Please stop treating adults like children at your conferences. (For an exception, see the end of this post.)
With children there’s an argument for broadcast-style learning. Schools originally developed as establishments for improving the efficiency of oral communication of information. They did this by bringing many students together, so they could learn simultaneously from one teacher. The key cultural reason why broadcast methods remain firmly embedded in our children’s education is the sheer quantity of knowledge that society — for whatever reasons — is determined to cram into young heads during formal education.
But with adults, unless you’re an expert training a bunch of novices, there’s no excuse for deciding unilaterally “this is what you will learn today”.
Instead, frame the scope of the session, find out what people want to learn or discuss first, then create the session they want and need. Five minutes of Post It! for Sessions, described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing, is exactly what you’ll need for an in-person session. Or use this variant if you’re meeting online.
So, please stop treating adults like children at conferences. But with…
You attend a conference session on a topic that interests you. Perhaps you’re a novice, or an expert, or someone in between. Or perhaps you want a general introduction. Perhaps you have a few specific aspects you want to hear about, or questions to which you’d love to get answers.
The presenter begins, and you quickly realize the session is not going to meet your needs. (Or, even worse, you sit through the whole thing, expecting your specific interests to be addressed — but they never are.)
How many other attendees are having the same experience? How many attendees are getting their wants and needs met by this session?
We will probably never know.
At traditional sessions, you might get a hint of how well the presenter met wants and needs at the end, when “there’s time for a few questions”. Whatever you discover at that point, it’s too late.
How to create great breakout sessions
There’s a better approach.
Whether a breakout session is in-person or online, the way for a leader or presenter to make it great is to:
quickly uncover audience interests at the start of the session; and
use the expressed wants and needs to create a session that covers the desired content at the required level.
Why does this approach create great sessions?
This approach works because it makes a transparent effort to provide an optimal session for the participants: what they actually want and need. Participants appreciate this! You might end up with a plan like this one:
“It looks like about a third of you are relatively new to [the session topic] and you’re mainly interested in an introduction. The rest of you seem most interested in spending time learning about X & Y. A couple of you have specific questions that I can answer quite quickly.
I can provide an introduction to [the session topic]. Ayesha has expertise in X, and Cyrus and I know about Y. I propose I start with an introduction to [the session topic] for ten to fifteen minutes. Then let’s turn the session over to Ayesha for fifteen minutes on X, followed by Cyrus & I for around fifteen minutes on Y. During the remainder of the session I’ll answer the two specific questions, and we’ll use any remaining time to answer final questions.
How does that sound to everyone?”
The transparency of this process is really important, because, of course, it’s impossible to create a session that’s perfect for everyone. Suppose, for example, that you have a specific need that might take up most of the session to be fulfilled…and you’re the only person who asks for this. OK, so you’re not going to get your needs met, but at least you understand why. Furthermore, a smart presenter may still be able to offer an opportunity to respond to your need: e.g., “John, we don’t have time in this session to talk about Z, but email me and I’ll send you some articles that should be helpful.”
How to create great in-person breakout sessions
At in-person events, it’s easy to uncover audience interests using the Post It! For Sessions technique described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing. The presenter supplies a pen and sticky note to each attendee and asks them to write down one topic they would like explored, or question they would like answered during the session. The notes are collected and categorized into broad themes, and the presenter designs a responsive session, like the one above, on the spot. (Check out the book for more details.)
How to create great online breakout sessions
With a little ingenuity, it’s simple to modify Post It! For Sessions for an online breakout session.
To start, ask everyone to come up with their answer to this question:
“What one thing do I want to get from this session?”
Tell them that their response can be specific or general; they get to choose what they most desire. Give them a minute to think about their answer, and ask them to post it in the online platform’s text chat.
In the example above (a breakout session held in Zoom for store owners) there is interest from more than one participant in: selling to millennials, store signage, ecommerce, and employee development.
Now, you and your participants have a much better idea of the wants and needs in the “room”.
Quickly review the requests, and ask submitters to clarify any that are unclear or vague.
Then create a brief plan for the session, based on the expressed wants and needs. Don’t feel obliged to cover everything mentioned. Describe your plan briefly, and apologize for topics you won’t be able to cover in the time available. Ask if there are subject matter experts in the room that can address some of the topics raised, and incorporate that information into your plan. Ask for feedback and adjust the plan if necessary.
