“My philosophy is that it doesn’t pay to go to a conference unless you’re prepared to be vulnerable and meet people, and it doesn’t pay to go to a Q&A session unless you’re willing to sit in the front row…
There are more chances than ever to attend, but all of them require participation if you expect them to work.“ —Seth Godin, On doing the work
Attendance versus participation. Attendance is easy. But to do the work, you need to participate.
As a meeting designer, one of my most important jobs is to create meeting designs that encourage and support meaningful participation for every attendee. I try to make this as easy as possible for everyone: from the grizzled veteran who’s seen it all to the newbie who’s just entered the profession.
But ultimately, I can’t make anyone participate if they arrive with an attending-only mindset.
Ultimately, the attendee chooses, either consciously or unconsciously, whether they will do the work.
How can we create a safe environment for learning at events? In the events world, the word “safety” has a couple of meanings. The first is objective: the degree of protection from undesirable environmental hazards. At events we maximize the objective safety of attendees by eliminating or minimizing the likelihood of tripping, slipping, falling, falling objects, food poisoning, etc.
The kind of safety covered here is subjective safety: How safe do attendees feel? As the following quote indicates, if we are to optimize learning at a meeting we want participants to be relaxed but alert; in a state I like to call nervous excitement.
“…brain research also suggests that the brain learns best when confronted with a balance between stress and comfort: high challenge and low threat. The brain needs some challenge, or environmental press that generates stress as described above to activate emotions and learning. Why? Stress motivates a survival imperative in the brain. Too much and anxiety shuts down opportunities for learning. Too little and the brain becomes too relaxed and comfortable to become actively engaged. The phrase used to describe the brain state for optimal learning is that of relaxed-alertness. Practically speaking, this means as designers and educators need to create places that are not only safe to learn, but also spark some emotional interest through celebrations and rituals.” —Jeffery A. Lackney, report excerpt from the brain-based workshop track of the CEFPI Midwest Regional Conference
It’s easy to create a meeting environment that feels unsafe for most if not all attendees. Without careful preparation, asking people to walk barefoot over hot coals, dress up in costumes and dance on stage, or give impromptu talks to a large audience will evoke feelings of discomfort and fear in almost everyone.
It’s also easy to create a safe event environment by treating people as a passive audience who are not required to participate in the proceedings in any way. Unfortunately this is often the choice made by many meeting organizers who are themselves afraid of what might happen if attendees are subjected to something “new”.
So, how do we strike a balance between unduly scaring attendees and treating them as inactive spectators?
It’s not easy.
Creating the right amount of nervous excitement for a group of people is challenging, because each of us responds uniquely to different situations. For example, meeting someone new at a social might be easy for John and scary for Jane, while Jane has no problem skydiving from an airplane at 12,000 feet which is a prospect that terrifies John.
Ultimately, we can’t control other people’s feelings (let alone, often, our own)! Consequently, we are unable to guarantee that anyone will feel safe during a meeting session. But there are some things we can do to improve participants’ experience of safety when they are faced with the new challenges invariably associated with learning and connecting.
Create an environment where it’s easier to make mistakes
“Learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures.” —Laura Grace Weldon, Fun Theory
Why is feeling OK about making mistakes important? With traditional broadcast learning, your comprehension of the material presented—or lack of it—is something that happens in your brain and is essentially invisible to everyone but yourself. In a social context, this creates a great deal of safety; no one can easily see that you don’t understand.
But because experiential learning requires us to do something external, like talking to our peers about our understanding or ideas, or physically performing an activity, we lose this invisibility safety net. This brings up the possibility that others may experience us doing something “dumb”, “stupid”, “slow”, etc. (For an example, read the “Graduate student story” on pages 62-64 of my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.)
As someone who was educated in a school where knowing the “right answer” was praised and lack of knowledge or understanding denigrated, I felt ashamed about “making mistakes” in public for many years, and, unfortunately, this is a common experience that almost everyone learns to some degree while attending school as a child.
