Marriott’s announcement sparked the potential of a commission war (some independent properties are raising group booking commissions). It led to fear of further reductions or elimination of commissions by other suppliers in the future. Taking a wider view, let’s talk about the corrosive effect of commissions on the meeting industry.
So many conferences are a collection of unrelated sessions. But the June 2015 PCMA Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale showed how a coherent set of meeting goals can be embedded in a congruent conference arc, improving learning and connection amongst attendees. Here’s what PCMA did.
Although PCMA asked me to be the “conference facilitator” and “connect the dots” for EduCon, most of the credit for the conference design goes to the PCMA team. Pre-conference collaboration with the team was a pleasure.
My consequent jobs over the three days of conference sessions—which boasted a record 675 attendees, plus several hundred following the live stream of portions of the conference—were to:
open and close the conference;
interview John Medina on stage and at a “deep dive” breakout;
facilitate a closing public evaluation of the conference.
Being up on stage so much, interviewing, and providing event continuity for as many as a thousand people was a new experience for me—definitely risky learning! Connecting the dots immediately after presentations is hard when you don’t know what presenters are going to say!
When I accepted the offer of facilitating the conference, I only had a rough outline of the presentations, and I wondered about the content/learning arc of the event. To my pleasant surprise, as the event design unfolded, EduCon delivered a coherent set of sessions that shared common themes around predetermined goals.
At the opening I told a story and shared the EduCon design goals: experiential learning, risky learning experiments, and meaningful engagement. I’ll use [EL], [RL], and [ME] respectively to indicate how these three themes were woven throughout the event.
John Medina’s opening session immediately touched on some of these themes. He described how prospect-refuge theory suggests that a mixture of private and public spaces provides an optimum environment for events, balancing the needs for safety [RL], frankness, growth and confidentiality with the openness required to spread content.
John also spoke about the importance of high Theory Of Mind—the ability to reason about the mental states of others, what some might call empathy—for creating effective work teams that have high collective intelligence. (There’s a great test of your Theory of Mind ability Reading The Mind In The Eyestake it for free here!) It turns out that women have better theory of mind than men, which is perhaps why there are so many female meeting professionals—empathy is important in our industry [ME].
Interviewing John—who must surely be the easiest person in the world to interview—was a blast! I had 15 minutes with him on stage, followed by 75 minutes in a breakout. For the breakout I simply had the audience sit in curved theater seating facing John and me plus a couple of empty chairs, and had audience members with questions come up to the front of the room and talk with him. We could have easily spent another hour with John.
Read my earlier post to learn more about the session crowdsourcing experiment I facilitated the following morning, which incorporated all three goals for the event [EL] [RL] [ME]. A few of the sessions chosen: women’s leadership in the event industry (described to me afterwards by several participants in glowing terms), cultural issues in international meetings (run by Eli Gorin, who seemed very pleased), and selling sponsorship (held in the round).
After lunch I facilitated a personal introspective breakout session [EL] [RL] [ME], which provided participants the opportunity to think about what they had experienced so far, how their experiences might impact their life, and what changes they might want to make as a result. Afterwards, I received the same feedback independently from many people—they had gone into the session thinking they had little to say, and discovered during the process that there was a lot to talk about and get excited about. I have heard this kind of feedback for many years now, but it’s still gratifying to hear the conversation volume rise steadily and observe the palpable reluctance of people to leave their small groups when the session is over.
I attended a few of the other breakout sessions during the conference, and observed a good mixture of [EL], [RL], and [ME] in all of them. Though I can’t be sure that those I missed followed the same path, the interactivity of the sessions I witnessed was unusually high for a meeting industry conference, and all the presenters I talked to had incorporated trying something new during their sessions.
The second plenary speaker, Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise, spoke to several themes related to the “gift of failure”:
the “deliberate amateur” who avoids the traditional route of learning [RL];
the need for “private domains” that allow creativity to flourish [EL]; and
the “supple grit” needed to know when to keep working on an idea and when to stop before the work becomes dysfunctional persistence [EL].
