Yes! Just posted: Anca Trifan interviews me on her show Events:demystified. We talk about all kinds of things, with a focus on my work and thinking about participant-driven and participation-rich meetings and event design.
I think this is one of the best interviews I’ve done. Anca gets full credit for asking great questions and also taking the time to edit the interview. Thank you, Anca!
Here’s her video and podcast for your viewing and listening pleasure. I’ve added a timeline below to help you jump to the bits that really interest you. (Though, actually, it’s all terrific!)
MM:SS Content 02:00 Anca introduces me. 03:30 How Anca and I met. 04:30 What I've been doing since the COVID pandemic started. 06:00 On traveling to events, and my passion for what I do. 07:45 Behind the scenes: How I got into designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich meetings. 11:00 What participant-driven and participation-rich meeting design means, and the core components. 13:45 Creating a conference program on the fly at the event. It sounds scary, but it works! 15:00 Why we need to have participant-driven and participation-rich meetings. Lectures are a terrible way to learn anything. 16:30 Online meetings benefit from these designs too. 17:00 Participant-driven and participation-rich meetings help people connect better. 17:30 Online has displaced the value of lectures at in-person meetings. 18:45 Participant-driven and participation-rich designs bring connection around meaningful content into the sessions. 19:00 How Ask me anything (AMA) sessions allow participants to choose what they want to discuss with an expert. 20:00 Are AMA sessions easy to run? 21:00 What motivates me to do this work. 22:45 My early experiences of traditional conferences. 24:30 Sponsor break. 25:30 On Tahira Endean's (excellent) book Intentional Event Design and my books' focus. 28:00 Some of the changes I've seen in events in the last dozen years. 30:30 "You never really had control of your event anyway." 31:00 "Are we moving from content-first events to connection-first events?" 34:00 The value of presenters (and stand-up comedians) who interact with their audience. 35:15 "I'm interested in creating meetings that change people's lives." 36:15 A piece of advice for event professionals. 38:15 A piece of advice for association professionals who are responsible for events. 40:00 Following me on social media (and how to say my name correctly 😀).
Software testers do peer conferences right! (They even call them a peer conference, rather than unconference, a term I don’t like.) As evidence of software tester conference awesomeness, I offer three examples below. But first…
…a short history of the peer conference
I first designed and convened what I called a “peer conference” in 1992 for a group of IT managers at small schools that eventually became known as edACCESS.
During my 20+ years as an IT consultant and software developer, I got to know a delightful international crowd of software testers: those all-important people responsible for the impossible task of making sure that software works. After I talked about my meeting design work with pioneer tester James Bach at the 2004 Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference, the testing community somehow adopted the term peer conference for their get-togethers.
My code development days are long gone. I miss hanging out with the folks I got to know at these events. (Though I’m still in touch with some of them.) Regardless, peer conferences in the world of software testing are still alive and thriving!
Three examples of how software testers do peer conferences right
Providing a welcoming and supportive environment for first-time participants
SoCraTes 2022 included a Foundation Day “with less people and hence a smaller crowd to get used to. A day covered with fundamental topics without them being too basic, so I learned a lot even with topics I knew about. A day where we had a schedule set in advance, which took away the uncertainty of what would happen. A day to get to know people a bit already.”
Notice how this optional first day used more conventional session formats to make it easier for first-time attendees to integrate into the existing community.
“Over dinner, I realized I was not the only one joining this conference for the first time. Later on, we realized lots of people were new joiners indeed, based on recommendations they chose to give this conference a try. Was really great to see.
In the beginning, things were still a bit new, strange and even stiff; as it often is for me these days when suddenly seeing lots of people in real life. Within a short period of time I could loosen up, though. The more people I got to know, the more I relaxed and felt at ease.”
A participation-rich session format — World Café — was introduced at the end of Foundation Day
The World Café supplied an appropriate introduction and transition to the Open Space format used during the rest of the conference.
“To set the scene, a World Café was hosted by the wonderful Juke, getting all of us connected to SoCraTes and each other. How it worked? We had three rounds, a new question each round. For each group, one stays at the same place while all others look for a new group to join. The one who stays welcomes the new people and shares what the previous group had talked about. Usually this is supported by taking notes and drawing on flip charts or similar means.”
SoCraTes 2022 used the participant-driven Open Space format to determine what sessions participants wanted to hold. Though Open Space is just one of the formats you can use to create participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, it’s probably the most well known and is often an appropriate process to use.
