Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of designing and facilitating the annual Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Peer Conference. It’s an honor to work on a classic Conferences That Work-style peer conference that’s turned out to be one of the most powerful tools for building inclusive, equitable, and sustainable communities in my home state. So I’m happy to share some scenes from this peer conference.
A traditional conference is like a pharmacy. Content is prescribed, and you pick it up in a session. Hopefully it will fix what ails you. Have you met anyone interesting in a pharmacy? Did you create one of the drugs sold there? Probably not.
A peer conference is like a friendly bookstore. Browse the shelves looking for what interests you, satisfies your wants and needs. Relax on a comfy sofa, and check out anything that looks interesting. Fall into conversation with other folks nearby. Yes, you can be guided by those little “staff picks” notices, but perhaps the guy sitting opposite you has some suggestions. And perhaps, one day, you’ll write a book of your own…
Ask me about an environment for learning and I recall sitting in a classroom full of ancient wooden desks, hinged lids inscribed with the penknife carvings, initials, and crude drawings of generations of semi-bored schoolboys. A thin film of chalk dust covers everything, and distant trees and blue sky beckon faintly through the windows at the side of the room. The teacher is talking and I am paying attention in case I am called on to answer a question. If it’s a subject I like—science, math, or English—I am present, working to pick up the wisdom imparted, motivated by my curiosity about the world and the desire to not appear stupid in front of my classmates. If it’s a subject I am not passionate about—foreign languages, history, art, or geography—I do what I need to do to get by.
When asked to think about creating an environment for learning we tend to focus, as I just did, on the physical environment and our motivations for learning.
But there’s a third element of the learning environment that is largely overlooked. Did you spot it? If you’ve read my post Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way you probably did; we have not yet mentioned the learning processes we use as a key component of our learning environment. These processes are so deeply associated with our experience of learning in specific environments that we’re rarely conscious of how much they affect what and how we learn.
Let’s meet Linda, who’s about to discover why using good process can be so impactful.
About Linda Linda’s waiting to get her badge and information packet at a conference registration table. She’s nervous because she’s new to the industry and has only previously briefly met a couple of people on the list of registered attendees. Linda likes her profession, but came principally in order to receive continuing education credits that she needs to maintain her professional certification. She wants to learn more about certain industry issues, get some specific questions answered, and is hoping to meet peers and begin to build a professional network.
At this point, let’s see what happens when Linda experiences two somewhat different conference designs.
Linda goes to TradConf Linda is a first-time attendee at TradConf, a small annual association conference that has pretty much the same format since it was first held in 1982. She received a conference program six months ago and saw a few sessions listed that look relevant to her current needs. After picking up her preprinted name badge she enters the conference venue and sees a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there she knows. She drifts over to a refreshment table and picks up a glass of soda water, hoping to be able to finesse her way into one of the groups and join a conversation.
Linda meets a few people before the opening session, but no one who she really clicks with. Still, she’s grateful that she can at least associate a few names with faces.
Linda doesn’t find the opening keynote especially interesting. The speaker is entertaining but doesn’t really offer any useful take-aways. And sitting and listening for 80 minutes has taken a toll on her concentration. She follows the crowd to the refreshments in the hallway outside and tries to meet some more people. Linda’s not shy, but it’s still daunting to have to repeatedly approach strangers and introduce herself. By the end of the first day, Linda has met one person with whom she has a fair amount in common, and she bumped into one of the people she knew before the conference. The three of them spend the evening talking.
The next couple of days’ sessions are a mixed bag. Some of the sessions are a rehash of things Linda already knows, rather than covering new techniques, while another turns out to focus on something very different from the description in the conference program. Linda picks up a few useful nuggets from a couple of sessions, and gets one of her pressing questions answered. She connects with someone who asked an interesting question at the end of a presentation. She spends most of her time between sessions with her old connection and two new friends.
The conference closes with a keynote banquet. Linda sits next to an stimulating colleague, but doesn’t get much time to talk to him because the keynote monopolizes most of their time together. They swap business cards and promise to stay in touch.
Afterwards, Linda has mixed feelings about her TradConf experience. She met some interesting people and learned a few things, but it didn’t seem to be an especially productive use of her time, given that she has to get back to work and still grapple with the majority of her unanswered questions. She doesn’t feel like she’s built much of a professional network. Perhaps things will be better when she goes next year?
Linda goes to PartConf Linda is a first-time attendee at PartConf, a small annual association conference first held in 1993. It has a good reputation, but it’s hard to understand what the conference will be like, because, apart from an interesting-sounding keynote from someone really well known in the industry and a few other sessions on hot-topics, the program doesn’t list any other session topics. Instead, the preconference materials claim that the participants themselves will create the conference sessions on the topics that they want to learn about. This sounds good in theory to Linda, but she is quite skeptical how well this will actually work in practice.
