Why I love conference facilitation and design

Here’s an example of why I love conference facilitation and design. After setting up a Personal Introspective this morning (25 minutes) I turned over what happens to the small groups. Watch the listening and involvement of every person as I weave my phone through the circles of chairs.

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Five Reasons to Change Conferences

Here’s my article Five Reasons to Change Conferences, published in the December 2018, NSA Speaker magazine.Five Reasons to Change Conferences


Five Reasons to Change Conferences

Peer sessions provide greater connection around content

The most important reason people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members and no connection around lecture content. Here are five reasons why.

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Learning in community at conferences

Legendary Apple designer Jony Ive explains how learning in community helped Apple make the iPhone:

“When we genuinely look at a problem it’s an opportunity to learn together, and we discover something together. We know that learning in community is powerful. It feeds and supports momentum which in turn encourages a familiarity and an acceptance of challenges associated with doing difficult things. And I’ve come to learn that I think a desire to learn makes doing something new just a little less scary.”
——Jony Ive, Apple designer Jony Ive explains how ‘teetering towards the absurd’ helped him make the iPhone

At conferences we also learn better when we learn in community. At traditional events, expert speakers broadcast content at attendees. But today our minds are increasingly outside our brains. Our ability to learn effectively now depends mostly on the quality and connectedness of our networks, rather than what’s inside our heads.

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Scenes from a Participate! Workshop and Solution Room

40-seconds of highlights from the Participate! workshop and Solution Room I recently facilitated for the New York State Bar Association.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is training associations how to create powerful and effective participant-driven and participation-rich conferences. I love facilitating the learning that occurs. The training equips the organization with the tools needed to transform its events. Do you want to significantly improve your meetings? Then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!


An innovative conference competition format

My Dutch friend and expert moderator, Jan Jaap In der Maur, recently shared an innovative format for an in-conference pitch competition he devised for the Conventa Crossover Conference, in Ljubljana, Slovenia:

“There were also the Conventa Crossover Awards. Traditionally, this kills the dynamics of every conference: there were 16 finalists, who all had to be given the opportunity to pitch. The initial, but rather traditional idea was to allow them all 10 minutes. This would have lead to 2 (!) hours of pitching, which wouldn’t have been fair to anyone.

At the same time, we didn’t want the pitches to be too short and we wanted the participants not only to vote, but also to learn from the projects. So this is what we did:

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Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshops

Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshopsI often design and facilitate workshops for association members who mostly haven’t met before. The desired outcomes are for each participant to gain useful and relevant professional insights, and to make significant new connections.

During the workshops each participant shares and receives consulting from a small peer group on a current personal professional challenge. The only technologies used are printed cards, paper-covered round tables, and colored pens.

Here’s what you might see on a stroll through a typical workshop:

An example
At one workshop, association staffers noted that no one touched a cell phone, and intense conversations with frequent bursts of laughter filled the entire two-hour event.

A participant started crying and his group members rushed to console and support him. (We learned later that he had been unfairly fired earlier in the day.) Afterwards, we saw many people swapping business cards and making arrangements to meet up again. Before leaving, the fired man told me that, despite his dire circumstances, he had had a very positive experience and made several good new friends in his group. Other participants shared during post-workshop conversations that the experience would be memorable because of their personal learning and the new connections made.

Follow up evaluations confirmed that participants obtained meaningful peer support and advice, and began new friendships with other workshop participants.

Such workshops routinely meet the outcomes they’re designed to achieve: creating useful and memorable learning experiences and connections.

Why are these workshops successful?
These workshops are not successful because of the:

  • excellence of a speaker;
  • beauty/novelty of the venue/F&B/entertainment; or
  • extraordinary facilitation.

(Full disclosure:  the facilitation needs to be competent!)

They are successful because of the process design that supports participants learning from each other while simultaneously enjoying a positive emotional connection together.

Adult professional peers can learn much from each other, and when they meet they are hungry to find solutions to current problems, explore issues, and make connections with others who work in the same sphere.

The successful workshops I’ve described above do not have a single expert sharing content. (Rather, it’s fair to say, they tap the expertise and experience of everyone present.) All they need for success is good process, competent facilitation, and a few low-tech items.

They are also simple. Every process element is a strategic ingredient of the workshop design. Running these workshops helps me continually refine the design, stripping away components that distract focus from the desired outcomes.

