Humanity’s problem is a meeting problem

Meeting problem In 2009, the biologist E.O. Wilson described what he saw as humanity’s real problem. I think it’s also a meeting problem:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
E. O. Wilson, debate at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Mass., 9 September 2009

Wilson sees emotions, institutions, and technology as disjointed in time. Emotions have driven human beings for millions of years, our institutions are thousands of years old, and we can’t keep up with our advances in technology.

And so it goes with meetings.

Emotions

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, our emotions run us, not our rationality. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, wrote a long book about this. It’s why businesses sponsor meetings. It’s why we judge meeting experiences largely based on how they were perceived at their peak and at their end. And it’s why transformational learning occurs when a group experiences a positive emotional connection together.

Want more evidence? Well, information dumps from an expert lecturer are one of the worst ways to learn anything important. And simple workshops that support connection (which may be emotional) between participants around relevant content provide better learning experiences.

Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.

Institutions

The things we do reflect our culture. And the organizations we’ve constructed incarnate our culture. Our largest and most powerful institutions — political and religious — are also the oldest, with roots thousands of years in the past. What we think of as modern business meetings and conferences are hundreds of years old. Changes in their forms and traditions have been principally influenced by technology (see below) rather than any deep changes in human psychology.

The traditional top-down formats of meetings and conferences reflect the top-down structure of the institutions that still largely dominate our world. Traditional institutional norms discourage the creation of meetings that provide freedom for participants to steer and co-create learning and connection experiences that are optimally better for everyone involved. All too often, top-down institutional culture leads inexorably to hierarchical meeting formats.

So there’s a disconnect between what’s best for meeting participants, due to their fundamental psychological makeup, and the dictates of their institutional bosses and the organizations that organize the events.

Technology

And finally, there’s E.O. Wilson’s “god-like technology”. Even though technology is continually being redefined as anything that was invented after you were born, it’s impossible to ignore how rapidly technology has evolved and changed our culture and our meeting experiences. I carry in my pocket a phone that has more computing power and far more utility to me than a machine that filled an entire office building when I was a student. And the COVID-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated how technology has allowed us, almost overnight, to redefine what we have thought of as meetings for hundreds of years to a largely—at least for now—online experience.

Consequently, vendors flood us with technological “solutions” to problems we often aren’t even aware we have. In some cases, these solutions are actually manufactured for a plausible yet illusory need. But even when there’s a genuine problem that the right technology can solve, our emotions can make it hard for us to see its value, and our institutions may be resistant to implementation.

The tension between emotions, institutions, and technology at meetings

Wilson’s definition of humanity’s problem resonates for me. As I’ve shared above, our emotions, institutions, and technology also frequently conflict when we are planning meetings. There isn’t a simple solution that perfectly responds to these elemental forces that affect what we do. In the meetings industry, our best meeting problem solutions recognize the effects of these forces on our gatherings and use conscious design to take advantage of them.

That means designing meetings that incorporate active learning via creating emotional experiences together, working with institutional stakeholders to convince them of the value of emotion-driven, participant-driven, and participation-rich approaches, and using the right technology — often human process technology — to make our meetings the best they can be.

Yes, humanity’s problem is a meeting problem. But we have the tools to solve it. All we need to do is to use them.

Presentation versus interaction at meetings

What is the mix of presentation versus interaction at your meetings? What should it be?

Traditional meetings focus heavily on presentation. Interaction is limited to a few questions at the end of sessions, plus conversations “outside” the formal sessions. And this has been the norm for hundreds of years.

The written word

Let’s explore the popularity of the written words presentation versus interaction over time. If you do this, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, you’ll notice a curious thing.
presentation versus interaction
In 1804, the earliest year included in the Google Books database, the word interaction barely appears. The word presentation is a hundred times more frequent. Both words slowly become more common over time, but presentation stays predominant. But, in the 1950s, something strange happens. The popularity of interaction abruptly rises. In 1964, interaction becomes more frequently used. It has remained in first place ever since.

Presentation versus interaction at meetings

Society, as reflected by books in English, now talks about interaction about twice as often as presentation. But our meeting designs, in large part, haven’t changed to reflect this shift in cultural awareness. Presenters still rarely incorporate interaction into their sessions, even though there are ample reasons why they should.

