Any questions? Rethinking traditional Q&A

Any questions? Rethinking traditional Q&AHow often have you heard “Any questions?” at the end of a conference session?

Hands rise, and the presenter picks an audience member who asks a question. The presenter answers the question and picks another questioner. The process continues for a few minutes.

Simple enough. We’ve been using this Q&A format for centuries.

But can we improve it?

Yes!

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Handling a meeting question that isn’t

Dealing with questions that aren'tWe’ve all experienced the meeting question that isn’t. A session presenter or moderator asks for questions and someone stands up and starts spouting their own opinions. A concluding question (if they even have one) is little more than an excuse for their own speech.

Are you tired of attendees making statements during question time? Here are ways to deal with audience questions that aren’t actually questions.

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Dear Adrian: Answers to participant-led event questions asked at a MeetingsNet webinar

innovativeportalbannerCurtiss Reed and I enjoyed presenting our thirty-minute MeetingsNet webinar Participant-Led Meetings: A Case Study on February 4, 2014, and I’m happy to announce that the webinar is now available free on demand (until February 4, 2015). Just go to the registration link and complete the short sign-up to receive a link to the webinar. We received many good participant-led event questions, and were not able to answer them all in the time available. So I’ve listed them here, together with my answers. I hope you find them useful!

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Discover what attendees want to talk about with Post It!

Ever wanted a way to find out what people at a meeting would actually like to learn, discuss, or ask questions about? Post It! is what you need. It’s a simple technique that can be used at various levels for:

  • All the attendees at an event.
  • Breakout groups discussing a specialty set of topics.
  • A single conference session.

If you’re a conference presenter with an audience of less than 50 people, you can use Post It! to rapidly discover audience interests and to help decide what those present would like to hear about.

Alternatively, Post It! provides an effective and efficient way for a group to learn and reflect on its members’ interests. If you need to process in more detail the topics uncovered, consider using the affinity grouping technique described in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love (and my upcoming book too).

When
Run Post It! at the opening of an event, breakout group, or a single session.

Resources
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 shape the content of a session
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 to be provided are shown 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
100+ 1

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. As the notes are posted it is 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 all the notes have been posted, provide some time for everyone to take in the topics and questions displayed. This group sharing can then be used as a starting point for Open Space, Fishbowls, Plus/Delta, and other group discussion techniques discussed in my upcoming book.

Photo attribution: Flickr user edmittance

How to gauge the energy for creating a new conference

 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could know whether a great idea would lead to a successful new event?

Creating a new conference is a chancy business that requires a certain amount of guts. I have worked on several conference projects that haven’t panned out, and there’s no question that failing to engage a critical mass of registrants for an event that you thought would be popular is a disheartening experience.

Despite success in creating many successful new conferences over the last thirty years, I still don’t know how to predict whether an event will be viable. But I have learned one thing.

One requirement for success is being able to easily find others—my rule of thumb is at least four people—who share your vision for the conference and are willing to help make the event a reality. In the past, I’ve tried to gauge commitment intuitively. Recently, while rereading Peter Block’s wonderful book Community: The Structure of Belonging with my Consultants and Trainers monthly network group (now in its 16th year!) I came across his Four Early Questions, which he uses to negotiate the social contract between group members to “shift the ownership of the room”. Peter suggests asking people to rate on a seven-point scale, from low to high, their responses to these four questions:

  • How valuable an experience (or project, or community) do you plan for this to be?
  • How much risk are you willing to take?
  • How participative do you plan to be?
  • To what extent are you invested in the well-being of the whole?

When building any kind of new endeavor, I think these questions provide a useful way to learn more about the people you may be working with, and so I’m sharing them with you here.

The implicit ground rules of traditional conferences

Many people are surprised when I talk about the need for explicit ground rules at conferences. “Why do you need them?” is a common response.

So perhaps it’s worthwhile pointing out that every traditional conference has ground rules.

We just never talk about them. They’re implicit.

Here are some common implicit ground rules:

  • Don’t interrupt presentations.
  • Don’t ask questions until you’re told you can.
  • The time to meet and connect with other attendees is during the breaks not during the sessions.
  • Applaud the presenter when she’s done.
  • Don’t share anything intimate; you don’t know who might hear about it.
  • The people talking at the front of the room know more than the audience.
  • Don’t talk about how you’re feeling in public.
  • If you have an opposing minority point of view, keep quiet.

And a few more for conference organizers (a little tongue-in-cheek here):

  • Don’t reveal your revenue model.
  • Never explain how a sponsor got onto the program.
  • Don’t publish attendee evaluations unless they’re highly favorable.

You can probably think of more.

Of course, each of us has slightly different interpretations or internal beliefs about implicit ground rules like these, and that’s what causes problems.

When explicit ground rules aren’t agreed to at the start of an event, no one knows exactly what’s acceptable behavior. (Think about what it’s like when you have to go to a conference and don’t know the dress code.) The result is stress when we’d like to do something that might not be OK, like ask a question, let a presenter know we can’t hear properly, or share a personal story. We’re social animals, and most of us don’t want to rock the boat too much. The end result: we play it safe; we’ll probably remain silent. And an opportunity to make our experience better and more meaningful is lost.

