Another way to make conferences memorable

I have great respect and admiration for those event designers who can create spectacle and wonder through a creative fusion of decor, environment, flow, entertainment, and technical production.

Concentrating on these issues (and filling the holes) is especially appropriate when the process is a human ritual, like a meal, a wedding, or an awards ceremony. We know what’s supposed to happen at such events: food and drink will be served, two people will be joined in matrimony, and worthies will be honored, all in ways that are familiar components of our cultural experience. These processes have been performed countless times before, so, provided the food tastes good, the best man remembers the ring, and the speeches don’t go on too long, convention will be satisfied and the event will be deemed a “success”, at least as far as its process is concerned.

The challenge of ritual events
When a ritual event process is well known and prescribed, the only way left to distinguish the event from a myriad of others is to create spectacle through creative decor, environment, flow, entertainment, and technical production. And this is tough. That’s why, when someone comes up with a new creative wrinkle, like the JK Wedding Dance we’re all pretty impressed:

Another way
I tip my hat to those who can create impressive spectacle at a ritual event. But not all events are ritual events. Conferences—events that are fundamentally about people meeting around a common interest—are about getting content and connection around that common interest, whether it be particle physics, comic books, garden center management, or improv. Many conferences, however, try to be memorable by concentrating on the same elements of spectacle as ritual events.

I’ve already written about one way to make your conferences memorable: give your attendees time and a supportive conference environment to tell their stories to each other. Well, there’s another way, as suggested by this Tim Brown aphorism:

“Design behaviors, not objects.”
—From a blog post by David Weinberger about a talk given by industrial designer Tim Brown of Ideo

Conferences don’t have to be ritual events!
The mistake we make with conferences is to treat them as though they have to be ritual events. (Welcome, keynote, plenaries, breakouts, nice dinner, plenary, breakouts, motivational closing session—sound familiar?)

At ritual events the process is more or less prescribed, so we have to concentrate on the event trappings to make our event memorable.

Conferences don’t need to be ritual events! No one needs to get joined in holy wedlock at a conference, and conferences are not fundamentally about eating a great meal or getting an award. The sad reality is that the majority of conferences are run as ritual events either because the organizers have never considered an alternative or they are scared to do something different.

The routine behavior at most conferences is that of sitting and listening to someone talk. Passive listening is the core ritual process that pervades conferences. The more we buy in to this ritual, the more we feel the need to spice up our event with decor, entertainment, etc.

But we do not have to stay bound to the listen-to-the-speaker ritual at our conferences. Once we escape the notion that there are only a few “correct” (in reality “feel safe”) ways to run conferences we can move our focus from designing memorable trappings to designing creative process, which leads to creative behaviors and consequent memorable experiences at our conferences.

Making conferences memorable
You don’t need to include an elaborately choreographed, surprise dance extravaganza to make your next conference memorable. Some of the best conferences I’ve ever attended were held in ghastly, windowless, and anonymous hotel conference rooms. They weren’t memorable because of the environment (except in a negative sense); they were memorable because their process led to intense interaction, powerful learning, and a ton of fun.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with providing a great environment as well as great process at our conferences. At the San Francisco Applied Improv Network 2012 World Conference (AIN12), the window wall on one side of the main conference room gave us a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge, while Greens’ Restaurant and fine food trucks were a minute’s walk away. These amenities didn’t hurt, but what was far more important in my experience was that during the four-day conference we never spent more than fifteen minutes listening to anyone. We were interacting, playing, and exploring new possibilities with each other the whole time.

When you stop seeing conferences as a ritual event, you open up a whole new realm of possibilities for making your event memorable. A few examples: the simple improv games at the AIN12 welcome reception; the Spot The Fed contest at DEFCON; or the simulation workshops at the AYE Conference. No longer restricted to traditional formats, these and many other conferences provide memorable experiences by facilitating novel ways for people to be with each other, interact, connect, and learn.

You can do it too.

One way to make your conferences memorable

Many in the event industry exhort us to “make our conferences memorable” but are short on specifics. Well, disasters are good. Meeting your life partner at the party guarantees memorability, but is hard to engineer. And a massive spectacle sometimes works (though it costs a bundle).

Here’s another way.

Start with a truism

“We are the stories we tell ourselves.”

It’s enough of a truism to be turned into a TED Talk. I prefer a slightly different formulation:

“We are the stories we tell about ourselves.”

The stories we tell, our stories, are central to who we are and who we become. Our stories, large or small, don’t really fully exist until we tell them to others. In the telling, we learn who we are.

In my experience, while telling ourselves stories has a certain power, telling them to others is the core process by which we become who we are.

The experience of becoming who we are. That’s worth remembering. That’s memorable!

Make your conference memorable
Give your attendees time and a supportive conference environment to tell their stories to each other. No, providing an end-of-day mixer with loud music won’t work. Instead, use conference process like roundtables to draw out and share attendee stories, provide plenty of time for peer-led follow-up discussions, and don’t scrimp on the conference white space.

Once you give your attendees an opening to tell their stories to others, they will run with it, and wonderful things will happen. They won’t be wonderful in the way that big spectacle can sometimes be wonderful; they will be wonderful because they will be personally meaning building and consequently memorable.

Disasters and over-the-top production can make conferences memorable, but they usually score poorly on ROI. Try my way.

Photo attribution: Flickr user dpnsan