Then do it!
It isn’t hard and it doesn’t take long
You can create great online breakout sessions in about five minutes. Taking the time to discover what participants want and need and creating a session that meets the group’s desires as closely as possible will pay rich dividends. Try it and see!
How do we build conference programs that attendees actually want and need? Since 1992 I’ve experimented with multiple methods to ensure that every session is relevant and valuable. Here’s what happened when I incorporated dot voting into a recent two-day association peer conference.
In Part 1 of this series I defined participatory voting and we explored the different ways to use it to obtain public information about viewpoints and participants in the room, paving the way for further useful discussions and conversations. Now let’s explore low-tech and high-tech voting solutions.
There is no shortage of high-tech systems that can poll an audience. Commonly known as ARSs, Student Response Systems (SRSs), or “clickers,” these systems combine an audience voting method—a custom handheld device, personal cell phone/smartphone, personal computer, etc.—with a matched receiver and software that processes and displays responses.
Here are three reasons why high-tech ARSs may not be the best choice for participatory voting:
ARSs necessitate expense and/or time to set up for a group. No-tech and low-tech approaches are low or no cost and require little or no preparation.
Most ARS votes are anonymous; no one knows who has voted for what. When you are using voting to acquire information about participant preferences and opinions, as opposed to deciding between conflicting alternatives, anonymous voting is rarely necessary. (An exception is if people are being asked potentially embarrassing questions.) When a group of people can see who is voting for what (and, with some techniques, even the extent of individual agreement/disagreement), it’s easy to go deeper into an issue via discussion or debate.
Participatory voting techniques involve more movement than pushing a button on an ARS device. This is important, because physical movement improves learning. Some techniques include participant interaction, which also improves learning.
That’s why I prefer no-tech and low-tech techniques for participatory voting whenever possible. No-tech techniques require only the attendees themselves, while low-tech approaches use readily available and inexpensive materials such as paper and pens.
Card Voting: Provides each participant with an identical set of colored cards that can be used in flexible ways: typically for voting on multiple-choice questions, consensus voting, and guiding discussion.
Dot Voting: A technique for public semi-anonymous voting where participants are given identical sets of one or more colored paper dots which they stick onto paper voting sheets to indicate preferences.
Hand/Stand Voting: In hand voting, participants raise their hands to indicate their answer to a question with two or more possible answers. Stand voting replaces hand raising with standing.
Human Graphs: See Human Spectrograms.
Human Spectrograms: Also known as body voting, continuum voting, and human graphs. A form of public voting that has participants move in the room to a place that represents their answer to a question. Human spectrograms can be categorized as one-dimensional, two-dimensional, or state-change.
Idea swap: A technique for anonymous sharing of participants’ ideas.
One-dimensional Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants position themselves along a line in a room to portray their level of agreement/disagreement with a statement or a numeric response (e.g. the number of years they’ve been in their current profession.)
Plus/Delta: A review tool that enables participants to quickly identify what went well at a session or event and what could be improved.
Post It!: A simple technique that employs participant-written sticky notes to uncover topics and issues that a group wants to discuss.
Roman Voting: Roman Voting is a public voting technique for gauging the strength of consensus.
State-change Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants move en masse from one point to another to display a change of some quantity (e.g. opinion, geographical location, etc.) over time.
Table Voting: A technique used for polling attendees on their choice from pre-determined answers to a multiple-choice question, and/or for dividing participants into preference groups for further discussions or activities.
Thirty-Five: A technique for anonymously evaluating participant ideas.
Two-dimensional Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants position themselves in a two-dimensional room space to display relative two-dimensional information (e.g. where they live with reference to a projected map.)
This ends my exploration of low-tech and high-tech voting solutions. And what are public, semi-anonymous, and anonymous voting? We’ll explain these different voting types and explore when they should be used in the third part of this series.
At the workshop, run by the talented Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was reintroduced to an improv game called Color/Advance. It’s a simple game for two players, a storyteller and a listener.
At any time while the storyteller tells a story, the listener can give either of two commands: “Color” or “Advance”. Color instructs the storyteller to describe whatever she is talking about in more detail, while Advance tells her to continue with the story. Improvisors typically use the game is to improve storytelling skills, using the listener’s requests as feedback to determine when more detail will spice up the story and when it’s time to continue with the plot.
