We must get more from conferences

Unusually, I have been to several conferences over the past few weeks. They were all well-organised with interesting speakers on very relevant topics; but I have to say I was left wanting. They were mostly run on traditional - speaker speaks, audience listens - lines; and I just think that, especially now, we should be getting more. Here's a shot at explaining why and how... Nowadays I hear much of the need for organisations to become collaborative, innovative, agile and suchlike; and I hear that achieving these things will depend much on transformation of culture and behaviour; but I can't see how this will happen if, at significant gatherings, we do the same old things and behave in the same old ways. That so many undoubtedly smart folks spend entire days at events sitting and listening but contributing so little feels, well... a bit daft. We should, as much as is feasible, get away from the model of conferences that is about transferring knowledge from those who know to those who don't and, instead, use the valuable time at these events to generate new knowledge and grow genuine community.  We must make conferences, events, meetings, workshops, gatherings of all kinds much more participative; and accept, if we really want to change how our organisations and institutions work, that this new approach is no optional extra.

There is a body of good practice emerging and, in particular, I like the ideas behind 'unconferences' that aim to turn the traditional conference on its head. Although I haven't called them unconferences, I guess I have run quite a few. On Friday, I was glad of the opportune reminder in this posting - A bit of structure for your unconference by Steph Gray - and also the discussion of the post which took me to Conferences that work by Adrian Segar (both of) whose ideas are excellent.

To bait discussion - and in an unashamedly cobbled-together sort of way - here are some of the things that could be "un" about conferences. See what you think...

Un-welcoming Welcoming folks at events is traditionally done at a registration desk invariably by very nice (but busy) people. Perhaps an organiser, when not handling last minute issues, stands by and grabs a few words with arrivals. Mostly folks are then left to absorb themselves with their phones, read the conference bumpf, find people they know or perhaps start a conversation with someone they don't. But we can do more...

We could make it someone's sole task to connect with people when they arrive: like a host at a drinks party. Get them to talk. Pour tea. Make introductions. Enable folks to break into groups. Oil the social wheels.  Most of us are quite able to do this for ourselves, but when someone is there to help, we just feel so much better. It changes the dynamic; we are more likely to feel part of what is happening, better engaged and more relaxed.

So: be more Un-welcoming. If you see what I mean.

Un-naming At most events we get badges; usually with our names and organisations on. Now that. Is dull. Most conversations start on the topic of one or more words on the badge. In my case: "Ah you work for the excellent and well renowned consultancy Foden Grealy: I was so impressed by your..." or (admittedly more likely) "I've never heard of Foden Grealy, are you important?" or, given my name is Foden, "Have you ever designed a lorry?".  Of course it's useful to have first names on badges (in big letters), but putting other things on them is a great way to start different conversations:

  • A picture: "Why did you choose a picture of a Buffy-tufted Marmoset?"
  • A colour: "Love the cerise: did you choose it to go with your eyes?"
  • A topic: "Ah you are interested in training? Do you know that I have seen every Class 55 diesel locomotive built by English Electric..."
  • Or any number of other (more sensible?) ideas.

Un-naming could create memorable exchanges and interesting conversations. People might get more.

Un-seating Now an admission. (Off stage - sounds of hobby horse being saddled.) I absolutely hate theatre-style rows of chairs in meeting rooms. This layout blares authoritarian I-talk-you-listen-ism and, if we are trying to promote interaction and collaboration in our organisations, it sends the wrong message. There are loads of other options...

  • Circles with speakers in the middle.
  • Horseshoes of half a dozen chairs so folks can interact with each other and see the screen at the front.
  • Higgle-piggle strewing: this will create conversations if nothing else.
  • No chairs at all. What would that be like?

Of course, if we lay the chairs out in a different way there has to be a reason for it.  Perhaps, in the case of the horseshoes, to run mini-syndicate sessions after talks. And there's no doubt that running things in a more participative way places a greater demand on facilitators; but so does managing nowadays: we just have to learn...

Update: see Sitting people on chairs in rows at meetings is a criminal waste.

Un-chairing ...which brings me to the role of the Chair.  Usually the main job of conference chairs is introduce the speakers.  Turn this on its head: make the main job of the chair to introduce everyone (to each other). The starts with the Un-welcoming and extends into organising activities that create interaction between the attendees. Make the job a genuine facilitation role.

Un-speaking Traditionally, conferences depend on expert speakers. But how about having un-speakers? Instead of getting speakers to speak to everyone, conference-style, why not get smallish groups to interview the speakers, prepare a presentation on the un-speakers topic and give it to everyone. To turn things really around, maybe get the un-speakers to ask the questions at the end. And clap.

Un-questions Questions are fundamental to the traditional conference but are usually little more than a hat-tip to participation.  And (more horse noises) I don't go for the practice of collecting up questions in batches, which, whilst it may give the speakers thinking time, disjoints terribly.  There are all sorts of other options...

  • Fix it so people ask the questions they have of the others around them (in small groups) rather than of the speakers. In a room of 50 people maybe 20 get to ask questions and perhaps even have a rich discussion about them. This has got to be better than just three (bold) people getting their questions answered by the speakers... with little genuine discussion? Speakers could perhaps be invited to floor-walk and join in on one or two of the groups. If attendees feel short changed, there's always email.
  • If that feels too radical, how about asking for questions at the beginning. Puts the speakers under pressure but creates much more context for what they have to say.

Un-breaks Coffee and lunch breaks are a key part of conferences too...

"I've been sitting on my bottom for 90 minutes. I've only been hearing one sentence in five for the last hour and I'm desperate for something to wake me up. Not only that, I've got so much coiled up opinion ready to be unsprung, God help anyone I meet in the coffee queue."

Perhaps there are other ways?

  • Make it OK for folks to take a break whenever they want. If half of the audience walks out whilst a dull speaker is rabbiting on; so be it. Much more effective than a low score on a feedback sheet arriving days after the event.
  • If attendees are working to produce something; why not work over coffee? And lunch?
  • Perhaps organise (compulsory) unicycle training over lunchtime.

Un-presentations This is about Powerpoint. There's plenty of wisdom about how to use Powerpoint effectively and also plenty of evidence that, in many circumstances, it's better not to use it at all.

  • Tell speakers that the projector is bust.
  • If they offer to bring their own tell them they can't have slides with words on.
  • If they argue, insist they limit themselves to 25 words in the entire presentation.
  • If they continue to persist, consider whether it's worth having them speak at all.

I am going over the top; but you do know what I mean?

Un-facilitating I have been banging on about how important facilitation is, but here is a situation where it isn't...

I have been to quite a few events (including un-conferences) where folks have been broken into discussion groups, each with a facilitator to promote discussions; but in a lot of circumstances, I think it's better to give a group a task rather than a facilitator.  The task can be anything - and ideally should be created by the group - but it should come with the mind-focusing incentive of having to make a presentation back to the whole group. Usually folks get themselves organised and it's better if they do. If they don't: heigh ho.

Most people feel they have got more if they do more.

And I could go on: un-agendas, un-dinners, un-papers, un-writeups...

So why aren't we doing more of this kind of thing?  Traditional formats are easy to organise and run; everyone knows the form; and they are safe. On the other hand more-participative events take careful thought, need good facilitation and (this is probably the crucial bit) are perhaps perceived as risky. I wouldn't advocate running a 200-person participative conference with no experience; but you can start with 20-person ones and work up. Or you can get someone to help. Start now.

Have I lost my marbles?