Since my first book on participant-driven and participation-rich was published 12 years ago, I’ve been gratified to see how the meeting industry has at least started talking more about the importance of bringing interaction and engagement into meeting sessions. But, despite all the talk, meeting owners and presenters still all too often serve up the same lecture-style sessions that are far less effective and engaging than learning in community through well-designed interactive process.

In the 1960s, we finally began focusing on interaction versus presentation in our culture.

That was half a century ago.

It’s time to practice what we preach.

Good meeting design is cheaper than special effects

good meeting design Far too much money is spent on meeting glitz at the expense of good meeting design. Seth Godin makes an analogous point in this post…

Good writing is cheaper than special effects

“In movies, that’s obvious. It costs far less to make The Big Lebowski than a Marvel movie.

But the metaphor applies to just about any sort of creative project.

We often err on the side of ‘special effects’. It’s easier to staff it up, to spend the money…

…But the race to spend more and more on special effects…it might be worth more to take the time and invest the effort to design something great instead.”
Seth Godin, Good writing is cheaper than special effects

“There’s no budget”

I’ve noticed over the years that every meeting has a budget for F&B. There’s usually a budget for decor and production—sometimes a big budget. There’s often a budget for a dramatic big-name speaker or two. If you ask about a budget for event design, stakeholders think you’re talking about decor and drama. But “there’s no budget” for core event design, which is actually about designing great meeting process. Meeting conveners have a blind spot about the importance of meeting process design: what happens for stakeholders at their meeting.

It turns out that designing good process into your meeting is cheaper than paying for special effects. For the price of a coffee break, you can make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose and its impact on participants. Learn how to do this from my books, from the hundreds of articles on this blog, or get in touch!

[P.S. In case you’re wondering, I fed the two words “meeting design” to an AI program, which generated the animated image accompanying this post.]

 

Hub and spoke meetings

Ever since my first encounter with the hybrid hub and spoke meeting topology at Event Camp Twin Cities in 2011, I’ve been a big fan of the format. Yesterday [see below], I realized that hub and spoke is a great format for purely online meetings too. But first…

…What’s a hub and spoke meeting?

A hub and spoke meeting is one where there’s a central hub meeting or event that additional groups (aka “pods”) of people join remotely.hub spoke meeting Hub and spoke is an event network topology. The hub event and each pod may be either in-person or online.

A terminology reminder
In-person meeting: participants are physically together.
Online meeting: participants are connected to each other via an internet platform like Zoom or Teams.
Hybrid meeting: A meeting with in-person and online components as defined above, plus additional forms explored below.

The benefits of hub and spoke

Increased learning, interaction, and connection

If you want maximum learning, interaction, and connection at a meeting, small meetings are better than large meetings. Using good meeting design, simply splitting a single large group of participants into multiple small groups in an intelligent way provides increased opportunities for each group’s members to connect and interact around relevant content.

Flexibility

Hub and spoke topology allows tremendous design flexibility for a meeting.

In-person pods can be set up at any convenient geographical location, reducing travel time and costs for pod participants while still providing the benefits of in-person interaction.

You can segment online pods to reflect specific “tribes”: groups of people with something in common. For example, think about a conference to explore the implications of a medical breakthrough. One pod could be for patient groups that the discovery will affect. Another might include medical personnel able to deliver the new technology or procedure. Yet another group could contain scientists working on next iterations. [A hat tip to Martin Sirk for suggesting this example!]

Creating pods that reflect event participant segments allow different communities’ goals and objectives to be optimally met while sharing with all participants a common body of learning and experiences via the hub.

Convenience

As noted above, using in-person pods can dramatically reduce the travel time and cost for event participants without sacrificing the benefits of meeting in-person. This allows more people to attend the hub and spoke meeting, and makes it easier for them to do so.

Hub and spoke variants

Depending on the choices made, a hub and spoke event will take one of the following forms:

In-person hub and in-person pods

This is the classic hybrid hub and spoke format that we used 10 years ago at Event Camp Twin Cities (ECTC).

Producing Event Camp Twin Cities 2011

Here’s a little information about the groundbreaking ECTC. Besides the attendees at the in-person hub event in Minneapolis, seven remote pods in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters were tied in to a hub feed that—due to the technology available at the time—was delayed approximately twenty seconds. As you might expect, this delay led to a number of communication issues between the hub and pods. I wrote about ECTC in more detail here.

