What’s most important about an event, the gift or the wrapping?

While writing about seeing the gifts in people and events I remembered one of my favorite scenes in Love Actually (2003). With his wife shopping nearby, Harry (Alan Rickman) impulsively purchases an expensive necklace for his mistress — only to be tortured by the fear of discovery as Rufus (Rowan Atkinson) slowly wraps his gift.

Watch the 2-minute video clip.

Discussing this amusing scene, my wife pointed out that the two components of a present, a gift and a wrapping, suggest a metaphor for an event. The gift symbolizes the purpose of the event — the connections made, the learning that takes place, the consequent outcomes — while the wrapping equates to the logistical necessities and sensory glitz that makes the event viable (people need to eat and drink, have somewhere to stay, and enjoy being entertained or impressed).

If you’re asked “what’s most important about a present, the gift or the wrapping?” the answer is easy. A beautifully wrapped empty box is at best a joke, at worst an insult. A naked gift, shorn of all wrapping, is still a present.

And yet, all too often, we attend events that are like beautiful yet ultimately disappointing boxes of chocolates. The wrapping is gorgeous; our excitement mounts as we open the box, only to discover that the eagerly expected chocolates are missing, sparse, or stale.

Without a useful, meaningful, and successfully implemented purpose, the most beautiful event is a hollow shell. A stunning wrapping that contains no valuable core. Attendees can be sumptuously fed and entertained, but if the event’s purpose remains missing, obscured, or unsuccessfully delivered, then, as Shakespeare said, the event becomes something “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

As an event designer, I frequently hear that there’s “no budget” for meeting process design that would make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose. Curiously, there always seems to be enough money budgeted for meeting logistics: the nice venue, F&B, fancy decor and AV, and the seemingly obligatory entertainment and big name speaker(s). That’s sad, because competent meeting process design costs far less than any of these traditional logistical components.

When we design and implement an event, its purpose must remain at the center of our attention, energy, and budget. If we focus on the wrapping at the expense of the gift, our events will be a tragic waste of everyone’s time.

How to help meeting design clients figure out what they really want and need

Great — a client who doesn’t know what they want!
Recently, a client asked for help designing a new conference. Thirty minutes of discussion with three stakeholders revealed they hadn’t yet settled on the event’s specific purpose, scope, and format.

From my perspective this is actually a great problem to have.

Why? Because most clients engage me after they are committed to programs and logistics that are not optimum for what they’re trying to accomplish!

The needs assessment trap
Conference design clients who “know what they want” have already decided on their “why?” and “who?“, have often fixed their “when?” and “where?“, and typically bring me in to consult at the “how?” stage. I understand their perspective, because I also feel the temptation to pin down specifics — number of participants, duration, venue, budget, etc. — hoping that in the process the event’s purpose and desired outcomes will become clearer.

It’s true that focusing on these details can help uncover what the client wants, and whether it’s realistic {“Hmm, I think we’d need a lot more than $10K to bring together 200 scientists to plan how to eradicate malaria in Southern Africa”}. But this is a roundabout way of avoiding the all-important question that is rarely fully and productively explored:

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The creative event design tool that all #eventprofs should use

Here’s a powerful tool you can use to generate creative event designs.

You can use this tool for every aspect of event design. Stylists working on the look and feel of an event often use it to stimulate fresh thinking about the venue, the décor, the lighting, the food and beverage, entertainment, and so on.

Rarely, however, is this tool used to design events that creatively incorporate, illuminate, and support core desires and outcomes for the meeting.

With this tool, you can generate something truly original — like in 2009, when Jill and Kevin Heinz invented a brand new trope: the wedding entrance dance.

What’s the tool? Seth Godin gives us a clue:

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Event design is not just visuals and logistics

I love David Adler‘s creativity, support, drive, ingenuity, and enthusiasm. The first time I met him—at the premier EventCamp in 2010—he immediately purchased my just-published book, sight unseen. The following year, David was kind enough to honor me in his flagship publication BizBash as one of the most innovative event professionals. Whenever I’ve had the pleasure of meeting David (not often enough!) he has proved to be a continual source of great ideas and encouragement, as well as a masterful conversationalist.

