You can’t make people change. But…

you can't make people change

“You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”
—Seth Godin, Leadership

Change is hard. And you can’t make people change.

However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.

What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!

Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.

Peer conferences support change

The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 27 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!

Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.

Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.

  • A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
  • The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
  • A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
  • The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.

These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.

Many “experiential” events are just razzle-dazzle

Experiential events that aren'tBeware of “experiential” events that are just razzle-dazzle.

“Experiential” has become a buzzword to use to describe hip events. Instead of listening to speakers, you’re going to have — wait for it — experiences! Sounds so much better, doesn’t it?

The problem is that most events touted as experiential simply add irrelevant novelty to a familiar event process.

For example, the much-hyped C2 Montréal.

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We are biased against truly creative event design

We are biased against truly creative event designWe are biased against creativity. Though most people say they admire creativity, research indicates we actually prefer inside-the-box thinking.

“In an article for Slate, Jessica Olien debunks the myth that originality and inventiveness are valued in US society: “This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it.” She cites academic studies indicating that people are biased against creative minds. They crave the success of the result, but shun the process that produces it.”
—Sarah Kendzior, The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

The meeting industry is no exception. We define creativity as a subset of what is actually possible.  A “creative” event design is one with a novel venue and/or decor and lighting and/or food and beverage. Consequently, planners restrict the entire focus of creative event design to novel visual and sensory elements. The meeting industry has redefined novelty as creativity.

Truly creative event design
We are biased against truly creative event design. Watering down creativity biases stakeholders against the value and promise of truly creative event design, which:

  • Starts with the key questions “who’s it for?” and “what’s it for?”
  • Moves to “what should happen?“; and finally
  • Takes a hard look at the process changes needed to develop a more effective event.

Truly creative event design questions, for example, whether we need to have a keynote speaker, relegate significant participant discussions to breaks and socials, or supply entertainment during meals.

I’ve experienced plenty of bias against comprehensive event design since I began developing participant-driven and participation-rich meetings in 1992. Despite over 25 years’ evidence that such designs improve meetings for all stakeholders, most traditional event owners shy away from exploring change that is creatively significant. Even potential clients who are experiencing some combination of falling attendance, evaluations, or profits have a hard time facing changing what happens at their events.

Can we overcome bias against truly creative event design?
Though millions of meetings take place every year, thousands of meeting organizers know how to create truly creative conference designs. The steady rise in popularity of participant-driven and participation-rich designs like Conferences That Work continues.

We can do better than novelty at our meetings. The first step is to acknowledge our bias against creativity, and how we distract stakeholders with novelty instead. The second is to incorporate truly creative design into our events and experience the resulting benefits.

Image attribution Rob Donnelly

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

What's most important about an event?

What’s most important about an event?

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. Similarly, the wrapping equates to the event’s logistical necessities and sensory glitz  (people need to eat and drink, have somewhere to stay, and enjoy entertainment).

The answer to “what’s most important about a present, the gift or the wrapping?” 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.

A beautiful box of chocolates

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 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.”

No budget for meeting design

As an event designer, I frequently hear that there’s “no budget” for meeting process design. 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. Focusing on the wrapping at the expense of the gift makes an event a tragic waste of everyone’s time.

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

Here’s a powerful way 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. I hope 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

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