Helping conference attendees satisfy their curiosity

“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”
Linus Pauling

Three questions

When I was a graduate student I used to dislike going to academic conferences. Despite having won a senior scholarship to Oxford University I was scared of walking into a room of people I didn’t know and trying to start up conversations. When I sat next to random folks at lunch and we talked, I always had the sneaking suspicion that there were probably other people present at the conference whose company I’d enjoy even more—but I had no way to figure out who they might be.

We are curious about other people, especially if we know that we share a common interest. And every culture has its own conventions for meeting and learning about strangers. Unfortunately, in a conference setting these conventions limit the number of people we can meet. For example, in my experience even an extreme extrovert will find it difficult to meet a majority of the people at a 100-attendee two-day conference.

So in the 80’s, when I began to have opportunities to design my own conference formats, I knew that I wanted to include the opportunity for participants to learn about each other, right at the beginning of the event.

Over the years, this desire shaped the first Conferences That Work session: the roundtable. The core of every roundtable is the time when each attendee in turn answers the following three questions to a large group (usually, everyone else who is attending the conference).

“How did I get here?”
“What do I want to have happen?”
“What experience do I have that others might find useful?”

How these questions are explained to attendees is described in detail in my book. There are no wrong answers to the three questions, and attendees can answer them by publicly sharing as little or as much as they wish. What I find wonderful about roundtable sharing is how the atmosphere invariably changes as people speak; from a subdued nervousness about talking in front of strangers to an intimacy that grows as people start to hear about topics that engage them, discover kindred spirits, and learn of unique experiences and expertise available from their peers. When sharing is over, both a sense of comfort and excitement prevail: comfort arising from the knowledge attendees have of their commonalities with others, and excitement at the thought that they now have the rest of the conference to explore the connections and possibilities that the roundtable has introduced.

Switching the responsibility for initial introductions from attendees to the conference model bypasses normal social conventions – replacing them with a safe place for people to share about themselves to others. This simple conference process gives attendees the openings they need to further satisfy their curiosity about their peers. It works amazingly well.

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