How to get attendees to risk doing something new at your event

How to get attendees to risk doing something new at your eventGetting your attendees to do something new at your event can be hard. For example, Seth Godin illustrates the problem:

“Want to go visit a nudist colony?”

“I don’t know, what’s it like?”

“You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.”

“Show me some pictures, then I’ll know.”

Well, actually, you won’t.
You won’t know what it’s like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people.
The only way you’ll know what it’s like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience.
Not by looking at the experience.
By having it.
—Seth Godin, Experiences and your fear of engagement

Now you’re probably not taking your attendees to a nudist colony for the first time — nudist associations, I did say probably. But introducing a new event format where an attendee has to do something different, like interact with other attendees or play a game, will usually evoke uncomfortable feelings for some or many attendees, ranging from mild unease to outright fear.

So how can we encourage attendees to take the risk to try something new?

By having them do something new together.
A caveat — allow attendees to opt out

Whatever we are asking attendees to do, it’s important to always provide an option for individuals to opt out. How to do this depends on the circumstances. For example, running an activity as a concurrent breakout or an add-on to the main program implies that participation is optional. But if the activity is a plenary session, then you should always give an opt-out provision after introducing the activity and before participation starts.

(This doesn’t mean that attendees necessarily get to pick and choose how they will be involved with the activity. For example, when I run The Solution Room I make it clear that those present who choose to attend can do so only as participants and not as observers. If they choose not to participate, I ask them to skip the session.)

Strong scientific research performed over fifty years ago has shown that groups are more likely to accept taking risks than the members individually (e.g. see diffusion of responsibility and level of risk taking in groups for supporting research). Seasoned facilitators know this. Working with groups we can routinely get members to do things collectively that they might baulk at as individuals.

Simply asking a group to do something perceived as risky is not all that’s required, however. Supplying or obtaining agreements on how the group members will work together helps create a safe(r) working environment for risk-taking. In addition, if the group members are mostly strangers to each other, it can be helpful to provide appropriate and meaningful activities for them to get to know each other before moving into new kinds of work. Finally, begin with low-level risk activities and then moving to those perceived as more risky. This will help a group obtain experiences that they would have resisted had I asked them to participate right away.

The power of group process
Change is hard. However, the potential of group process to successfully introduce people to beneficial experiences that might be judged beforehand as scary or risky allows us to create powerful new experiences for attendees at our events. Furthermore, new experiences that incorporate valuable learning and build new personal connections are one of the most powerful ways to make meetings relevant and memorable.

That’s why I love to design and facilitate group work at conferences. I’ll probably never get to facilitate the kind of exposure in Seth Godin’s example (and that’s fine by me). But group work has the power to engage and transform attendee learning and connection in ways that conventional broadcast sessions cannot match. It should be top-of-mind for every event professional who wants to hold engaging and successful meetings.

Image attribution: Lyndi & Jason, Dallastown Pa, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The simple consensus process that saved international climate change conferences

Indaba logjam breaking process
Negotiators twice used a powerful yet little-known South African consensus process—indaba—to rescue foundering talks at international climate change conferences.

Introduced at the 2011 Durban talks, the recently-concluded 2015 Paris talks also invoked indaba (pronounced “in-dar-bah”) to reduce “900 bracketed points of contention in the draft text to about 300 before the last session“—making it possible for the first time for all 195 countries present to agree to reduce carbon emissions.

Indaba has been used at Zulu, Xhosa, and Swazi tribal gatherings for two centuries or more.

“A message was therefore conveyed..to the King, inviting Umtassa to come in to an indaba at Umtali.”
The Pall Mall Gazette, London, December 26, 1894 (earliest documented written use)

What is indaba?

Indaba is not a clearly defined format. The term has been appropriated and adapted (example) and I’ve been unable to find detailed descriptions of the original South African process. I suspect the form used at the Paris Talks does not define indaba, and may distort or omit significant features. Here are the key ingredients from the Paris talks:

  • Negotiators used Indaba as a logjam-breaking technique after traditional negotiating process ground to a halt.
  • Participants with decision-making authority worked in small groups that included members from countries with seemingly incompatible goals.
  • Small group members shared verbally and face-to-face their “red lines”. These were specific “hard limits” issues they were not willing to compromise on.
  • Participants who shared hard limits were concomitantly responsible for proposing solutions to other group members. This prevented the meeting from being merely a presentation of position statements.

The Durban climate change conference implemented a more open process where diplomats representing the main countries formed a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and talked directly to each other. John Vidal reported: “By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.”

