Does the world of events need more exposure to the new?

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.

Yet none of the event technology that can drastically improve your events requires a smartphone or even spending much money.

Don’t ignore the wind. Instead, harness it and explore its possibilities.

Photo attribution: Flickr user 64700647@N06

How to get attendees to risk doing something new at your event

Getting your attendees to do something new at your event can be hard. 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 this is done depends on the circumstances. For example, if the activity is run as a concurrent breakout or an add-on to the main program, this implies that no one is expected to take part. But if the activity is a plenary session, then an opt-out provision should always be given after the activity has been introduced 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, they are asked 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: when working with groups we are routinely able to get members to do things collectively that they might well baulk at as individuals.

Simply asking a group to do something perceived as risky, however, is not all that’s required. Supplying or obtaining agreements on how the group members will work together helps create a safe(r) working environment for risk-taking. 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, beginning with low-level risk activities and then moving to those perceived as more risky will help a group obtain experiences that they would have resisted had they been asked to participate right away.

The power of group process
Change is hard. 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. 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 the power of group work to engage and transform attendee learning and connection in ways that cannot be matched by conventional broadcast sessions means that it should be top-of-mind for every event professional who wants to hold engaging and successful meetings.

Image attribution: Lyndi & Jason, Dallastown Pa, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When the audience can’t stop talking about what they did

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.”

Because, it’s not about me.

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.]

Three ways to make it easier for attendees to participate

How do we get people to participate at meetings?

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.

Seth Godin describes a desirable meeting mindset:

What would happen…

if we chose to:

…Sit in the front row

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

This is all very well, but it begs the question: what can meeting designers do to make it easier for attendees to participate more at meetings? Here are three things we can do.

Read the rest of this entry »

Asking for help


Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to 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.

Two weeks later, we began planning workshops in the United States, Canada, and Europe!

I hope I’ve learned something. I hope that next time I’ll be ready to ask for help a little sooner.

How about you? Don’t be like this guy.

Try a new habit.

Ask for help.

You may be amazed at what happens when you do.

Photo attribution: Flickr user marinadelcastell

If you want passion and engagement, don’t lecture or test

love of the sea_17456817331_f99805ce3c_h
Magical events change peoples’ lives. Great events foster passion by providing well-designed opportunities for significant engagement with peers. For passion and engagement, you need a tribe—be it two or a hundred other people—with whom you relate and connect while you’re together at the event, and, hopefully, afterwards too.

For passion and engagement to be possible, what should we avoid?

“If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t test them, you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.”
—Seth Godin, “Will this be on the test?”

Hmm…don’t test, or lecture, or force people to do what they really don’t want to do.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, seventy years ago:

“Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Citadel”, 1948, translated from the French

Photo attribution: Flickr user 98810885@N07

Two ways to take a hard look at conference evaluations

evaluationSeth Godin wrote a great blog post about survey questions—and applying two of his insights will make any conference evaluation better.

First, ask yourself the following about every question you ask:

Are you asking questions capable of making change happen?
After the survey is over, can you say to the bosses, “83% of our customer base agrees with answer A, which means we should change our policy on this issue.”

It feels like it’s cheap to add one more question, easy to make the question a bit banal, simple to cover one more issue. But, if the answers aren’t going to make a difference internally, what is the question for?
—Seth Godin

In other words, if any question you ask doesn’t have the potential to lead you to change anything, leave it out!)

Second, think about Seth’s sobering experience on responding to “Any other comments?” style questions:

Here’s a simple test I do, something that has never once led to action: In the last question of a sloppy, census-style customer service survey, when they ask, “anything else?” I put my name and phone number and ask them to call me. They haven’t, never once, not in more than fifty brand experiences.

Gulp. Would your evaluation process fare any better? As Seth concludes:

If you’re not going to read the answers and take action, why are you asking?

Design conferences for a connection economy

Useful knowledge increasingly resides in our social networks, not in our individual heads. Consequently, we are moving from an industrial economy to a connection economy: one which creates value by concentrating on building relationships rather than stuff.

In the connection economy, there’s a dividing line between two kinds of projects: those that exist to create connections, and those that don’t.
—Seth Godin, First, connect

Are your conferences designed for a connection economy or an industrial economy?

Photo attribution: Flickr user ch-weidinger

Measurable work—it’s a trap!

It's a trap!
If you are a “professional”, doing measurable work can be harmful to your future.

For over a hundred years, management has been obsessed with measuring what workers do. The rationale was to improve efficiency, and cut out the dead wood. Until quite recently, this affected mainly factory workers. White-collar workers were relatively safe.

Not any more.

Computers have allowed scientific management principles to be applied to an ever-increasing number of professions. The result?

“What’s the close rate, the change in user satisfaction, the clickthroughs, the likes?

You can see where this is heading, and it’s heading there fast:

You will either be seen as a cog, or as a linchpin. You will either be measured in a relentless race to the bottom of the cost barrel, or encouraged in a supportive race to doing work that matters, that only you can do in your unique way.

It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?”
—Seth Godin, Scientific Management 2.0

I’ve written elsewhere about why measurable outcomes aren’t always a good thing, and my skepticism that ROI can be measured in social media.

Nevertheless, Seth’s last sentence is worth repeating.

It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?

Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible 8477081649_e951df1931_oIf you know your mission — you do have a mission, right? — then your long-term strategy becomes much clearer. You know where you want to go; now, all that remains is how to get there.

Of course, life is rarely that simple.

There’s always that must-do-now stuff that gets in the way. As Seth Godin puts it:

“This interim strategy, the notion that ideals and principles are for later, but right now, all the focus and resources have to be put into the emergency of getting successful—it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because it’s always the interim. It never seems like the right time to stop doing what worked and start doing what we said was important.”
—Seth Godin, The interim strategy

How can we stay focused on our mission when there’s always something demanding our attention right now? There are four core steps:

  1. Notice what’s going on. (“A week has gone by, and I’ve spent fifteen minutes, tops, working on my mission.”) Sometimes this is the hardest step. We can’t change when we are unaware or avoiding the changes we really need/want to make.
  2. Make a plan. End/delegate/deprioritize the short term stuff that’s getting in the way. Set goals for your mission-related work.
  3. Carry out your plan. Sometimes this is the hardest step.
  4. Steps 1-3 aren’t a one-time process. Loop ’em. Keep noticing, making new plans, and acting on them. That’s how you’ll grow and, potentially, succeed in your mission.

As Seth concludes his aforementioned post: “The interim is forever, so perhaps it makes sense to make act in the interim as we expect to act in the long haul.”

And remember this.

If you remain continually immersed in interim work, executing your Mission becomes Impossible.

Photo attribution: Flickr user taylor-mcbride