How to make your workshop/meeting/conference middle-aged friendly

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At the wonderous Applied Improvisational Network 2015 World Conference (more posts coming soon!) I bumped into Doug Shaw, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa [not shown above; he is far better-looking] and he told me of an unpublished article he’d written on how to make conferences better for middle-aged people like him and me. Doug sent me a copy, I liked it, and he has given me permission to guest post it here…

Hello, my name is Doug. I went to my first conference in 1989. I was young then, and I believed in accessibility — everyone should be able to benefit from a conference. I never thought that one day I would be the one who was having problems benefiting. But yes, I became middle aged, and, well, I’m writing this article…

1) Memory

a. If there is a smallish group, quickly go around and say names. I’ve forgotten yours and I’m embarrassed.

b. Name tags are a boon. Actually I’ve forgotten lots of names.

2) Vision

a. Think about your font size on handouts. Less than 12 pt is cruel. 16 point? You are a mensch. My eyes are in constant flux — I’m not used to wearing reading glasses, sometimes I don’t have them, sometimes the prescription is out of date.

b. Dark text, light background. Blue on blue means you are a rotten human being.

c. I see better if there is strong light.

3) Hearing

a. If you aren’t able to speak so I can hear you, get a microphone. I hear better if there is no background noise, it is hard if there is. Hearing aids help if I can’t hear — but the problem is as you get old you still can hear, but you can’t filter out background noise as well.

4) Physicality

a. If part of your group participation involves standing up and sitting down… I can do that, but it hurts a bit. If you make me do it multiple times, I’m no longer going to be focusing on your points, I’m going to be anticipating/dreading having to stand up again.

b. I am fighting to change my diet, having lived 40 years eating badly. Go ahead and put out the cookies, but give me something else I can shove in my mouth, too.

5) Content

a. I’m not asking you to change a word of what you were going to say — but you should know that I’ve been to hundreds of these things, and I am a lot more cynical than I used to be. Clichés make me turn off to you. I know that people’s number one fear is not death, but public speaking. I know that the “jobs of tomorrow” are going to be different than the jobs of today. I know we need to go beyond our comfort zones, think out of the box, adapt to an increasingly global society, etc. Did you know that the phrase “comfort zone” is lazy and comfortable, the phrase “think out of the box” is totally in the box, and that the 21st century is 1/7 over?

b. Motivational speeches don’t motivate me. Not because I’m a curmudgeon, but because I’m already motivated. I come to these things because I want to, not because I feel I have to. It takes more effort now — it means leaving people behind. So I’m motivated. If you spend a half hour with speakers trying to motivate me, that’s a half hour I’m getting impatient waiting for what I actually came for to start. Oh — and I’ve probably seen better motivational speakers than you are supplying. My favorite motivation is, “Hi. Welcome. Now here is content you came to receive.”

6) Memory

a. If there is a smallish group, quickly go around and say names. I’ve forgotten yours and I’m embarrassed.

b. Name tags are a boon. Wait…did I cover this point already? Let me look at what I’ve written so far…where the hell did I put my glasses?

Photo attribution: Flickr user philippeleroyer

Inspiring conference attendees to take action

How do you inspire conference attendees to take action?

This question arose a few weeks ago when I was facilitating Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future, a conference addressing the challenges and opportunities of a more multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multicultural Vermont. Conferences that tackle wide-scope topics like multiculturalism or sustainable business practices are not going to come up with definitive comprehensive solutions to the countless problems discussed, and this can demoralize participants who are hungry for change or filled with a desire to “do something”.

One of the two Conferences That Work closing sessions, the personal introspective, gives attendees a chance to explore changes they may want to make in their life and work as a result of their experiences during the conference. To address the desire for big-picture change, we pointed out at the start of the introspective at Vermont Vision that many of the participants had influence in their professional life (state government, education, law enforcement, faith community, etc.) and we asked each person to focus on what they wanted to work on in their sphere of influence.

Having supported and emphasized the need for personal change during the introspective, we moved to the group spective, the final Conferences That Work session. I often start a group spective by using plus/delta to quickly evaluate a conference. For plus/delta, participants first publicly share their positive experiences of the conference (listed in the plus column of a flipchart or projected Google Doc).

When all positive comments have been aired, participants then list what they would like to see changed in the delta column. This simple technique provides a quick basis for participants to share experiences and move into a discussion about what the group wants to do next.

To transform plus/delta into a tool for action at Vermont Vision, I redefined the two columns as follows:

Plus ==> actions I/we want to work on

Delta ==> issues that concern me but that I don’t know how to address

This allowed us to move from the personal decisions made at the introspective into sharing, discussion, and support of initiatives to which individuals had committed (the plus column). The delta column then allowed us to explore other ideas and who might be able to work on them.

We were encouraged to find that the plus column was much longer than the delta column. Even though significant issues in the delta column remain to be tackled, participants came away from the session knowing that many concrete plans had been generated through our time together. Unlike the outcomes of many conferences that work on problems that seem overwhelming, participants left Vermont Vision feeling that we had built momentum around specific objectives that we had a realistic chance of achieving. Perhaps that why every single conference evaluation asked us to hold this first-time conference again next year!

How do you inspire conference attendees to take action? Share your thoughts!