The third and fourth covenants listed above distinguish indaba from other forms of group consensus and negotiation process: explicit sharing of what is not acceptable, coupled with commitment to propose and explore solutions for supposedly intractable differences.

Similar consensus processes

A couple of more recent formats are reinventions of Indaba principles.

One is concordance, developed by Will Schutz (here’s an introduction). Robert McNeil summarizes as follows: “Everyone who has a stake is in. Anyone can veto. If you veto you have to explain why (openly and honestly). We explore the vetoes openly and do the work necessary for all to agree.”

Another is the “two circles” couples work technique for finding common ground popularized by John M. Gottman & Nan Silver in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, in which you draw two circles, one inside the other, using the inner circle to list aspects you can’t give in on and the outer circle for aspects you can compromise over.

[Know any others? Add them in the comments below!]

The overlooked importance of good group process

It’s remarkable that such an elementary consensus process proved to be key to creating a meeting agreement that will likely profoundly shape the future of our planet.

In addition, it’s incredible that such a powerful process is virtually unknown to most meeting designers, negotiators, and facilitators!

In conclusion, the outcome-changing application of indaba at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change demonstrates, there is an urgent need for all of us to become familiar with and use good group process when we meet to learn, connect, engage, and decide. The world will be a better place when we do.


How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

Image “COP21 participants – 30 Nov 2015 (23430273715)” courtesy of Presidencia de la República Mexicana

Improve conference sessions and workshops with Color/Advance

Color Advance Luncheon of the Boating Party 11005726293_f7bdd2ae6c_z

Last week in Montreal, during a pre-workshop at the fabulous Applied Improvisational Network 2015 World Conference, I realized how an improv game could be used to improve group process.

At the workshop, run by the talented Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was reintroduced to an improv game called Color/Advance. It’s a simple game for two players, a storyteller and a listener.

At any time while the storyteller tells a story, the listener can give either of two commands: “Color” or “Advance”. Color instructs the storyteller to describe whatever she is talking about in more detail, while Advance tells her to continue with the story. The game is typically used to improve storytelling skills, using the listener’s requests as feedback for determining when more detail will spice up the story and when it’s time to continue with the plot.

It struck me that Color/Advance could be used in a different way, as a group process tool, in a conference session or workshop. Often, when I lead a meeting, I have limited information on what the participants want to get out of it. With up to about fifty participants I normally use the Post It! technique to uncover the wants and needs of the group and then tailor the session to fit as well as possible, covering a judiciously selected set of the topics mentioned.

This approach works very well, but there’s no standard way for attendees to indicate during the session that they would like more or less information to be shared on the current topic. While it’s not unusual for people to occasionally ask for more detail, few will spontaneously volunteer that they’ve heard quite enough about a topic and they’d like to move on to the next one.

So I propose that Color/Advance can be given as a tool to session participants to give them control over what is covered during a session, as follows.

After you’ve used Post It! to create an impromptu outline of the topics to be included, explain that at any point anyone can say “Color!” meaning that they want more detail of what is being said. Or, they can say “Advance!” which means “I’ve heard enough about this, please move on to the next topic.” Also explain that people can respectfully (and succinctly) disagree, so that the wishes of one person are not imposed on the entire group.

I plan to experiment with this approach over the next few months, and will report back in the comments or another blog post on how well this works. If you have thoughts about this technique or have used it in this way, please let us know in the comments!

I love discovering how to harness human process in new ways. Body voting makes preferences and opinions public. A fishbowl allows a group to have a useful discussion. And, thanks to my experience at the AIN 2015 World Conference, we have a new tool Color/Advance for conference session or workshop participants to fine tune the information shared to match their wants and needs.

Photo attribution: Flickr user ncindc

From broadcast to learning in 25 minutes

GMIC2014 collab session Last week’s Green Meetings Industry Council’s 2014 Sustainable Meetings Conference opened with a one-hour keynote panel: The Value of Sustainability Across Brands, Organizations and Sectors. Immediately after the presentation, my task was to help over two hundred participants, seated at tables of six, grapple with the ideas shared, surface the questions raised, and summarize the learning and themes for deeper discussion.

Oh, and I had twenty-five minutes!

For a large group to effectively review and reflect on presented material in such a short time, we have to quickly move from individual work to small group work to some form of concrete visual summary that’s accessible to everyone. So here’s what I did.

