I’ve been attending conferences for over forty years. Most of them are dull and largely irrelevant. This seems to be the norm, because when you talk to attendees you find they set a low bar for satisfaction— e.g. “It’s OK if I learn one new thing a day, oh, and if I make a useful connection or two that would be great!”
For twenty years I assumed this was how conferences were supposed to be. When I began creating conferences myself, I used the same standard format: invite experts to speak to audiences.
Then in 1992, circumstances forced me to do one thing different. Ever since, thanks to that happy accident, I have been designing and facilitating peer conferences that people have loved for over a quarter-century.
“…gets an award for most/best/most thoughtfully organized conference I think I’ve ever been to.”
“I’m an introvert. I’ve never shared as much at a conference before. Your process is brilliant. Thank you.”
“…the truest sense of community I’ve ever felt and it was beautiful to experience. I hope you have the opportunity to experience something like this in your lifetime. It changes everything.”
—Three recent participants on their experience at three different peer conferences
What’s the one key thing I do that almost no one else does?
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The effectiveness of Twitter as a connective social media channel is declining
In July I wrote about why 2017 is a tipping point for Twitter, noting that the rate at which users follow established accounts has slowed dramatically. As the year draws to a close I’m seeing further evidence that conversations in the twittersphere are drying up too.
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Something is happening to Twitter, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?
I started tweeting 10 years ago. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Twitter would turn out to be the most important way for people to discover my work and for me to connect with thousands of kindred souls all over the world who share my specialized interests. Over time, Conferences That Work grew into a website with ten million page views per year.
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Most people won’t ask questions at meetings. So how can you get authentic audience engagement at your events?
In a thoughtful article “Audience Engagement – at the Heart of Meetings“, Pádraic Gilligan writes:
“…We all want audience engagement so why doesn’t it take place?…While the speaker can be to blame for lack of audience engagement, in my experience, it’s usually the fault of the audience!”
I’ve found that lack of audience engagement is due to the generally poor process used during most meeting sessions.
A different workshop
Last Wednesday I led a two-hour workshop in Boston for 160 members of a national education association. Every participant was active during ~80% of the workshop: discovering the concerns and experience of other participants, moving around the room while forming human spectrograms to learn about each other and the group (I used three participant-created chair sets during the session) and learning and connecting around issues and topics relevant to them throughout.
The hardest task of the workshop was getting people to stop talking with each other so we could move to the next part!
Pádraic suggests that hi-tech polling methods can be used to increase engagement. I agree that such technology can help engagement, but it’s not necessary. During my workshop, I showed 12 slides, but would have been fine without them. Other technology I used included 5″x8″ cards, pens, and large post-it notes. No high tech was needed with one optional exception — we projected a Google Doc at the end, to capture and display all the group feedback during the closing public workshop evaluation.
In 25 years of experience, I’ve found that most people have a fundamental need and desire to connect with others with whom they share something in common. When you use good group process to safely facilitate appropriate connection, ~98% embrace the opportunity and learn, connect, and engage effectively with their peers. Anonymity, if needed, can be readily supplied by no-tech/low-tech process, but it turns out that it’s needed a lot less than people think.
Every person in the workshop received a copy of my book The Power of Participation, which explains why participant-driven and participation-rich sessions are so important, how to create an environment for this kind of learning, connection, engagement, and resulting action, and how and when to use a large organized compendium of appropriate process tools. The participants I spoke with after the workshop told me how excited they were: planning to read the book and start putting what they had experienced into improving their professional development work in education.
It’s possible to create amazing learning and connection though approaches I’ve outlined above. When I facilitate longer conferences I can assure you that almost everyone will ask questions in public at some point during the event.
If you aren’t getting excellent audience engagement, don’t blame the audience! Change the processes you use in your sessions, and engagement will be guaranteed!
You can experience how to use process tools to significantly improve the effectiveness of your sessions and events at one of my 1½-day workshops in North America and Europe. If you can’t participate in a workshop, buy a copy of The Power of Participation to learn the why, what, and how of building better learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes into your events.
Magical events change peoples’ lives. Great events foster passion by providing well-designed opportunities for significant engagement with peers. For passion and engagement, you need a tribe—be it two or a hundred other people—with whom you relate and connect while you’re together at the event, and, hopefully, afterwards too.
For passion and engagement to be possible, what should we avoid?
“If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t test them, you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.”
—Seth Godin, “Will this be on the test?”
Hmm…don’t test, or lecture, or force people to do what they really don’t want to do.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, seventy years ago:
“Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Citadel”, 1948, translated from the French
Photo attribution: Flickr user 98810885@N07
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!
To dance with customers in an act of co-creation: This is part of 37Signals’ secret. From their book to their blog to their clearly stated point of view about platforms and the way they do business, they invite customers to debug with them in an ongoing dialogue about finding a platonic ideal of utility software. They don’t promise perfect, they promise engagement.
—Seth Godin, What is customer service for?
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