However, one recurring theme in David’s magazine irritates me, because it perpetuates a common misconception in the events industry.

BizBash consistently uses the term “event design” to mean “visual design”.

As an example, consider the 2016 Design Issue. The cover proclaims “What’s Next in Event Design?”

BizBash Design Issue cover

The sixty pages of this issue concentrate exclusively on visual and F&B ideas and treatments. While its article “8 Fresh Faces of Event Design 2016” says it is about “industry newbies who dream up and create an event’s visuals as opposed to those that handle the logistics like a planner”, this really misses the point.

Event process design determines the logistics and visuals we use. Logistics and visuals are secondary issues that support the primary design choices we make.

First decide what your event is designed to dowhat you want to happen during it—and then determine appropriate logistics and visuals that support and enhance the process design.

There is nothing in the 2016 BizBash Design Issue that explores the heart of event design: what will happen at the event? As I’ve written elsewhere, we are so steeped in traditional process rituals that society has used for hundreds of years—lectures, weddings, business meetings, galas, shows, etc.—that we don’t question their continued use. These forms are essentially invisible to us and previous generations because they have been at the heart of social and professional culture for so long.

But when someone takes time to reexamine these unquestioned forms, startling change becomes possible. Here are three examples:

1 — The world of weddings
In 2009, Jill and Kevin created the JKWeddingDance for their Big Day, and the traditional Western wedding was enriched forever.

2 — Elementary Meetings
Eric de Groot and Mike van der Vijver’s book “Into the Heart of Meetings” contains numerous examples of using Elementary Meeting metaphors to discover new congruent meeting forms.

3 — Conferences That Work
Finally, my own contribution. Re-imagining a conference as a participant-driven and participation-rich event, rather than a set of lectures, increases effective learning, participant connection, and individual and organizational change outcomes far above what’s possible at traditional passive broadcast-style meetings.

Prolonging the misconception, as BizBash implicitly does, that meeting design is principally about sensory design is slowing the adoption of fundamental and innovative process design improvements that can significantly improve our meetings. Instead, let’s broaden our conceptions of what meeting design is. Our work and industry will be the better for it—and our clients will appreciate the results!

Dear Adrian—More questions about event process design

Event Design MagicDipesh Mody, writing from Mumbai, India, asks five great questions about event process design. I’ve interspersed my answers after each question.

Q. Dear Adrian,

I have now read both your books and have truly enjoyed reading them. Your work has been very inspiring to many; and I am certainly one of them.

While your book is very well written and structured, I had a few questions for you and I am hoping that you will find the time to respond.

1. After the peer group session sign-up and once the time and space is allocated, who decides which technique to use? Is it the volunteer facilitator of the peer group? If yes, what if the volunteer is not familiar with these techniques? Will he invariably choose a roundtable technique?

Yes, the volunteer facilitator(s) of a peer session is/are responsible for determining the format used in the session, and, as covered in The Power of Participation, there are a number of basic formats that can be used. For many years, I’ve given every attendee a one-page peer session facilitation handout (free download) at the start of the event. This short document explains what’s involved in facilitating, offers a suggested step-by-step process, and includes some tips for effective facilitation.

Analyzing thousands of evaluations of Conferences That Work format events, it’s very rare to see a complaint about the quality of peer session facilitation. So I believe this simple handout is an effective tool for volunteer facilitators to do a decent-to-good job at facilitating a peer session. While I could include some additional opening techniques such as Post It, described in The Power of Participation, it’s possible that making the handout longer might reduce its overall effectiveness.

In India, and other regions where organizational cultures tend to be more hierarchical than those in North America and Europe, participants may be less comfortable taking responsibility for leading a session. Under such circumstances, taking twenty minutes at the opening of a peer conference to explain basic peer session leadership techniques can be helpful.

