How do we build conference programs that attendees actually want and need? Since 1992 I’ve experimented with multiple methods to ensure that every session is relevant and valuable. Here’s what happened when I incorporated dot voting into a recent two-day association peer conference.
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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.
Every peer conference has an arc that includes and integrates three elements: a beginning, middle (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.
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…
…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.
Yes you do!
“Game makers find inspiration at Lost Levels, an intimate and involving gathering where anything seems possible”
—Laura Hudson, The radical games event where the next speaker is you
The Lost Levels four-hour gaming unconference incorporates these agreements:
- Make space for others!
- Watch out for blocking views
- Be an active listener
- (and indirectly) Be amazing!
Don’t feel you need to use the Lost Levels agreements at your event. You should tailor ground rules (aka agreements or covenants) to fit meeting needs. But there’s something to be said for incorporating Lost Levels’ agreements into your events.
Image attribution: Laura Hudson, boingboing
Sometimes, good intentions pave the road to hell.
A conversation I dread
CONFERENCE ORGANIZER: “Hey, Adrian, we’re incorporating participant-led sessions into our conference this year!”
ADRIAN: “That’s great! What are you going to do?”
CONFERENCE ORGANIZER: “Well, some program committee members are skeptical that this format will work, so we’re going to add an unconference track that people can attend if interested.”
ADRIAN: Nooooooo! Don’t do that!
I’ve had more than one conversation like this. Here’s why adding an unconference track to a conventional conference program is a big mistake. (Probably, the biggest unconference mistake you can make.)
Why you shouldn’t add an unconference track to a traditional conference
Consider these three points:
- To date, relatively few people have experienced a unconference session (one shaped on the spot by the needs, experience, and expertise of the people present);
- Lecture-style formats comprise the vast majority of people’s formal learning experiences. So, if you haven’t previously experienced an unconference session you’re probably skeptical that it’ll be useful to you; and
- We are creatures of habit, and most of us are cautious about trying something new.
When you combine these observations, the unfortunate outcome is that very few people will attend an unconference track. Most attendees will stick to the conventional and “safe” concurrent sessions on pre-announced topics.
I was a skeptic myself when I started using participant-led formats back in 1992. A number of years passed before I stopped worrying whether this new-fangled way of running events would work for the next group I tried it with. It turns out that when a participant-led session or sessions are the only conference activities going on, people dive in and nearly everyone likes what occurs. But when you give people a choice between what’s familiar and what’s not, all but the bravest take the safer path.
I’ve made the unconference track mistake. I’ve stood in a room set for three hundred attendees and had thirty show up, while four other concurrent sessions siphoned off 1,400 people. Yes, those thirty participants had an amazing time. But the overall perception of the vast majority who didn’t attend (and the conference organizers) was that participant-led formats were “not really wanted” and could be safely ignored.
Don’t make this mistake!
So how do we avoid making this mistake? Make participant-led sessions plenaries or simultaneous breakouts. You certainly don’t have to make unconference sessions 100% of your conference, but there should be no other type of conference activity going on at the same time.
There will probably always be conference organizers who are skeptical that participant-led sessions can work. A compromise may appear to be the way to keep such people happy, but it will invariably create a self-fulfilling prophecy; the “experimental” track will be poorly attended and the skeptics will say, “I told you so”.
We all get tripped up from time to time by the unintended consequences of our good intentions. When planning to add participant-led sessions to your next event, resist the alluring compromise of an unconference track. Instead, dedicate a morning, afternoon, day, or days to well-designed participant-led sessions. Then you’ll see just how well these still-novel but increasingly popular formats can work.
Want to discover the experts at your conference?
“It’s been clear from the beginning of the Web that it gives us access to experts on topics we never even thought of. As the Web has become more social, and as conversations have become scaled up, these crazy-smart experts are no longer nestling at home. They’re showing up like genies summoned by the incantation of particular words. We see this at Twitter, Reddit, and other sites with large populations and open-circle conversations. This is a great thing, especially if the conversational space is engineered to give prominence to the contributions of drive-by experts. We want to take advantage of the fact that if enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert.”
—David Weinberger, Globalization of local experience
This is exactly why the Conferences That Work format works so well. Peer conferences allow participants to discover the conference experts in (what was formerly known as) the “audience” they want to meet, connect with, and learn from. Instead of restricting teachers to the few folks at the front of the room, peer conferences allow us to tap the experience and expertise of anyone that’s present.
In other words, Conferences That Work extend the effectiveness of the online conversations that David describes above to face-to-face meetings.
Photo attribution: Flickr user jannem