You had to be there


John Green welcoming us at edACCESS 2012

You had to be there.

  • “There was a frankness you’re not going to get anywhere else.”
  • “What a unique opportunity!”
  • “That was eye-opening.”
  • “We got a one-time look behind the curtain.”
  • “That was an incredible session.”
  • “I’m so grateful that session was available.”

Those were some of the comments I heard while waiting outside the door of Room 102 as attendees streamed out after the first peer session at the 21st edACCESS annual conference held at the Peddie School, Hightstown, New Jersey. Sadly, I’ll never know what I missed—and neither will you, unless you were there.

Here’s why

At the start of edACCESS conferences it’s customary for a representative of the hosting school to welcome attendees. Peddie’s Head of School, John Green, did the honors this year. We learned that John was stepping down as head, and had a lot of respect for the work information technology staff performed at schools.

John said he was interested in talking with attendees about what he had learned during his eleven-year tenure.

Because edACCESS uses the peer conference model, we were able to jump on this last-minute opportunity and schedule an hour for anyone who wanted to meet with John the following day. Because Conferences That Work use a confidentiality ground rule, John could be sure that what he shared would not leave the room. Thanks to the conference design, attendees had an impromptu, once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear candid reflections, ask questions, and get invaluable advice from a retiring school head—something that would never normally be available to an edACCESS attendee.

You had to be there

With the trend towards streaming, tweeting, and live-blogging everything that happens at conferences, it’s important to remember that there are many amazing opportunities that will be routinely missed or avoided whenever conference sessions are unthinkingly thrown open to all and sundry, be it via streaming the session on the internet or by the lack of an explicit agreement about confidentiality. John Green has probably never spoken so candidly about his work to a group of strangers as he did that day, and he will probably never do so again. Those who attended his session reaped the benefit of a conference design that supports safety in sharing with one’s peers while still allowing more disclosure when appropriate.

I’m sorry I missed John’s session. You had to be there. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.

What do you think about the tension between openness and intimacy at conference sessions? What solutions would you use?

The implicit ground rules of traditional conferences

implicit ground rulesTraditional conferences have implicit ground rules. Many people are surprised when I talk about the need for explicit ground rules at conferences. “Why do you need them?” is a common response.

So perhaps it’s worthwhile pointing out that every traditional conference has ground rules.

We just never talk about them. They’re implicit.

Some common implicit ground rules:

  • Don’t interrupt presentations.
  • Don’t ask questions until you’re told you can.
  • The time to meet and connect with other attendees is during the breaks not during the sessions.
  • Applaud the presenter when she’s done.
  • Don’t share anything intimate; you don’t know who might hear about it.
  • The people talking at the front of the room know more than the audience.
  • Don’t talk about how you’re feeling in public.
  • If you have an opposing minority point of view, keep quiet.

And a few more for conference organizers (a little tongue-in-cheek here):

  • Don’t reveal your revenue model.
  • Never explain how a sponsor got onto the program.
  • Don’t publish attendee evaluations unless they’re highly favorable.

You can probably think of more.

Of course, each of us has slightly different interpretations or internal beliefs about implicit ground rules like these, and that’s what causes problems.

When we don’t agree to explicit ground rules at the start of an event, no one knows exactly what’s acceptable behavior. (Think about what it’s like when you have to go to a conference and don’t know the dress code.) The result is stress when we’d like to do something that might not be OK, like ask a question, let a presenter know we can’t hear properly, or share a personal story. We’re social animals, and most of us don’t want to rock the boat too much. The end result: we play it safe; we’ll probably remain silent. And we lose an opportunity to make our experience better and more meaningful.

A common misconception about explicit ground rules is that they restrict us from doing things. (“Turn off your cell phones”. “No flash photography”.) Actually, good ground rules do the opposite; they increase our freedom of action. That’s because, by making it explicit that certain behaviors, like asking questions, are permitted they remove stressful uncertainty and widen our options.

I use six explicit ground rules for all Conferences That Work. Four of them, The Four Freedoms, are available for download. To learn about the others and understand how they all work, read my book!

What do you think about explicit ground rules during conferences? Have you attended conferences that used them? If so, what was your experience of having them available?

Changing the way we come together at events

Slide 7

“…if we do not change the way citizens come together, if we do not shift the context under which we gather and do not change the methodology of our gatherings, then we will have to keep waiting for great leaders, and we will never step up to the power and accountability that is within our grasp.”
—Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

Another stirring quote from Peter Block, from a chapter titled The Stuck Community.

Change citizens to conference attendees and you have a good description of what continues to happen at traditional conferences, where attendees listen to session leaders, rather than collectively reaping the benefits of co-creating an event and associated community.

Do you treat your conference attendees as adults?

Do you treat your conference attendees as adults?

treat conference attendees as adults 4780904769_6cd23b9ff4_b
Photo by Flickr user yvonnert

In a previous post I wrote:

“We are scared about not having control in our lives. That’s why we lock down our events, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to, at most, choosing which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.”

What messages do traditional events send to adult attendees?

  • You are children, unable to create meaningful learning experiences for yourself.
  • You don’t really know what you need to know, so we have figured it all out for you.
  • Your job is to pay our fee and sit in one of these rooms at these times.

These messages aren’t appropriate, even if only novices attend your event. (Though in this case, it’s a training, not a conference.) Control-centered leadership is appropriate for emergencies, not conferences. Treating adults as if they were children is demeaning and evokes an uneasy climate that brings out the worst in attendees.

Of course there are conferences for children. And it’s interesting that these events usually bend over backwards to empower the youth that attend and provide the tools for the participants to make the event their own. Adults who work with youth know that the last thing teenagers want is to be told what to do. How surprising, then, that once those teenagers grow into adults we start treating them like children again.

At the start of Conferences That Work, we tell you that we will treat you like an adult. For example, if you need a break from the full schedule we’ve co-created, take it—this isn’t school! Or, if you want to discuss a topic that didn’t make it into the crowd-sourced program, contact the other people (known from the roundtable) who want to join you and use one of the extra empty rooms we’ve reserved. And, if you want to question (respectfully of course) the process we’ve offered—do so, and know that we’ll listen and respond to your ideas and suggestions.

Participants find these simple suggestions refreshing. They encourage attendees to take ownership of the conference, and make them less likely to complain about the aspects of the event that, as we’ve reminded them, are under their control.

So try treating your attendees as adults at your next event. Even if they aren’t. Give them the freedom to challenge, to comment, to make suggestions, to question, and to influence what happens. They will thank you for the opportunity.

Do you treat conference attendees as adults at your events?