“In short: we build the agenda we want to see! And that’s what happened. It’s fascinating how you can really trust in the system. The queues to briefly present the proposed topics were really long, and the emerging schedule looked amazing. So many awesome topics…”
Session leaders used a wide variety of participative formats
Phew, what an amazing time my first on-site edition of #SoCraTes2022 had been! ✨ So much to digest and follow-up on, lots of inspiration and confidence gained, and best of all: a newfound strong connection with this wonderful welcoming community. Thank you everyone! ❤
“The entire conference felt like a version of the world that could exist. Many small and large customs help people to get along better with each other. It starts with the name tags alone: take off the name tag if you’re too introverted to talk to people right now. A red tape means you don’t want to be photographed. The name tags are magnetic and hold the creative badges that people use to announce their pronouns – with a lot of artistic flair if you like.” —Eric, SoCraTes 2022 — a conference report [translated from German]
Compare the innovation and excitement at SoCraTes 2022 with just about any other conference you’ve attended. Can you see why software testers like Lisi think that peer conferences rock?!
2. The Unexpo Experiment
Here’s another example from a software testing peer conference, TestBash Brighton 2018. The conference designers invented a way to create “highly engaging, interactive and fun” poster sessions. Check out my post that describes this “excellent example of how to invent, explore, evaluate, and improve new meeting formats”.
3. A free guide to creating peer conferences
Want to create a peer conference, but don’t want to buy any of my excellent books on this topic? (Hey, you can buy all three for just $29.99, but that’s OK 😀.) No problem, the Association for Software Testing published an excellent free introductory guide to creating peer conferences. Learn more about it, and download it here.
I love and respect the software testing community because its practitioners think carefully and seriously about how to design their conferences. And then they implement and test their innovative designs, discovering what works and what doesn’t while also being open to the joy and excitement of the unexpected. A beautiful mixture of serious exploration, learning, and fun.
That’s the way to improve meetings!
Image attribution: #SoCraTes2022 peer conference photo by Markus Tacker
I’m about to go on my first pre-con site visit since the Covid pandemic started over two years ago. My work at a pre-con is different from that of a typical meeting planner since I focus on the meeting’s design and facilitation. I’ve been convening meetings for decades, though, so I know a fair amount about meeting planning. As I prepared to review the venue’s meeting spaces, room set options, and traffic patterns, I thought about how, today, competent logistics are the new meeting minimum.
Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know this from looking at meeting planning textbooks. I have a pile on my desk as I write this. With a single exception — Tahira Endean‘s excellent Intentional Event Design: Our Professional Opportunity — they devote minimal space (usually a single chapter) to the importance and the how-to of exploring meeting objectives and outcomes before hundreds of pages on site selection, food and beverage, lodging, decor, entertainment, technical production, transportation, budgeting, trade shows, registration, etc.
The traditional bread and butter of a meeting planner’s job.
Yes, all these logistical considerations are important and need to be done well! But when you’re spending all your time on these issues it’s easy to forget that they are not what meetings are about. Today, competent logistics are the new meeting minimum.
The deficiencies of meeting planning textbooks and education
Such textbooks barely mention the essence of a meeting: what has to happen to achieve clearly defined meeting objectives and outcomes? Why? Because they make assumptions that what has to happen is what happened at just about every meeting their authors ever attended. They assume that meetings will consist of sessions with speakers on a stage. They assume that the core purpose of a meeting session is to transmit content to an audience. And they assume that when attendees are not in sessions, we should ply them with food and drink and entertainment.
When meeting planner textbooks gloss over the key ways that meetings can be made much more effective and useful for all stakeholders, planners remain ignorant, and traditional broadcast-style meetings continue to be the norm. Sadly, few clients know any better. Most assume that a meeting planner is all they need. They aren’t aware that professional meeting designers and facilitators exist and have great value.
Competent logistics are the new meeting minimum
I love to design and facilitate meetings that are great because they use participant-driven and participation-rich human processes. I have little competition. But I feel frustrated that so many opportunities to improve our events are going to waste. In my opinion, meeting planner education is deficient. Planners could be educated so they can help their clients with meeting design. Or they could learn and understand the importance and benefits of including meeting designers in the meeting planning process and encourage clients to use them. Either outcome (both could coexist) would cause a significant upgrade in the quality of meetings.
Miles Franklin, the Australian writer and feminist best known for her novel My Brilliant Career, wrote the above words in her autobiography. Like Miles, I believe that all people want and need opportunities to share how they’re thinking and feeling.
Meetings of every kind offer these opportunities. When I walk into our tiny town rural post office, I sometimes see folks for whom a conversation about almost anything with the sole postal worker is clearly important. Perhaps that customer will have little or no other human contact that day. What is talked about is far less important than the act of telling.
Personal meetings like these, whether brief or extended, between good friends or strangers, are fundamental. Many of us are lucky enough to have “someone to tell it to”, though some do not.