There will always be some communications delay between the hub and pods, though these days it can be reduced to a fraction of the delay at ECTC. Such delays should be taken into account when designing hub and spoke events.

Online pods

My recent experience of being in an online pod viewing an online hub event made me realize that online pods can be used to great effect with either in-person or online hub events.

Since February, 2021, my friend, tech producer, and meeting industry educator Brandt Krueger has been hosting weekly EventTech Chats on Zoom, together with another friend, his talented co-host, “The Voice of Events”, Glenn Thayer. Yesterday, Brandt was presenting at an MPI event on hybrid meetings, so Glenn shared the event so we could kibitz. Seven of us were in a Zoom, watching a Zoom…

hub spoke meeting

I commented about the recursive nature of this…

…and Anh Nguyen replied that the experience was like Inception. She also mentioned Giggl, which, in similar fashion, allows a group to interact (text and voice) on a shared internet portal. This could be useful if you don’t have a Zoom license.

Our pod experience

The MPI meeting had over 150 viewers. We noticed that there was little interaction on the MPI Zoom chat. Our little group was much more active on chat. We were a small group with a common set of interests, and we all knew each other to some extent.

It’s clear to me that we had a much more interactive, useful, and intimate discussion than the hub event group.

Yes, this is one anecdotal example. But I hope you can see how being in a small pod of connected folks can lead to a better experience than being one of many attending the same event at a hub.

The ease, with today’s technology, of creating an online pod with whomever you please to watch and comment on a hub event, makes this an attractive option to attending the hub event directly online. (If you wanted to, of course, you could do both—as Glenn Thayer did for our pod.)

In-person and online pods

Finally, there’s no reason why a hub event can’t support a mixture of in-person and online pods. (In fact, ECTC had a small number of individual remote viewers as well, though I suspect they could only watch the hub stream.) Once the hub stream is available, one can share it with an online pod, or on a large screen with an in-person pod. Mix and match to satisfy event stakeholders’ and participants’ wants and needs!

Conclusion

I believe that hybrid meetings, catapulted into industry awareness by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a permanent fixture of the meeting industry “new normal”. Once we’ve firmly established the design and production expertise needed for hybrid, hub and spoke is a simple addition that promises the many advantages I’ve described in this post.

It may take a while, but I think we are going to see a growing use of this exciting and flexible format.

What do you think about hub and spoke meetings? Have you experienced one, and, if so, what was it like? Do you expect to use this format in future events? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Control versus freedom at meetings

control versus freedom at meetings How can we design the optimum balance between control versus freedom at meetings? First, let’s get one misconception out of the way. As I wrote in 2010:

The reality is that you never had control to begin with, just the myth of control. You’ve been kidding yourself all these years. Unless your constituency is bound to your event via a requirement to earn CEUs, members can withhold their attendance or avoid sessions at will.
The myth of control

Note that I’m not suggesting meeting professionals give up any attempt to control what happens at their events. Maintaining control of vital logistics, and having and executing backup plans when unexpected developments occur are core requirements and responsibilities of our job.

It’s when we try to tightly control every aspect of our meeting that our events suffer. Surprisingly, clinging to control is the easy way out. As Dee W Hock, founder and former CEO of VISA, put it:

“Any idiot can impose and exercise control. It takes genius to elicit freedom and release creativity.”
—@DeeWHock

To “elicit freedom and release creativity”, we need to recognize that participants are stakeholders in the event, rather than “just” an audience.

Why are they event owners?

“…participants are event owners because, to some extent, they control what happens next.”
—Adrian Segar, Who owns your event?

Creating events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs

In order to create events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs, we need to provide three things:

  • Appropriate meeting logistics that meet participants’ bodily and sensory needs.
  • Content and experiences that participants actually want and need.
  • Maximal opportunities for participants to connect around the content and during the experiences.

Our traditional work

The first bullet point describes the traditional work of meeting professionals. Our logistical designs control the environment that participants experience. They include flexible, support (plans B – Z) when the unexpected happens. In this arena we are in control through our careful planning, which includes resources for a wide range of contingencies.

