Squaring the circle: creating room sets for connection


Meeting planners typically default to squaring the circle when specifying room sets. They persist in seating attendees in long straight lines whenever possible, ignoring the benefits of curved and circular seating at their events. (See Paul Radde’s Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements for more information.)

The architecture of assembly where curved theatre seating dominates, teaches us otherwise. And we all know that the most intimate and useful small group conversation and connection occurs around round tables. (Even though many of the rounds used at meetings are far too large.)

I’ve explained the importance of curved seating and large circle sets in detail in my book The Power of Participation (Chapter 13), so I won’t reiterate its value here. Instead, I’m going to answer a common dilemma faced by my clients: what to do when there isn’t enough room for large circle sets at a venue.

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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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How to crowdsource a conference program in real-time

Here’s a real-life example of how to crowdsource a conference program in real-time.

In May 2017 Liz Lathan, Tom Spano, and Nicole Osibodu invited me to design and facilitate the session crowdsourcing at the first Haute Dokimazo unconference in Austin, Texas. Eighty invited participants from around the U.S. spent a joyful and productive day at the Austin Children’s Museum’s Thinkery where we crowdsourced a program focusing on event portfolio needs and wants of brands and agencies.

Watch this three-minute video for a taste of the event — then read on to learn how we crowdsourced the program.

Pre-crowdsourcing work

Every peer conference has an arc that includes and integrates three elements: a beginningmiddle (the program itself), and end (reflecting, evaluating, and developing individual and group outcomes & next steps). The beginning is when crowdsourcing takes place. Before crowdsourcing it’s critical that participants get to learn about each other as much as possible in the time available. The best way I know to support initial inter-participant learning and connection is The Three Questions process I devised in 1995 (see my books for full details).

After quickly introducing and having the group commit to six agreements to follow at the event, we had forty-five minutes available for The Three Questions. To ensure each person had time to share, we split the participants into four equal sized groups. Facilitators, trained the previous evening, led each group.

Once group members had learned about each other, we reconvened to crowdsource the afternoon program.

How we crowdsourced the Haute Dokimazo program

Crowdsourcing took just 25 minutes. Participants used large colored Post-it™ notes to submit session topics. We used pink notes for offers to facilitate or lead a session, and other colors for wants, as explained in the diagram below.
crowdsource a conference program
We read the topics aloud as they came in. Once we had everyone’s responses, the participants left for their morning workshops. Meanwhile Liz Lathan and I moved the note collection to a quiet space, clustered them…
crowdsource a conference program
…and worked out what we were going to run, who would facilitate or lead each the session, and where it would be held.

The resulting sessions

During lunch we checked that the session leaders we’d chosen were willing and available for the schedule we’d created. Finally, we created a slide of the resulting sessions. We added it to the conference app, and projected the afternoon program on a screen during lunch.

This is just one way to crowdsource a conference program in real-time. Want a comprehensive resource on creating conference programs that become what your attendees actually want and need? My next book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need contains everything you need to know. Learn more, and be informed when it’s published in 2019.