2. From what I understand that certain sessions only a trained facilitator can run them such as world café, fishbowl or a human spectrogram? Is my understanding correct? If yes, then such techniques can only be used involving the entire group. For e,g, if the conference size is 50 people then all 50 people need to be in that one session when a human spectrogram technique is being used? Is my understanding correct?

I think it depends on what “trained” means. I have not received any “formal” facilitation training, but I experienced World Café, fishbowl, and human spectrogram process run by others before I attempted to facilitate them myself. I think many people who have experienced a human spectrogram once could successfully facilitate it under similar circumstances, and there are plenty of good resources (including The Power of Participation😄) for other group work techniques.

As participative techniques become more frequently used at conferences, attendees are increasingly likely to be capable of facilitating them, and I expect the requirement for a “trained” facilitator will decrease over time.

3. About the beginning and the end sessions, I am quite clear but for the middle sessions is there a particular sequence (s) that works best based on your experience? For e.g. use fishbowl to gain a deeper understanding of top six issues and then follow it up with world café to discuss solutions to these issues (assuming we have 6 tables with five people on each table: Conference size 30 people). Then use a human spectrogram to vote on the proposed solutions and to select the most plausible ones.

Again, the answer to your question depends on the circumstances—in this case a session’s desired outcomes. It sounds like you are asking about process to explore and choose solutions to problems. Because meetings are held for many different reasons, there’s no single process sequence that’s appropriate for every situation.

The Conferences That Work format, for example, works very well for a group of peers who are meeting to learn and connect for individual reasons, determine common ground, and discover and act on opportunities available to the group.

If, as per your example, the meeting is to learn and discuss six pre-determined important issues, you might well use techniques like fishbowl and World Café as opening and mid-course process. If attendees don’t know each other well, an opening roundtable would be useful. Or if the important issues were unknown or unclear at the start of a meeting, introductory educational sessions plus affinity grouping might be appropriate.

As far as discussing solutions is concerned, while human spectrograms are a useful tool to gauge sentiment, outcomes are more typically determined by process prescribed by the norms of the group, organization, association, or corporation stakeholders.

4. About world café or human spectrogram or voting, while a volunteer team can assist in framing the right questions as pre-work but my experience shows that getting them to contribute on the questions is difficult as they don’t have time to devote on such pre-work activities due to work related and other commitments. Further, on page 222 of Power of Participation, you have identified questions for collective attention, for finding deeper insights, for forward movement etc. In light of this, would it be a good idea for the attendees to frame the questions during the conference beginning? In your experience would this work?

In my experience, if you are going to use World Café at an event, pre-work defining good table questions is essential. While there are frameworks that can be helpful in devising Café question rounds (e.g. those for sense-making by Chris Corrigan and strategic planning by John Inman), I think it’s very hard to build consensually-good questions on the fly at the event unless participants are patient and willing enough to spend a significant amount of time. It’s akin to bringing a large group of people to a building site and asking them to collectively design and erect a building from scratch. Not impossible, but difficult!

5. While your book does provide model conference schedule but it falls a bit short of getting a real sense of what a real schedule looks like. It would be really great if you could add a few real examples of conferences you facilitated. It would indeed be useful to get a sense of how you mixed and matched various techniques (fishbowl, world café, spectrograms etc.) during a lets say three day conference around a particular theme. It would be a great addition to what a truly amazing book it already is.

Dipesh, I think that’s a good idea in principle. However, I’m wary supplying such examples unless they include extensive background on why the specific types and flow of process techniques were used. The danger of providing condensed examples is that some readers will be tempted to copy them verbatim for events that involve participants, logistical constraints, and desired outcomes that are significantly different from those that generated the example design. End result—a design that doesn’t satisfy stakeholder needs, leading to poor evaluations and, perhaps, the conclusion that these new-fangled event designs “don’t work.”

There are so many factors involved in creating a good event design that I estimate a useful case study of a single event design, one that comprehensively covers the reasons for the design choices made, might require 10,000+ words and many days of work! A worthy project, but one that may have to wait a while…

Best regards,

Dipesh Mody, India

Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Dipesh. I hope these answers help a little in your quest to produce fine events in India!