1) My audience hadn’t moved for over an hour, and their brains had, to varying degrees, gone to sleep. So, for a couple of minutes, I had people stand, stretch, twist and do shoulder rolls.

2) Next, I summarized what we were about to do. I

      • Outlined the three phases of the exercise: a) working individually; b) sharing amongst the small group at their table, and c) a final opportunity to review everyone’s work in a short gallery walk.
      • Pointed out the tools available. Each table had a sheet of flip-chart paper (divided into a 2 x 2 matrix), 4 pads of different colored sticky notes, and a fine-tip sharpie for each person.

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      • Explained the four categories they would use for their responses. After introducing each category I asked a couple of pre-primed volunteers to share an example of their response with the participants.
        • REMINDERS. “These are themes with which you’re already familiar that the keynote touched on. You might want to include ideas you think are important. And you might want to include themes that you have some expertise or experience with. More on that in a moment. Write each REMINDER on a separate blue sticky note, which will end up in the top left square of the flip chart.”
        • SPARKS. “Sparks are inspirations you’ve received from the keynote; new ideas, new solutions that you can adopt personally, or for your organization, or at your meetings. Write your SPARKS on yellow sticky notes; they’ll go in the top right square.
        • QUESTIONS. “These are ideas that you understand that you have questions about. Perhaps you are looking for help with a question. Perhaps you think a question brought up by the keynote is worth discussing more widely at this event. Write your questions on a green sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom left square.
        • PUZZLES. “Puzzles are things you feel that you or your organization or our industry don’t really understand and need help with. Write your puzzles on a violet sticky note; they’ll go in the bottom right.”
      • Gave these instructions. “In a minute I’m going to give you about five minutes to work alone and create your REMINDERS, SPARKS, QUESTIONS, and PUZZLES. Don’t put your notes on the flip chart paper yet; we’ll do that communally soon. Any questions?” [There were none.] “Two final thoughts:
        • 1) Words are fine, but feel free to draw pictures or diagrams too!
        • 2) Consider adding your name to any of your notes. We’re going to display your notes on the wall over there. If you have expertise or experience of one of your themes, adding your name to your note will allow others who are interested in the topic to find you. If you have a question or puzzle you need help with, adding your name will allow others who can help to find you.”

3) I gave everyone five minutes to create their individual notes, asking them to shoot for a few responses in each category.

4) For the second phase of the exercise, I asked for each person to briefly explain their notes with the others at their table, placing on the appropriate quadrant of the flip chart as they did so. I allocated each person a minute for this, and rang a bell when it was time for the next person to begin.

5) The final phase was a gallery walk. I asked one person from each table to go and stick their flip chart page on a large blank meeting room wall. Once done, I invited everyone to go to the gallery and explore what we had created together.

Here’s one end of the resulting sharing wall.

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6) Later that evening I had a small number of subject matter experts cluster the themes they saw. (If I had had more time, I would have had all the participants work on this together during my session.) The resulting clusters were referred to throughout the conference for people to browse and use as a resource. Here’s a picture, taken later, showing the reclustered items in our “sharing space”.

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Even when time is short, an exercise like this can quickly foster huge amounts of personal learning, connection (via the table work and named sticky notes), and audience-wide awareness of interests and expertise available in the room. I believe that reflective and connective processes like this should be used after every traditional presentation session to maximize its value to meeting participants.

One way to build a movement at a conference

USGBC success post-its

On Wednesday, I walked into our boardroom at USGBC for our Green Building & Human Health Summit and I got goose bumps.
—Rick Fedrizzi, CEO of the US Green Building Council

As a devotee of Conferences That Work, one of my greatest challenges and pleasures is creating “just-in-time” process that meets the evolving needs of an event. Here’s a great example of how creative process was used to support the building of a movement at a conference.

Last week I was invited to consult on a two day, one hundred participant “turning-point” summit for the US Green Building Council (USGBC) in Washington, DC. Good process was vital, because a much wider range of organizations had been brought together than at previous USGBC events in order to explore a major long-term expansion of the green building movement.

During the event we dreamed up a simple yet powerful exercise to uncover and communicate participant expectations for the meeting. I say “we”, because at least three members of the summit working group contributed to what became an effective and dramatic way to expose and share what participants saw as successful outcomes for the event.  Here’s what happened:

What would success look like?
The summit was designed around a set of “shirtsleeve sessions”, where participants—after some short stimulating talks by expert “igniters”—divided into small groups to discuss three principle goals and formulate key strategies to address them. At a working group meeting at the end of the first day we had to decide how best to use thirty minutes that had been scheduled the following morning before the next shirtsleeve session. Someone proposed that we ask participants to share their answers to the question “What would success look like?” either from a personal or group perspective. The working group liked this idea, whereupon I suggested that answers be written on large sticky notes and displayed in a central location during the day. This allowed the group to view all the responses during breaks, rather than hearing just a few of them in the limited time available.