A few weeks before the event, Linda gets a call from Maria, who identifies herself as a returning conference participant. Maria explains that all first-time PartConf attendees get paired with a buddy before the conference. Maria offers to answer any questions about the conference, meet Linda at registration, and introduce her to other attendees if desired. Linda asks how the participant-driven conference format works, and Maria is happy to share her own positive experience. They swap contact information and agree to meet at registration.
Linda calls Maria as she waits on line to register. As she picks up her large name badge, she notices it has some questions on it: “Talk to me about…” and “I’d like to know about…” with blank space for answers. Maria appears and explains that the questions allow people with matching interests or expertise to find each other. Linda fills out her badge, and the two of them enter the conference venue and see a large number of people chatting with each other in small groups. There isn’t anyone there Linda knows, but Maria brings her over to one of the groups and introduces her to Yang and Tony. “Based on what you’ve told me about your interests,” Maria says, “I think you guys have a lot in common.” A glance at Yang’s and Tony’s badges confirms this, and Linda is soon deep in conversation with her two new colleagues who introduce her to other attendees.
By the time the opening session starts, Linda has met six people who are clearly going to be great resources for her. She’s also surprised to discover that a couple of other people are really interested in certain experiences and expertise she acquired at a previous job.
The opening session is a roundtable. Linda has been preassigned to one of five roundtables being held simultaneously. Two of her new friends join her in a large room with a circle of forty chairs. A roundtable facilitator explains how the roundtable works, and provides some ground rules for everyone to follow. Over the next 90 minutes, everyone gets a turn to share their answers to three questions. Linda learns much about the other participants and gets a comprehensive overview of group members’ questions, issues, topics, experience and expertise. Human spectrograms, held roughly every twenty minutes, get people on their feet to show experience levels, geographical distribution, and other useful information about the group. Linda notes the names of four more people she wants to talk to during the conference, and discovers that her former job experience is of interest to other people in the room.
At the first evening social, Linda enjoys getting to know her new friends. Everyone spends some time proposing and signing up for “peer sessions” to be held over the next few days, using a simple process involving colored pens and sheets of paper. Peer sessions can be presentations, discussions, panels, workshops, or any format that seems appropriate for the participants’ learning and sharing. Linda suggests several issues she is grappling with and a couple of the sessions she wants get scheduled. Although another topic doesn’t have sufficient interest to be formally scheduled, she notes the names of the people interested and decides to try to talk with them between sessions. She is surprised to find that quite a few people want to learn from her former job experience, and ends up facilitating a discussion on the topic the next day.
The next couple of days’ sessions are incredibly productive and useful for Linda. She gets all her questions answered, meets several people who can advise her on potential future issues, enjoys being an unexpected resource herself, and has begun to build a great professional network by the time the conference draws to a close.
The last couple of sessions provide Linda an opportunity to think about what she has learned and what she wants to do professionally as a result. She now feels confident about beginning a major initiative at work, sketches out the initial steps, and gets helpful feedback from her colleagues. She even has some time to reconnect with now-familiar peers and make arrangements to stay in touch. The last session starts with a public evaluation of the entire conference: what worked well and what might be improved. Linda makes several contributions, gets a clear idea of how the conference has been valuable to the many different constituencies present, and several great ideas emerge on how to make the event even better next year, together with next steps for their development.
Afterwards, Linda has very positive feelings about her conference experience. She got all her questions answered, learned much of value, and built the solid beginnings of a significant professional network. And she’s certain PartConf will be even better when she returns next year!
The impact of good process on the learning environment Linda’s story illustrates the tremendous effect good process can have on the learning environment. The attendees at TradConf and PartConf are the same; only the processes used are different! PartConf’s participation-rich process gave Linda a learning experience that was much more tailored to her and the other attendees’ actual needs and wants than the predetermined program at TradConf. Linda also made useful connections with many more people at PartConf compared to TradConf.
The PartConf design also allows participants to make changes to the conference processes used, either at the event or future events. The learning environment at PartConf extends to the event design—the conference can “learn” itself through participant feedback and suggestions to become a more effective vehicle for participants’ needs and wants.
I have been running conferences like PartConf for over twenty years. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the vast majority of those who attend these events come to greatly prefer such designs over the TradConfs that have been the rule for hundreds of years.
The problem with many conferences is that limited, unchangeable status is frozen into the event structure. The people who have high status are the ones who have been predetermined to be at the front of the room. Everyone else is just one of the lower-status crowd.
