What led to writing the book, Conferences that Work?
I invented the format by accident 26 years ago when there were no expert speakers to invite for a conference on administrative computing issues in small schools. We needed a format that would allow a room of strangers to learn about each other and the issues we were interested in by using the expertise in the room.
I asked people, “If this conference could be amazing for you, what would it be about?” Then I built a program around those topics, with people in the room leading impromptu sessions. Often, the results are unexpected. The sessions are not polished; there is no PowerPoint. Often it is more like a discussion than a presentation, but that is why it is effective. My research shows that asking in advance doesn’t work. At traditional conferences with fixed programs set in advance, at best half of sessions offered are what attendees want.
That participant-driven conference is still going as a four-day program, with sessions generated over the first half-day.
I discovered that people love the format, and that led to writing the book 10 years ago. I was an amateur in the meeting industry, and that led to some mistakes, but it also gave me a fresh perspective at a time when meeting design wasn’t really a “thing.”
“Design is how it works” is the favorite thing Apple software engineer Ken Kocienda heard Steve Jobs say.
“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it [a product] looks like. People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are headed this box and told, “Make it look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.“ —Steve Jobs, The Guts of a New Machine, 2003 New York Times interview
If only we applied Steve’s insight to event design.
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:
Do your conference programs include pre-scheduled sessions you belatedly discover were of little interest or value to most attendees? If so, you’re wasting significant stakeholder and attendee time and money — your conference is simply not as good as it could be.
Now imagine you could learn how to routinely create conference programs that reliably include the sessions attendees actually want and need? If you could create amazing conference programs that don’t waste attendee time? How much value would that add to your event; for your attendees, your sponsors, and your bottom line?
Every day I receive a barrage of pitches for event technologies. Each one markets digital tools, like apps for marketing, registration, venue booking, staffing, sponsorship, engagement, etc. Newcomers to the meeting industry who experience this onslaught could be forgiven for believing that digital software and hardware technologies are the only tools available and worth considering for meeting improvement.
The reason that digital tool marketing fills event professionals’ mailboxes and feeds is simply that there’s money to make by selling these technologies. Much more money than from tools like the participation techniques covered in my book The Power of Participation, which require either no “technology” at all or inexpensive tools like paper, Sharpies®, and Post-it® notes.
Yes, digital event technology has had a big positive impact on events. For example, no one (except the companies that printed them) regrets the demise of the massive printed conference guides that attendees had to drag around, most attendees appreciate the quantity and timeliness of information available on their mobile devices from well-designed event apps, and voting apps and throwable microphones allow greater interaction between presenters and audiences.
Nevertheless, in my experience, the human process tools I’ve been using and improving for the last twenty-five years provide more benefits more effectively (and, obviously, at lower cost) than current digital tools.
Let me illustrate with a current story taken from one of my earlier careers.
A massive difference
Before accidentally entering the meeting industry, I spent twenty-three years as an independent information technology consultant. During this period I was an active member of the global software development community and my friends included some of the leading practitioners of this challenging art.
Large software projects involve teams of programmers who work together to develop complex systems where a single error can have far-reaching consequences. Everyone makes mistakes, and one of the hardest tasks when developing software in teams is to implement design process that provides the required system functionality while minimizing flaws. Because the system implementation is constantly changing during development, continual software testing is an essential component of the whole process.
As you might expect, software developers are leading-edge creators of software tools. Sophisticated code repositories, automated testing suites, and complex project management tools are routinely used and constantly improved.
And yet, it turns out, some of the most important tools are not digital. Here’s an illustrative tweet from Mathew Cropper, an Irish software developer, and a follow-up response from Canadian consultant Dave Sabine.
“Last week we moved from a purely digital backlog to using a physical wall. The quality of conversation improved massively. It’s like talking with a different group of people.” —Mathew Croppertweet
“If a team hasn’t yet tried a big, visible, physical wall of roadmaps/backlog/tasks… then any discussion about digital tools is like buying new tennis shoes in order to quit smoking.” —David Sabinetweet
The most sophisticated digital tools that money can buy are no match for a wall full of sticky notes!