So how can we create an event environment where it’s easier to make mistakes? Here are three suggestions:
1) Tell participants that it’s impossible to make mistakes A simple way to create a safe environment for what participants might otherwise feel is risky is to tell them that whatever they do is the right thing.
For example, when I introduce the opening technique The Three Questions at an event, I tell participants that it’s impossible to answer The Three Questions incorrectly. Whatever answers they give are the correct answers. This sounds almost too simple—but it works surprisingly well!
2) Improv exercises One of the first games used to introduce improvisational theatre (improv) to those with no prior experience is keep the ball in the air, usually shortened to ball. Players stand in the circle and a ~12” diameter hollow rubber ball is tossed into the air. The object of each game is for the group to keep the ball in the air with any part of their body, with the game ending if anyone contacts the ball twice in a row or the ball touches the ground. Holding the ball is not allowed. Each ball touch adds one to the group’s score, which the group shouts in unison after each contact. A game rarely lasts more than a minute or two, so many rounds can be played in a short time.
Games of ball get a group working together on a goal, provide a challenge (reach a higher score than in prior games), include physical movement, and are fun to play. Sooner or later, every game of ball comes to an end because the ball hits the floor or is touched twice in a row by the same person. But because ball is a lighthearted game the thought that the last person who contacted the ball failed in some way never really matters. Everyone just wants to play another game of ball.
There are many improv variants of ball, played with one or more imaginary balls. When you are tossing and receiving multiple imaginary colored balls to people in your circle, everyone will “make mistakes” (if they don’t, the leader just increases the number of balls), and again it doesn’t matter. Everyone making mistakes is simply part of the game.
Improv exercises provide wonderful opportunities for people to get used to making mistakes. That’s why they are increasingly used for leadership development and organizational team building. Games like ball provide an enjoyable transition to environments where making mistakes is the norm, rather than something to be ashamed of.
3) Model being comfortable with messing up It’s crucial that facilitators and leaders of conference sessions model the behaviors they wish participants to adopt. If I am not comfortable with facilitating new or impromptu approaches which may or may not work, how can I expect my participants to be comfortable attempting them? This doesn’t mean, of course, that I should deliberately mess up, but responding in a relaxed manner when I do provides a reassuring model for participants to adopt and follow.
The right to not participate It’s important to explicitly give attendees the right not to participate. Clearly state that people do not have to take part in any given activity before it begins. When working with a group, do not put specific individuals on the spot to participate; ask the group as a whole for feedback/ideas/answers/volunteers instead.
At the start of an extended (adult) event I tell participants that I want to treat them like adults. I encourage them to make decisions about how and when they will participate, and explain that they are entitled to take time out from scheduled activities, or devise their own alternatives when desired and appropriate.
However, it’s also fine to set limits on non-participants—a common example would be to ask people who do not want to participate to leave the session for the duration of an activity rather than staying to watch.
Provide clear instructions I think that one of the hardest things to do well when leading a participatory activity is providing clear instructions. After many years it’s still not unusual for someone to complain that they don’t understand the directions I’ve given. I recommend writing out a narrative for exercises beforehand and practicing until it feels natural and unforced, but this won’t cover ad hoc situations when unexpected circumstances arise and you need to improvise.
Besides sharing instructions verbally, also consider displaying them on a screen or wall posters, or providing a printed copy for each participant. Once you’ve shared your instructions, ask if there are any questions, and then be sure to pause long enough for people to formulate and request clarification of what they don’t understand.
Learn from participant feedback. Remember what was not clear and revise your instructions as soon afterwards as possible, so that the next time you run the exercise you will, hopefully, be better understood. It may take several attempts before you find the right choice of words, so don’t give up!
Consider providing explicit ground rules Providing explicit ground rules at the start of sessions and events can, in my experience, significantly improve participants’ sense of safety while working together.
“There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.” —Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
As Keith Johnstone reminds us, people choose to participate or not for their own good reasons. Respect their choice, while making it as easy and safe as possible for them to take the risk of trying something new.