On the final day of EduCon I ran a public evaluation of the conference in 45 minutes using plus/delta. Having attendees publicly evaluate a conference they have just experienced was clearly an [RL] activity! I think it went well; the scribes’ Google doc summary (projected in real time as the session took place) gives a taste…
The first question Sarah was asked at the conclusion of her talk was on overcoming fear [RL], which segued nicely into the subject matter of the closing session by Mel Robbins, author of Stop Saying You’re Fine. Mel delved deep (and interactively) [ME] [EL] into our fear of change and introduced her 5 second rule—if you have a game-changer impulse, act on it within five seconds or else it dies [RL]—another formulation of improv’s “say yes”.
Mel closed with a powerful call to action, a key component of a compelling conference arc, to take ownership of our lives. After such a powerful session, I kept things short with my closing remarks, pointing out specifically how PCMA’s conference goals had been achieved, and then asking the audience to stand and applaud themselves, as the people who, collectively, through their own interactions, risk taking, and engagement had made the achievement of those goals possible.
It felt good!
Awesome photo of me at 2015 PCMA EduCon taken by and licensed from Jacob Slaton!
“The EduCon organizers asked me to say a little about the conference format, and I thought about when I was a teenager, and loved to go to parties and dance. Then something happened, I don’t remember what it was—probably something incredibly embarrassing involving a girl I liked—and I became self-conscious and stopped dancing.
I stopped dancing for 40 years.
In 2003 I go to a workshop, and if you had told me beforehand that I would dress up in costume there and dance, solo, in front of an audience I would have a) said you were crazy and b) skipped the workshop.
I’m very glad I wasn’t warned, because at that workshop, when I experienced dancing again, I remembered that I love to dance—and I’ve been dancing ever since.
If I had been reminded at the workshop that I used to like to dance, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
All the lecturing in the world wouldn’t have shifted my belief that I really didn’t like to dance any more.
I had to experience dancing again.
I had to get on my feet and dance!
Now, we’re not going to ask you to dress up and dance at this conference—unless you like doing that, in which case we’ve got the Fort Lauderdale Pool and Beach Party tomorrow night!
But what we are going to do at this conference is to give you plenty of opportunities for participative engagement—to experience things that we think may be useful for you in your lives and work.
In addition, this conference is full of experiments with a variety of learning environments and methods. We are proponents of risky learning—Sarah Lewis & Mel Robbins—will be exploring this in their sessions.
And, in our crowdsourcing experiment tomorrow, you’ll get to choose what you want to learn about, discuss, share, and connect about.
So our hope and desire is that, at EduCon, you will: – engage; – be open to your experience, with a willingness to learn from each other; and – be a resource to your peers.”
It was my hope that sharing a revealing story in front of a thousand people at the start of this conference would model openness amongst attendees for what followed. Based on the feedback I received during the event and my observations of the level of interaction and intimacy that ensued, I think my hope was realized.
Right after the 2015 PCMA Education Conference Tuesday breakfast, I facilitated an experiment that allowed 675 meeting planners to choose sessions they would like to hold. In 45 minutes, hundreds of suggestions were offered on sticky notes A small team of volunteers then quickly clustered the topics on a wall, picked a dozen, found leaders, and scheduled them in various locations around the Broward County Convention Center during a 90 minute time slot after the lunch the same day. The experiment was a great success; all the sessions were well attended, and, from the feedback I heard, greatly enjoyed and appreciated. Many people came up to me afterwards and told me how surprised they were that such a simple process could speedily add 50% more excellent sessions to the 21 pre-scheduled sessions.
All of us who plan meetings have an understandable desire for everything to be perfect. We strive mightily to not run out of coffee, comprehensively rehearse the show flow, allow for rush hour traffic between the day and evening venues, devise in advance alternative plans B -> Z, and anticipate a thousand other logistical concerns. And every planner knows that, during every event, some things will not go according to plan, and we pride ourselves on dealing with the unexpected and coming up with creative solutions on the fly. That’s our job, and we (mostly) love doing it—otherwise we’d probably be doing something less stressful, e.g. open-heart surgery.
