Five Reasons to Change Conferences

Here’s my article Five Reasons to Change Conferences, published in the December 2018, NSA Speaker magazine.Five Reasons to Change Conferences

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Five Reasons to Change Conferences

Peer sessions provide greater connection around content

The most important reason people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members and no connection around lecture content. Here are five reasons why.

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Six reasons to change our conferences

In my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons why the meetings industry must change conference formats to stay relevant to today’s attendees.

Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time they’ve been summarized in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.

Enjoy!

Sessions provide no connection around content
Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.

At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.

Lectures are a terrible way to learn
We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.

Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything we’ve been told. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.

The rise of online
Most broadcast content is now readily available online. Expert content is available anywhere with an internet connection, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!

Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom
Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.

Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.

Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share
Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!

Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs
Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning, and you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.

Conclusion
All of these themes are explored in detail in my first two books. To get the full story, buy ’em!

Use pair share to quickly improve your conference sessions

psIn less than three minutes, you can improve almost any conference session with pair share. The technique is simple: after pairing up participants and providing a short period for individual thinking about an appropriate topic, each pair member takes a minute in turn to share their thoughts with their partner. (More details can be found in Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation.)

Pair share is not the same as conversation, because pair share gives each person an exclusive minute of active sharing and a minute of pure listening. This balance rarely occurs during conversation, because typically:

  • One party speaks more than another, and;
  • Whoever isn’t speaking is often not fully listening to what is being said because they’re thinking about something they want to say themselves.

Pair share improves conference sessions by:

  • Resetting every participant’s brain to a state of active engagement;
  • Providing structured opportunities for participants to share expertise and experience with their partner, and (if built into the subsequent session design) with others in the room; and
  • Modeling and supporting social learning during the session.

For pair share to work effectively:

  • Each assigned topic must be central to the session’s purpose;
  • If the session is presenter-content heavy, hold a pair share roughly every ten minutes to explore and consolidate participant learning; and
  • Design the session to build on relevant expertise and experience uncovered by each pair-share.

I also like to incorporate a closing pair-share where partners each share three takeaways they’ve acquired during the session. I’ve found that when I use this in a session design like the fishbowl sandwich, participants inevitably stay around deep in conversation after the session is officially over. (That always looks and feels good!)

Finally it’s worth mentioning that pair share can be used as a tool for introductions. Invite everyone to pair up with someone they don’t know and have each person take a minute to introduce themselves to their partner.

Pair share is quick, simple, versatile, and effective. Use it!

How do you use pair share? Share with everyone in the comments below!

What’s the best learning model for conference sessions?

digging_4025946850_211dc931b9_b
We don’t usually think about the learning models we employ during conference sessions, and I believe our events would be better if we did. Conventional conferences assume a ready supply of experts to whom we listen while they cover the learning that has been advertised at their sessions. Here’s how Jeff Hurt describes this approach, which he calls surface learning, contrasting it with deep learning where attendees discover through exploratory activity:

Content Covered Or Discovered
“In surface learning, the session reflects the knowledge and skills of the speaker. Knowledge is considered a thing that can be deposited into the minds of the listener. The attendee consumes as much as the speaker says as possible and tries to store it in the mind. The speaker covers as much as they can as fast as they can.

In deep learning, attendees explore challenging questions, dilemmas and problems using new and past knowledge. A focus is put on the attendee testing ideas, correcting them as needed and opening up to new perspectives. Attendees spend time discovering and investigating.”
—Jeff Hurt, We Must Stop Promoting Conference Fast-Track, Artificial, Butt-In-Seat, Surface Learning

As explained in my books, we know that the active learning that occurs through attendee discovery is indeed more effective than the learning that may result from sharing information with passive listeners. More is learned, more is retained, and overall retention is more accurate. So I agree with Jeff that discovered learning trumps covered learning. But from whom do we discover this learning?

Even when we incorporate active learning into a conference session, invariably the assumption remains that we are learning about content provided exclusively by a speaker or presenter. What we are discovering is limited to the content he or she can provide.