Giving up control where and when it’s not needed

To satisfy the remaining bullet points, we have to give up control. Why? To give participants the freedom to satisfy their wants and needs! To do this, participants need the freedom to choose what they talk about, whom they talk to and connect with, when it suits them. Our job is to support these activities as much as possible by providing appropriate:

  • Structure [participant-driven and participation-rich formats and sessions]; and
  • Resources [flexible physical and/or online spaces, facilitators, and a schedule that can be developed, as needed, at the event].

Notice that providing these improvements over traditional meetings doesn’t mean that your meeting will turn out to be wildly different from what took place before. It’s perfectly possible that your event will include sessions that look very similar to what you might have scheduled for a tightly controlled program. The difference is that your participants will have chosen these sessions and formats themselves, not you.

Instead of control versus freedom, choose control and freedom. Each assigned to the appropriate characteristics of your event.

That makes all the difference.

A bonus

For a discussion of control versus freedom in the context of event leadership, you may find this post useful…

Designing an online memorial service

Designing an online memorial service I am designing an online memorial service, to be held later this month. The deceased is not a person, but a beloved, 74-year-old small college that closed its local campus a few months ago. I taught there from 1983 – 1993. Under pandemic conditions, former alumni, faculty, staff, and other friends of the institution cannot even meet in person to grieve. So I decided to design and run an online memorial service.

My goals? To give people an opportunity to reminisce, share how they feel, catch up with old friends and make new ones, perhaps obtain some measure of closure, and have some fun.

We can currently only hold such gatherings online. So I’m sharing my design here, in the hope it’s helpful to others.

Designing an online memorial service — development

Given the above objectives, I worked on a design loosely based on what happens at traditional, in-person memorial services. Typically, these start with a formal set of remembrances and end with a social.

Framing the service beforehand

Most people have never attended an online memorial service before. So it’s important to give them an idea of what to expect. Besides explaining the program, as outlined below, we need to set expectations about what will happen during the event.

In this case, whether the school actually needed to close, how that decision was made, and the eventual closing of the school were all contentious issues. They stirred up a lot of feelings in the wider community. Orating about these (totally valid) feelings during the event would be like publicly complaining at a funeral about the poor quality of medical care the deceased received, or attacking other family members for caring poorly for the deceased. I decided that our event would not include public denigration, and included a statement to this effect in the invitations.

I also chose to call the service a “wake”, rather than a “memorial” or “funeral” for the school. Some participants who have not been actively involved with the school for decades may see the event principally as a way to share pleasant memories and catch up with old friends. The term wake evokes a more informal event and experience than that of a traditional funeral. I decided to start somewhat formally with everyone together, as in a traditional memorial service. Normally, such events transition into an in-person social, typically with food and drink available.

The opening program

Many in-person memorial services allow people to “come up to the microphone” when the spirit moves them. This doesn’t work so well online with a large group. There may be frequent pauses and it’s hard to create a workable presumption as to how long people speak.

So right now, I’m assuming that we will have a prescheduled opening program. During registration, we’re asking those who want to share to give us an idea of what they might do or say. Each contributor will know in advance when it’s their turn to share, and how long they have “on mike”.

Depending on the number of people who indicate they want to speak, we may include some time at the end of the opening program for a few additional people to share.

The transition program

Because this service is online, I’ve decided to add an optional transition between the formal remembrances and the ending social. To help reconnect people who have spent time together in the past, we’ll provide online “rooms” for specific groups. As the registrations come in, I will use the affiliation information included to create appropriate descriptions for these rooms. For example, we might have rooms for alumni who graduated in the 60’s or between ’90 and ’95, a room for staff, and a room for faculty. Registrants will preselect a room they’d like to join, and go there at the end of the formal session.

An online social

A year ago, there were few good options for providing an online substitute for an in-person social. Luckily, a host of new platforms have appeared this year (1) (2) that offer a great online social experience. I’ll have one of these available during the second and third phases of the service.

Implementation of the online memorial

I decided to design the wake as a three or more hour event. It’s scheduled to be optimum for North American participants (6:00 — 9:00+ pm EDT). This timing is not great for potential European attendees. But I reluctantly felt it necessary to focus on the majority of the target audience.

We’ll use two online platforms for the wake. I will run the opening, with everyone together, in Zoom, and use Zoom breakout rooms for the following smaller group get-togethers. The online social will be available after the opening, and will use one of the platforms mentioned in the above reviews.