Best wishes,

Adrian Segar


Adrian & KaylaAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Mom killed that idea: One way that kids are smarter than adults—and the implications for events

lemonade stand — 516578887_edf3a51ccf_oIn his fascinating and thought-provoking book The Educated Mind, professor of education Kieran Egan tells the story of kids at a lemonade stand where a customer jokingly asked if they had any beer or scotch. The five-year-old proprietor went into the house and asked Mom “whether he could could have some beer and scotch for the stand. He emerged a minute of so later, shrugged, and told his siblings, ‘Mom killed that idea.'” His three and four-year-old siblings had no difficulty interpreting this sentence.

Egan emphasizes the important role of metaphor in learning. Studies have shown that very young children are capable of “prodigal production” of metaphors, that such metaphorical capacity declines as children become older, and “younger children’s production and grasp of metaphor are commonly superior to that of older children and adults.” We are amused by young childrens’ effortless invention of wonderful words to describe objects in their lives. My grandchildrens’ lovely constructions passerports (passports) and glovins (gloves) come to mind—these are delightful reflections of their minds’ ability to conjure up melanges of ideas and words that express their reality.

We often assume that we get smarter as we get older. By “smarter” I mean our abilities are superior and the likelihood we’ll use them higher. While this is true in many respects, our demonstrated decline in metaphorical capacity means that we are less likely and less able to use metaphors as adults.

This is a loss for event education, as metaphor is one of the most powerful methods for extending learning. The philosopher Max Black said “it would be more illuminating…to say that metaphor creates the similarity than to say it formulates some similarity antecedently existing.” Metaphor then, Egan says, “becomes a key tool in aiding flexible, productive learning.”  It “helps us to acquire knowledge about new domains, and also has the effect of restructuring our organization of knowledge.”

When I describe my recent experience of trying to get internet service restored at my home by comparing it to being stuck on an airplane for days waiting for it to take off without any announcements about what’s going on or when we might leave (if ever), or when my mentor Jerry Weinberg publishes a book about writing employing a single metaphor—building a fieldstone wall—to illustrate every stage of the process, we are harnessing a metaphoric plow to prepare the ground for seeds of learning [oops, I did it again.]

I wish more attention had been paid to metaphoric fluency in my early education, as I find it hard to summon up useful metaphors for ideas I’m trying to get across. For this we can perhaps blame Plato and his successors who insisted that the “poetic” be eliminated from intellectual inquiry. Consequently, literacy education discourages our use of metaphor.

Some people seem to have a natural ability to dream up apt metaphors, and they are usually engaging and memorable presenters (great comedians frequently share this gift too.) Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and Reagan’s “break down this wall” speeches obtain much of their power from metaphor.

How does all this this relate to event design? Eric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver‘s techniques for formulating meeting objectives and their Elementary Meetings model rely on the power of metaphor to create stakeholder buy-in for meeting objectives and design. And good production designers know the importance of choosing event themes that connect at a metaphorical level with underlying goals for the associated meeting.

I believe it’s worth cultivating our skill at employing metaphor, or seeking out those who are good at it. Better events may well be the result.

Photo attribution: Flickr user adwriter

Parallels between the evolution of journalism and events

There are fascinating parallels in the ways that journalism and events are evolving. Listen to the first minute of this interview of journalism maverick Jeff Jarvis by David Weinberger.

Here’s the relevant quote:

“What the internet changes is our relationship with the public we serve…What is the proper relationship for journalists to the public? We tend to think it’s manufacturing a product called content you should honor and buy…That’s a legacy of mass media; treating everybody the same because we had to…So we now see the opportunity to serve people’s individual needs. So that’s what made me think that journalism, properly conceived is a service.”

In parallel fashion, events are moving away from broadcast formats that treat everybody the same and evolving towards designs that allow individual participants to learn what they individually want and need to learn, as well as connecting with peers and peer communities that have real value for them.