Many organizations focus on getting the “best” experts to speak at their meetings. Ironically, in my experience it’s almost always easier to create memorable learning and valuable connection for attendees by employing participatory workshop formats. Why? Because they take full advantage of the group’s combined expertise, hone in on what people actually want and need to learn, and build lasting relationships in the process.

How to design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings

Although you’d never guess it from reading meeting industry trade journals, most meetings are small meetings, and this is a good thing if you want effective and relevant connection and learning to take place.

Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, can supply impressive spectacle, are appropriate places to launch campaigns and mass announcements, and can be very profitable. But they are poor vehicles for creating the useful participant learning, connection, and outcomes that well-designed small conferences can deliver.

So if you are (un)fortunate enough to be the owner or designer of a large meeting, what can you do to maximize participant value?

You need to satisfy four core requirements for optimum learning and connection:

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Nine conference mythodologies

Nine conference mythodologiesLong ago, consultant Tom Gilb coined the term “mythodology” to describe erroneous but commonly held beliefs about how something should be done. Here are nine mythodologies about conferences.

Mythodology: We know what our attendees want to learn about

Reality: No, you don’t. At least half the sessions programmed at traditional conferences are not what attendees want.

Mythodology: Event socials are a good way to meet people

Reality: People tend to stay with people they already know at event socials. Participant-driven and participation-rich events provide far more opportunities to meet people you actually want to meet.

Mythodology: A “conference curator” can improve the quality of your conference content

Reality: Sadly, conference curators don’t exist. But discovering the content wants and needs of participants at the event and satisfying them with the collective resources in the room is routinely possible and significantly improves the quality of your conference content.

Mythodology: Learning occurs through events

Reality: Learning is a continual process; formal events only contribute a small percentage to the whole.

Mythodology: Conference programs should be stuffed full of sessions so there’s something of interest for everyone

Reality: Downtime is essential for effective learning and connection, so providing conference white space is essential. (Trick: Stuff your program if you must, but give attendees explicit permission to take their own downtime when they need it.)

Mythodology: Adding novelty to a meeting makes it better

Reality: Novelty is a one-time trick. Next time it’s old. But making your meeting better lasts. Go for better, not just different.

Mythodology: Big conferences are better conferences

Reality: Better for the owners perhaps (if the meeting is making a profit) but not better for participants. Today’s most successful conferences are micro conferences. (And, by the way, most conferences are small conferences.) 

Mythodology: We know what attendees like, don’t like, and value about our meeting

Reality: If you’re using smile sheets or online surveys, you’re learning nothing about the long-term value of your meeting. This is the meeting industry’s biggest dirty secret. Use long-term evaluation techniques [1] [2] instead.

Mythodology: We can contract a venue for our meeting before we design it

Reality: Sounds silly when put like that, but it happens all the time. Designing your meeting and then choosing a venue that can showcase your design will improve your meeting experience (and can save you big bucks!)

I bet you can think of more mythodologies. Share them in the comments!

Image attribution: Flickr user dunechaser

The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

I’ve been attending conferences for over forty years. Most of them are dull and largely irrelevant. This seems to be the norm, because when you talk to attendees you find they set a low bar for satisfaction— e.g. “It’s OK if I learn one new thing a day, oh, and if I make a useful connection or two that would be great!

For twenty years I assumed this was how conferences were supposed to be. When I began creating conferences myself, I used the same standard format: invite experts to speak to audiences.

Then in 1992, circumstances forced me to do one thing different. Ever since, thanks to that happy accident, I have been designing and facilitating peer conferences that people have loved for over a quarter-century.

“…gets an award for most/best/most thoughtfully organized conference I think I’ve ever been to.”

“I’m an introvert. I’ve never shared as much at a conference before. Your process is brilliant. Thank you.”

“…the truest sense of community I’ve ever felt and it was beautiful to experience. I hope you have the opportunity to experience something like this in your lifetime. It changes everything.”
—Three recent participants on their experience at three different peer conferences

What’s the one key thing I do that almost no one else does?

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Six reasons to change our conferences

Six reasons to change our conferencesIn my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons to change our conferences for them to remain relevant to today’s attendees.

Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time I’ve summarized them in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.


Sessions provide no connection around content

Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.

At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.

Lectures are a terrible way to learn

We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.

Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything someone tells us. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.

The rise of online

Most broadcast content is now readily available online. An internet connection provides expert content anywhere, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!

Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom

Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.

Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.

Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share

Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!

Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs

Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning.  And you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.


My first two books explore all these themes in detail. To get the full story, buy ’em!