While stuck in cramped seats during a six-hour Boston to San Francisco flight recently, my wife gently pointed out that I had become quite grumpy. She helped me notice that my lack of body comfort was affecting my mood. Luckily for me, Celia remained solicitous and supportive, reducing my grouchiness. Once we were off the plane my spirits lightened further.
Unfortunately, I tend to be oblivious for a while of the effects of physical discomfort on my feelings. Until I notice what’s really upsetting me, I typically and unfairly blame my irritability on innocent culprits, for example:
The tediousness of gardening because insects are swarming around my head.
The delay in waiting for my food to arrive in a noisy restaurant.
A presenter’s inability to capture my full attention while I’m sitting with my neck twisted permanently towards them in an auditorium.
I suspect I’m not alone in these errors of judgment. Pivoting to the world of events, this means if we want to give attendees the best possible experience, we need to minimize the quantity and severity of physical comfort issues that are under our control.
Here are six common mistakes you’ve probably experienced, together with suggestions for mitigating their impact. (Feel free to add more in the comments below!)
What can meeting designers learn from religious services?
On my daily vacation walk to Island Harbour, I hear singing. As I turn the corner onto Rose Hill Road, the sound swells. It’s 7:30 am, but the morning service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church is in full swing. As I pass, a familiar hymn from my youth washes over me, sung by a hundred enthusiastic voices. And yes, I admit it, as I enjoy the harmonies I hear, I begin to think about religious meeting design. And here’s what meeting designers can learn from religious services
Religious services are probably around 300,000 years old — by far the oldest form of organized meeting created by humans. We know little about prehistory religious services, but the meeting designs used by major world religions today date from the Middle Ages. Over the last thousand years, religious meetings developed some important features in order to maximize the likelihood that people would attend.
What’s interesting is that these features are largely absent from modern secular meetings!
So what can we learn from religious meeting design? I confine my observations to Christian and Jewish services, as they are the faiths familiar to me.
While people joke about the length of boring sermons, contrast this relative brevity to modern conferences, where speakers typically speak for an hour. We know that listener attention drops sharply after ten minutes unless a speaker does specific things to maintain it. Religious institutions know this, and deliver short bursts of emotional content. Most meetings don’t, and attendee learning suffers as a consequence.
Include lots of communal activities
Singing is one of the most powerful fundamental, communal human activities; right up there with eating together. The oldest written music is a song, the Sumerian Hymn to Creation, dated before 800 B.C. Communal singing likely predates this by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.
Jewish and Christian religious services are full of singing and praying. These are communal activities — each congregant contributes to a common endeavor. Some people have good voices, sing in harmony, and add pleasure to everyone’s experience. Even those who can’t carry a tune very well become part of something, a common endeavor, while they are singing a familiar and often beautiful hymn or prayer.
Communal activities are powerful because they align participants in a common experience: creating something beautiful and uplifting together. When was the last time you did something like that in a meeting?
Breaks aren’t communal activities
Most meeting organizers assume that breaks and socials should provide the majority of human interaction in their meetings. But breaks and socials aren’t communal activities — everyone is doing something different! The post-service Church Suppers and Jewish Kiddish give congregants time to meet socially. This strengthens the communal experience provided by the service. In contrast, modern conferences expect attendees to bond after having primarily listened to lectures.
Keep ’em moving!
People don’t sit still at most religious services. They stand to sing and pray. In some congregations, dance is a normal component of the service. Physical movement during events is important because blood flow to the brain starts to decline within ten minutes of sitting still, leading to decreased attention. Sadly, it’s rare for meeting sessions to include any kind of body movement.
Provide an emotional experience
Whatever opinions you hold about religious services, it’s clear that they are designed to create an emotional experience. Given a choice between emotional and “book learning” experiences, people will invariably choose the former. Religious services offer the kinds of experiences that people prefer, served up in a safe and familiar way. Most conferences offer little emotional experience directly related to their content and purpose; instead such experiences — entertainment and socials — are glued onto the program as unintegrated extras.
What can meeting designers learn from religious services? I’m not suggesting that we turn all our meetings into gospel revivals. But think about it. How would your meetings be improved if they incorporated some of the religious services features I’ve shared here?
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we’ll explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
The peer conferences I run are extremely effective at catalyzing change, both in the people who participate in them and the organizations that run them. Why is this?
Many people think that we can make change happen by presenting logical reasons why the change should be made.
Many people are wrong.
Here are John Kotter’s & Dan Cohen’s findings about implementing change, as described by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch.
In The Heart of Change, John Kotter & Dan Cohen report on a study they conducted with the help of a team at Deloitte Consulting. The project team interviewed over 400 people across more than 130 companies in the United States, Europe, Australia, and South Africa, in the hopes of understanding why change happens in large organizations…
What did they find?