Seeing your conference as a service that can provide what people want—rather than what you’ve decided they want, like the journalists of old—is key to keeping your events relevant, competitive, and successful.

[The rest of the interview is well worth the listen; David Weinberger always asks good questions! Jeff’s new book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News.looks like a good read too.]

The science of white space at events

Conference organizers have an unfortunate tendency to stuff their programs full of sessions. It’s an understandable choice; if participants have committed all this time and money to be present, shouldn’t we minimize white space and give them as many sessions as we can cram in?

Unfortunately, filling every minute of your conference schedule does not lead to an optimum experience for attendees. We need white space; free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do. Here are some science-based, light-hearted, yet serious reasons why.

Biology
Yes, all of us need to use the bathroom every once in a while. The good news is that just about all event organizers remember this.

Physics
But what many forget is that Star Trek technology is not currently available; we cannot instantaneously teleport from one meeting room to another. At a minimum, breaks between sessions need to be long enough for attendees to walk leisurely between the two session locations that are furthest apart. But don’t program the minimum; people also need time to check their messages (otherwise they’ll just do it in the sessions, right?), get a cup of coffee, fall into a serendipitous conversation, etc.

Physiology
On average, conference session attendees sit 99.13% of the time.

OK, I made that up. But I’m not far off. And here’s a cheerful graphic about the perils of sitting created by Jan Jacobs:

Give your attendees more time to stand up and move about between sessions (and during them, see below) and, who knows, they may live longer.

Social science
According to social scientist Dr James House, “The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.” Why expose your attendees to such an unhealthy environment? We need to create conference environments that encourage and support connections with others, rather than leaving attendees to their own devices, and it turns out that conference mixers don’t provide as good opportunities for attendees to meet new people as you might think. We need additional kinds of white space at our events.

Neuroscience
Neuroscience supplies the most important rationale for providing white space at your events. As molecular biologist John Medina describes in his book Brain Rules: Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once. Brains need breaks.

We need white space not only between sessions, but also during them to maximize learning. Medina suggests that presentations be split into ten minute chunks to avoid the falloff in attention that otherwise occurs. (Back in the ’70s, Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind maps, recommended studying in cycles of twenty minutes followed by a short break, a technique that has served me well for forty years.)

In addition, Medina tells us that multisensory environments provide significantly more effective learning than unisensory environments; recall is more accurate, has better resolution, and lasts longer. So make sure your sessions include multisensory input (participatory exercises, participant movement, smells, touch, etc.) and your conference locale provides a pleasant multisensory environment.

So, what to do?
How do we find a balance between providing white space during and between conference sessions and our desire to provide as much potential content and opportunities for our attendees?

During sessions it’s important to provide white space between every ten to twenty minute chunk of learning, so that the learning that has occurred can be processed and retained. This is something that we should all be doing to optimize the learning experience at our events.

Between sessions it’s important to include significant unstructured time. A ten-minute break between two one-hour sessions is the absolute minimum I’ll schedule, followed by long refreshment or meal breaks. I am not a fan of providing intrusive entertainment during meals—eating together is one of the most intimate bonding activities humans have—for goodness sake, let your attendees talk to each other during this time!

I’ve saved my best advice for last. Instead of deciding how much white space should exist at your conference, let the attendees decide! At the start of the event, explicitly give people permission to take whatever time they need to rest, recuperate, think, etc. It may seem silly, but I find that if you publicly define the event environment as one where it’s expected and normal for people to take whatever time they need for themselves it becomes easier for attendees to give themselves permission to do so.

[Thanks to Joan Eisenstodt for providing the initial impetus for writing this post! And check out Give me a break! for another viewpoint on the topics of this post.]

White space—it’s not just for advertising any more! What’s been your experience of white space at events? What suggestions do you have for improving its use?

Image attribution: Flickr user zavie.

