The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

The best way to fundamentally improve your dull conference

I’ve been attending conferences for over forty years. Most of them are dull and largely irrelevant. This seems to be the norm, because when you talk to attendees you find they set a low bar for satisfaction— e.g. “It’s OK if I learn one new thing a day, oh, and if I make a useful connection or two that would be great!

For twenty years I assumed this was how conferences were supposed to be. When I began creating conferences myself, I used the same standard format: invite experts to speak to audiences.

Then in 1992, circumstances forced me to do one thing different. Ever since, thanks to that happy accident, I have been designing and facilitating peer conferences that people have loved for over a quarter-century.

“…gets an award for most/best/most thoughtfully organized conference I think I’ve ever been to.”

“I’m an introvert. I’ve never shared as much at a conference before. Your process is brilliant. Thank you.”

“…the truest sense of community I’ve ever felt and it was beautiful to experience. I hope you have the opportunity to experience something like this in your lifetime. It changes everything.”
—Three recent participants on their experience at three different peer conferences

What’s the one key thing I do that almost no one else does?

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Pair share—What’s on your mind right now?

Malii Brown
Malii Brown

Here’s an effective variant of pair share—a fundamental participative technique that fosters connection and learning via discussion with a partner during a conference session—that was conjured up the other day by Malii Brown while we were co-facilitating a peer conference roundtable.

To keep participants alert during round-the-circle sharing at roundtables, I break every 20-25 minutes, either for a short bio-break or a relevant exercise involving movement. I often use pair share as one of these exercises (see The Power of Participation for a complete description) by asking participants to stand up and spend a few minutes introducing themselves to someone they don’t know.

On this occasion, Malii and I were alternating facilitation, and she got to introduce the pair share. Malii asked everyone to find someone they didn’t know, but when everyone was paired up she simply said:

“Share with each other what’s on your mind right now.”

Here’s a video excerpt of the resulting pair share. (I’ve removed the sound to maintain confidentiality, but you should know that the volume was substantial!)


I liked  the energetic conversations Malii’s suggestion triggered, and have added this prompt to my mental toolbox for future use. This is a nice example of the kind of learning that can occur when co-facilitating—thanks Malii!

Should Linda go to TradConf or PartConf?

Two_paths_into_Kingsford_Forest_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1185904Ask 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.

Image attribution: Wikimedia

Three things conference attendees really want to know about each other

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Connections with people are formed by our experience with them over time. (Yes, Buddhists and Taoists, the present moment is our only reality, but we still experience it through the filters of the history and desires in our brains.) Besides learning about people we’re with though our direct experience, we discover more by listening to their descriptions of their past and present experiences and their hopes for the future.

The first thing that happens at Conferences That Work is a roundtable, where each attendee answers the following three questions (there are no wrong answers!) to the group:

  • How did I get here? (past)
  • What do I want to have happen? (present & future)
  • What experience or expertise do I have that might be of interest to others? (past & future)

As people, one by one, answer these questions they share their past, present, and future with everyone in attendance. Each person opens a window through which the time line of their life can be seen more clearly. This sharing provides the foundation for connections to be deepened during the conference that follows.

Image attribution: Flickr user houseofsims

Helping conference attendees satisfy their curiosity

“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”
Linus Pauling

Three questions

When I was a graduate student I used to dislike going to academic conferences. Despite having won a senior scholarship to Oxford University I was scared of walking into a room of people I didn’t know and trying to start up conversations. When I sat next to random folks at lunch and we talked, I always had the sneaking suspicion that there were probably other people present at the conference whose company I’d enjoy even more—but I had no way to figure out who they might be.

We are curious about other people, especially if we know that we share a common interest. And every culture has its own conventions for meeting and learning about strangers. Unfortunately, in a conference setting these conventions limit the number of people we can meet. For example, in my experience even an extreme extrovert will find it difficult to meet a majority of the people at a 100-attendee two-day conference.

So in the 80’s, when I began to have opportunities to design my own conference formats, I knew that I wanted to include the opportunity for participants to learn about each other, right at the beginning of the event.

Over the years, this desire shaped the first Conferences That Work session: the roundtable. The core of every roundtable is the time when each attendee in turn answers the following three questions to a large group (usually, everyone else who is attending the conference).

“How did I get here?”
“What do I want to have happen?”
“What experience do I have that others might find useful?”

How these questions are explained to attendees is described in detail in my book. There are no wrong answers to the three questions, and attendees can answer them by publicly sharing as little or as much as they wish. What I find wonderful about roundtable sharing is how the atmosphere invariably changes as people speak; from a subdued nervousness about talking in front of strangers to an intimacy that grows as people start to hear about topics that engage them, discover kindred spirits, and learn of unique experiences and expertise available from their peers. When sharing is over, both a sense of comfort and excitement prevail: comfort arising from the knowledge attendees have of their commonalities with others, and excitement at the thought that they now have the rest of the conference to explore the connections and possibilities that the roundtable has introduced.

Switching the responsibility for initial introductions from attendees to the conference model bypasses normal social conventions – replacing them with a safe place for people to share about themselves to others. This simple conference process gives attendees the openings they need to further satisfy their curiosity about their peers. It works amazingly well.

The gift of listening

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“Patiently Smiley waited for the speck of gold, for Connie was of an age where the only thing a man could give her was time.” from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carré

I was facilitating a peer conference roundtable recently when a young man began to speak. He was obviously nervous: his voice a monotone, when it wasn’t quavering. I was peripherally aware that some people didn’t seem to be listening. He paused for a moment and his eyes swept around the circle, searching for a sign that anyone cared about what he had to say. He found me.

I was leaning forward, looking directly at him, giving him my full attention. Our eyes locked and I nodded slightly. He took a breath and continued. His voice became stronger. I saw people turn back to him and he finished well.

I had just given the gift of listening, and this young man had been nourished by it.

When I am facilitating it’s my responsibility to actively listen to what is going on, focussing my full attention on what others say and do. When I’m successful, those who are present know that there is at least one other person who is listening to them and who takes seriously what they have to say.

Listening like this is hard work. To conscientiously listen to participants for over two hours at a large roundtable is extremely challenging for me. But it’s very important. People need to be heard, and if they believe they will not be heard, why should they bother to speak? By offering good listening at the start of a peer conference, I model and encourage a conference environment where openness twinned with receptiveness becomes a safe option for participants.

There’s a wider benefit from the cultivation of this skill. Practicing listening when required by my role has helped me to be a better listener during all the times when I’m not facilitating—when I’m a participant, or with my family, or as a customer. You, too, may find that developing your ability to fully listen pays rich dividends.

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