In American schools, the first experience of public speaking is typically Show and Tell. A child stands in front of the room with something brought from home and tells their classmates about it. The child gains experience and confidence in addressing a group, and provides entertainment to the classroom audience. Everyone quickly forgets the details of the monster truck except the presenter.
Many conference sessions follow this same format. A presenter imparts information by showing and telling to an audience. A “good” presenter may entertain people, but research shows that much of what is learned during the session is quickly forgotten.
So, how can we learn better? It turns out that the more multi-sensory our environment becomes the more our ability to learn improves. This requires us to become active participants in our learning. If the child passes round the monster truck for other children to touch and explore, their memory of it will be more accurate, more detailed, and longer lasting. If everyone gets to play with the truck for a while, they will learn even more.
We can improve the learning in our conference sessions in a similar way. If adults are to effectively learn new ideas—and this doesn’t just include rote learning but also understanding the ideas—they need to actively discuss the ideas and answer questions about them. When two people discuss a topic, research indicates that the current speaker makes the greatest cognitive gains. This occurs because 1) speaking provides the opportunity for tacit knowledge to become conscious; and 2) articulating ideas activates more of the brain than listening.
Three ways to do rather than show and tell One simple technique to create active discussion at a conference session is pair-share. When pair-share is happening, half the audience is explaining their ideas to the other half. As each speaker and listener swap roles, everyone in the room gets to actively process the session’s content. This is far superior to the typical question and answer session at the end of a presentation, which provides little or no opportunity for most of the audience to take part.
Another example is LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, a method for getting people to “think through their fingers”. This tactile interactive process uses working with Lego® to quickly move small groups of people into sharing and learning through creative problem solving.
A final example: my favorite conference sessions to facilitate are experiential workshops that involve participants working together throughout, experiencing new techniques or solving problems as a group rather than as individuals. The high level of activity provides a fertile environment for learning through doing, rather than by listening or watching.
All other things being equal, when we do, we learn better than when we’re shown or told. If you want your attendees to learn more effectively, you’ll need to incorporate more “doing” into your conference sessions.
My next book includes a large number of participatory techniques that you can use to maximize learning, connection, engagement, and community building at any event. Sign up to be informed when it’s published!
Ask meeting attendees what’s most important about the chairs they sit in at an event and they’ll inevitably say they should be comfortable.
Ask meeting venues what’s most important about the seating they choose and they’ll probably say cost (though stackable and lightweight will be mentioned too).
If you ask meeting designers like me…what would we say?
A head-turning moment
This week I facilitated the world’s oldest peer conference: the four-day edACCESS annual conference that’s been running since 1992. The conference always includes a small tradeshow, and this year Steelcase was there.
Steelcase is an interesting and unusual company. After a hundred years in business, it’s the world’s largest manufacturer of office furniture. Rather than resting on their laurels, the company’s management is continually looking for genuinely useful and innovative ways to improve business environments. As an illustration, take a look at the Steelcase blog which is written by top management rather than junior PR staff.
Steelcase wanted to show several lines of products designed for educational environments at edACCESS 2013. That’s where I discovered their Node chair,designed by IDEO and pictured above. I first noticed and liked the tripod storage platform under the chair—a great place to store bags and backpacks off the floor. But then I saw the chair had casters. And when I sat in it, I found out that the seat swiveled. “So what?” you may ask. Read on!
Adjustable office chairs were invented in the 1850’s and became common in offices during the 1940’s. While office workers have long enjoyed the benefits of these chairs they are rarely seen in conference settings. A quick web search for meeting chairs turns up hundreds of images of rigid plastic stackable chairs that attendees have uncomfortably endured for years.
When you’re sitting in a traditional conference chair you face the front of the room and can only look elsewhere by turning your head and body as much as your chair allows. Looking anywhere but straight ahead becomes uncomfortable after a few minutes (see Paul Radde’s Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements for more information on this). A swiveling chair like the Node makes such shifts of attention easy.