Someone to tell it to at conferences
Conferences, whether in-person or online, are also potential arenas for conversations. They are places for participants — who have something in common with each other — to find someone to tell it to. Even if the teller believes that they weren’t fully heard, the act of telling is valuable. (Otherwise, people wouldn’t journal and practice self-affirmations.)
But some conferences offer better opportunities than others. Traditional events relegate conversations to the hallways, to breaks and socials. No conversations occur during lectures. Even post-presentation Q&As rarely evolve into a conversation, which is always between the presenter and a succession of audience members.
Given the fundamental human need to tell, meeting stakeholders owe it to participants to create opportunities and environments for rich conversations in the sessions, rather than just the gaps between them. I have been doing this for 31years, and it’s clear that meeting designs that integrate meaningful conversations into sessions have a transformational effect on almost all participants. (Read any of my books to learn specific techniques and designs that create meaningful and valuable conversations during meeting sessions.)
Have you attended in-person meetings where your hallway conversations were the highlight of the event? I’ve certainly experienced my fair share, and I bet you have too. Don’t get me wrong. Hallway learning and the connections made through conversations struck up between sessions are often valuable and important. But I see meetings where hallway learning trumps a majority of, if not all, conference sessions as failures of design, rather than a fact of life.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could improve the quantity and quality of hallway learning, conversations, and connections throughout an event?
Well, we can. Here are two ways.
1—How to improve conventional hallway conversations
We can increase the quality of conventional hallway conversations by designing a physical meeting environment that encourages and supports them. Create an architecture of assembly: spaces outside the session rooms where people can talk comfortably. Provide a range of spaces. For example, chair pairings, small group furniture arrangements, standing areas with places to park food and beverage, covered outdoor spaces, etc.
“…people, even very smart people, are unable to anticipate the benefits of in-depth interaction with colleagues until they have experienced it for themselves” —Nancy Dixon, The Hallways of Learning
Read Nancy’s article to learn how an office redesign strengthened connections amongst a group of formerly loosely connected peers. [And she gets a hat tip for inspiring this post!] Similarly, your design layout will affect the likelihood and value of hallway learning conversations. And participants most likely won’t even be aware of it!
“Typically, a presenter offers what happened in his or her own situation, but that is not what learners need to hear. Learners are interested in knowing how to adapt the lessons to their situation and for that they need to have a conversation so that the other person can understand their context, and they also can understand the context of the other.”
The trick is to use session designs that blend short useful pieces of content with conversations amongst participants. In effect, you’re providing structured hallway conversations about the content that’s just been delivered. There are many different formats you can use for such conversations (described in detail in my books): pair and trio share, facilitated small group breakouts, fishbowls, etc. You can create conversational groupings at random (“pair up with someone you haven’t met yet”) or use human spectrograms to assign attendees to like-minded folks.
Building hallway learning opportunities into our meeting sessions has additional advantages. Once a session is over, and traditional hallway conversations are about to begin, attendees are ready to continue or start new conversations with the people who were in their session. They are primed to continue to explore and deepen their hallway learning.
I’ll close with a final Nancy Dixon quote from a different post:
“Before people can learn from each other or collaborate on issues, they need to build connections – that is, gain some understanding of who the other person is, including their skills, depth of knowledge, experience, and attitude toward others. People are unlikely to ask each other questions or ask for assistance, until they have built a connection that allows them to learn that the other person is knowledgeable enough and respectful enough to engage.” —Nancy Dixon, Connection before Content
To maximize useful connection and learning at our meetings, optimizing hallway learning throughout the event is the way to go!
Most of the event industry and our clients continue to assume that if you can make the meeting bigger it’s a good thing.
It ain’t necessarily so.
How we got here
The massive disruption of in-person events since March 2020 has shaken our industry to the core. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events that weren’t canceled have seen drastically reduced attendance compared to prior years. Online and hybrid meetings have seen less drastic reductions.
One bright spot has been the normalization of online meetings for routine connection and collaboration. We have also seen the emergence of new forms of online events, supported by solid business models.
So as I predicted in 2020, we haven’t seen the old normal since the pandemic started, and it’s likely we’ll never see it again.
What we shouldn’t do
The event industry unduly focuses on large meetings. Our trade magazines mainly report on big events, the ones with big-name speakers and eye candy razzle-dazzle. Pandemic-induced smaller audiences engender hand-wringing. What to do? How can we get our old, big events back?
Some respond by increasing their event marketing. Often, however, that’s not a smart move, as Seth Godin illustrates:
Make the announcement louder. Make the logo bigger. Yell. Call more people on the phone to sell them an extended warranty. Send more emails. Hustle harder. None of it works. The problem with the fountain isn’t that they didn’t make a big enough sign. The problem is that the fountain itself is poorly designed… …If you get the design right, you can whisper instead. —Seth Godin, “Make the sign bigger!”
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.
Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.]