Aiming for perfection is totally appropriate for the logistical aspects of our meetings, but when applied to other aspects of our meeting designs—little things like, oh, satisfying meeting objectives—we end up with meetings that are invariably safe at the expense of effectiveness.
Perfect is the ideal defense mechanism, the work of Pressfield’s Resistance, the lizard brain giving you an out. Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important). —Seth Godin, Abandoning perfection
We took a risk on a less-than-perfect outcome at our PCMA Education Conference crowdsourcing experiment. “What if hardly anyone suggests a topic?” “What if one or more of the participant-chosen sessions turns out be a dud, or nobody shows up?” “What if we underestimate the popularity of a session, and the scheduled space is too small to hold it?” (In fact, due to the limited locations available, we had to hold several sessions in one large room, and there was some auditory overlap that had to be minimized by a quick seating rearrangement. Lesson learned for next time!)
This is a superior kind of learning—risky learning. We try new things with the certainty that we will learn something different, perhaps something important that we would not have learned via a “safe” process, and we are prepared for the possibility to “fail” in ways that teach us something new and fresh about our process.
I’ve been running crowdsourcing of conference sessions for over twenty years, so I was confident that there would not be a shortage of session topic suggestions. But I had never before run crowdsourcing with 600+ participants. Could I get their input in 45 minutes? Would a small group be able to cluster all the suggestions in another 30 minutes, pick out juicy, popular topics, and then be able to find session leaders & facilitators and schedule all sessions before lunch? We took a risk trying new things, and I appreciate the conference committee’s support in letting me do so. The end result was a great learning experience for the participants, both in the individual sessions offered and the experience of the process used to create them. And we learned a few things about how to make the process better next time.
So how much risky learning should we incorporate into our events? There’s no one right answer to this question. Ultimately, you have to decide what level of risk you, your clients and your participants are willing to accept—and a healthy discussion with all stakeholders will help ensure that everyone’s on board with what you decide. But, whatever your situation, don’t aim for perfection, or playing it safe. Build as much risky learning as you can into your events, and I think you’ll find the resulting outcomes will surprise and satisfy you.
This week has seen three articles published on crowdsourcing in the events industry. Suddenly, crowdsourcing events is hot! Here are comments from someone <shameless brag> who has been crowdsourcing conferences since 1992.
The longest and most detailed article is Are We Thinking What I’m Thinking? by Barbara Palmer in the September issue of PCMA Convene magazine. I, of course, love this article because I feature extensively in it. (And, all the photos are mine!) Massive kudos to Barbara for quoting me accurately and clearly conveying my crowdsourcing philosophy, perhaps the most radical approach described, that of using crowdsourcing to determine sessions at the event.
Barbara also interviewed Sam Smith, who, together with Ray Hansen, organized last week’s Event Camp Twin Cities (at which I ran a couple of sessions). ECTC used crowdsourcing very successfully at the session design level by reaching out to the #eventprofs community, asking for suggestions for novel session formats and content, and then creating a conference program that incorporated many cutting edge ideas. One of the refreshing strengths of Event Camp Twin Cities was its overt philosophy that “we are trying new stuff here, and probably some of it won’t work.” The result was a truly innovative conference, full of enlightening experiments (with very few failures, as it turned out).
Next, Barbara asked Elizabeth Henderson about her ongoing work on the design of the 2011 Green Meeting Industry Council Sustainable Meetings Conference. Elizabeth is concentrating on creating crowdsourced event design teams with members drawn from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This is another way to use crowdsourcing at the pre-event level that helps to avoid a groupthink mentality about a conference.
