Nine conference mythodologies

Mythodology 3564715180_40dc1bb7f8_oLong 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

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. And when I began creating conferences myself, I used the same standard format: invite experts in the field 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

In my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons why the meetings industry must change conference formats to stay relevant to today’s attendees.

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

Enjoy!

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 we’ve been told. 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. Expert content is available anywhere with an internet connection, 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.

Conclusion
All of these themes are explored in detail in my first two books. To get the full story, buy ’em!

Why experiential learning is superior to every other kind

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?

Photo attribution: Flickr user mikebaird

The Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

So you’re holding a conference. How are you going to get your audience tuned in and engaged?

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Three prerequisites for lifelong learning

pablo_casals_in_buenos_aires_1937When the renown cellist Pablo Casals was asked why, at 81, he continued to practice four or five hours a day he answered: “Because I think I am making progress.

Like Casals, I want to keep living lifelong learning by:

As an example, here’s what I recently learned while leading a workshop.

Trying new things and noticing what happens
During the workshop:

  • I used a projected countdown timer and a 90-second piece of music to get participants back in their seats on time at the end of a short mid-workshop break. Outcome? It worked really well!
  • While facilitating body voting (aka human spectrograms) I verbally stated each question we were exploring. Outcome? It seemed like a few participants didn’t hear or understand what I’d said until I repeated myself. Verbal communication didn’t work so well.
  • I wore a red hat when I was explaining/debriefing, and took it off when I was facilitating experiences. Outcome? This was the second time I’ve tried this approach, and I’m still not sure whether it’s effective/useful or not.

When you pursue risky learning, some things work while some don’t — and for some, the jury is still out. Whatever happens, you can learn something!

Soliciting and being open to observations and feedback
During the workshop:

  • Some of the questions I asked during body voting asked individuals to come up with a numeric answer, and then join a group line in numerical order. Someone had the bright idea of showing their answer with fingers raised above their head, so it was easy for others to see where to go in the line. Many participants copied the idea, which sped up forming the human spectrograms. I’d never seen this done before, and will adopt this simple and effective improvement.
  • I love to use a geographic two-dimensional human spectrogram to allow participants to quickly discover others who lives/work near them. The wide U.S. map I projected did not correspond to the skinny width of the room. A participant suggested that we rotate where we stood by 90º. I tried her suggestion and found that it was easy for people to move to their correct positions. Duly noted!
  • At the end of the workshop, I solicited public feedback at a group spective. One participant shared frustration with my verbal statements of the body voting questions, and suggested that the questions also be projected simultaneously. An excellent refinement that I will incorporate in future.

Notice how participants were able to point out deficiencies in processes I used, and simultaneously came up with some fine solutions. Peer learning in action!

Final thoughts
I’ve been designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich meetings for 25 years, and many participants have been kind enough to share that I’m good at what I do (check out the sidebar testimonials).

But I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I’m no Casals, but, like him, I keep practicing, learning, and — hopefully — making progress.

Photo attribution: Gus Ruelas

Guaranteeing audience engagement at your events

engagementMost people won’t ask questions at meetings. So how can you get authentic audience engagement at your events?

In a thoughtful article “Audience Engagement – at the Heart of Meetings“, Pádraic Gilligan writes:

“…We all want audience engagement so why doesn’t it take place?…While the speaker can be to blame for lack of audience engagement, in my experience, it’s usually the fault of the audience!”

I disagree.

I’ve found that lack of audience engagement is due to the generally poor process used during most meeting sessions.

A different workshop
Last Wednesday I led a two-hour workshop in Boston for 160 members of a national education association. Every participant was active during ~80% of the workshop: discovering the concerns and experience of other participants, moving around the room while forming human spectrograms to learn about each other and the group (I used three participant-created chair sets during the session) and learning and connecting around issues and topics relevant to them throughout.

The hardest task of the workshop was getting people to stop talking with each other so we could move to the next part!

Pádraic suggests that hi-tech polling methods can be used to increase engagement. I agree that such technology can help engagement, but it’s not necessary. During my workshop, I showed 12 slides, but would have been fine without them. Other technology I used included 5″x8″ cards, pens, and large post-it notes. No high tech was needed with one optional exception — we projected a Google Doc at the end, to capture and display all the group feedback during the closing public workshop evaluation.

