However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.
What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!
Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.
Peer conferences support change
The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 29 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!
Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.
Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.
A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.
These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.
The first three of his revolutionary cycles are well established, the fourth is now arriving. Cycles one through three introduced calculation and data storage, connection, and shifting place and time.
Above all, Seth’s fourth cycle adds prediction.
“Call it AI if you want to, but to be specific, it’s a combination of analyzing information and then predicting what we would do if we knew what the computer knew.
…we’re giving those computers the ability to make predictions based on what thousands of people before us have done.
…If you’re a mediocre lawyer or doctor, your job is now in serious jeopardy. The combination of all four of these cycles means that the hive computer is going to do your job better than you can, soon.
With each cycle, the old cycles continue to increase. Better databases, better arithmetic. Better connectivity, more people submitting more data, less emphasis on where you are and more on what you’re connected to and what you’re doing.
…just as we made a massive leap in just fifteen years, the next leap will take less than ten. Because each cycle supports the next one.”
In an earlier post, I wrote about how neural networks can now quickly learn to do certain tasks better than humans with no external examples, only the rules that govern the task environment.
Seth points out that when we supply computers with the huge, rapidly growing databases of human behavior, the fourth cycle becomes even more capable.
In conclusion, Seth ends with:
“Welcome to the fourth cycle. The hive will see you now.“
When we enable people to meaningfully connect at a meeting, something extraordinary happens. We transform a conference from an impersonal forum for information exchange to a place where people feel they matter: their views, their experience, their ability to contribute become seen.
Such a transformation is the essential work needed to build human community around the event. It becomes something special, standing out like a beacon from the humdrum conferences routinely inflicted on attendees.
The meeting feels different, is different, because it allows participants to be truly heard and seen. Because being listened to is a gift. And, as Seth Godin puts it:
“We like to see. But mostly, we’re worried about being seen…the culture of celebrity that came with TV has shifted. It’s no longer about hoping for a glimpse of a star. It’s back to the source–hoping for a glimpse of ourselves, ourselves being seen.” —Seth Godin, Mirror, mirror
It takes a few minutes at the start of a gathering to create agreements that help make it a safe place for participants to speak their minds, ask appropriate questions, and share possibly intimate yet important information about their work and lives that inform the entire event.
Immediately, the conference is subtly different, full of new possibilities, some of which might have been considered risky or even taboo. Everyone in the room begins to learn about each other in ways that matter. Everyone begins to discover how they can become a part of the gathering, how they can contribute and how they can learn about issues and challenges that personally matter.
Make it easy for participants to be safely and truly heard and seen. Your conferences will be all the better for it.
The other day I attended my lovely nephew Julian’s high school graduation.
Ah, the joys of graduation! Where graduates wait in long lines, sit for hours on uncomfortable chairs, get sunburn, and listen to (mostly) boring speakers someone else chose. All to hear their name read amid hundreds of others, walk across a stage, and get a blank diploma (the real one is mailed later).
And there’s more — your loved ones enjoy the same multi-hour experience, except they get to watch your fleeting stage walk from uncomfortable chairs a long way away!
A graduation is an Elementary Meeting: a social event that consists of obligatory, tacitly agreed series of actions performed by those taking part. I’ve written about the power of Elementary Meetings to create original event designs — but some Elementary Meetings are poorly designed by today’s standards. Because they are a historic piece of our culture, we tend not to critically evaluate or rethink them. Instead we take for granted and put up with the ritual one more time.
I’m about to share three powerful creative event design tools.
You can use these tools for every aspect of event design. Stylists working on the look and feel of an event often use it to stimulate fresh thinking about the venue, the décor, the lighting, the food and beverage, entertainment, and so on.
Rarely, however, are these tools used to design events that creatively incorporate, illuminate, and support core desires and outcomes for the meeting.
With them, you can generate something truly original — like in 2009, when Jill and Kevin Heinz invented a brand new trope: the wedding entrance dance.
What’s are the tools? Seth Godin gives us a clue.
What does this remind you of?
What does this remind you of? That’s a much more useful way to get feedback than asking if we like it.
We make first impressions and long-term judgments based on the smallest of clues. We scan before we dive in, we see the surface before we experience the substance.
And while the emotions that are created by your work aren’t exactly like something else, they rhyme.
It could be your business model, your haircut or the vibrato on your guitar.
“What does this remind you of” opens the door for useful conversations that you can actually do something about. Yes, be original, but no, it’s not helpful to be so original that we have no idea what you’re doing. —Seth Godin, What does this remind you of?
Seth is talking about getting feedback; we’re interested in being creative so let’s flip the focus. The word “remind” is the key; how do we re–mind ourselves to come up with something new?