A common misconception about explicit ground rules is that they restrict us from doing things. (“Turn off your cell phones”. “No flash photography”.) Actually, good ground rules do the opposite; they increase our freedom of action. That’s because, by making it explicit that certain behaviors, like asking questions, are permitted they remove stressful uncertainty and widen our options.

I use six explicit ground rules for all Conferences That Work. Four of them, The Four Freedoms, are available for download. To learn about the others and understand how they all work, read my book!

What do you think about having explicit ground rules during conferences? Have you attended conferences where they were used? If so, what was your experience of having them available?

 

 

How can we better support event professionals?

baby holding finger - thtstudios - 151079254_5486c264e7How can #eventprofs help guide/mentor those new to the industry? was the topic of a fascinating August 5 #eventprofs chat† (archive), moderated by the “Queen of EIR“, Jenise Fryatt. The chat was noteworthy for its energy around two initiatives that emerged during our hour together:

  • An online resource for answering event industry questions
  • An online resource for matching volunteer mentors and mentees

Responding to the energy, I registered the domain www.eventprofsanswers.com during the chat and set up a skeleton website. As you can read in the archive, many chat participants were enthusiastic about this action, and asked how they could help move these initiatives forward.

Since the chat, I’ve had offline discussions about developing the website. Most correspondents have been positive, though a minority has expressed some reservations.

Here are some of my conclusions and questions arising from the discussion so far:

  • I think it’s important to have the widest possible initial discussion before proceeding further. We need to find out what other #eventprofs think, and hear from professional association members and the associations themselves.
  • I’m not aware of significant attempts to use online technologies to address the two initiatives, other than the ad hoc use of Tweeted questions using the #eventprofs and allied hashtags. Perhaps there are existing resources we’re not aware of?
  • There seems to be evidence that some event professionals, especially perhaps those who entered the industry through non-conventional paths (like me), would appreciate a central online location for posting questions and finding appropriate mentors (either online or face to face). How easy has it been for you to get your events-related questions answered? What has your experience been with the availability of and satisfaction with existing industry mentoring programs?
  • I have already received a number of individual and association chapter offers of support (thank you everyone!) If you would like these initiatives to be implemented in some fashion, what are you willing to contribute to making this happen?
  • Do you have suggestions for additional online initiatives that would address event professionals’ needs?
  • I want to make it clear that I am personally completely open to the process and the organizational structure used to implement these initiatives. Perhaps an online resource would be run by a group of volunteers, perhaps it could become part of an existing professional association’s online presence and services, perhaps it would remain an independent presence that is formally supported by an association’s staff. What do you think?

Lots of questions! I, and I believe the professional events community, would like to know your responses. Either comment below or write me privately if you prefer. I look forward to everyone’s input!

†The #eventprofs chat is held on Twitter each week on Tuesdays 9 – 10 p.m. EST and Thursdays 12 – 1 p.m. EST.

Image attribution: flickr user thtstudios

A potential drawback to hybrid events

Virtual audience 603737821_e39a2d268d_o

Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz in the events industry about what are being called hybrid events where there are two audiences: people physically present, the local audience, and people connected to the event remotely, via Twitter, chat, audio, and video streams, the remote audience.

Event planners are excited about this new event model because it has the potential to increase:

  • overall audiences
  • interaction between attendees
  • exposure for the event
  • exposure for event sponsors and the hosting organization
  • the value of attendee experience through new virtual tools
  • the likelihood that a remote attendee will become a face-to-face attendee in the future

Because of these positives, I think it’s likely that events that include local and remote audiences will become more popular over time, as we gain experience about what formats work and become proficient at resolving the technical issues involved in successfully hosting these event environments.

But there’s one thing we may lose if we add a remote audience to our events.

At the face-to-face conferences I run, attendees start by agreeing to a set of ground rules. These ground rules create an environment where participants can speak freely and ask questions without worrying that their individual statements or viewpoints will be revealed outside the event.

It’s hard to convey the difference this assurance makes to the climate at Conferences That Work unless you’ve attended one. The level of intimacy, learning, and community is significantly raised when people feel safe to ask “stupid” questions and share sensitive information with their peers.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to create the same environment of trust when an unseen remote audience joins the local participants. Believing that everyone will adhere to a set of ground rules is risky enough when everyone who agrees is in the same room as you. To sustain the same trust when an invisible remote audience is added is, I think, a significant stretch for many people. If I’m right, the end result of opening up a conference to a remote audience may be a reversion to the more common environment of most conferences today, where asking a question may be more about defining status than a simple request to learn or understand something new.

Do you think that hybrid events can be designed so that they are still safe places for people to ask questions and share around sensitive issues? Or do you think I’m over-blowing the whole issue?

Five fundamental questions about conference design

Questions_2326448445_254db07d4fNo one expects that every conference attendee will have the same needs as every other participant and contribute an equal amount to the event. Each of us has a unique set of interests, knowledge, and skills. And there will be people present who have much to offer, and those who, for whatever reason, add little to the available pool of relevant knowledge and experience.

This raises five fundamental questions:

  1. What are the best ways to use conference time to respond to a variety of attendee knowledge and experience?
  2. How can we discover the topics that have energy for attendees?
  3. What experience and expertise exist for exploring these topics?
  4. What processes provide the best way to match uncovered needs with available conference resources?
  5. How can we effectively support the resulting conference sessions?

If you agree with me that these questions are important, have you answered them to your satisfaction for your events?

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seandreilinger/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0