Guaranteeing audience engagement at your events

engagementMost 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 disagree.

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 on!

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. We used no high tech, with one optional exception. We projected a Google Doc at the end, to capture and display feedback during the closing public workshop evaluation.

Facilitating connection

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. They planned 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, almost everyone will ask questions in public at some point during the event.

Conclusion

If you aren’t getting excellent audience engagement, don’t blame the audience! Change the processes you use in your sessions, to guarantee engagement!

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.

If you want passion and engagement, don’t lecture or test

passion and engagement
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

Giving people the opportunity and support for meaningful emotional experiences gives them the gift of potentially changing in positive ways.

Photo attribution: Flickr user 98810885@N07

Why we shouldn’t (but do) play music at conference socials

music at conference socialsShould we play music at conference socials?

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 interfere with talking to a friend but not loud enough to drive you out of the establishment increases 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 music surrounds us 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 as an important sensory, emotional, or learning component.
  • Parties! (Be sure to provide 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, if you cut out the house music during the mixer, you may reduce your food and beverage bill too!

Promise engagement at your meetings, not perfection

engagement perfection Man & woman dancing
What’s more important at a meeting: engagement or perfection?

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?

Sometimes you go to a meeting where not screwing anything up seems to be more important than anything else. Such meetings often execute impeccably—and yet something is missing.

That something is engagement. When you’re obsessed with not making a mistake, how can you respond in the moment to the unexpected? To the guy who brings bagpipes to your event? If the Dalai Lama turns up unexpectedly? When attendees are helpless with laughter at the unintended consequences of a perfect storm of technical problems?

Engagement is the heart and soul of a meeting. Cold perfection is admirable, but inhuman. When you are open to the unexpected, and dance with it rather than fight or deny it, you open your event to the possibility of participant engagement around human imperfections and marvelous opportunities that are always present when people meet.

Engagement or perfection? Don’t promise perfect, promise engagement.

Photo attribution: Flickr user dancingwithwords

The Solution Room—a powerful conference session

Solution Room

There’s been a lot of interest in The Solution Room, a session that I co-facilitated last July at Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress in Orlando, Florida. It is one of the most popular sessions I’ve facilitated at conferences this year. So here’s some information about the session…oh, and don’t miss the two-minute video of participant testimonials at the end of this post!

History of The Solution Room

Ruud Janssen explains that the original concept was co-created onsite at Meeting Professionals International’s 2011 European Meetings & Events Conference by Linda Pereira, Miranda Ioannou, Midori Connolly, Robert Benninga, Mike van der Vijver, Simon Bucknall, David Bancroft Turner, and Ruud himself. Ruud produced a short video of the original session, as well as a longer video of participant testimonials.

Minimum resources

  • A facilitator trained in running The Solution Room.
  • Enough round tables seating 6-8 people for every participant to have a seat.
  • Flip chart paper that completely covers the tables, a plenty of colored markers at each table
  • Sufficient clear space in the room to hold a one-dimensional human spectrogram for all participants

Brief description

The Solution Room is a powerful conference session, which not only engages and connects attendees, but also provides peer-supported advice on their most pressing problems. It typically lasts between 90-120 minutes, and can handle hundreds of participants. A session of 20 or more people starts with a short introduction followed by a human spectrogram that demonstrates the amount of experience available in the room. Participants are then given some time to think of a challenge for which they would like to receive peer advice. A second human spectrogram then maps participants’ comfort level.

Next, the facilitator divides participants into small groups of 6-8 people. Each group shares a round table covered with flip chart paper and plenty of colored markers. The group members individually mindmap their problem on the paper in front of them. Each participant then gets a fixed time to explain their challenge to their table peers and receive advice and support.

Finally there’s a public group evaluation. Two human spectrograms map the shift in comfort level of all the participants and the likelihood that participants will try to change what they’ve just shared.

A two-minute video of testimonials from my Solution Room session at the 2011 Meeting Professionals International World Education Conference in Orlando, Florida

Photo attribution: Flickr user tnoc

Why presenters need to incorporate audience engagement

Small groups meeting at edACCESS 2011

“…it isn’t our schools that are failing: it is our theory of learning that is failing.”
— Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, authors of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

An inconvenient truth
Think back on all the conference presentations you’ve attended. How much of what happened there do you remember?

Be honest now. I’m not going to check.

Nearly all the people to whom I’ve asked this question reply, in effect, “not much”. This is depressing news for speakers in general, and me in particular as, since the publication of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, I have been receiving an increasing number of requests to speak at conferences.

When I ask about the most memorable presentations, people (after adjusting for the reality that memories fade as time passes) tend to mention sessions where there was a lot of interaction with the presenter and/or amidst the audience: in other words, sessions where they weren’t passive attendees but actively participated.

Take a moment to see whether that’s your experience too.

Social learning
Conference sessions that are designed to facilitate engagement between rather than broadcast content provide wonderful opportunities for social learning: the learning that occurs through connection, engagement, and conversations with our peers.

Social learning is important, and here’s why, courtesy of Harold Jarche:

There are additional reasons why supporting social learning during conference sessions makes a lot of sense:

  • Active participants almost always learn and retain learning better than passive attendees.
  • Participants meet and learn about each other, rather than sitting next to strangers who remain strangers during a session.
  • Participants influence the content and structure of the session towards what it is they want to learn, which is often different from what a presenter expects.
  • Being active during a session increases engagement, creating better learning outcomes.
  • Actively participating during a session is generally a lot more fun!

A mission for conference presenters
Conferences provide an ideal venue for social learning; they are potentially the purest form of social learning network because we are brought together face-to-face with our peers. And yet most conference sessions, invariably promoted as the heart of every conference, squander this opportunity by clinging to the old presenter-as-broadcaster-of-wisdom model.