Registration

Attendees (~90 right now) are registering on an online platform that’s free for free events. During registration, people let us know if they’d like to share something brief with everyone at the start, and, if so, what it would be. They can also suggest ideas for activities at the event, plus offer to help with any of the logistics:

  • Assisting with registration
  • Receive and curate writing, photos, audio, and video for creating some form of keepsake remembrance(s) for the event and, perhaps, post-event
  • Tech assistance on prerecorded content (if any) in Zoom
  • A Zoom meeting recorder
  • A “photographer” for the Zoom event
  • Zoom waiting room monitoring
  • Zoom meeting monitoring
  • Someone to assign Zoom breakout rooms
  • Zoom main room monitoring during group breakouts
  • Welcoming folks to and monitoring the online social platform

I am closing registrations five days before the event. This gives me and my volunteer assistants time to fine-tune the program, and figure out the amount of logistical support we’ll need.

A tip

One thing I’ve found invaluable in running large online meetings is a private channel for the event staff to communicate beforehand and in real-time during the event. (Meeting planners have employed wireless technology solutions to do this for decades.) I like to use a private Slack channel for this. Basic Slack has a short learning curve, has clients for every platform, and a free account is all you need.

Final thoughts

I hope this post will help you with designing an online memorial service. Have you designed and/or run one? What did you learn? What would you like to share to make the above advice more useful? Please let us know in the comments below!

Which meeting design books should I buy?

Here are five meeting design books I especially recommend. Each gets a short overview, so you can figure out which one(s) will satisfy your wants and needs. In an outrageous display of chutzpah, I wrote three of these books. [If you decide to buy one of mine, read the conclusion of this post for ways to pay less!]

Into the Heart of Meetings: Basic Principles of Meeting Design (ebook or paperback)

meeting design books In 2013, Eric de Groot and Mike van de Vijver published this unique, extraordinary, and important book on meeting design. Into the Heart of Meetings takes the reader on a deep exploration of “the essential processes that take place during meetings and how to influence these processes through Meeting Design in order to obtain the best outcomes.”

Rather than the usual “how to create great meetings book” approach of tying meeting design to the logistical challenges of the kinds of meetings we have all experienced, Eric & Mike correctly concentrate on the process of (non-routine) meetings: how to design in interactive meeting experiences and behaviors that create the meeting’s desired and needed outcomes.

There are methods of meeting process design in this book I’ve seen nowhere else. (To get a taste, check out blog posts I wrote about three of them: 1, 2, & 3). Whether you’re a meeting design novice or seasoned pro, you will learn really important things from this book. Buy it!

Intentional Event Design (ebook or paperback)

meeting design books

Amidst the myriad books on creating and running events, Intentional Event Design, by Tahira Endean and published in 2017, stands out. (And I’m not saying that because she’s kind enough to mention two of my books and an event I designed and facilitated.)

This book is a modern, comprehensive, and eminently readable introduction to what Tahira calls people-centric, purpose-driven meeting design. Unlike older books, it covers the impact of digital technology (apps, online meetings, and social media marketing) on the meetings world, includes a healthy dollop of the relevance of learning theory to meeting design, and manages to squeeze in trade shows, accessibility, and wellness in a fairly short book.

Yes, other meeting industry books contain more detailed information about event logistics. Things like working with DMCs and writing RFPs. Tahira focuses on the important big picture issues, with a well chosen mix of detailed contributions from trusted industry sources. Intentional Event Design doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to design an effective event. But I think it’s a solid and accessible introduction to meeting design that’s well worth reading.

Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design books

I wrote Conferences That Work, published in 2009, because in 1992, after decades of convening and running traditional conferences, circumstances forced me to invent a new kind of meeting. (The story is told in the book’s preface.) During the next dozen years, I adopted the design for other events. Eventually, I realized that people loved the meetings it created.

In Conferences That Work I lay out four key assumptions that lurk behind the traditional meeting format. I show how they perpetuate a conference model that no longer well serves meeting stakeholders, especially attendees. The first third of the book is a powerful manifesto for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, just as relevant today as it was 12 years ago.

Once the case for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings is made, the book goes on to provide a complete practical guide to preparing and running a peer conference. It has been praised as an exemplary guide to creating a small conference of any kind from scratch.

I’ve updated the book (twice) via a free supplement that can be downloaded here.