Finally, Barbara quotes various meeting professionals’ views on crowdsourcing, around the theme of the role of the expert compared to the role of the crowd. In this section, the viewpoints expressed downplay the value of the crowd’s input. This is the crowdsourcing as a minor fad point of view. The possibility of influencing session topics and content is mentioned, but the description of crowdsourcing’s value for “entry and exit music, entertainment options, ways to green an event, reception themes, and party-venue options” implies relegating its importance to the relatively superficial. And the final two comments—”I suggest that event professionals crowdsource topics, content ideas, and suggestions – and steer clear of crowdsourcing speakers and actual sessions” and “Crowds can tell you what they want…But an expert can say, ‘You are going to need to know this'”—revert to the old worldview of novice attendees being guided by wise non-attendee experts. Such a worldview ignores the reality that conference audiences invariably contain a healthy mixture of novices and veterans.
The second article is Michelle Bruno’s The Good and the Evil of Crowdsourcing Conference Contentfrom the Trade Show News Network. Michelle starts by saying “Event organizations that crowdsource conference content are learning there is a right way and a wrong way to solicit community feedback.” This formulation is unfortunate for two reasons. First, as we’ve seen above, there are a number of ways to approach crowdsourcing an event, and it’s simplistic to say that any of them are right or wrong. Second, the article offers no evidence that any particular approach is better or worse, except for the gut instincts or opinions of the people Michelle quotes.
First, Michelle describes Mike McCurry’s work on developing peer networking sessions for the 2010 PCMA Education Conference held in June. Since the event is over, it’s a shame that there are no follow-up comments as to the effectiveness of Mike’s pre-event crowdsourced topic selection. Perhaps this information exists but is unpublished.
Next up is South By Southwest’s crowdsourcing of 30% of their conference sessions. I tend to agree with Jeff Hurt (quoted in the Convene article) that for a conference of this size, the process SXSW uses becomes a popularity contest rather than participatory crowdsourcing. This is because there’s no significant pre-selection communication between attendees and/or the folks offering the sessions, so we end up with what is basically online voting on thousands of suggestions.
According to Michelle’s article, the same kind of process is used by the Nonprofit Technology Network, which points out that it takes about 90 minutes to vote on every one of the 400+ sessions suggested for their 2011 conference. It’s unreasonable to expect more than a small fraction of attendees to expend this kind of effort, so the question then arises: how representative of all attendees are the responses NTEN gets?
The article continues with comments by Chris Bucchere about using (what he calls) crowdsourcing in a very different way from the above examples. He says “Using your community to ‘spec’ work for you is an ‘evil’ way to crowdsource.” This declaration ignores the common thread in all the above uses of the term: namely that crowdsourcing is also a win for participants because they get the sessions & formats they want. Chris’s idea of using crowdsourcing seems to be about building community/brands via contests with incentives for the winners. Perhaps this is an effective strategy for “anyone who wants to leverage the power of the social web to build a brand”, but it’s hardly new; advertising contests go back to at least the 1920’s (e.g. Ivory Soap) and it’s a stretch to relabel them crowdsourcing, even if we’re using a social media platform for them now.
In closing, Michelle says “On the other hand, there is such a thing as giving the community so much power that they begin to make specific demands that may or may not be in keeping with the goals of the conference or the organization.” This brings up the issue of control at events, something that I’ve written about before. In 20 years of using crowdsourcing at events I’ve never experienced a single instance where a majority of participants made unreasonable demands. On the contrary, on every occasion when something unexpected (to me) has emerged from good group process, it’s turned out to be an accurate and useful way to improve the conference.
The final article isn’t, in fact, an article, it’s a just-released video of a 19 minute TED talk by Chris Anderson entitled How web video powers global communication. In it, Chris describes what he terms Crowd Accelerated Innovation: “a self-fueling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print”. Chris argues that the rapidly increasing availability of web video is drastically speeding up the ability of people all over the world to focus on and improve the best of breed sharing they discover on their screens. In a sense, web video becomes a tool for effectively crowdsourcing experience and experiments. Chris believes that this new medium has the potential to revolutionize learning and the development of new ideas and their implementation, but cautions “…to tap into its power, organizations will need to embrace radical openness.” I think there’s a certain degree of hype in his presentation, but it’s well worth watching.
So, there you have a rich variety of the ways in which crowdsourcing is entering and affecting the world of events. Which ways, if any, speak to you?