How to use dot voting to choose the sessions your attendees need and want

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.

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How to crowdsource conference sessions in real-time

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.

Pre-crowdsourcing work
Every peer conference has an arc that includes and integrates three elements: a beginningmiddle (the program itself), and end (reflecting, evaluating, and developing individual and group outcomes & next steps).

The beginning is when crowdsourcing takes place, and 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, each led by facilitators I had trained the previous evening.

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. Pink notes were used for offers to facilitate or lead a session, and other colors were used for wants, as explained in the diagram below.

As topics came in, they were read out aloud. Once we had everyone’s responses, the participants left for their morning workshops while 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, added it to the conference app, and projected the afternoon program on a screen in the lunch area.

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 The Little Book of Event Crowdsourcing Secrets contains everything you need to know. Learn more, and be informed when it’s published in 2018.

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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Recipe for better meetings: less perfection, more risky learning

London Underground sign
London Underground sign

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.

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, and 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.

Here’s what the guy I quote more than anyone else in this blog has to say on the topic of perfection:

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?” “What if 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 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.

So 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—and 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, and I think you’ll find the resulting outcomes will surprise and satisfy you.

Tip: How to live blog a public conference session without going crazy

Here’s a simple idea, courtesy of edACCESS colleague Bill Campbell, that can come in real handy when you want to cover a public conference presentation or session without devoting most of your time to keeping up with what the speaker or participants are saying.

Crowdsource your event recording! How? Before the session, create a public Google Doc, shorten the weblink to the document, and publish the shortened URL on the Twitter feed for the event and/or on the projection screen in the room before the session starts, together with a request to help out with session notes. Anyone with the web link will be able to log in and help share the work of documenting the session.

Photo attribution: Flickr user catspyjamasnz

Crowdsourced site visit toolkit

toolbox - davemott - 4257800537_650aff5085_oI’ve just returned from a site visit for a June 2011 event in New Jersey, and on the drive home I thought it would be interesting to share the tools I bring when I’m checking out a possible location for an event.

And then I had a better idea.

Why not create a site visit toolkit that all event professionals could add to and improve?

With the wonders of Google Docs, this is an easy thing to do.

So, here’s the crowdsourced site visit toolkit. I’ve seeded it with my tools, but I’m sure there are plenty of neat tools and tips that I’ve missed that would improve the list. As far as I’m concerned, “tools” is defined loosely—feel free to add anything you’ve found useful when conducting a site visit for an upcoming event. You can add links to appropriate products and services that you’ve found useful with the Google Docs link buttonbutton on the Google Docs toolbar, and I’ve suggested a way to add tips as well.

I’ll leave the list as a publicly available document, though I may close it to further edits after contributions fall off.

So, crowdsource away!

(And don’t forget to add your name to the list of contributors!)

Image attribution: Flickr user davemott