Nine conference mythodologies

Mythodology 3564715180_40dc1bb7f8_oLong ago, consultant Tom Gilb coined the term “mythodology” to describe erroneous but commonly held beliefs about how something should be done. Here are nine mythodologies about conferences.

Mythodology: We know what our attendees want to learn about.
Reality: No, you don’t. At least half the sessions programmed at traditional conferences are not what attendees want.

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

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

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

Mythodology: Conference programs should be stuffed full of sessions so there’s something of interest for everyone.
Reality: Downtime is essential for effective learning and connection, so providing conference white space is essential. (Trick: Stuff your program if you must, but give attendees explicit permission to take their own downtime when they need it.)

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

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

Mythodology: We know what attendees like, don’t like, and value about our meeting.
Reality: If you’re using smile sheets or online surveys, you’re learning nothing about the long-term value of your meeting. This is the meeting industry’s biggest dirty secret. Use long-term evaluation techniques [1] [2] instead.

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

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

Image attribution: Flickr user dunechaser

Eight pieces of information needed for event design

meetingEvery week I receive requests for advice on improving existing meetings. (Design consultations on new meetings are less frequent, which is unfortunate since it’s much easier to begin with a good design than successfully redesign meetings that attendees have already experienced.)

All event designs require certain basic information. Typically, clients start with an initial consultation where we explore desires, needs, and circumstances, winkling out the basics in the process.

Quite often, however, I’ll receive emails asking for design advice that omit significant information. Here’s an example I received last week, quoted in full:

Dear Adrian,

I am a researcher working on a side-event to [an upcoming international meeting]. I work for [a European foundation] and am looking for innovative ways to engage an audience of up to 300 people in the subject of [my foundation’s mission].

We want to get away from the lecture-style format but we do not have the ability to split the group up (for translation reasons, amongst other things).

If you could offer any advice or links I would be most grateful.


Meeting designers need answers to eight questions before design can commence. The following list includes some commentary on how Dominique’s request complies.

Who is the meeting owner?
Every meeting has an owner. There is invariably a single person who has ultimate authority over the meeting objectives, budget, format, and content. A common problem for meeting designers is that they are approached for assistance by someone other than the meeting owner (who may not even be aware that a meeting designer exists or is needed.) That’s certainly the case here, and when the meeting owner cannot be worked with directly, any design work performed will be wasted if the meeting owner is not convinced of its value by the intermediary with whom you’re working.

Who is the meeting designer working for?
The meeting owner? The meeting participants? One or more intermediaries? Some combination?

Who is attending?
What are the profiles of desired/expected attendees? Is the event invitation-only or is it marketed to specific groups? For Dominique’s event, are the audience members supporters of the foundation’s mission? Skeptics who need to be convinced? What are the translation issues she mentions?

What are the desired objectives/goals/outcomes?
Many clients find it hard to define their goals and outcomes for their event. Dominique wants the audience to be “engaged”. What does this mean? Engaged about what? What is the desired outcome of this engagement?

How many people?
The only meeting designs that scale are those that omit inter-attendee interaction; i.e. broadcast-style events. If you want or need interactive or participative events, the number of attendees is essential information for creating an effective design. (2/8/15/25/60/100/200/450/1000 people? Each level will generally require a somewhat different approach.) Dominique’s “up to 300 people” includes the possibility that some other breakout will be taking place that siphons off all but 30 attendees. We need either tighter bounds on this number or several alternative designs that cover a range of attendee counts.

How much time?
Are people together for an hour? A day? Two days? A week? Most of us have an idea of how much content we can be exposed to via lecture in a given amount of time. An understanding of the time needed for people to productively peer learn, make significant connections, and become a member of a valued community is far less common. The amount of time that people are together puts limits on what can be done and informs design decisions on the most appropriate processes to use during the meeting.

What venue?
Venues often constrain what’s possible at an event. Desired objectives like engagement may be difficult or impossible if attendees are stuck in fixed-seating in an auditorium. Working in small groups can be thwarted if the venue is noisy, or undersized, or adequate breakout space is unavailable.

What resources are available to support work on the event design?
Is the meeting owner willing to work on the event design, or pass full responsibility and authority to a trusted alternative? Can you afford a day of my time to assist with your design? Are you looking for free advice? (Dominique was.)

We need answers to all these questions—and often others—before workable and effective meeting design is even conceivable. (I thought about adding the event budget to the above list, but, though it’s obviously ultimately important, it’s less relevant in my experience than you might think.) I don’t expect clients to spontaneously volunteer all this information before we first talk or meet. But it certainly doesn’t hurt if they do (and I get some reassurance that the client has made an effort to really think through what they want and the steps they might take to get it.)

I’ve probably missed some other pieces of information that are important. What do you think should be added to this list?