While this approach is far better than the pour-information-into-their-minds model, I think it can almost always be improved. Unless the room is full of novices — attendees who know nothing about a session topic — using process during the session that uncovers knowledge and resources in the room opens up the quantity and quality of learning that’s possible.

I know this to be true from my own experience. When I’ve led a conference session using process that supports and encourages participants to contribute their own expertise and experience, I’ve always learnt something new! Extending our resources for active learning to the entire room uncovers relevant and useful knowledge from everyone present. Active learning then becomes social learning, reflecting today’s reality that knowledge is a social construct, no longer something residing in an individual head. When we incorporate social learning into our events we all benefit because, as David Weinberger says: “The smartest person in the room is the room.

Let’s summarize the three learning models I’ve described.

  • Covered learning is an outdated, inferior learning model.
  • Discovered learning is an improvement, because we are actively involving attendees in the learning process, though the focus is just one person’s content.
  • Uncovered learning further improves discovered learning by increasing the resources for active learning to include the expertise and experience available in the entire room. If a presenter or facilitator knows how to effectively uncover learning, they will be using the best learning model available.

To successfully implement uncovered learning, we need to use process that, as Weinberger puts it: “improves expertise by exposing weaknesses, introducing new viewpoints, and pushing ideas into accessible form.” Such process is the focus of the peer conference designs and associated participation techniques that I’ve been developing and writing about here and in my books. Studying how to facilitate this process and then adopting it is perhaps the most effective way you can improve the learning at your events.

Quotes from David Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous, Times Books, 2007

Image attribution: Flickr user chiotsrun

The advantages of supporting connection during meeting sessions

In 2011 I ran a two and a half hour participative techniques workshop on the last afternoon of a four-day conference. After we ended, a participating supplier came up to me and told me that he had made many more useful connections in that one workshop than during the 3 days preceding it.

I believe that the great majority of people hunger for connection with others. Without it, our lives suffer. Indeed, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, his sobering opus on social change in America, states that about half the observed decline in life satisfaction among adult Americans over the last 50 years “is associated with declines in social capital: lower marriage rates and decreasing connectedness to friends and community.” And the sociologist James House tells us that “the magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.”

And yet, when we hold a conference in our culture—an occasion when we bring together people with a common interest in a subject—we give low priority to the potential for connection with our fellow conferees. Our sessions are mostly broadcast, with little or no opportunity for attendees to connect with each other. This is so even though we have an ideal requisite for directly enjoying each other’s company—sharing a common interest!

The need for connection with others is becoming increasingly important as we move to a world where people’s knowledge and expertise are a function of the networks—both face-to-face and online—they possess rather than the contents of their heads. If in our work lives we are spending more time learning socially than being trained in the classroom, our meetings must provide the same relative opportunities.

Traditional conferences leave connection time to the breaks, meals, and socials. This is why so many people report that hallway conversations during breaks are the best parts of such meetings. When sessions fail to meet our connection needs, we connect outside the official schedule. The broadcast design of most meeting sessions relegates connection with peers to an afterthought, as something you’re supposed to do on your own. And this is not easy. Even if you somehow know exactly the new people and old friends you want to meet, arranging to do so is hard enough without also competing with loud dance music, fixed meal seating, and lunchtime entertainment or talks. And if you expect to readily meet the most interesting people (to you) at such events by chance from a crowd of hundreds or even thousands, then you have not been to many conferences.

Our consistent demotion of connection to second-class status must be reversed if meetings are to effectively support the social learning that’s now essential for performing our jobs well. We need to provide opportunities for participants to connect and share in the sessions themselves. This doesn’t mean turning sessions into speed-dating or adding irritating “icebreakers.” Instead, it means taking advantage of:

  • Improvements in learning that result from actively engaging with others around content rather than listening to it or watching it.
  • The rich and extensive knowledge and experience of participants in the room.
  • Increased opportunities to meet like-minded peers via discussion of session content, ideas, and questions.

