Here’s a teaser: the introduction to my new book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need. Interested? Then buy the book!
I’ve always been curious. I’ve always wanted to understand the world I found myself living in.
As a child growing up in England, I was driven to study physics, the most fundamental science. Physics was a way of looking at the world that perhaps had the greatest chance of explaining the mysteries of the universe to me. By the age of twenty-five I had worked on a key neutrino experiment at CERN, the European particle accelerator, and received a Ph.D. for my efforts.
But a funny thing happened along the way. I became increasingly curious about people. The neutrino research was a collaboration of eighty scientists and hundreds of support personnel from five different countries. The social and cultural differences that shaped our frequent meetings fascinated me. Heated discussions about how we should proceed and whose names should go on our journal articles flared and sputtered. I marveled at the energy scientists poured into the politics of their work. Their passions frequently distracted and detracted from the science we were exploring.
Understanding people better became important to me. I immigrated to the United States after falling in love with Vermont, a rural state with no opportunity to continue the big-lab science path I’d been traveling. I embarked on a series of careers that increasingly integrated my technical background with working with people: owning and managing a solar energy business, teaching computer science at a liberal arts college, and consulting in information technology.
I love that the Rover that landed on Mars this month is called Curiosity. It speaks to a fundamental aspect of being human, a drive that makes us build an incredible machine and send it 350 million miles to explore another world. And yet…
“From the perspective of evolution [curiosity] appears to be something of a mystery. We associate evolution with ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ traits that support the essentials of day-to-day survival and reproduction. So why did we evolve to waste so much time? Shouldn’t evolution have selected for a species which was – you know – a bit more focussed?” —Tom Stafford in a recent BBC Future column.
“Why are we so curious?” asks Tom (who’s a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield by the way, hence the British spelling.) He explains:
“The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species called neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the ‘retention of juvenile characteristics’. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals…Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny…And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.”
You’re probably thinking: what has this got to do with conference design? Just one more quote from Tom:
“Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future…Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.”
A much better alternative is to create a conference that 1) addresses the issues that participants really want to learn about and 2) uncovers the interesting topics, knowledge, and experience that individual attendees possess that are of value to a significant number of their peers. That’s what well-designed participant-driven and participation-rich events do. Curiosity needed and evoked: lots!
If we are wired to be curious, let’s stop running conferences that attempt to control our learning. Instead, let’s create conferences that feed our curiosity. Our events will be all the better for it.
“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.” —Linus Pauling
When I was a graduate student I used to dislike going to academic conferences. Despite having won a senior scholarship to Oxford University I was scared of walking into a room of people I didn’t know and trying to start up conversations. When I sat next to random folks at lunch and we talked, I always had the sneaking suspicion that there were probably other people present at the conference whose company I’d enjoy even more—but I had no way to figure out who they might be.
We are curious about other people, especially if we know that we share a common interest. And every culture has its own conventions for meeting and learning about strangers. Unfortunately, in a conference setting these conventions limit the number of people we can meet. For example, in my experience even an extreme extrovert will find it difficult to meet a majority of the people at a 100-attendee two-day conference.
So in the 80’s, when I began to have opportunities to design my own conference formats, I knew that I wanted to include the opportunity for participants to learn about each other, right at the beginning of the event.
Over the years, this desire shaped the first Conferences That Work session: the roundtable. The core of every roundtable is the time when each attendee in turn answers the following three questions to a large group (usually, everyone else who is attending the conference).
“How did I get here?” “What do I want to have happen?” “What experience do I have that others might find useful?”
How these questions are explained to attendees is described in detail in my book. There are no wrong answers to the three questions, and attendees can answer them by publicly sharing as little or as much as they wish. What I find wonderful about roundtable sharing is how the atmosphere invariably changes as people speak; from a subdued nervousness about talking in front of strangers to an intimacy that grows as people start to hear about topics that engage them, discover kindred spirits, and learn of unique experiences and expertise available from their peers. When sharing is over, both a sense of comfort and excitement prevail: comfort arising from the knowledge attendees have of their commonalities with others, and excitement at the thought that they now have the rest of the conference to explore the connections and possibilities that the roundtable has introduced.
Switching the responsibility for initial introductions from attendees to the conference model bypasses normal social conventions – replacing them with a safe place for people to share about themselves to others. This simple conference process gives attendees the openings they need to further satisfy their curiosity about their peers. It works amazingly well.