…the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people, and behavior change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.
…Kotter and Cohen observed that, in almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE but SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.
This is why peer conferences are so effective at catalyzing change. The peer conference change model embraces the important role of feelings in facilitating change. Explicit ground rules that make it safe to express feelings (The Four Freedoms and group agreement on confidentiality) are key. Also important is the closing personal introspective. This provides a framework for participants to determine the changes they wish to make and uses group sharing, often emotional, to reinforce participants’ conclusions.
In fact, peer conference design implements a change model that is even broader than Kotter & Cohen’s SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.
Rather than concentrating on seeing, just one of our five human senses, peer conference design facilitates and supports the sequence EXPERIENCE-FEEL-CHANGE, where EXPERIENCE includes multiple sensing modalities. Small group discussions, story telling, outdoor talk-while-walking sessions, mini-workshops, and simulations all stimulate multiple senses, providing fertile input for the emotional responses that are vital components for creating successful change.
We are driven much more by our emotions than most of us are willing to admit. Let’s recognize this, and use conference designs that, by capitalizing on this reality rather than denying it, are more effective.
How do you evoke emotions at your events? Have you found doing this to be an effective way of facilitating change?
After 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.
Listening to personal stories
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 personal stories, 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?
Of course it’s O.K. to express your feelings at weddings and funerals. But when was the last time you heard someone share their feelings in public at a conference? When was the last time you did?
I go to the theater
A play, like a straight line, is the shortest path from emotion to emotion —George Pierce Baker
Last weekend I went to “Raising Our Voices“, a local theater gala by children, youth, and adults with disabilities. I got goose bumps and a little teary. And I finally figured out why this invariably happens when I watch kids theater.
You see, when I was growing up my education emphasized thinking. Learning important facts and concepts and being able to apply them to solve problems led to high marks on tests. Getting the right answers, preferably quicker than anyone else, got me to the top of the graded class roster, displayed publicly on the school notice board twice a semester.
No time to feel
However, the educational agenda allocated no time for understanding or expressing my feelings. The only kinds of grading that occurred as a consequence of my emotions were the dramatic reprisals taken when I infrequently misbehaved. All of us in school had feelings, of course, and they greatly affected how and what we did. But no one encouraged us to talk about or explore them. It was repeatedly implied that being near the bottom of the class list would be shameful, without ever giving us any insight as to what shame was!
Over the years I’ve learned to be more in touch with my emotions. And so, when I see kids in a play, encouraged to display joy, anger, fear, guilt, shame, grief and all the subtle variants of these basic human emotions, I’m taken back to my youth, and the little child in me both rejoices and aches for what I missed out on: the childhood opportunity to express and share integral aspects of who we are that were part of the human psyche long before the development of analytical thought.
A wise therapist friend of mine once told me that he believes when you feel that ache of simultaneous joy and pain, healing is going on.
A safe environment for sharing feelings
I think it’s important for conferences to offer a safe environment for attendees to share feelings that may come up during the event. Conferences That Work designs do this. Agreements explicitly safety give participants the right to speak their truth, and promise privacy for anything said.
I don’t want to give the impression that Conferences That Work are full of emoting attendees who rush to share their deepest feelings with anyone they can buttonhole. Far from it. I think I’ve seen more joy and passion at our sessions than at most other events I’ve attended. But, by and large, sharing about emotional issues doesn’t happen often.
But feelings do surface. For example, when people talk about difficulties they’re having in their workplace or their uncertainties surrounding a potential career or job change. I feel happy that our event supports and encourages them to do so. And from the feedback I’ve received, I know it’s important and empowering for the attendees who have the courage to express how they feel.
Have you felt safe to express your feelings at a conference? Do you think it’s appropriate and/or important to be able to do so? Under what circumstances? And what factors make it safer or harder for such sharing to occur?
Why do you go to conferences? I asked this question in the interviews I conducted while writing Conferences That Work. The most common answer? Eighty percent of my interviewees said they wanted to network/connect with others, slightly more than the seventy-five percent who said they came to learn.
Traditional conference sessions provide mainly one-way connection from the folks at the front of the room to everyone else. Opportunities for person-to-person connection are relegated to times outside the official schedule, like mealtimes and social events.
Peer conferences are different; they are designed to facilitate and support meaningful connections in three ways.
First, peer conferences are small—less than one hundred participants—which simplifies the task of getting to know a decent proportion of the people present, and leads to intimate conference sessions where discussion and sharing is more likely to occur.
Second, the opening roundtable offers a structured and safe time to learn about every other attendee, providing valuable ice-breaking information for striking up a conversation with people you want to get to know.
And third, the confidentiality ground rule, agreed to by every attendee, generates a conference environment where sharing—whether it be of information, discovery, or even expression of emotions, of pain or joy—is encouraged and safe.