The participants liked this activity, and soon a large grid of answers had been posted on a lobby wall right outside the breakout rooms, available for all to see.

During the afternoon, another working group member had the bright idea to review and categorize the sticky notes’ contents. At a subsequent working group meeting we agreed that during the closing session she would briefly share seven groupings she had devised that covered just about all the definitions of success that participants had proposed:

  • A “trail map” for the future. During the event, one participant said the meeting was more like a base camp than a summit. The metaphor stuck, and we started thinking of our journey as an expedition that needs a trail map to be successful.
  • Inclusiveness. As the organization adjusted to working with a broader community of interest, issues of how to expand connections and social equity are important.
  • Public relations and messaging. Successfully framing USGBC’s messages so that people understand that choices they make in their home and business can enhance their family’s and employees’ health is key.
  • Standards. How do we emphasize and integrate knowledge and actions that improve well-being into existing standards?
  • Definition and valuation of health and well-being. We need to define and value health and well-being in USGBC’s and the related community’s mission.
  • Research. What do we know, what are the research gaps, and how can we obtain funding to fill them?
  • Paradigm shift. How do we get to a place where the green built environment is synonymous with health?

Building a movement
USGBC audience 2Providing summary feedback at the close of a “turning point” event is very important. Participants have put a lot of time and effort into their work together, and they need to feel heard and receive assurance that what has happened will lead to significant next steps.

At the USGBC summit, the complexity of the issues and constituencies involved, plus the reality that not all key players were able to attend, meant that detailed trail map outcomes would take some time to formulate.

The sharing of participant’s seven categories of success was, therefore, an important way for participants to feel heard and know that others shared their goals and aspirations. As a result, this simple focused sharing of major insights and common agreements became a key ingredient for “building a movement”, a phrase that was heard frequently during the high-energy closing session of the summit. After offering a next step communications plan and an impassioned closing speech by Rick Fedrizzi, USGBC’s CEO, many participants shared that they thought the summit would be looked back on as a milestone moment in the development of green building.

Photo attributions: US Green Building Council

Clay Shirky & my mission

Clay Shirky
Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky, the author of one of the best books I’ve read on the transformation of our lives by social tools, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations says he writes about “Systems where having good participants produces better results than having good planners.

That helps me express what floats my boat.

I am driven to explore systems where having good process produces better results than having good participants or good planners.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/poptech2006/ / CC BY 2.0

The potential of group process

A few times a year I fly to Phoenix to staff large group seminars that last three or four days and involve intensive group interaction, sharing personal experiences, and individual and group feedback. Quoting from an invitation:

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“The seminar involves risk-taking, emotional investment and expanding your comfort zone. It is all part of a process that has been developed and fine-tuned over a number of years. We know it works; we also know the more you contribute, the more you will gain from it. We hope that you recognize mixed emotions and feelings are a part of the process which, when acknowledged and examined, yield tremendous rewards including greater focus and clarity about your goals, new choices for your personal and professional life, and closer more intimate relationships.”

I’ve staffed almost twenty of these events over the last seven years. Typically there are around sixty participants, and I lead a group of six or seven people. I won’t have met the people in my staff group before and, most likely, will never meet them again.

By the end of our time together, the people in my group know more about the other members than most people know about their closest friends. And, more important, everyone has received valuable information about themselves from their group members and from their responses to what happens during the event. This all happens in a safe and supportive environment. Most people find their experience profoundly moving, sometimes life-changing.

You might be interested in, skeptical, or dismissive of what I’ve just described. That’s not the point. What’s important is my repeated observation that most of us have the potential to quickly develop intimate, powerful connections with others at group events. What must we do for this to occur? At a minimum we must offer 1) a safe environment, and 2) permission and support to step a little outside what we’ve been taught (albeit for good reasons) about what can happen when we meet people.

No, Conferences That Work aren’t large group seminars that launch participants on a voyage of self-discovery. They are gentle, joyful events where people learn, share, and connect safely around a topic of common interest. But my knowledge, gained from those Phoenix seminars, of what’s possible when people get together drives everything I do.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/virtualvillage/ / CC BY 2.0