Active learning increases the quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning is inextricably entangled with connection; you can’t really learn from your peers without simultaneously learning about them. Because making connections is a powerful and important motivation for attending events, providing appropriate opportunities to connect during sessions is attractive, smoothing the way for the active learning that follows.

Connecting with peers during a session allows participants to access expertise and experience beyond what an expert at the front of the room can provide. Using participative techniques that uncover and develop useful connections to those with relevant knowledge, participants can discover and take full advantage of the collective wisdom in the room.

Image attribution: recode.net

Why presenters need to incorporate audience engagement

Small groups meeting at edACCESS 2011

“…it isn’t our schools that are failing: it is our theory of learning that is failing.”
— Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, authors of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

An inconvenient truth
Think back on all the conference presentations you’ve attended. How much of what happened there do you remember?

Be honest now. I’m not going to check.

Nearly all the people to whom I’ve asked this question reply, in effect, “not much”. This is depressing news for speakers in general, and me in particular as, since the publication of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, I have been receiving an increasing number of requests to speak at conferences.

When I ask about the most memorable presentations, people (after adjusting for the reality that memories fade as time passes) tend to mention sessions where there was a lot of interaction with the presenter and/or amidst the audience: in other words, sessions where they weren’t passive attendees but actively participated.

Take a moment to see whether that’s your experience too.

Social learning
Conference sessions that are designed to facilitate engagement between rather than broadcast content provide wonderful opportunities for social learning: the learning that occurs through connection, engagement, and conversations with our peers.

Social learning is important, and here’s why, courtesy of Harold Jarche:

There are additional reasons why supporting social learning during conference sessions makes a lot of sense:

  • Active participants almost always learn and retain learning better than passive attendees.
  • Participants meet and learn about each other, rather than sitting next to strangers who remain strangers during a session.
  • Participants influence the content and structure of the session towards what it is they want to learn, which is often different from what a presenter expects.
  • Being active during a session increases engagement, creating better learning outcomes.
  • Actively participating during a session is generally a lot more fun!

A mission for conference presenters
Conferences provide an ideal venue for social learning; they are potentially the purest form of social learning network because we are brought together face-to-face with our peers. And yet most conference sessions, invariably promoted as the heart of every conference, squander this opportunity by clinging to the old presenter-as-broadcaster-of-wisdom model.

Of course, there are conference sessions that routinely include significant participation. Amusingly, they have a special name so they won’t be confused with “regular” conference sessions: workshops!

In my opinion, every conference session longer than a few minutes should include significant participation that supports and encourages engagement. If you’re a conference presenter, make this part of your mission—to improve your effectiveness by incorporating participation techniques into your presentations. Your audiences will thank you!

An opportunity to learn how to add participation techniques into your presentations
I’ll be leading a three hour workshop on how to add participative techniques into your presentations at the Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress, July 23-26, Orlando, Florida. Transform your sessions with these participation techniques is limited to eighty participants. Check out the introductory video. I’d love to see you there!

Are you a conference presenter? How much do you incorporate participation techniques into your presentations? Please share your ideas here!

 

Tip for sharing new ideas at conferences

New solutions form 2

Here’s a simple way to turn insights from individual conference attendees into a shared resource that can be used by everyone.  Create a form like the one illustrated above, and make multiple copies easily available at all sessions (place them on tables, have a stack by the room entrances etc.) At the start of the event, encourage attendees to use the forms to write down best practices, tips, and ideas sparked during sessions, explaining that all contributions will be compiled and shared with everyone after the conference. Provide boxes for attendees to post completed forms. Once the conference is over, promptly summarize the ideas shared and post the resulting document on the conference website or other conference community.

Thanks to the organizers of the MGMA PEER conference, where I first saw this idea in action.

How you can learn from personal stories

storyteller -maxpower- 4513002300_81ba70ab6f_bAfter I met Glenn Thayer on a warm Colorado evening a couple of months ago, I kept remembering a story that he told me about a celebrity charity event he was emceeing. This puzzled me, because the story had no obvious connection to my life or work.