Successful process for software development and meetings
There are many reasons why a wall of sticky notes is a useful and powerful tool for successful team software development and effective conference program crowdsourcing and engagement. Both human process environments thrive because a sticky note wall provides:
One place to easily capture every piece of information that any individual thinks is relevant;
A public display of information that many people can easily view simultaneously for as long as needed;
Simple public manipulation options, such as note clustering, inclusion/exclusion, ranking, and public modification;
Somewhere for appropriate people to document and discuss progress and develop and implement process; and
A natural focus for easy spontaneous conversation, communication, and creativity.
It’s hard for current digital tools to provide any of these benefits as simply and well. Let’s compare for each of the points above:
Information capture: Wall requires writing with pens on sticky notes. Digital tools require access to a digital device for each attendee plus the interface knowledge necessary to use it.
Public display: Wall requires a flat surface for notes. Digital tools require a BIG (expensive) screen.
Public manipulation options: At the wall simply pick up a note and move it. Digital tools would require a big touch screen plus some form of note-dragging interface. [aka Minority Report wizardry]
Document and discussing progress & implementing process: Wall layout can easily be repurposed/redesigned whenever needed to accommodate different process tools such as project management or ranking to-dos. Digital tools typically require specific process techniques to be precoded.
Focus for conversation, communication, and creativity: Walls provide all the above functionality simply and in ways accessible to any attendee. So they are natural foci for conversation, experimentation, and creativity. The barriers listed above for digital tools make them far less accessible for such purposes.
How do we build conference programs that attendees actually want and need? Since 1992 I’ve experimented with multiple methods to ensure that every session is relevant and valuable. Here’s what happened when I incorporated dot voting into a recent two-day association peer conference.
Here’s a real-life example of how to crowdsource a conference program in real-time.
In May 2017 Liz Lathan, Tom Spano, and Nicole Osibodu invited me to design and facilitate the session crowdsourcing at the first Haute Dokimazo unconference in Austin, Texas. Eighty invited participants from around the U.S. spent a joyful and productive day at the Austin Children’s Museum’s Thinkery where we crowdsourced a program focusing on event portfolio needs and wants of brands and agencies.
Watch this three-minute video for a taste of the event — then read on to learn how we crowdsourced the program.
Every peer conference has an arc that includes and integrates three elements: a beginning, middle (the program itself), and end (reflecting, evaluating, and developing individual and group outcomes & next steps). The beginning is when crowdsourcing takes place. Before crowdsourcing it’s critical that participants get to learn about each other as much as possible in the time available. The best way I know to support initial inter-participant learning and connection is The Three Questions process I devised in 1995 (see my books for full details).
After quickly introducing and having the group commit to six agreements to follow at the event, we had forty-five minutes available for The Three Questions. To ensure each person had time to share, we split the participants into four equal sized groups. Facilitators, trained the previous evening, led each group.
Once group members had learned about each other, we reconvened to crowdsource the afternoon program.
How we crowdsourced the Haute Dokimazo program
Crowdsourcing took just 25 minutes. Participants used large colored Post-it™ notes to submit session topics. We used pink notes for offers to facilitate or lead a session, and other colors for wants, as explained in the diagram below.
We read the topics aloud as they came in. Once we had everyone’s responses, the participants left for their morning workshops. Meanwhile Liz Lathan and I moved the note collection to a quiet space, clustered them…
…and worked out what we were going to run, who would facilitate or lead each the session, and where it would be held.
The resulting sessions
During lunch we checked that the session leaders we’d chosen were willing and available for the schedule we’d created. Finally, we created a slide of the resulting sessions. We added it to the conference app, and projected the afternoon program on a screen during lunch.
This is just one way to crowdsource a conference program in real-time. Want a comprehensive resource on creating conference programs that become what your attendees actually want and need? My next book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need contains everything you need to know. Learn more, and be informed when it’s published in 2019.
So many conferences are a collection of unrelated sessions. But the June 2015 PCMA Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale showed how a coherent set of meeting goals can be embedded in a congruent conference arc, improving learning and connection amongst attendees. Here’s how PCMA connected the dots.