In 25 years of experience, I’ve found that most people have a fundamental need and desire to connect with others with whom they share something in common. When you use good group process to safely facilitate appropriate connection, ~98% embrace the opportunity and learn, connect, and engage effectively with their peers. Anonymity, if needed, can be readily supplied by no-tech/low-tech process, but it turns out that it’s needed a lot less than people think.

Every person in the workshop received a copy of my book The Power of Participation, which explains why participant-driven and participation-rich sessions are so important, how to create an environment for this kind of learning, connection, engagement, and resulting action, and how and when to use a large organized compendium of appropriate process tools. The participants I spoke with after the workshop told me how excited they were: planning to read the book and start putting what they had experienced into improving their professional development work in education.

It’s possible to create amazing learning and connection though approaches I’ve outlined above. When I facilitate longer conferences I can assure you that almost everyone will ask questions in public at some point during the event.

Conclusion
If you aren’t getting excellent audience engagement, don’t blame the audience! Change the processes you use in your sessions, and engagement will be guaranteed!

You can experience how to use process tools to significantly improve the effectiveness of your sessions and events at one of my 1½-day workshops in North America and Europe. If you can’t participate in a workshop, buy a copy of The Power of Participation to learn the why, what, and how of building better learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes into your events.

Lessons From Improv: Make Sure Your Meeting Messages Are Received

pointing-finger-nounWant to improve the learning at your meetings? Here’s what I learned from You. No, not you — “You“!

“You”
You is a delightful improv game I played at the Mindful Play, Playful Mind retreat in Mere Point, Maine. Players stand in a circle and the first player points to someone and says “You”. The pointed-to player does the same by pointing to someone else until the last person has pointed back to the 1st person, creating a pattern. The pattern is practiced a few times until everyone has it … and then another pattern is created, using names of a class of common objects such as junk food, or birds, or colors, etc. Once the players have got that pattern down … well, let’s run both patterns simultaneously! Then let’s start doing things like adding another pattern, changing places in the circle with the “next” player…

As the game gets more complicated, it becomes an exercise in concentration and dealing with potential chaos. You have to figure out how to deal with unexpected situations: e.g. two people point to you simultaneously with a pattern while you’re trying to pass a third pattern on to someone else. It’s challenging — and a lot of fun!

Learning from a debrief
After you play a game at an improv workshop, it’s time for a debrief, so we held one in between adding further complexities to “You”. Then we worked on incorporating our incremental learning into the next round.

What did we learn?

We discovered that when we were playing with multiple patterns going round the circle, the game fell apart when we incorrectly believed we had passed on a pattern to the next person and could turn our attention back to the circle to deal with the next pattern to be passed to us. It’s easy to point to the pattern’s next recipient, then hear another pattern that you have to respond to and fail to make sure that the pattern you’re passing has been successfully received. This only has to happen once for a pattern to stop going round the circle.

We realized that when we got caught up in the excitement and high-attention needs of a complex game, we played too quickly to reliably pass on pattern messages to the next person in the sequence, leading to dropped patterns.

We then realized that what we needed to do to play the game reliably was to switch our focus from frantically keeping up to making sure that our pattern message for the next person was received. We needed to wait until our desired receiver was giving us their full attention. Then we could pass the pattern, check visually that they had received it and, only then, turn our attention back to receiving patterns from others in the group.

The beauty of this focus switch was that if everyone did it, the game automatically slowed down as needed to successfully deal with complex or new situations. For example, if Mohamed & Juanita both wanted to send me a pattern while I was supposed to send one to Laurie, I would wait until Laurie was free to receive my pattern before turning my attention to Mohamed & Juanita. Mohamed & Juanita would see that I was occupied and wait until I had successfully sent Laurie my pattern, whereupon one of them would get my attention while the other waited until I was finally free.

If you didn’t carefully read the previous paragraph with full understanding, I forgive you. It’s much easier to experience how this focus switch works than to explain it.