Of course, there are conference sessions that routinely include significant participation. Amusingly, they have a special name so they won’t be confused with “regular” conference sessions: workshops!

In my opinion, every conference session longer than a few minutes should include significant participation that supports and encourages engagement. If you’re a conference presenter, make this part of your mission—to improve your effectiveness by incorporating participation techniques into your presentations. Your audiences will thank you!

An opportunity to learn how to add participation techniques into your presentations
I’ll be leading a three hour workshop on how to add participative techniques into your presentations at the Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress, July 23-26, Orlando, Florida. Transform your sessions with these participation techniques is limited to eighty participants. Check out the introductory video. I’d love to see you there!

Are you a conference presenter? How much do you incorporate participation techniques into your presentations? Please share your ideas here!

 

Why hybrid events aren’t going away soon

hybrid engagement 2290434541_e4a4ce2896_o
I’m a big fan of hybrid events (events designed to provide a worthwhile experience for both local and remote audiences), but I think Dannette Veale is hankering after those Jetsons flying cars, based on this recent quote:

In the future, says Dannette Veale, global manager of the Cisco Live and Networkers Virtual event, there will be no more live vs. virtual discussions. The two experiences will overlap so completely, that what we now perceive as two separate environments glued together through some “hybrid” sleight of hand will merge into a single, seamless stream of content, entertainment, and engagement that can be accessed from either end of the physical to virtual spectrum…
…In the future, there will be no more hybrid events—a term that implies the cobbling together of two separate realities into one hiccuppy, Frankensteiny, excuse to multi-task. The future of events as Dannette Veale envisions it is one where the learning is über compelling, the engagement is exhilarating, and anyone can participate.
When there are no More Hybrid Events, by Michelle Bruno, posted January 10, 2011

I wish I were as optimistic as Dannette Veale. She predicts that live and virtual will “merge into a single, seamless stream of content, entertainment, and engagement”. It would be great—but it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

It’s the last term, engagement, where I part company with Dannette. While content and entertainment can be easily and effectively streamed now, engagement, arguably the most important ingredient for a successful event, cannot be created by a single stream, and suffers from signal delay issues that are very difficult to overcome.

Effective engagement requires many-to-many channels

Effective engagement amongst remote attendees requires many-to-many channels. If I am a local attendee, I can wander up to a group of people in conversation and listen and engage with anyone present. I can be aware of multiple simultaneous connections and can initiate and switch conversations with ease. But a remote attendee is restricted to (usually) one or (at best) a few streaming feeds produced at the event site. These feeds are not under remote attendee control. I’m not aware of any hybrid events that provide individual, real-time, two-way AV connectivity to more than a modest number of remote attendees, since the number of streams required increases as the square of the number of participants.

We have a hard time providing a few simultaneous streaming channels now, let alone the hundreds or thousands needed to effectively match the experience of live attendance at an event. Including a chat room for remote attendees is a pale substitute for the rich real-time interaction that routinely occurs face-to-face.

One possible way to live with bandwidth limitations while providing a better remote experience is to develop systems that, while providing a small number of two-way connection channels, dynamically switch the limited channels between attendees who are currently active. This is analogous to the fishbowl group conversation technique I often use at Conferences That Work. At any one time, a limited number of interactions are possible, but the people in conversation can “swap out”, while everyone else watches and listens. Such approaches are still at the research stage, but while welcome, they still will not create the kind of seamless engagement Dannette implies.

Currently, the best hybrid events do a decent job providing text-based back channels for remote attendees to comment and ask questions. Remote emcee ambassadors can help to bring these attendees into the room and offer them some compensatory content, e.g. presenter interviews, that the local audience doesn’t necessarily get. But without individual, real-time, two-way AV channels for remote attendees, their experience will always be significantly inferior to that of local participants. I don’t see this state of affairs changing soon.

OK, maybe one day soon we’ll all have rock-solid 10MB+/sec connections to the internet, with OC-768 lines feeding our local ISP. All at a cost that’s too cheap to meter. (Don’t hold your breath.) Even if this glorious day arrives, however, remote attendees will still face another fundamental problem.

The effect of signal delays on engagement for remote attendees

Anyone who has used the fledgling group video chat services available on the web (e.g. tokbox, tinychat, and, recently, Skype) knows the limitations of these services. Some of the flaws, like poor video & audio quality and unreliable operation might be alleviated by the availability of high bandwidth links and appropriate internet backbones, as described and desired above. What is harder to mitigate, however, is the signal delays that video conferencing routinely introduces.

Research has shown that signal delays of less than a quarter of a second can seriously affect both the interpersonal understanding of conversations and the free flow we take for granted when we speak to another person face-to-face. Terrestrial links often suffer delays this large, and satellite circuits require a minimum of .5 seconds for a simple round-trip signal. It’s unlikely that these limitations will be overcome soon, except for remote attendees who are close (in channel terms) to where an event is being held.

Furthermore, though I’m not aware of research in this area, signal delays also mess up our habitual ability to read body language responses (mainly facial). Most people, in my experience, are not consciously aware of how well they can “read” interest, boredom, agreement, and emotions on others’ faces. Body language is telegraphed almost instantly and is hard to mask. When we lose the immediate feedback from experiencing how others around us respond to what we say and do, we lose a highly significant channel for connection.

The report of hybrid events’ death was an exaggeration

The difficulties of providing a comprehensive many-to-many channel experience for remote attendees, when combined with the subtle yet important communication degradations introduced by signal delay will, in my judgment, ensure that hybrid events will be around, live and kicking, for a long time yet. What do you think?

Photo attribution: Flickr user catspyjamasnz