Designing an online memorial service

Designing an online memorial serviceI 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 booksIn 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 11 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 booksWhile 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 booksFinally, 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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Three ways to create truly surprising meetings

Three ways to create truly surprising meetings

CoffeeGate
Two hundred people arrived for the opening breakfast at a 2015 Canadian conference to discover There Was No Coffee. The young first-time volunteer staff had forgotten to brew it.

Three days later, people were still grumbling about CoffeeGate. I bet that even today, if you asked attendees what they remembered about the event, most would immediately recall the There Was No Coffee moment. A memorable moment, yes, but not a good one.

Experienced meeting planners know that every meeting has its share of unexpected surprises. While some thrive on the adrenaline rush of dealing with them, most of us work to minimize surprises by anticipating potential problems and developing appropriate just-in-case responses.

Minimizing surprises like CoffeeGate is default behavior for meeting planners. We do not want poorly planned and/or executed events, because the inevitable result will be unhappy attendees and chaos of one kind or another.

Surprising Meetings
But not all meeting surprises are bad. Because meeting professionals want to minimize the likelihood of unexpected surprises during execution of the events, there’s a tendency to unconsciously minimize planned surprises for the attendees. And that’s unfortunate — because planned surprises are one of the most wonderful ways we can improve attendees’ experience of the event!

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The UnExpo Experiment

During my 20+ years as an IT consultant and developer, I fell in with a delightful international crowd of software testers: those all-important people responsible for the impossible task of making sure that software works the way it’s supposed to. (Fun fact: the testing community often uses my term “peer conferences” for their get-togethers, due to a chat about meeting design I had with tester James Bach at the 2004 Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference.)

Software testers are especially conscious of the processes they use in their work. So it’s not surprising that when they get together they experiment with meeting formats. A recent experiment is a good example of how creative folks can look at a 50-year-old meeting format, try out something fresh and innovative, and — this is so important — learn from the experience.

Here’s the abstract of a long post written by Sarah Deery of The Ministry of Testing about their UnExpo experiment:

During the 3 breaks of TestBash Brighton 2018, The Ministry of Testing (MoT) trialled a new experimental conference engagement method named The UnExpo. The aim of the UnExpo was to boost the awesome community feels that are present at every TestBash and to provide a space in which software testers could converse deeply on topics of interest. Our results suggest that The UnExpo created an environment where software testers felt free to discuss their inner thoughts and feelings on the craft of software testing and their lives working in software development. We believe maximum feels were reached and attendees were highly engaged on a wide range of topics throughout The UnExpo. We intend to run a more streamlined UnExpo at future TestBashes and encourage other conferences run them too!
—Richard Bradshaw, Rosie Sherry, Heather Reid, Áine McGovern, and Sarah Deery, The UnExpo: A Novel Approach to Increase Conference Attendee Engagement and Maximise Community Feels

The entire post is well worth reading. It’s a detailed and candid account of the development and testing of a meeting format. Here are a few extracts that illustrate the development and evaluation process:

“We received feedback from the community that they would like more engagement and structured opportunities to confer with other attendees during the breaks of TestBash.”

MoT started with a core component of (any kind of) process improvement: soliciting and receiving feedback from prior experiences. Most meeting conveners concentrate on feedback about:

  • meeting content (“great speakers!”); or
  • logistics (“the food could have been better.”)

They shy away from feedback that suggests the meeting format and processes should be changed or improved.

Identifying their Expo (trade show) as a place where engagement and conferring could be improved, they explored using some kind of poster session format:

Our hypothesis: if poster sessions can engage and encourage scientists to converse, they can do the same for software testers too.

However, we felt that the scientific poster session format was too rigid, passive and formal. To maximise the engagement and fun, we encouraged the software testing community to submit to run poster stands that were interactive. Posters could be on any topic attendees were currently interested in; be it technical topics or the human aspects of working in software development. Other attendees armed with post-its, pens and awesome tester brains would then walk around The UnExpo and interact with posters of interest.

Having developed an overview of what would happen during The UnExpo, MoT then designed a detailed implementation. This included:

  • logistical resources — a Poster Creation Station and appropriate room set; and
  • a schedule of when the posters would be made and installed for interaction during the three conference breaks. (See the post for full details.)

MoT then describes in detail what happened during the experiment — and they don’t avoid critical observations:

The UnExpo set off to a shaky start during the first break of TestBash Brighton…
…it was a logistical pain for TestBash helpers to do the poster swap during the TestBash talks…

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the observations were positive. The post nicely conveys, with numerous pictures and quotes from participants, what the UnExpo experience was like.

The day after the event, MoT ran a Twitter poll for 24 hours. It received 58 votes, with 91% of the voters agreeing that The UnExpo worked.

Did the #testbash #unexpo work?

— Ministry of Testing (@ministryoftest) March 17, 2018

The post also documents more detailed feedback from Twitter, both positive and constructive.

Finally, the post’s conclusion offers:

  • commentary on the UnExpo experiment;
  • a list of the format’s benefits for individuals and the event;
  • a commitment to run UnExpos at future TestBashes; and
  • a description of planned format improvements.

Our findings support our hypothesis and suggest that poster sessions can engage and encourage software testers to converse with one another. We believe our tweaks to the poster session format led to highly engaging, interactive and fun conference break sessions where testers could have deep discussions around a variety of topics of interests…

We identified multiple benefits for running a stand at an UnExpo and attending an UnExpo:

  • Poster presenters got to practise their communication and presentation skills.
  • Those running stands were able to gather community feedback on their topic.
  • Posters acted as a handy medium enabling TestBashees to easily engage with others interested in the same subjects as themselves.
  • The UnExpo led to genuine connections and potential future collaborations being made.

…At future UnExpos, we will run a more streamlined format with a higher number of stands that will run all day. We will also have a small section of stands that are exclusively for those inspired folk who want to book a slot on the day, these stands will rotate each break. We believe this strategy will allow for attendees to continue conversations but also keep the energy and topics fresh!

My conclusion? This post is an excellent example of how to invent, explore, evaluate, and improve new meeting formats. To improve the quality and effectiveness of meetings, this is exactly the kind of focus and work we need!

Photo attribution: Samantha Cooper

The Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

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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