PCMA Education Conference design and duties
Although PCMA asked me to be the “conference facilitator” and “connect the dots” for EduCon, most of the credit for the conference design goes to the PCMA team. Pre-conference collaboration with the team was a pleasure.
My consequent jobs over the three days of conference sessions were to:
open and close the conference;
interview John Medina on stage and at a “deep dive” breakout;
facilitate a closing public evaluation of the conference.
The conference boasted a record 675 attendees, plus several hundred following the live stream. Being up on stage so much, interviewing, and providing event continuity for as many as a thousand people was a new experience for me—definitely risky learning! Connecting the dots immediately after presentations is hard when you don’t know what presenters are going to say!
When I accepted the offer of facilitating the conference, I only had a rough outline of the presentations. I wondered about the content/learning arc of the event. To my pleasant surprise, EduCon delivered a coherent set of sessions that shared common themes around predetermined goals.
At the opening I told a story and shared the EduCon design goals: experiential learning, risky learning experiments, and meaningful engagement. I’ll use [EL], [RL], and [ME] respectively to indicate how these three themes were woven throughout the event.
John Medina’s opening session immediately touched on some of these themes. He described how prospect-refuge theory suggests that a mixture of private and public spaces provides an optimum environment for events, balancing the needs for safety [RL], frankness, growth and confidentiality with the openness required to spread content.
John also spoke about the importance of high Theory Of Mind—the ability to reason about the mental states of others, what some might call empathy—for creating effective work teams that have high collective intelligence. (There’s a great test of your Theory of Mind ability Reading The Mind In The Eyestake it for free here!) It turns out that women have better theory of mind than men, which is perhaps why there are so many female meeting professionals—empathy is important in our industry [ME].
Interviewing John—who must surely be the easiest person in the world to interview—was a blast! I had 15 minutes with him on stage, followed by 75 minutes in a breakout. For the breakout I simply had the audience sit in curved theater seating facing John and me plus a couple of empty chairs. Audience members with questions walked to the front of the room and talked with him. We could have easily spent another hour with John.
Read my earlier post to learn more about the session crowdsourcing experiment I facilitated the following morning, which incorporated all three goals for the event [EL] [RL] [ME]. A few of the sessions chosen:
Women’s leadership in the event industry (described to me afterwards by several participants in glowing terms);
Cultural issues in international meetings (run by Eli Gorin, who seemed very pleased); and
Selling sponsorship (held in the round).
The personal introspective
After lunch I facilitated a personal introspective breakout session [EL] [RL] [ME], which provided participants the opportunity to think about what they had experienced so far, how their experiences might impact their life, and what changes they might want to make as a result. Afterwards, I received the same feedback independently from many people. They had gone into the session thinking they had little to say, and discovered during the process that there was a lot to get excited about. I have heard this kind of feedback for many years now. Nevertheless, it’s still gratifying to hear the conversation volume rise steadily and observe the palpable reluctance of people to leave their small groups when the session is over.
I attended a few of the other breakout sessions during the conference, and observed a good mixture of [EL], [RL], and [ME] in all of them. The interactivity of the sessions I witnessed was unusually high for a meeting industry conference. All the presenters I talked to had incorporated trying something new during their sessions.
The gift of failure
The second plenary speaker, Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise, spoke to several themes related to the “gift of failure”:
the “deliberate amateur” who avoids the traditional route of learning [RL];
the need for “private domains” that allow creativity to flourish [EL]; and
the “supple grit” needed to know when to keep working on an idea and when to stop before the work becomes dysfunctional persistence [EL].
A group spective
On the final day of EduCon I ran a public evaluation of the conference in 45 minutes using plus/delta. Having attendees publicly evaluate a conference they have just experienced was clearly an [RL] activity! I think it went well; the scribes’ Google doc summary (projected in real time as the session took place) gives a taste…
Our fear of change
The first question Sarah was asked at the conclusion of her talk was on overcoming fear [RL], which segued nicely into the subject matter of the closing session by Mel Robbins, author of Stop Saying You’re Fine. Mel delved deep (and interactively) [ME] [EL] into our fear of change and introduced her 5 second rule—if you have a game-changer impulse, act on it within five seconds or else it dies [RL]—another formulation of improv’s “say yes”.
