Facilitating an online participation-rich workshop in Gatherly

online workshop in Gatherly

Earlier this month, the folks at Gatherly kindly invited me to host an event of my choosing for their clients and potential users. I decided to facilitate an online workshop in Gatherly that took full advantage of the platform. This coming June will mark my 30th year of designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich meetings. So I designed the workshop as an “Ask Adrian Anything” about meeting design and facilitation.

I’ve shared the why? and the details of how I typically run this format here. In this post, I cover the additions I made, issues that arose, my impressions, and the feedback the workshop received.

An experiment: I try something I’ve never done before!

I like the Gatherly platform and have reviewed it a couple of times (1, 2). Gatherly’s best feature, in my opinion, is its user interface for online social interaction. The platform uses a birds-eye view of rooms (there can be more than one of them on different “floors”) with each participant shown as an icon with their name. Deciding to talk with someone is as easy as clicking on their icon, which moves you to their position in the room and puts you in video chat. The two of you then form a “huddle”, shown as a circle with the number of people talking at its center.

Moving your mouse cursor over a huddle shows you the names of the people there. Others can join a huddle by clicking on it; you can leave a huddle at any time by clicking on the floor outside it. Gatherly currently supports huddles of up to fifteen people.

Because Gatherly allows you to see where people are in a room, it can support a fundamental technique I use at almost all in-person events I design and facilitate: body voting, aka human spectrograms.

So I was excited to see whether I could implement body voting online, something I’d never tried before.

I ended up incorporating four body voting experiences into the workshop:

  • “How did I get here?” (run in trios)
  • If this workshop was really great for you, what one thing would you want to learn about/discuss/happen?” (run in pairs)
  • Where do you live?” (See the map we used below.)
  • “What industry/job role fits you best?” (See the floor plan we used below.)
online workshop in Gatherly
Body voting map for “Where do you live?”
online workshop in Gatherly
Body voting map for “What industry/job role fits you best?”

Read on to find out how I implemented these exercises in Gatherly and how they worked out.

Designing an online workshop in Gatherly

The first decision we had to make was how long the workshop should run. Since the event was participant-driven, the Gatherly staff and I agreed to let it run as long as it seemed people wanted, with a 2½ hour limit.

Up until now, I have used Gatherly as a pure platform for online socials. For this workshop — indeed for any workshop — I needed to provide separate whole-group-together and small-group-work environments. Just like every other meeting platform, Gatherly has developed a broadcast/stage mode (see the first image in this post), where one or more speakers can broadcast to everyone else. When you start a Gatherly broadcast, the room map is still visible but huddles are disabled.

So in this workshop, we frequently switched between broadcast and map (huddle) mode. In broadcast mode, I provided short segments of content and instructions for upcoming group work. We also used broadcast mode for fishbowl discussions and the core “Ask Adrian Anything” session.

All meeting platforms that have a small-group/breakout mode pose a communications problem for the meeting host or facilitator. Small groups meet via video chat, so messages from the meeting host to everyone can’t be sent through audio — the standard communication mode when in broadcast.

In Gatherly, the tool I had to address this issue was text chat. I asked everyone to select the Event chat option (the red Event button in the first image in this post) and to monitor text chat for exercise instructions during their huddle small group work. I also asked participants to also use text chat for important issues, so this communications channel wouldn’t be filled with distracting messages.

Leading folks through small group work in Gatherly

Before the workshop, I prepared a text document with step-by-step instructions needed to lead participants through all the exercises I’d planned.

Here’s a sample:

For each small group exercise, I did the following:

  • In broadcast mode, verbally explain and go through the exercise steps.
  • Switch to map mode. Cut and paste each prepared prompt into the Event text chat at the appropriate time.
  • Provide a final prompt that we’d be returning to broadcast mode.
  • Switch back to broadcast mode.

Once I’d practiced this flow beforehand for a while, it was easy to run.

Using raise hands during the workshop

I chose to use Gatherly’s raise hands tool in a couple of ways during the workshop.

  1. During the geographical map and industry/role body voting exercises, I asked people who lived outside the United States, or who placed themselves in the “Other” area of the industry/role floor map to raise their hands. When you do this in Gatherly, your name rises to the top of the participant list, so you’re easy to spot. In broadcast mode, we brought these folks briefly onto the stage and asked them to share their name and where they lived/their role. This is analogous to walking around and interviewing such individuals at in-person meetings. Recognizing people who are a little outside the main group geographical focus/job descriptions is interesting and helps to bring them into the group.
  2. During fishbowl-based group discussions, including the Ask Adrian Anything segment, we asked people to raise their hand if they had a question or wanted to add their voice to a current conversation. Only Gatherly admins can remove people from the stage, so we asked people to lower their hands when they wanted to leave the current discussion.

A major issue that arose during the workshop

While facilitating this online workshop in Gatherly, I made heavy use of Gatherly’s broadcast mode for the first time. Unfortunately, broadcast mode did not work reliably for some people. At times, the video stream for some participants on stage (including me) was blank. When this happened to me, I wasn’t aware of it since my screen showed my own camera-direct video, and I was only made aware of the problem through text chat.

