Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love is featured in this reprint of the first half of Kelsey Ogletree‘s article How We Learn: Books That Changed Meetings, published in the January/February 2014 issue of CONNECT.
In an era of ultraportable tablets, smartphones, glasses and even watches connecting us to the Internet, Google can find the answer to all of your big questions in .0001 seconds. For our gotta-have-it-now culture, knowledge is instantaneous and everywhere, because we demand it. But there’s still something to be said for books, especially when it comes to thought leadership. The shelf for meeting planning help books isn’t a crowded one, as the industry is still relatively young. But within the collection, there are three authors who stand out: Adrian Segar with “Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love”; Paul O. Radde, Ph.D., with “Seating Matters”; and Marcia Conner, an outside expert who found her way into the meetings and events space with “Creating a Learning Culture: Strategy, Technology and Practice,” among others. The ideas that each book offered up have fundamentally changed the way planners approach meetings, as well as sparked conversations that shake up centuries-old ways of thinking about how we learn.
Starting out as an academic, Adrian Segar went to a lot of conferences. “I hated them,” he says. “They were very little about learning and more about broadcasting information, and also status.” When he moved on to owning a manufacturing company and also working in IT, he began organizing conferences around those topics because he wanted to get together with people who were in his field. “I started a conference where there were no experts,” Segar says.
“Ninety percent of what we learn today
is not in the classroom but from our
peers or from ourselves.” —Adrian Segar
“All you needed was a collection of adults that had something in common that they wanted to learn about together.” After about 15 years of putting on these peer-learning conferences (“totally as an amateur, not as my day job,” he says), he decided to write a book about it. And what that effort amounted to was Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love which focuses on a way of doing events that turn into what the attendees, not necessarily the planner, want them to be.
“In the pure form of the event, people come together with a common interest,” says Segar. “The first half-day of the event, you learn about who else is there, why they came, what they want to learn, what problems they have, what they want to discuss, and what expertise and experience people have. People always have expertise that other people want to know. Those people end up running the sessions, because people want to learn that.” A smaller group then takes that information and turns it into a schedule for the remainder of the conference, which is now optimized for what the people there really want to discuss.
Most people are cautious about this less-formal, on-the-spot format. But the key is to create a safe environment so participants feel comfortable. Segar advises planners to help people move slowly into a participatory environment so they gradually realize the value of it. “About 1 in 50 people do not like this style of event once they’ve actually been exposed to it,” says Segar “But the other 98 percent prefer it. If you try to make everyone happy, you’ll never do anything different.”
In Conferences That Work, Segar explains the main reason that traditional conferences no longer facilitate quality learning: The rise of easily available information online has been the game-changer. “Up to about 20 years ago, it was true that most of what you needed to do your job was learned in the classroom,” he says. “Traditional meetings were an extension of that and were a very good fit. People knew things we didn’t, and we could go listen to them. But that is no longer true. What has been called ‘social learning’ is now the dominant way we learn what we need to know to do our jobs.”
Segar cites “The Teaching Firm: Where Productive Work and Learning Converge,” a study published by Education Development Center, to prove his point. According to the study, 70 percent of what people need to know comes from experiential learning. About 20 percent is self-directed learning; if you need to know something, you look it up. The final 10 percent is classroom-style learning.
“These are rough figures and depend on the industry, but 90 percent of what we learn today is not in the classroom but from our peers or from ourselves,” Segar says. “Meetings need to match how we learn these days. People often say, ‘the best learning was in the hallway.’ What we need to do is bring that learning into sessions and make it the core part of the event.”
When planning a Conferences That Work-style meeting, Segar says planners have to measure success in a different way, by looking past the attendance figure. “Social learning does not work with 1,000 people in a room; you can’t learn from 1,000 people simultaneously,” he says. “But you can learn a tremendous amount in a day from 50 people. These conferences may be small by traditional standards, but success is measured by feedback from attendees.”
Since his first book came out, Segar has surprised himself and decided to write another. This one will focus on participative learning and specific techniques that planners can employ at their own events to involve people in learning. One such technique is body voting or human spectrograms. “It’s having people get up out of their chairs and show their opinion on a particular topic by where they’re standing in a room,” he explains. “It’s a way of physically replicating what happens with audience-response systems. With clickers, the information is confidential. But it’s interesting to learn more about who thinks what. In 45 seconds, you can get a visual picture of the feeling in a room about a particular topic.”
What we’ve known for many years, Segar emphasizes, is that experiential learning is far more effective in creating long-lasting, accurate, more valuable ideas than passive learning. “Learning is about taking risks, to some degree,” says Segar. “You don’t learn anything new if you don’t stretch yourself in some way.”