Mel closed with a powerful call to action, a key component of a compelling conference arc, to take ownership of our lives. After this powerful session, I made brief closing remarks, pointing out how PCMA’s conference goals had been achieved. Finally I asked the audience to stand and applaud themselves, as the people who, collectively, through their own interactions, risk taking, and engagement had made the achievement of those goals possible.
It felt good!
Awesome photo of me at 2015 PCMA EduCon taken by and licensed from Jacob Slaton!
Less perfection, more risky learning — an experiment
Right after the 2015 PCMA Education Conference Tuesday breakfast, I facilitated an experiment that allowed 675 meeting planners to choose sessions they would like to hold. In 45 minutes, hundreds of suggestions were offered on sticky notes. A small team of volunteers then quickly clustered the topics on a wall, picked a dozen, found leaders, and scheduled them in various locations around the Broward County Convention Center during a 90 minute time slot after the lunch the same day. The experiment was a great success; all the sessions were well attended, and, from the feedback I heard, greatly enjoyed and appreciated. Many people came up to me afterwards and told me how surprised they were that such a simple process could speedily add 50% more excellent sessions to the 21 pre-scheduled sessions.
Our desire for perfection
All of us who plan meetings have an understandable desire for everything to be perfect. We strive mightily to not run out of coffee, comprehensively rehearse the show flow, allow for rush hour traffic between the day and evening venues, devise in advance alternative plans B -> Z, and anticipate a thousand other logistical concerns. And every planner knows that, during every event, some things will not go according to plan. So we pride ourselves on dealing with the unexpected and coming up with creative solutions on the fly. That’s our job, and we (mostly) love doing it—otherwise we’d probably be doing something less stressful, e.g. open-heart surgery.
Aiming for perfection is totally appropriate for the logistical aspects of our meetings. But when applied to other aspects of our meeting designs—little things like, oh, satisfying meeting objectives—we end up with meetings that are invariably safe at the expense of effectiveness.
Perfect is the ideal defense mechanism, the work of Pressfield’s Resistance, the lizard brain giving you an out. Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important). —Seth Godin, Abandoning perfection
We took a risk on a less-than-perfect outcome at our PCMA Education Conference crowdsourcing experiment. “What if hardly anyone suggests a topic?” “What if one or more of the participant-chosen sessions turns out be a dud, or nobody shows up?” “Suppose we underestimate the popularity of a session, and the scheduled space is too small to hold it?” (In fact, due to the limited locations available, we had to hold several sessions in one large room, and there was some auditory overlap that had to be minimized by a quick seating rearrangement. Lesson learned for next time!)
This is a superior kind of learning—risky learning. We try new things with the certainty that we will learn something different. Perhaps we’ll learn something important that we would not have learned via a “safe” process. And we are prepared for the possibility to “fail” in ways that teach us something new and fresh about our process.
I’ve been running crowdsourcing of conference sessions for over twenty years. So I was confident that there would not be a shortage of session topic suggestions. But I had never before run crowdsourcing with 600+ participants. Could I get their input in 45 minutes? Would a small group be able to cluster all the suggestions in another 30 minutes, pick out juicy, popular topics, and then be able to find session leaders & facilitators and schedule all sessions before lunch?
We took a risk trying new things, and I appreciate the conference committee’s support in letting me do so. The end result was a great learning experience for the participants, both in the individual sessions offered and the experience of the process used to create them. And we learned a few things about how to make the process better next time.
How much risk?
So we need less perfection, more risky learning at our meetings. But how much risky learning should we incorporate into our events? There’s no one right answer to this question. Ultimately, you have to decide what level of risk you, your clients and your participants are willing to accept. A healthy discussion with all stakeholders will help ensure that everyone’s on board with what you decide. But, whatever your situation, don’t aim for perfection, or playing it safe.
Build as much risky learning as you can into your events. I think you’ll find the resulting outcomes will surprise and satisfy you.