Buy this book if you want to:

  • understand why traditional broadcast-style meeting formats are obsolete;
  • learn the why and how of creating meeting process that truly engages and satisfies participants; and
  • possess a complete detailed guide to creating peer conferences.

The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design books While Conferences That Work teaches how to design and execute remarkable conferences, The Power of Participation shows how to improve your meetings at a finer level — individual meeting sessions.

Today, making valuable connections is for many the compelling reason for attending meetings. Yet, time and time again, meetings relegate “networking” to meals and socials outside the sessions, filling events with lectures followed by a few minutes of audience questions.

The Power of Participation supplies conference presenters, organizers, and marketers with a comprehensive toolkit of simple techniques for creating participative sessions that involve the audience in their learning while simultaneously fostering meaningful peer connections.

Smart presenters and meeting organizers integrate experiential learning and peer connection into their events. This book tells you how to do it.

Buy this book to learn:

  • why it’s vital to incorporate participation into every aspect of your events.
  • what you need to know to create meeting environments that support and encourage participation.
  • when and how to use an extensive compendium of specific, detailed techniques to radically improve your sessions and meetings.

Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design books Finally, Event Crowdsourcing, which expands on a key portion of the material covered in The Power of Participation.

The book explains both program and session crowdsourcing: how to routinely create conference programs that reliably include the right sessions and the session content attendees actually want and need. There is some overlap between this book and The Power of Participation. But Event Crowdsourcing includes new techniques, plus significantly more critical details and enhancements. (The enhancements to my core technique The Three Questions, alone, justify getting this book.) If you want to create events that are far more responsive to participant wants and needs than the dominant unconference paradigm — Open Space — this is the book for you!

Conclusion

OK, you skipped here to see if you could save money. Fair enough. Here’s the simple deal — the more of my books you buy, the more you save.

The best and most popular SKU is a set of all three books in both paperback and ebook formats, at a price that’s less than buying the three paperbacks separately.

Prefer ebooks? Buy a set of all three at a good discount.

Finally, don’t forget that first-time buyers of any book from my online store (even a single $11 ebook!) get thirty minutes of free consulting from yours truly at a mutually convenient time.

Introduction to my new book Event Crowdsourcing

Introduction to Event Crowdsourcing

Here’s a teaser: the introduction to my new book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need. Interested? Then buy the book!

Curiosity

I’ve always been curious. I’ve always wanted to understand the world I found myself living in.

As a child growing up in England, I was driven to study physics, the most fundamental science. Physics was a way of looking at the world that perhaps had the greatest chance of explaining the mysteries of the universe to me. By the age of twenty-five I had worked on a key neutrino experiment at CERN, the European particle accelerator, and received a Ph.D. for my efforts.

But a funny thing happened along the way. I became increasingly curious about people. The neutrino research was a collaboration of eighty scientists and hundreds of support personnel from five different countries. The social and cultural differences that shaped our frequent meetings fascinated me. Heated discussions about how we should proceed and whose names should go on our journal articles flared and sputtered. I marveled at the energy scientists poured into the politics of their work. Their passions frequently distracted and detracted from the science we were exploring.

Understanding people

Understanding people better became important to me. I immigrated to the United States after falling in love with Vermont, a rural state with no opportunity to continue the big-lab science path I’d been traveling. I embarked on a series of careers that increasingly integrated my technical background with working with people: owning and managing a solar energy business, teaching computer science at a liberal arts college, and consulting in information technology.

Read the rest of this entry »

Becoming Brave

becoming brave

The past

It’s been a long journey becoming brave.

Fifty years ago, I was a teenager who, after a single embarrassing moment, gave up dancing in public. For forty years.

Twenty-five years ago I was a college professor who spent hours preparing classes, fearful that students would ask me a question I couldn’t answer. And when I started convening and speaking at conferences I was scared of being “on stage”, even in front of small audiences.

Read the rest of this entry »

Stay on time!

Stay on time

Stay on time! Though it’s clearly sensible to keep a conference running on schedule, we’ve all attended meetings where rambling presenters, avoidable “technical issues”, incompetent facilitation, and inadequate logistics have made a mockery of the published program.

So one of the agreements I always ask for at the start of a session or conference is for organizers and participants to stay on time. (By which I mean, of course, don’t run late!)

