“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.
So, how do we convince people?
Often when I’m working with a client on implementing experiential and participant-driven events, he wants to understand how what I’m proposing will work.
It’s perfectly reasonable that he wants to understand. The trouble is, unless he’s had the experience of participating in an experiential and participant-driven event, he simply may not be able to understand how the format works.
If you think about it, this seems silly. Every day we experience unexpected things, and some of them change our world for the better in ways we’d never rationally expect. Right? So why are we skeptical that this can happen at our events?
Because most meetings and conferences are tightly scripted and controlled. So we’ve likely never experienced the intense conversations, learning, and facilitated connection around topics and issues that we, not a conference program committee, chose. We’ve never had the opportunity to discover the empowerment and joy when we get to meet, face-to-face, peers who share and have insights on our specific challenges. We’ve never seen a solid, long-lasting community of fellow participants being built before our eyes. And we’ve never encountered an event that galvanized participants into appropriate and effective action.
The need to understand
So when someone like me proposes a “different” way to design events, clients want to “understand” how it works before they’ll give me a go-ahead. When they don’t, I’ll get responses like this [verbatim extract from an email I received this week]:
“We presented our program to [our board] last week and got some push back on having two full days of the format/program devoted to the unconference. The primary concern is being able to effectively market the program such that potential attendees can show the published programming/topics and get manager support for the expense to attend/travel to the event. Without a descriptive agenda with topics – the fear is that managers won’t be able to justify that it is a relevant agenda for professional development.”
In fact, everyone who experiences a well-designed participant-driven event knows that on-site development of an agenda that is truly relevant for the attendees’ professional development is not a problem. Yet without that experience, most people cannot understand how such a format can work.
If I get sufficient access to the decision-makers, I can usually provide enough “understanding” to convince them to go ahead. But experiencing the design itself is far more effective. Here’s a post-event communication excerpt from a decision-making former skeptic:
Thank you for your efforts in making our very first [foundation] meeting a huge success. The meeting far exceeded my expectations and I have been reporting the success of the event to the leadership here at [foundation].
And here’s a participant’s feedback from the same event:
Thank you Adrian! I was skeptical at first of the conference format. But now I’m really glad that it was organized that way!
Experience to understand
Sometimes you need to experience to understand. Seth Godin puts it like this:
It turns out, humans don’t use explanations to make change happen. They change, and then try to explain it. —Seth Godin, Clarity vs. impact
When I have the opportunity and authority to facilitate an experience that can lead to powerful, appropriate learning and change, I don’t spend much time explaining why it might do so. I just start. The hardest part is being given the authority to do it. Because that requires trust in my ability to deliver what I’m offering.
I don’t blame the skeptics out there. The world is full of people who promise miracles and don’t deliver. That’s why, besides attempting to explain why what I do works, I also encourage clients to talk to some of the tens of thousands of people who have participated in one of my experiential sessions or conferences. If they take the time to check, this usually does the trick.
Taking a leap
Yes, it’s hard to take a leap and trust something you haven’t experienced and don’t yet understand. Ask me to be the first person to ever jump from a plane with something called a “parachute” on my back? I’d turn you down. But you’re not the first person to jump! Talk to people you trust who have already made it safely and wonderfully to the ground. You may well realize that if they did it, you can do it too.
Then, go for the change. You can work on understanding it later.
This post is part of the series How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
What approach should we use to teach participation techniques for meeting sessions? Here’s my answer to this question, illustrated by a story about the power of experiential learning.
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. They also explored 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 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. This is a simple way to facilitate focused discussion with a large group. All participants sit in a large circle of chairs. 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. 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. Why? 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. 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.
At the end of the workshop, J and I talked while I was packing up for a flight home.
He told me that his fishbowl sharing had unexpectedly reminded him of a session he had once attended. It was entitled “One hundred icebreakers in one hundred minutes”, and consisted of rapid descriptions of a hundred ways to introduce attendees to each other.