The beauty of a peer conference is that it provides many more opportunities for each participant to be high-status some of the time. The Conferences That Work opening roundtable format guarantees that everyone gets a short time (the same amount for each person) at the front of the room. During the event, you can be a learner (lower status) one moment and a teacher (higher status) the next. And it’s far more likely that expertise or experience you have that others value will be recognized and turned into a learning experience for others.
Let’s be clear—peer conferences don’t impose similar status on everybody. An industry veteran is likely to spend more time in higher-status situations than the novice first-time participant. But a peer conference makes no initial assumptions about who has something to offer, and I’ve seen plenty of situations where an industry novice turns out to have valuable contributions to make from her prior experience in another field.
Isn’t a conference format where everyone gets to be appropriately high-status once in a while healthier than one where a tiny minority get it all? I think so, (and thousands of evaluations back me up!)
“It’s been clear from the beginning of the Web that it gives us access to experts on topics we never even thought of. As the Web has become more social, and as conversations have become scaled up, these crazy-smart experts are no longer nestling at home. They’re showing up like genies summoned by the incantation of particular words. We see this at Twitter, Reddit, and other sites with large populations and open-circle conversations.This is a great thing, especially if the conversational space is engineered to give prominence to the contributions of drive-by experts. We want to take advantage of the fact that if enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert.” —David Weinberger, Globalization of local experience
This is exactly why the Conferences That Work format works so well. Peer conferences allow participants to discover the experts in (what was formerly known as) the “audience” they want to meet, connect with, and learn from. Instead of restricting teachers to the few folks at the front of the room, peer conferences allow us to tap the experience and expertise of anyone that’s present.
In other words, Conferences That Work extend the effectiveness of the online conversations that David describes above to face-to-face meetings.
Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).
Forgive me if this is something you have been asked a million times before (and maybe you could point me to the page on your website which gives the answer, although I couldn’t find it.)
How do you market a new peer conference?
I can see that the peer conference structure can work for groups which have already been meeting for many years, for example industry association meetings, and people are looking for a better format.
But I think it would be very hard to get people to have enough confidence in a new peer conference without anything to show them about what is going to happen there (except possibly a list of other delegates, if it was possible to get anyone to sign up to a conference where the agenda was a blank sheet of paper).
The standard way to market conferences as you know is to try to attract some relevant interesting sounding speakers, and use the speakers names in the marketing – but that forces the structure into the standard 30 minute powerpoint format.
Do you have any examples of where someone has developed a new peer conference as a commercial business?
Great questions—no need to apologize! People often ask me about how to market peer conferences, and your request has an interesting focus.
Most of my consulting clients want help with conference redesign—making established traditional events more peer-driven and participation- and connection-rich. Actually, it’s often easier to create a new peer conference than to change the format of an existing conventional event. Changing something that already exists is often harder than starting from scratch.
I’m not saying that it’s simple to market a new peer conference. As you point out, people are accustomed to seeing a pre-determined schedule of conference sessions and speakers. This influences their decision on whether to attend. (I cover this “program trap” in Chapter 4 of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.) Many wonder a) how you can create a great conference program at the event and b) how good the resulting conference will be. Your marketing has to address these concerns.
In my experience there’s an essential prerequisite for a new peer conference to get off the ground: a core group of organizers who understand and believe in peer process (ideally, but not necessarily, through experience) and who are committed and prepared to proselytize the envisaged event to their professional circles. My rule of thumb is that this group should contain at least five people.
Once you have your core group in place, your marketing should feature the peer conference format without going into all the details. Intrigue potential attendees, especially those tired of traditional conferences, and talk up the proven nature of the design. Here’s an example of what you might say:
Have you attended a conference about TOPIC recently? Then you probably sat in room after room with scores of other attendees listening to outside experts talk about topics that weren’t quite what you were interested in. You were sure there were some interesting people to talk to, people who had the same questions you did (and maybe even some answers)—but how could you find who they were and meet them among the swirling crowds? Did you come away frustrated, feeling that only a small portion of the time you attended was valuable to you?
If so, you’re not alone.
INNOVCONF is different.
INNOVCONF is an out of the box conference experience that replaces highly scripted events, calls for papers, pre-determined workshops, keynote speakers, networking receptions, etc. We use the proven Conferences That Work design to create a conference that adapts to meet your needs, leverages the combined expertise and experience of all participants, and provides unique opportunities to discover, connect, share, and learn with the peers you want to meet.
Our conference format is participant-driven and participation-rich. The attendees themselves—DESCRIPTION OF TARGET ATTENDEES—will determine the conference’s agenda, presenters, session format, focus, and results during the first afternoon of INNOVCONF. (To learn more, visit conferencesthatwork.com.)
The goals of INNOVCONF are simple. Create the best possible conference for each individual attendee. Maximize participant interaction and connectedness. Strengthen our community. And explore future group initiatives. Sounds good? Then register today to join your peers at this innovative event!
