“Experiential” is the new hot adjective used to describe events. “No more listening to speakers; you’re going to have experiences!” But there are genuine and phony experiential conferences.
Sadly, many so-called experiential events are phony. The promoters slap a novel environment (e.g., clowns walking around or chairs suspended from the ceiling) onto a conventional format (e.g., a social or a group discussion) and claim their event is now “experiential”.
So what are the differences between genuine and phony experiential conferences?
Why is experiential learning superior to every other kind? In a word: feedback. Jerry Weinberg explains simply and concisely.
“Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?
First consider reading. Reading is (usually) a solitary activity, with no feedback. Without feedback, there’s no check on what you believe you’re learning.
Now, writing. Unless you put your writing in the hands of someone (or perhaps some computer analysis app), there’s also no feedback, so there’s no check on whether you wrote sense or nonsense.
When you do something, you interact with the real world, and the world responds in some way. With the world’s feedback, you have the possibility of learning, confirming, or disconfirming something. That’s why we strongly favor experiential learning over, say, lecturing or passive reading or writing.” —Jerry Weinberg, Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?
In 1982, Australian physicians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren proposed that a bacterium Helicobacter pylori was the cause of most ulcers, challenging established medical doctrine that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid. Their claim was ridiculed, so Barry drank a Petri dish containing cultured Heliobacter and promptly developed gastritis. His self-experiment eventually helped change medical thinking. In 2005, both men were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
What approach should we use to teach participation techniques for meeting sessions?
With the rise of social learning and the decline in importance of formal learning, perhaps we should use experiential learning. On the other hand, in the same time needed to experience a limited set of participation techniques we can comprehensively describe many more. There again, perhaps experiencing a participation technique directly is a more effective way to cement both learning it and truly understanding its relevance. So, if we are teaching participation techniques, which of these two approaches is a better path for learning?
J’s light-bulb moment Earlier this week I led a workshop at Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress (WEC). The 150-minute session covered a variety of techniques that foster and support meaningful participation during meetings. Participants spent most of their time using these techniques to learn about and connect with each other and explore questions about their experience at WEC and in the session itself.
As the workshop progressed, and I heard from the forty-six participants, it became clear that one of them, whom I’ll call J, had considerable prior experience with the techniques I was facilitating.
Near the end of the workshop I ran Plus/Delta (described in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love): a method that provides a fast, public evaluation of a session or entire meeting. As an advocate for transparency and feedback, I chose the subject of our Plus/Delta to be a group evaluation of the workshop itself. During the evaluation, J commented that he had hoped that I would cover more techniques by talking about them rather than having attendees experience them directly. He then contributed a simple and ingenious way to extend Plus/Delta that was new to me.
My heart sank, just a little. Here was J, an experienced facilitator of participation techniques, proposing that I should spend the workshop talking about techniques rather than facilitating experiences of them. Could I be going about this wrong?
I moved immediately into the last technique of the workshop, running fishbowl: a simple way to facilitate focused discussion with a large group. All participants sit in a large circle of chairs, but only people in the “fishbowl”, a small circle of chairs at the center, can speak. After a few minutes of comments, J entered the fishbowl.
J said that he had read about fishbowls many times before and he understood how they worked, but he had never tried one.
And then, to my surprise and delight, he told us that experiencing the fishbowl had been a revelation to him, because he had directly experienced the power of the technique in a way that significantly enhanced his understanding of it, which he had previously believed to be sufficient. It was poignant for me to hear J express a new point of view that contradicted what he had said only a few minutes earlier, and I admired his courage in sharing his learning with us all.
I too have struggled over the years to define the best balance between understanding techniques through description and understanding them through direct experience. J’s light-bulb moment fits for me; these days I am content to let attendees learn participation techniques, first through direct experience and then, if necessary, via reflection and discussion.
Postscript At the end of the workshop, J hung around and we talked while I was packing up my equipment for a flight home.
He told me that his fishbowl sharing had unexpectedly reminded him of a session he had once attended, entitled “One hundred icebreakers in one hundred minutes”, consisting of rapid descriptions of a hundred ways to introduce attendees to each other.