I’d seen this problem while testing the workshop platform beforehand, using two computers in my office on different ISPs and networks to join the session. At the time I assumed it was a temporary glitch or technical issue involving the OS/Chrome version used by one of my machines. This turned out not to be the case. Most people showed up fine, but functionality like this — a basic feature of pretty much every meeting platform these days — should be rock solid. (I’ve never seen this happen on Zoom, for example.)

Given that I’ve found the video chat provided in huddles (map mode) by Gatherly to be more reliable than any other platform I’ve tried, this deficiency is puzzling. I hope it’s eliminated soon.

My thoughts and impressions of the workshop

Almost everyone stayed for the whole workshop!

I had no idea who would show up for the workshop or how long it would run. When we did the geographical map exercise, a substantial proportion of participants were from outside the US, which I did not expect. But what really surprised me was that almost everyone stayed for two hours, until after the Ask Adrian Session was over. (And a few people shared at the start that they weren’t going to be able to stay the whole time.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve found that when you create meetings that allow and support engagement at any time on participants’ terms, people stick around.

A small group remained for informal discussion and feedback, and we reluctantly wound up when we reached our 2½ hour hard limit.

Guiding participants through small group activities

Before the workshop, I wondered how well using text chat to prompt small group activities would work. Would participants, busily engaged with each other, follow the prompts? (This can be a problem when in person too, but it’s easier to see when it’s happening.)

I needn’t have worried. Participants responded to my directions to form groups of various sizes much more quickly than I expected. In fact, they divided into groups of the right size faster than in an in-person workshop! The Gatherly birds-eye view of everyone in the room, plus the displayed count of each huddle size makes it easy to see who’s not yet in a group, and which groups are too large or too small.

Feedback on the workshop

The Gatherly staff were impressed that so many people stayed so long, (and I was pleased)!

Several people commented that although they could not see me during portions of the broadcast segments, my audio feed was all they needed to stay engaged. Yes, it’s nice to see people at online meetings, but it’s worth remembering that for those who aren’t hearing impaired, audio beats video every time.

The small group exercises were popular. And people thanked me for showing the value of what we did, not only by experiencing it but also by learning how to facilitate the formats for their own communities.

Conclusions

I learned that I can successfully run body voting online, at least on Gatherly. (Wonder will probably work too.) Body voting is perhaps the best way for a group to quickly learn important information about who’s present, and to have this capability online is valuable. (See my book The Power of Participation to learn more about body voting.)

One suggestion I have for Gatherly to improve their product is to provide a better way for meeting hosts to broadcast instructions when participants are in huddles. This could be done with text messages that are displayed more prominently than at present to all huddle members.

Would I facilitate an online workshop in Gatherly again? Absolutely! (As long as the broadcast video problem is fixed.)

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…

Scenes from a Participate! Workshop and Solution Room

40-seconds of highlights from the Participate! workshop and Solution Room I recently facilitated for the New York State Bar Association.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is training associations how to create powerful and effective participant-driven and participation-rich conferences. I love facilitating the learning that occurs. The training equips the organization with the tools needed to transform its events. Do you want to significantly improve your meetings? Then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

How to create amazing conference programs that don’t waste attendee time

How to create amazing conference programs Do your conference programs include pre-scheduled sessions you belatedly discover were of little interest or value to most attendees? If so, you’re wasting significant stakeholder and attendee time and money — your conference is simply not as good as it could be.

Now imagine you could learn how to routinely create conference programs that reliably include the sessions attendees actually want and need? If you could create amazing conference programs that don’t waste attendee time? How much value would that add to your event; for your attendees, your sponsors, and your bottom line?

Read the rest of this entry »

The Conference Arc — the key components of every successful participation-rich conference

Traditional conferences focus on a hodgepodge of pre-determined sessions punctuated with socials, surrounded by short welcomes and closings. Such conference designs treat openings and closings as perfunctory traditions, perhaps pumped up with a keynote or two, rather than key components of the conference design.

Unlike traditional conferences, participant-driven and participation-rich peer conferences have a conference arc with three essential components: Beginning, Middle, and End. This arc creates a seamless conference flow where each phase builds on what has come before.

Participant-driven and participation-rich peer conference designs improve on traditional events. They don’t treat openings and closings as necessary evils but as critical components of the meeting design.

Let’s examine each phase of the peer conference arc in more detail.

Read the rest of this entry »

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?

Read the rest of this entry »

Healthcare professionals want participant-driven events too

boring meeting 370268513_6c026f08e3_b

Healthcare professionals want participant-driven events. 75% of healthcare professionals want to have input into the content of meetings they attend. Yet 36% have never been asked to provide input into any agenda or program. These disconcerting statistics are two of the research findings in a February 2016 report The Future of Meetings [free download] commissioned by Ashfield Meetings and Events.