The Lesson. You’ve gotta ask! Twice!
Ever had someone tell you something and you don’t understand what they said? Duh! Of course you have! When this happens, the obvious thing to do is to ask them to explain. Do we always do that? No! In Conferences That Work I tell the story of how an entire class of graduate students (including me) stopped understanding our math professor halfway through the semester, and none of us ever informed him we were lost. What a waste of everyone’s time!

When you teach it’s important to provide clear understandable information. When you facilitate or lead a group, it’s important to provide clear process instructions. But regardless of how “good” you are at this, there is no guarantee that your message has been received completely or correctly.

And so to our lesson:

If we want to teach or facilitate effectively, we need to check early and often that what we are saying has been received and understood. When we use the ask, tell, ask model of participative learning, the second ask — the follow-up check for reception and understanding — is the one that’s all too easy to omit.

When we improv players made sure that our pattern passes had been received, we were amazed at how complex a game of “You” we could successfully play. In the same way, faithfully using all three steps of the ask, tell, ask model allows us to check that our teaching and facilitation as been received and understood, allowing us to create complex and successful active learning at our meetings.

What’s the best learning model for conference sessions?

digging_4025946850_211dc931b9_b
We don’t usually think about the learning models we employ during conference sessions, and I believe our events would be better if we did. Conventional conferences assume a ready supply of experts to whom we listen while they cover the learning that has been advertised at their sessions. Here’s how Jeff Hurt describes this approach, which he calls surface learning, contrasting it with deep learning where attendees discover through exploratory activity:

Content Covered Or Discovered
“In surface learning, the session reflects the knowledge and skills of the speaker. Knowledge is considered a thing that can be deposited into the minds of the listener. The attendee consumes as much as the speaker says as possible and tries to store it in the mind. The speaker covers as much as they can as fast as they can.

In deep learning, attendees explore challenging questions, dilemmas and problems using new and past knowledge. A focus is put on the attendee testing ideas, correcting them as needed and opening up to new perspectives. Attendees spend time discovering and investigating.”
—Jeff Hurt, We Must Stop Promoting Conference Fast-Track, Artificial, Butt-In-Seat, Surface Learning

As explained in my books, we know that the active learning that occurs through attendee discovery is indeed more effective than the learning that may result from sharing information with passive listeners. More is learned, more is retained, and overall retention is more accurate. So I agree with Jeff that discovered learning trumps covered learning. But from whom do we discover this learning?

Even when we incorporate active learning into a conference session, invariably the assumption remains that we are learning about content provided exclusively by a speaker or presenter. What we are discovering is limited to the content he or she can provide.

While this approach is far better than the pour-information-into-their-minds model, I think it can almost always be improved. Unless the room is full of novices — attendees who know nothing about a session topic — using process during the session that uncovers knowledge and resources in the room opens up the quantity and quality of learning that’s possible.

I know this to be true from my own experience. When I’ve led a conference session using process that supports and encourages participants to contribute their own expertise and experience, I’ve always learnt something new! Extending our resources for active learning to the entire room uncovers relevant and useful knowledge from everyone present. Active learning then becomes social learning, reflecting today’s reality that knowledge is a social construct, no longer something residing in an individual head. When we incorporate social learning into our events we all benefit because, as David Weinberger says: “The smartest person in the room is the room.

Let’s summarize the three learning models I’ve described.

  • Covered learning is an outdated, inferior learning model.
  • Discovered learning is an improvement, because we are actively involving attendees in the learning process, though the focus is just one person’s content.
  • Uncovered learning further improves discovered learning by increasing the resources for active learning to include the expertise and experience available in the entire room. If a presenter or facilitator knows how to effectively uncover learning, they will be using the best learning model available.

To successfully implement uncovered learning, we need to use process that, as Weinberger puts it: “improves expertise by exposing weaknesses, introducing new viewpoints, and pushing ideas into accessible form.” Such process is the focus of the peer conference designs and associated participation techniques that I’ve been developing and writing about here and in my books. Studying how to facilitate this process and then adopting it is perhaps the most effective way you can improve the learning at your events.

Quotes from David Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous, Times Books, 2007

Image attribution: Flickr user chiotsrun