It turns out that guided visualization (aka guided imagery) is one of the most powerful modalities for tapping our creative and unconscious wisdom. A wide variety of visualization techniques exist and they can be customized to provide creative insights into specific challenges — like event design.
Surprisingly, there are few resources available on how to sculpt guided visualizations for exploration of a specific creative challenge. Most books and posts describe how to use guided visualizations for meditation, health, mental state change, and artistic creativity. Once you’re familiar with the basic principles, however, it’s not hard to adapt these methods for creative event design.
So here are three creative event design tools to use guided visualizations to take a fresh look at an existing event or create a vision for a new one.
One technique I’ve used is to display to clients a large number of the fantastical cards (sample shown above) from the popular game Dixit and ask them to pick a few that speak to them in some way about their current event and a few that say something about what they would like the event to become. I encourage people to pick cards without trying to analyze the attraction. We then look at the chosen cards in more detail and explore and uncover what the chosen cards reveal about the current and future potential of the event. Invariably, my clients discover powerful and enlightening perspectives and objectives they weren’t aware of: fertile beginnings for a fresh and relevant design.
Alternatively, an event designer can guide clients on a journey to and through the event in their mind. You can adapt scripts like this one to your needs. Replace traveling to a private garden with a journey to the event venue (if it’s already known and familiar) or an ideal venue that appears in your mind as you walk along the path. Guide your clients through the venue where your future event is in full swing and ask questions. If you are working with a single client, they can answer aloud, which may spark clarifying questions. Multiple clients on the journey mentally note their answers.
What does it look like? What does it sound like? Who is there as you enter the lobby? The meeting rooms? The social areas? What are they doing? How are you feeling? How are the attendees feeling? What are you experiencing that isn’t in your current event? What else are you noticing during your journey?
When the guided journey is over, lead a retrospective to discuss what the clients experienced and learned. In my experience there will be at least one key insight on how to create or improve the event.
Besides the power of creative event design tools to uncover great ideas for an event, another big benefit is that they generate persuasive client buy-in for the ultimate meeting design. Why? Because the clients “dream up” the ideas themselves! Anything that eases the adoption of a fresh approach to event design makes my (and your) job easier.
Most of the event technology I’ve been using for the last quarter century is hundreds of years old. It works incredibly well. So, when you’re designing your next event, bear in mind this observation of Seth Godin’s:
You might not need more exposure to the new. Instead, it might pay to re-see what’s already around you. —Seth Godin, What do you see?
Re-seeing technology is hard because technology is anything that was invented after you were born. Technology that’s older than you is mostly invisible, taken for granted like the air you breathe. Only when the wind blows you might notice, for a moment, that something important is all around you — but your attention quickly returns to the smartphone in your hand.
Getting your attendees to do something new at your event can be hard. For example, Seth Godin illustrates the problem:
“Want to go visit a nudist colony?”
“I don’t know, what’s it like?”
“You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.”
“Show me some pictures, then I’ll know.”
Well, actually, you won’t.
You won’t know what it’s like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people.
The only way you’ll know what it’s like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience.
Not by looking at the experience.
By having it.
—Seth Godin, Experiences and your fear of engagement
Now you’re probably not taking your attendees to a nudist colony for the first time — nudist associations, I did say probably. But introducing a new event format where an attendee has to do something different, like interact with other attendees or play a game, will usually evoke uncomfortable feelings for some or many attendees, ranging from mild unease to outright fear.
So how can we encourage attendees to take the risk to try something new?
By having them do something new together.
A caveat — allow attendees to opt out
Whatever we are asking attendees to do, it’s important to always provide an option for individuals to opt out. How to do this depends on the circumstances. For example, running an activity as a concurrent breakout or an add-on to the main program implies that participation is optional. But if the activity is a plenary session, then you should always give an opt-out provision after introducing the activity and before participation starts.
(This doesn’t mean that attendees necessarily get to pick and choose how they will be involved with the activity. For example, when I run The Solution Room I make it clear that those present who choose to attend can do so only as participants and not as observers. If they choose not to participate, I ask them to skip the session.)
Strong scientific research performed over fifty years ago has shown that groups are more likely to accept taking risks than the members individually (e.g. see diffusion of responsibility and level of risk taking in groups for supporting research). Seasoned facilitators know this. Working with groups we can routinely get members to do things collectively that they might baulk at as individuals.