Healthcare meetings ranked just behind professional journals (92%) as the second most popular (87%) regular channel for learning. But the survey of 237 healthcare professionals from 11 countries across the Americas, Asia, and Europe found “nearly 40 per cent of those interviewed have not had a positive delegate experience at the meetings they have attended.

So remember, healthcare professionals want participant-driven events!

I expect these findings, from a relatively well-funded meeting sector that can certainly support high-quality meeting design, apply to most conferences.

Meeting owners and planners: it’s time to supply what your attendees want!

A hat tip to MeetingsNet‘s Sue Pelletier for making me aware of the report via her article “Research Puts Some Science Behind Scientific Meetings“.

Photo attribution: Flickr user markhillary

Why I don’t like unconferences

Why I don't like unconferences

“Why I don’t like unconferences.” If you know me you’re probably scratching your head at the title of this post.

“Adrian,” you’re thinking, “unconferences are what you do! How can you not like unconferences?”

Well, it’s the word “unconference” I object to, not what it represents. Unfortunately, “unconference” has come to mean any kind of conference that isn’t a traditional conference. Originally the word “unconference” was coined to describe a participant-driven meeting. However, in recent years — rather like the encroachments on “counter-culture” and “green” — people use “unconference” to imply that their conference is cool in some way, even if it still employs the programmed speaker-centric event designs that we’ve suffered for hundreds of years.

What “conference” once meant

The meaning of the word “conference” has been corrupted to virtually the opposite of its original intent. As I describe in Conferences That Work, “conference” was first used around the middle of the 16th century as a verb that described the act of conferring with others in conversation. Over time, the word’s meaning shifted to denoting the meeting itself.

Regrettably few of today’s “conferences” provide substantive opportunities for conferring: consultation or discussion. Instead they have become primarily conduits for the one-to-many transfer of information on the conference topic.

I believe that participant-driven event designs are a response to this drift of meeting process that has occurred over the years. In a sense, participant-driven events are the true conferences: events that support and encourage conferring.

To be accurate, we should be calling traditional conferences “unconferences”, reserving the word “conference” for the participant-driven event designs that are slowly becoming more popular.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen, so I talk about “participant-driven events” and avoid using the term “unconference” whenever possible.

In the end, I know my thoughts on the meaning and use of a word carry little weight. With rare exceptions, our culture, not the pronouncements of an individual, determines the meaning and usage of words. But if you agree with me, feel free to follow my example and spurn unconferences—but just the word, not the concept!

How to add participation into a traditional conference and market it

A common question people ask me is how to add participation into existing events and market them effectively. The Medical Group Management Association will be doing just that at their 2011 PEER conference (estimated 800 attendees).

Even MGMA’s choice of name for the conference echoes the event’s theme of “directing the conversation”: PEER, a neat acronym for Participate, Educate, Experience, Relate.

Conference marketing

Take a look at how the conference brochure carefully incorporates PEER themes (click image to view).

add participation MGMA PEER brochure

What do you think of MGMA’s design and marketing?

Full disclosure: MGMA is a client of Conferences That Work.

The myth of control

The myth of control.

myth of control

Misconception 7: Conflict is bad…The reality is that whenever you have more than one living person in a room, you’ll have more than one set of interests, and that’s not a bad thing.
—The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady

Why do we cling to traditional event structure?

One powerful reason is because we want to avoid dealing with messy differences of opinion. When we give attendees the power to choose what happens at our conferences, people are going to disagree. And when people disagree, there’s the possibility of controversy and conflict. Who’d want that at their event?

Perhaps you believe that learning is some kind of linear process that happens painlessly. That’s certainly the paradigm we’re fed in school. Even though most of us struggle to learn there, the underlying message is usually “if you were smart enough, this would be easy”.

If you do believe that conference learning should be painless, I ask you this. Think for a moment about the most important things you’ve learned in your life. How many of them came to you in the absence of disagreement, pain, or conflict? And how many of them did you learn while sitting in a room listening to someone talk for an hour?

Do you want your conferences to maximize learning, even at the cost of some disagreement or discomfort? Or would you rather settle for a safe second best?

We are scared about not having control in our lives and at our events. That’s why we lock down our conferences, forcing their essence into tightly choreographed sessions. Attendees are carefully restricted to choosing, at most, which concurrent session room they’ll sit in.

The myth of control

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.

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to give up the unnecessary control exercised at traditional conferences and give attendees the freedom and responsibility to make the event theirs. All participant-driven event formats like Open Space, Conferences That Work, and Future Search treat attendees like intelligent adults.

What’s amazing to discover is how liberating these event designs are for conference organizers too. When we give up over-control, we become largely freed of the responsibility to choose the content, format, and instigators of our conference sessions, concentrating instead on supervisory, facilitation, and support roles. Yes, the result is an event that is less predictable, and often more challenging. But the richer experience, the creation of an event that reflects what participants truly need and want, and the joy of uncovered valuable, unexpected, appropriate learning make it all worthwhile for everyone involved.