The new patron economy and its impact on events-Part 2

The tip 2287456850_1aa4e388fc_b

I believe we are moving inexorably towards a time that is similar in some ways to an era in our past—a time when content creation will be supported largely by the subsidy of patrons.
—from Part 1 of this post

We are returning to a patron economy
In Part 1 of this post I explained why I believe we are returning to a patron economy.

Luckily, there are a lot more patrons now than there were when Mozart and Beethoven eked out a living via the largesse of nobility and the wealthy. These days, when you tip generously in a restaurant, donate to worthy causes, or volunteer, you are a patron in the patron economy. Once our core needs have been satisfied, our desires to create and share remain, and these desires, decoupled from financial reward, are now easier for many to fulfill than they’ve ever been.

How will this future affect the world of events? Events have always relied to some degree on the contributions of volunteers: family members at a wedding, conference advisory board members, and student interns, to name a few. As emphasis shifts from content to connection at face-to-face events, the contributions of enthusiastic volunteers become increasingly important, as even a few true fans can make a dramatic difference to an event.

The new event patrons
I’m writing this just after attending a four-day, 500-attendee association conference where key participatory sessions were facilitated or led by twenty enthusiastic volunteers.

Hiring professional facilitators to lead these sessions would have been very expensive. The volunteers received branded fleece jackets, a reduced event fee, and public acknowledgment of their contributions. No extra lodging or travel expenses had to be paid because the volunteers were already attending the conference.

In addition, hiring professional facilitators to lead sessions would have been a far less satisfactory experience for attendees because outside facilitators would not have had the substantial subject matter expertise and experience that the volunteers possessed. I sat in on some of the sessions, and an outside facilitator would simply not have been able to understand, let alone guide, the discussions because of the considerable professional knowledge taken for granted as the basis for discussion by the participants.

Volunteers are the new patrons
When I think back, I realize that none of the conferences I’ve organized over the last twenty years would have been possible without the significant contributions of volunteers. Think about the events you’ve organized—how true is this for you? As we move towards more participative and participant-driven sessions at events, the role of volunteers is going to become increasingly important. Your volunteers are your new patrons—ignore them at your peril!

Photo attribution: Flickr user cali2okie

The new patron economy and its impact on events-Part 1

Patron economy media 144939792_7b9828a484_oOver the last twenty years we’ve seen the slow crumbling of business models relying on paying for atoms carrying the real article of desire: information. Once, being paid for cassettes, CDs, newspapers, DVDs, copy-protected software, and password-protected services was how “content providers” (such a soulless term!) made money. These schemes are dying wherever and whenever the cost to the consumer of playing buy-my-content-by-my-rules is greater than the cost of downloading the associated bits that have had their copy protection broken.

We’re in the middle of this transition. For example, right now, the paperback version of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love is outselling the ebook four to one, even though the ebook isn’t copy-protected and is half the cost of the paperback. So perhaps people still like physical books. I don’t expect things to stay this way for long.

A few years ago I got into a heated public argument with software freedom activist Richard Stallman about how I might be paid for the four years I spent writing my book. (At the end of his presentation, Richard complained that he had never spoken in front of a more combative audience. We took this as a compliment.) When Richard told us we should give our content away, I asked him why anyone would bother to spend four years writing a book. He told me, scornfully, that I should give the book away and make money in some related arena.

I have to admit that now, knowing the bald economics of writing, I’m more sympathetic to Richard’s point of view than I was when we sparred. If the book continues to sell at its current rate, it will take another year just to earn back the money (for editing, copyediting, interior design, cover design, and copywriting) I spent creating it. That’s before I start receiving any compensation for the time I spent writing it! Meanwhile, people are hiring me to design, organize, and facilitate conferences, and I have to sell many books to equal the income from a day of consulting. Richard, maybe you were right.

With the repeated demonstrated failures of attempts to copy-protect information and the rise of ubiquitous online content, I believe we are moving inexorably towards a time when content creation will be supported largely by the subsidy of patrons.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll explore how this shift to a patron economy will impact events.

Image attribution: Flickr user fernando