and exercise. Who knows—maybe you’ll even lose a few pounds too?

How you can learn from personal stories

storyteller -maxpower- 4513002300_81ba70ab6f_bAfter I met Glenn Thayer on a warm Colorado evening a couple of months ago, I kept remembering a story that he told me about a celebrity charity event he was emceeing. This puzzled me, because the story had no obvious connection to my life or work.

Recently, I began to understand why his yarn kept popping into my head. I’ll post about Glenn’s story another time, but today I’ll write about how to learn from stories like Glenn’s.

Every day, the people in your life tell you personal stories. They might be a family anecdote, a play-by-play reenactment of last night’s game, a tale of frustration at work, or a child’s outpouring about an incident on the school playground: a unique stream of the tragic, the lighthearted, the passionate, and the mundane. Most of these stories pour through your consciousness, hover there for moments, and are gone. A few resonate in some mysterious way and stay with you for years. All of them influence you. And some of them can teach you valuable lessons—if you pay attention to them.

How can you learn from personal stories? Some, of course, have straightforward learning implications. For example, a relative’s harrowing tale of a ruined vacation due to last minute illness may encourage us to take out travel insurance, or a friend’s clear description of diagnosing a car problem may illuminate what a timing belt is and does. And here are some more, often poignant examples of learning from stories.

But what about stories that teach us important lessons in subtler ways? Sometimes we hear stories that touch us, but we don’t really know why. What can we learn when this happens?

If you are interested in exploring what you can learn from such stories, here are the three steps you must take. They may seem strange suggestions, but I vouch for their effectiveness if you are prepared to do the work.

Notice the important story
Unfortunately, there’s no universal metric that can tell us whether a particular story can teach us something that matters, because every story is contextually unique and each of us has unique lessons to learn. So, if you hear so many stories, how do you know which ones are important?

There isn’t a rational way to notice important stories. Instead, you need to cultivate your emotional intelligence, or, if you prefer the term, your intuition.

Important stories affect you at an emotional level. You live in a world that pays lip service to the rational, but, unless you’re a sociopath, you have emotional responses to your life experiences. The trick to noticing that a story is important to you is to detect that you have responded emotionally in a surprising way. An important story evokes an emotional response, and if that response does not make sense to you, there is gold you can mine from it. Glenn’s Colorado story brought up an emotional response that I didn’t understand. Noticing was all I needed to proceed to the next step.

Capture the story
Perhaps it’s my age, but I find that if I don’t capture the essence of the story so I can recall the details, the tale I’ve heard disappears, like smoke, from my memory within a day, never to reappear. So I carry around 3 x 5 cards to jot down stories and ideas I have. (I’ve also started using Simplenote on my iPad for the same purpose.) When I heard Glenn’s story, I wrote “Do you have a handler?” on a card, which was enough for me to remember his story until I got home and added the phrase plus a few notes to a file I keep of potential topics for blog posts. Now the heart of his story was captured in a place where I would see it weekly whenever I was thinking about a blogging topic.

Tease out the meaning
Teasing out the meaning of an important story is a creative exercise. When I came across Glenn’s story in my blog post pile last week, I decided to spend some time musing about it. I’ve found that the two best ways for me to go into a creative place involve either:

  • Performing mindless physical activity, like stacking wood, going for a walk, washing dishes, or taking a shower.
  • Listening to loud music that I like.

while daydreaming about the topic in question.

Your methods for stimulating your creative juices are probably different. When you’re ready, find a time and place when you won’t be interrupted and apply them. Here are some tips for making the most of your creative exploration of the story:

  • Relax, don’t have any preconceptions about what might happen—watch and listen to whatever drifts through your mind.
  • Don’t censor thoughts and images that come up, just make note of them. I like to have a pen and paper available to record what comes up.
  • Concentrate on the non-rational; you can unleash your analytical powers once your daydreaming phase is over.
  • Don’t expect to unlock all the secrets of the important story in one session. You may want to return to it in a few days to see what’s jelled, what seems important, and what now feels superficial.

I’ve learned some important things about myself and my life by examining stories that have power for me. I hope the techniques I’ve described are useful for you too.

How do you make sense of important personal stories you’ve heard? Do you have examples you’d like to share?

Image attribution: Flickr user maxpower

Lessons from improv: Be Average!

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

“The poet William Stafford used to rise every morning at four and write a poem. Somebody said to him, “But surely you can’t write a good poem every day, Bill. What happens then?” “Oh,” he said, “then I lower my standards.”
—from Radical Presence by Mary Rose O’Reilley

Patricia Madson’s fifth maxim is be average. Be average? Who wants to be average?! Hear me out.

Back in January I wrote Everyone Makes Mistakes about how many of us were taught while growing up that we had to do things perfectly in order to feel good about ourselves. Eventually I discovered this doesn’t work. The emotional stress incurred in attempting the impossible task of being perfect far outweighs any small increase in the perfection of work, and, most of the time, that same stress leads to a decrease in effectiveness. But there’s more to being average than letting go of perfectionism.

Because being average is a great approach to being creative. Here’s how.

When we’re working on being creative, there’s an assumption that we must try to come up with something that’s different, something that’s “outside the box”. Not necessarily, says Patricia Madson, and she quotes Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In other words, she suggests that we look more carefully inside the box.

When I was an information technology consultant, clients would often expect a shiny new high-tech answer to their problems. Instead I usually came up with mundane but creative solutions that took best advantage of available resources. My clients were momentarily disappointed—until they heard how inexpensive my proposals would be. (Luckily for them, I just charged for my time rather than the amount of money I saved.)

Think about Magritte’s pipe that isn’t:
pipe

or Duchamp’s Fountain:
Duchamp_Fountain

These artists expressed their creativity through household objects depicted in new ways.

One of the nice things about this kind of creativity is that we can all practice it using the gifts we already have. I find that dreaming up “way out” ideas is hard. It’s simpler for me to concentrate on seeing something familiar in a new way and be open to what pops into my consciousness.

There’s a delight in this kind of relaxed creativity. Be average and focus on the obvious. And, if nothing fantastic occurs to you right away, don’t worry.

Just lower your standards.