Swiveling makes conference chairs better.
A chair with casters allows participants to quickly move between seating sets. For example, a session might start with a ten-minute presentation, with chairs facing the presenter and then require small group discussions. Attendees can scoot their chairs into the right formation; no standing and lifting required. The Node makes this safe by having a tripod construction with a wide base of support, unlike standard office chairs that can tip fairly easily if moved too quickly.
Room to move
“You gotta give me ‘Cause I can’t give the best Unless I got room to move” —John Mayall
While the Node chair gives participants “room to move” it’s not perfect from a venue’s standpoint. There’s no way to stack Nodes, and their unit cost of $600+ will make most venues’ financial managers blanch. But this kind of seating is what we need if we’re going to transition at our events from the outdated lecture formats of the past to the interactive, engaging, connection-making, community building conferences of the future, and I salute Steelcase for having the vision and the commitment to improve seating options for the education and meetings markets.
Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?
Feeling good—for a while
At MPI’s 2011 World Education Congress I heard the best motivational speaker I’ve ever seen. Bill Toliver gave an amazing twenty-minute speech.
I felt inspired by Bill. Here’s what I tweeted at the time.
But three months later, I didn’t remember a thing Bill said. (In fact I didn’t even remember his name when I came to write this post and had to ferret it out from an archive.)
Now this may be simply because my memory is declining with the passage of time—though I suspect that you may have had a similar experience. But I don’t think my dying brain cells are to blame.
As a counter-example, I still have vivid memories of workshops I attended over ten years ago.
Why do I remember what happened at those workshops but not what Bill said? We’ll get to that shortly, but first….
Testing two styles of lecture learning
I am not surprised by the results of research published in the May 2013 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Here’s the experimental setup:
“Participants viewed one of two videos depicting an instructor explaining a scientific concept. The same speaker delivered the same script in both videos. The only difference was in how the information was delivered. In the fluent speaker condition, the speaker stood upright, maintained eye contact, displayed relevant gestures, and did not use notes. In the disfluent speaker condition, she hunched over a podium, read from notes, spoke haltingly, and failed to maintain eye contact.” Appearances can be deceiving: instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning—Shana K. Carpenter, Miko M. Wilford, Nate Kornell, Kellie M. Mullaney
Right after watching their video, participants were asked to estimate how much of the information in the video they would be able to recall after about 10 minutes:
“Participants who viewed the fluent speaker predicted that they would remember a greater amount of information than those who viewed the disfluent speaker. However, actual performance did not differ between the groups [emphasis added]…
…It is not clear precisely which aspects of the lecturer’s behavior influenced participants’ judgments, and the experience of fluency may be subjective. What is clear, however, is that a more fluent instructor may increase perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning [emphasis added].”
What can we conclude from these results?
It’s just one experiment, but it does support something I’ve believed to be true for years. A great speaker may well provide a more enjoyable and emotionally satisfying presentation—but the learning that results is not significantly better than that provided by a mediocre lecturer!
Am I saying that we should discount the value of the quality of a speaker’s presence, examples, stories, and presentation as a whole? No! If we’re going to learn something from a speaker, there’s value in having the experience be emotionally satisfying.
What I am saying, though, is that it is a mistake to correlate the quality of a speaker’s presentation with the learning that occurs for those present. That is a big mistake.
Highly-paid speakers may provide better emotional experience, but that doesn’t mean their listeners learn and retain what they hear especially well.
But there’s another mistake we’re making when we fill our conferences with speakers.
What’s the use of lectures?
Back to those workshops I attended. Why do I remember vividly what happened in 2002 but not what Bill, the magnificent motivational speaker, said in 2011? Because in the workshops I was participating in my learning. I was interacting with other participants, receiving feedback and insights about what I said and did, and what happened led to deep learning that has stayed with me ever since.