To answer your last question, until I published my 2009 book I was the only person creating peer conferences. So it’s still early to expect many examples of established pure Conferences That Work format peer conferences “as a commercial business”. In addition, many current peer conferences are not commercial meetings-for-profit ventures. Instead, they create effective ways to bring a professional or vocational community together. Fees and budget are set to cover costs and make a modest profit.
What people have started to do is to use the Conferences That Work format in conjunction with traditional general sessions to create what I called in the book a hybrid event. (Unfortunately, since publishing, “hybrid” has come to mean an event that has face-to-face and online components). The marketing of these events often plays up the big names invited. However, the formats themselves contain significant peer conference elements. Three examples are FinCon: A peer conference for the financial blogging community, the Swiss Caux Conferences, and the Renaissance Weekends.
Karl, I hope this is useful. I’d love to hear more about your potential conference. If there’s anything I can do to assist you, please let me know.
I’m happy to announce that a free 9,000 word update to my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love is now available!
Many improvements and refinements are included—the outcome of four years of feedback and experience since the book was published in 2009. Highlights include a long-awaited chapter on extending Conferences That Work to larger events, and important additions that make the established format (now tried and true for over twenty years!) even better.
Here’s a list of the contents:
CHAPTER 1 Why did I write this supplement?
CHAPTER 2 What’s included?
CHAPTER 3 Acknowledgements
CHAPTER 4 Avoid one-day peer conferences
CHAPTER 5 Running Conferences That Work with more than 100 participants
CHAPTER 6 Give people permission and opportunity to take a break!
CHAPTER 7 Break up roundtables approximately every twenty minutes
CHAPTER 8 Make peer session determination more efficient
CHAPTER 9 Improve personal introspectives by running them in small groups
CHAPTER 10 How to choose what to do at a group spective
CHAPTER 11 Include a first-timers session for repeat events
CHAPTER 12 Consider implementing a buddy system
CHAPTER 13 Use shared Google Doc for roundtable themes and plus/delta sharing
CHAPTER 14 Have people stand while speaking during the roundtable
CHAPTER 15 Use alternate colors when recording on flip charts
CHAPTER 16 Focused discussion = fishbowl — and an alternative format
CHAPTER 17 Consider using a conference app instead of a face book
CHAPTER 18 Consider running plus/delta with tape columns on the floor
CHAPTER 19 Use plus/delta as a tool for action
CHAPTER 20 Consider adding “Curious about?” column to plus/delta
CHAPTER 21 Where to buy stiff 5 x 8 index cards
CHAPTER 22 A closing note about appreciations
The supplement, provided as a free ebook <pdf>, will be updated from time to time and the latest version will always be available for free on this website. Comments and corrections are always welcome.
“There was a frankness you’re not going to get anywhere else.”
“What a unique opportunity!”
“That was eye-opening.”
“We got a one-time look behind the curtain.”
“That was an incredible session.”
“I’m so grateful that session was available.”
Those were some of the comments I heard while waiting outside the door of Room 102 as attendees streamed out after the first peer session at the 21st edACCESS annual conference held at the Peddie School, Hightstown, New Jersey. Sadly, I’ll never know what I missed—and neither will you, unless you were there. Here’s why.
At the start of edACCESS conferences it’s customary for a representative of the hosting school to welcome attendees, and Peddie’s Head of School, John Green, did the honors this year. We learned that John was stepping down as head, had a lot of respect for the work information technology staff performed at schools:
“we school heads are somewhat helpless without you” John Green, head of Peddie School speaking to us techies at #edaccess12
and that he was interested in talking with attendees about what he had learned during his eleven-year tenure.
Because edACCESS uses the peer conference model, we were able to jump on this last-minute opportunity and schedule an hour for anyone who wanted to meet with John the following day. Because Conferences That Work use a confidentiality ground rule, John could be sure that what he shared would not leave the room. Thanks to the conference design, attendees had an impromptu, once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear candid reflections, ask questions, and get invaluable advice from a retiring school head—something that would never normally be available to an edACCESS attendee.
With the trend towards streaming, tweeting, and live-blogging everything that happens at conferences, it’s important to remember that there are many amazing opportunities that will be routinely missed or avoided whenever conference sessions are unthinkingly thrown open to all and sundry, be it via streaming the session on the internet or by the lack of an explicit agreement about confidentiality. John Green has probably never spoken so candidly about his work to a group of strangers as he did that day, and he will probably never do so again. Those who attended his session reaped the benefit of a conference design that supports safety in sharing with one’s peers while still allowing more disclosure when appropriate.
I’m sorry I missed John’s session. You had to be there. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.
What do you think about the tension between openness and intimacy at conference sessions? What solutions would you use?