It struck me that one could use Color/Advance in a different way, as a group process tool in a conference session or workshop. Often, when I lead a meeting, I have limited information on what the participants want to get out of it. With up to about fifty participants I normally use the Post It! technique to uncover the wants and needs of the group and then tailor the session to fit as well as possible, covering a judiciously selected set of the topics mentioned.
This approach works very well, but there’s no standard way for attendees to indicate during the session that they would like more or less information to be shared on the current topic. While it’s not unusual for people to occasionally ask for more detail, few will spontaneously volunteer that they’ve heard quite enough about a topic and they’d like to move on to the next one.
So I propose to offer Color/Advance as a tool to session participants to give them control over what is covered during a session, as follows.
How to use Color/Advance
After you’ve used Post It! to create an impromptu outline of the topics to include, explain that at any point anyone can say “Color!” meaning that they want more detail of what was said. Or, they can say “Advance!” which means “I’ve heard enough about this, please move on to the next topic.” Also explain that people can respectfully (and succinctly) disagree, so that the wishes of one person are not imposed on the entire group.
I love discovering how to harness human process in new ways. Body voting makes preferences and opinions public. A fishbowl allows a group to have a useful discussion. And, thanks to my experience at the AIN 2015 World Conference, we have a new tool Color/Advance for conference session or workshop participants to fine tune the information shared to match their wants and needs.
If you have thoughts about or used this technique, please let us know in the comments!
Run Post It! at the opening of an event, breakout group, or a single session.
It is surely no surprise that you’ll need one or more sticky notes (e.g. Post-it® brand) for each participant. If you’re using Post It! for a presenter tool at a single session, supply a single 2” x 3” note to each attendee. For a group display of topics, supply one to four 6” x 8” (preferred size) notes, or 3” x 5” notes if posting space is limited.
Make sure that you have sufficient pens available. Fine tip marker pens are best.
Finally, you’ll need clear, accessible wall or notice board space where notes can be posted. Walls should be smooth and clean, as sticky notes don’t adhere well to rough or dirty surfaces. If you’re using Post It! as a presenter tool, the posting area should be close to where you are standing in the room so you can easily refer to it.
How a presenter can use Post It! to learn what attendees want to talk about
Before the session begins, give each participant a single sticky note and a pen. Ask the audience to write down the one topic they would like explored or question they would like answered during the session. Give everyone a couple of minutes to write their response and collect the notes as they are completed. As you collect the notes, browse their contents and mentally categorize their contents into broad themes. For example, some attendees ask specific questions, some may want an overview of your topic, and some may want you to cover one particular aspect. Once all the notes have been collected, briefly read each note out loud and add it to a cluster of similar notes on the wall next to you. You may find a note that is unique and needs to be placed by itself.
Once all the notes have been stuck on the wall, it should be clear to both you and your audience what the group is interested in. Don’t feel obliged to cover everything mentioned. Instead, use the notes to make a plan of how you will spend your time with the group. Describe your plan briefly, and apologize for topics that you’re not able to cover in the time available. Even if you don’t cover everything requested, your audience will have the information to understand why you made the choices you did. If you’re going to be available after the session is over, you can invite attendees to meet with you to talk more.
As you continue with your audience-customized session, you can refer to the note clusters to confirm that you’re covering your plan.
How you can use Post It! to make public the interests and questions of a group
Before the session begins, decide on the number of sticky notes to give to each participant. The number will depend on the size of the group and the length of time available for any resulting sessions. Suggestions for the number of notes are in the table below.
Size of group
Suggested number of notes for each attendee
20 − 30
2 − 4
30 − 50
2 − 3
50 − 100
1 − 2
Hand out this number of sticky notes and a pen to each attendee. Ask the audience to write down one or more topics they would like explored or questions they would like answered during the session, one per note. Tell them they do not need to use all their notes. Indicate the wall area where notes can be posted, and ask them, once they have finished, to post their notes on the wall. Give participants a few minutes to write their responses. During the note posting, it’s natural for people to hang around the wall and read what others have written. Let them do this, but ask people to allow late posters to get to the wall.
Once you’ve posted all the notes, provide some time for everyone to take in the topics and questions displayed. You can then use this group sharing as a starting point for Open Space, Fishbowls, Plus/Delta, and other group discussion techniques discussed in my upcoming book.
There’s no excuse for not knowing what attendees want to talk about any more!