When we give center stage at our events to presentations at the expense of participative engagement, learning suffers. The best speakers may be far more entertaining and emotionally satisfying than the worst ones, but, according to the above research, we’re not going to learn any more from them. Perhaps a truly great speaker may inspire her audience to take action in their lives—and that can be a good and important outcome—but I wonder how often that happens at our events. (There’s an idea for more research!)
What we have known for some time though, is that if we are truly interested in maximizing learning at our events, hiring the best speakers in the world will not do the trick. Instead, we need to incorporate participative learning into every session we program. That’s the subject of my next book. Stay tuned!
So, do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?
What do you think is the real value of good speakers? How much have you learned (and retained) from presentations compared to interactive workshops?
My session Designing Participation Into Your Meetings will, unsurprisingly, include a fair number of interactive exercises: human spectrograms, pair share, The Three Questions, a mild experience of chaos, and others. My goal is to motivate participants to incorporate participant-driven and participation-rich design elements into their meetings.
Technique: Setting ground rules ‡* Brief description: Setting ground rules before other activities commence clarifies and unifies participants’ expectations. When to use: Start of session, workshop, or conference. Helpful for: Setting the stage for collaboration and participation, by giving people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other. Increases participants’ safety and intimacy. Resources needed: Paper or online list of ground rules.
Technique: Human spectrogram Brief description: People stand along a line (one dimension) or in a room space (two dimensions) to answer session questions (factual or opinions). When to use: Usually at the start of a session. Also use as an icebreaker before or during the three questions. Helpful for: Allowing participants and the group to discover commonalities. Also use to pick homogeneous or heterogeneous groups/teams. Also use to hear a spectrum of comments on an issue and then view any resulting shifts in opinion. Gets people out of their chairs! Resources needed: A clear corridor space between walls (one-dimension), or a clear room (two dimensions).
Technique: The three questions * Brief description: Three questions answered in turn by every participant to the entire group within a given time limit, typically 1½ – 3 minutes. – How did I get here? – What do I want to have happen? – What experience do I have that others may find useful? When to use: Normally, right after ground rules have been set. Helpful for: Learning about each participant, exposing topics and questions of interest to the group, uncovering formerly unknown useful expertise for the group to share. Resources needed: Question cards and pens, circle of chairs. Do not replace cards with the three questions posted on a wall or screen.
Technique: Fishbowl * Brief description: An effective technique for focused discussion. Works by limiting and making clear who can speak at any moment. When to use: During any conference content or topic oriented session. Also use for conference closing discussion. Helpful for: Keeping group discussions focused. A plus is that contributors need to move to and from discussion chairs, maintaining alertness and engagement. Resources needed: Chairs, either set in two concentric circles or in a U-shape with discussant chairs at the mouth.
Technique: Personal introspective * Brief description: A session where attendees privately reflect on their answers to five questions. All attendees then have an opportunity but not an obligation to share their answers with the group. When to use: Towards the end of the event, usually just before the final group session for a short event. At multi-day events, sometimes held as the first session on the last day. Helpful for: Reinforcing learning and concretizing changes participants may wish to make in their lives as a consequence of their experiences during the event. Resources needed: Chairs, either set in small circles or one large circle, personal introspective question cards and pens.
Technique: Affinity grouping †* Brief description: A technique to discover and share ideas that arise during the conference and group them into categories, so they can be organized and then discussed. When to use: Can be used at any session to elicit and gain group responses to ideas. Also useful as a closing process if action outcomes are desired. Helpful for: Future planning, and uncovering group or sub-group energy around topics and actions. Can be used to guide decision-making by the group. Resources needed: Cards and/or large sticky notes, pens, pins or tape if cards used, walls for posting.
Technique: Plus/delta * Brief description: A simple review tool for participants to quickly identify what went well and potential improvements. When to use: Normally during a closing session. Helpful for: Quickly uncovering, with a minimum of judgment, positive comments on and possible improvements to a conference or other experience. Resources needed: Flipcharts and, optionally, ropes or straps.