Recently, I began to understand why his yarn kept popping into my head. I’ll post about Glenn’s story another time, but today I’ll write about how to learn from stories like Glenn’s.

Every day, the people in your life tell you personal stories. They might be a family anecdote, a play-by-play reenactment of last night’s game, a tale of frustration at work, or a child’s outpouring about an incident on the school playground: a unique stream of the tragic, the lighthearted, the passionate, and the mundane. Most of these stories pour through your consciousness, hover there for moments, and are gone. A few resonate in some mysterious way and stay with you for years. All of them influence you. And some of them can teach you valuable lessons—if you pay attention to them.

How can you learn from personal stories? Some, of course, have straightforward learning implications. For example, a relative’s harrowing tale of a ruined vacation due to last minute illness may encourage us to take out travel insurance, or a friend’s clear description of diagnosing a car problem may illuminate what a timing belt is and does. And here are some more, often poignant examples of learning from stories.

But what about stories that teach us important lessons in subtler ways? Sometimes we hear stories that touch us, but we don’t really know why. What can we learn when this happens?

If you are interested in exploring what you can learn from such stories, here are the three steps you must take. They may seem strange suggestions, but I vouch for their effectiveness if you are prepared to do the work.

Notice the important story
Unfortunately, there’s no universal metric that can tell us whether a particular story can teach us something that matters, because every story is contextually unique and each of us has unique lessons to learn. So, if you hear so many stories, how do you know which ones are important?

There isn’t a rational way to notice important stories. Instead, you need to cultivate your emotional intelligence, or, if you prefer the term, your intuition.

Important stories affect you at an emotional level. You live in a world that pays lip service to the rational, but, unless you’re a sociopath, you have emotional responses to your life experiences. The trick to noticing that a story is important to you is to detect that you have responded emotionally in a surprising way. An important story evokes an emotional response, and if that response does not make sense to you, there is gold you can mine from it. Glenn’s Colorado story brought up an emotional response that I didn’t understand. Noticing was all I needed to proceed to the next step.

Capture the story
Perhaps it’s my age, but I find that if I don’t capture the essence of the story so I can recall the details, the tale I’ve heard disappears, like smoke, from my memory within a day, never to reappear. So I carry around 3 x 5 cards to jot down stories and ideas I have. (I’ve also started using Simplenote on my iPad for the same purpose.) When I heard Glenn’s story, I wrote “Do you have a handler?” on a card, which was enough for me to remember his story until I got home and added the phrase plus a few notes to a file I keep of potential topics for blog posts. Now the heart of his story was captured in a place where I would see it weekly whenever I was thinking about a blogging topic.

Tease out the meaning
Teasing out the meaning of an important story is a creative exercise. When I came across Glenn’s story in my blog post pile last week, I decided to spend some time musing about it. I’ve found that the two best ways for me to go into a creative place involve either:

  • Performing mindless physical activity, like stacking wood, going for a walk, washing dishes, or taking a shower.
  • Listening to loud music that I like.

while daydreaming about the topic in question.

Your methods for stimulating your creative juices are probably different. When you’re ready, find a time and place when you won’t be interrupted and apply them. Here are some tips for making the most of your creative exploration of the story:

  • Relax, don’t have any preconceptions about what might happen—watch and listen to whatever drifts through your mind.
  • Don’t censor thoughts and images that come up, just make note of them. I like to have a pen and paper available to record what comes up.
  • Concentrate on the non-rational; you can unleash your analytical powers once your daydreaming phase is over.
  • Don’t expect to unlock all the secrets of the important story in one session. You may want to return to it in a few days to see what’s jelled, what seems important, and what now feels superficial.

I’ve learned some important things about myself and my life by examining stories that have power for me. I hope the techniques I’ve described are useful for you too.

How do you make sense of important personal stories you’ve heard? Do you have examples you’d like to share?

Image attribution: Flickr user maxpower