Simply asking a group to do something perceived as risky is not all that’s required, however. Supplying or obtaining agreements on how the group members will work together helps create a safe(r) working environment for risk-taking. In addition, if the group members are mostly strangers to each other, it can be helpful to provide appropriate and meaningful activities for them to get to know each other before moving into new kinds of work. Finally, begin with low-level risk activities and then moving to those perceived as more risky. This will help a group obtain experiences that they would have resisted had I asked them to participate right away.
The power of group process
Change is hard. However, the potential of group process to successfully introduce people to beneficial experiences that might be judged beforehand as scary or risky allows us to create powerful new experiences for attendees at our events. Furthermore, new experiences that incorporate valuable learning and build new personal connections are one of the most powerful ways to make meetings relevant and memorable.
That’s why I love to design and facilitate group work at conferences. I’ll probably never get to facilitate the kind of exposure in Seth Godin’s example (and that’s fine by me). But group work has the power to engage and transform attendee learning and connection in ways that conventional broadcast sessions cannot match. It should be top-of-mind for every event professional who wants to hold engaging and successful meetings.
Last week, I led The Solution Room for a group of New York City attorneys. When it ended at 8 pm, after two hours of continuous intense conversation and connection, no one left. The participants, despite having worked a full day before my evening session, hung around and talked and swapped business cards while venue workers patiently reset the room for the law firm’s next business day.
For me, having people unwilling to leave after one of my sessions is over is a sign of success. It’s an example of what Set Godin calls viral work.
Important work is easily dismissed by the audience. It involves change and risk and thought.
Popular work resonates with the people who already like what you do. Viral work is what happens when the audience can’t stop talking about what you did.
Every once in awhile, all three things will co-exist, but odds are, you’re going to need to choose.
—Seth Godin, Important, popular or viral
I like Seth’s definition of viral work, but I’d change one word to better describe my facilitative work.
“Viral work is what happens when the audience can’t stop talking about what they did.”
How often do you get to do viral work? Share your successes in the comments below!
[P.S. I don’t usually photograph the challenge representations drawn by Solution Room participants because they can contain personal information, but I made an exception for the charming image that graces this post.]
How do we get people to participate at meetings? How can we design for easier attendee participation?
We know that participants — people who are active learners — learn more, retain more, and retain more accurately than passive attendees. They are also far more likely to make valuable connections with their peers during the event.
Ask a hard question every time we go to a meeting…
All of these are choices, choices that require no one to choose us or give us permission.
Every time I find myself wishing for an external event, I realize that I’m way better off focusing on something I can control instead. —Seth Godin, What Would Happen
All good, but Seth begs this question. What can meeting designers do to make it easier for attendees to participate more at meetings?
Three things to do for easier attendee participation
First, we need to model participation throughout our event. In Spain last month, I was invited for dinner in a local family’s home. Besides being treated to amazing food, drink, and conversation, I was casually encouraged to use a branding iron to melt the sugar on our Crème Brûlée. I was politely asked to help wash the dishes. Being an active participant during the evening, even in these small ways, made me part of the experience. I was not a passive consumer. Participating added significantly to my enjoyment and connection to the kind couple who had invited me into their home.
And third, always remember that we can’t make people do anything. Ultimately what they do is their choice. So it’s important to convey that participation is always optional. I’ve found that when attendees know they have the option to opt out they are more likely to participate.
What approaches have you used to make it easier for your attendees to participate? Share your ideas in the comments below!
Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to ask for help.
I ask for help
I had been fretting for several months on how to move ahead on convening and facilitating more of the participation technique workshops that are dear to my heart. What would the interest be? How would I market them? Which countries and venues should I consider?
The exploratory work involved was daunting. I started some market and venue research in my spare time, but progress was slow. There was so much to do before I could even begin to announce anything.
Finally, I realized I was acting like the person (stereotypically a man, right?) who’s lost and can’t bring himself to ask for directions.
I needed to ask for help.
It was hard for me to get to the point of asking for help. Despite knowing and preaching about the power of networks to create change, I was trained to figure stuff out by myself, and I still often revert to that old mindset. My ingrained instinct is to investigate a situation by looking at possibilities, only finally moving to action once I’ve got a solid plan. Sometimes that’s a good strategy. But sometimes, I need to practice transformational tourism.
Merely looking at [or listening to] something almost never causes change. Tourism is fun, but rarely transformative.
If it was easy, you would have already achieved the change you seek.
Change comes from new habits, from acting as if, from experiencing the inevitable discomfort of becoming. —Transformation tourism, Seth Godin
I became someone who asks for help. In 30 minutes I wrote a request for assistance on this blog and promoted it through my usual channels on social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and some Facebook event professional groups.
The results were swift and gratifying.
Within a week I had been contacted by numerous friends and colleagues, and had found several partners who were a wonderful logical fit.