It seems obvious to do this. When meetings don’t stay on time:

  • It’s unfair to the later presenters and sessions.
  • It becomes OK to be late. (“If that session overran, mine can too.”)
  • Participants don’t know what the actual schedule is. Chaos and cynicism follow.
  • Meals and breaks are abbreviated or, in extreme cases, eliminated.

When meetings don’t stay on time, the event is out of control. I can’t think of any situation where this is a plus. (Well, maybe a conference on world domination by a quintessentially evil cabal, where failure would be a good thing.)

In particular, there are a couple of ways in which out-of-control schedules can wreak havoc on sessions. I’ll illustrate them with examples from a presenter’s point of view (mine).

“You’ll need to shorten your session by twenty-five minutes.”

A client asked me to run a 75-minute interactive session on participant-driven and participation-rich meetings at a daylong conference. They scheduled me for the last session before the closing social. During lunch, the A/V crew asked the two remaining presenters to check our slide decks were ready to go. I did so, and noticed that the other presenter did not.

You guessed it. When the afternoon sessions began, the entire 150-person audience sat around for twenty minutes while the first presenter fiddled around trying to get her laptop to project.

She then added insult to injury by exceeding her allocated time, with no correction from the conference organizers.

When she was finally finished I asked if we could run late so I could get the session duration I’d planned for.

No, sorry, you’ll need to shorten your session by twenty-five minutes,” was the reply.

Experienced presenters are able to creatively improvise in response to last-minute changes to their environment. However, losing a third of my time with no notice was a challenge. I did a good job, but had to omit the major exercise planned for the session. The resulting experience was less impactful than it could have been. Ultimately, the attendees are the losers when this happens. They don’t know what they missed — and, of course, I don’t come across as well as I might deserve.

“Sorry, but we’re starving and exhausted.”

Here’s another less obvious way that chronic lateness can sabotage a session. A client asked me to facilitate a 90-minute workshop for 600 attendees. It was scheduled as the last session of the day, in a distant ballroom separated from earlier sessions by a five-minute walk. With a scheduled 30-minute break before my session, there was plenty of time for participants to get to my room.

Or so I thought.

The session required extensive set up, so my crew and I worked solidly for three hours to get the room ready and rehearse our workshop tasks. But when it was time to start, no attendees appeared.

We waited for 30 minutes before people began to trickle in. Clearly, the entire day’s schedule had been running severely behind all day. Luckily, an organizer told me I could still use my full time for the workshop. That was a relief to hear.

Hundreds of people were standing as I was about to start. But then the conference owner arrived and asked to present an award first. He made a short introduction of the recipient, who embarked on a long, rambling thank-you speech.

Finally I began my workshop, which required participants to be present for the entire session. (Early leavers would significantly impact their working groups.)

I’ve run this workshop many times, and in the past when I’ve announced this requirement (“If you have to leave before [finishing time], I’m sorry but you should not participate in this workshop”) typically two or three people leave.

To my astonishment, hundreds of people — two-thirds of the room — left!

Dumbfounded, I nevertheless knew that the show must go on.

It was a great workshop for the folks who remained. (No one left when it was over; they simply sat and talked with each other for at least ten minutes before anyone left the room. And several people came up and thanked me.) But I was disappointed and puzzled that so many attendees had missed out on an excellent experience. Obviously, I wanted to find out why. But first we had to break down the room set, and by the time this was over the attendees had dispersed.

At breakfast the next morning the reasons for the mass exodus finally became clear. The morning program sessions had run over so extensively, that the organizers slashed the lunch break to 30 minutes. Since lunch was not provided at the conference that day, many attendees didn’t have time to eat any lunch at the restaurants nearby.

The afternoon sessions also overran, so the organizers also eliminated the scheduled 30-minute break before my session. When the hungry and exhausted attendees appeared in my room, only to be asked to attend my entire workshop in its entirety, the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back and most of them walked out.

As a participant, I would have probably joined them.

Stay on time!

From my perspective as a presenter and facilitator, I’m not sure there’s much I can do when others cause truncation of my contracted sessions or fill them with hungry, tired attendees. Perhaps a contract clause that doubles my fee if the session starts late or my available time is slashed?

I can dream.

Regardless, the moral is pretty obvious. Stay on time! That goes for everyone: conference organizers, emcees, facilitators, presenters, and attendees. Ultimately this is a matter of careful planning, firm and effective time management, and simple respect for everyone who spends time, energy, and money attending and producing an event.