What is the purpose of a conference?

October 26th, 2015

IMG_2451“The best part of the conference are the breaks. I put up with all of the other stuff so as I can catch up with friends, and meet new people, during the breaks.”

I’ve heard variations of this over the years. I’ve even said it myself, though these days I’m less likely to spend the time and money, and ‘put up’ with the other stuff. I’ve attended, presented at and even organised different sorts of conferences from the tightly-controlled academic versions to experimental-type formats.

Asking people why they are not going to a conference – particularly if it is their annual ‘industry/professional’ conference, can be quite interesting. I’ve had this conversation with a few people recently and (recognising that this is not a legitimate survey and analysis, just some random thoughts) there’s a common theme emerging. It boils down to this: we want conferences to be radical, to challenge and to stretch us. We’re less likely to be interested in the conferences that reinforce existing practices and maintains the status quo.

And therein lies the problem – it’s risky, and if the (unexpressed) purpose of a conference is to get bums on seats and make money, then it’s better to give people what they expect, to not be too edgy.

This, of course, has been a dilemma felt by artists and performers forever. Continue to give audiences what has proven to work, or mix it up and take a risk with offending, or worse, alienating people? This is the challenge for performers – whether in the arts or in business or elsewhere – is around being liked. Everyone wants to be liked, everyone wants good reviews, awesome feedback, five stars – yet in the effort to achieve this, and please everyone, we do this by not taking chances.

Time, I think, to reclaim conferences as spaces for experimentation and discovery.

Bringing a festival mindset to conferences

March 26th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt seems that conferences are as popular as ever. Yet many of them are stuck in some kind of conference void, wherever any innovation or creativity is talked about rather than enacted. Why do gamification / improvisation / creativity conferences and events, mostly, not use the principles they espouse for others in their own event design?

As I  sat in a crowded room recently listening to John Hagel  talk for about 45 minutes about the Power of Pull followed by a question and answer session, I pondered what an event designed around pull would look like. It seemed to me that a talk, as good as it might be, followed by Q and A, is a push model.

People are still flocking to conferences, to talks, to celebrity chef presentations, to book readings, to Do Lectures, to The School of Life, and TED talks. We are hungry, but for what? Ideas, engagement, connection, a good old-fashioned chin wag? I suspect we want this, and more.

White Night MelbourneThe other growth area is festivals. Opportunities to have a shared experience. White Night festivals, Burning Man, music festivals, Mardi Gras, street parties, comedy festivals, Improv Everywhere and all manner of flash mobs.

You don’t need me to tell you the difference between conferences and festivals.

We want more than ideas – we want adventure, experiences, to challenge and be challenged, and to act on our own ideas, as well as others’.

What would an event that combined the best of both look like?


But what would you do instead?

February 19th, 2014

That hoary (yes, I like to use archaic words sometimes, it sets the scene for the post I’m writing) old saying (and yes, I know hoary and old mean the same thing and so this is a tautology – it’s about emphasis) , “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is often used as an excuse to not change something. When it comes to meetings, workshops, conferences the saying might as well be “If it is broke, don’t fix it.”

I guess whether something is broken or not is a matter of opinion.  I’ve noticed that many people want to do something different but don’t know what or how. These are some approaches that I think are definitely past their use-by date, and some suggestions on alternatives.

Breaking into small groups, doing some task, then coming back to a plenary session and reporting back. Argghhhh…(and yes, there have been times when, against my best judgment, I’ve agreed to this. It’s usually when I’ve been worn down and lost the will to live. And if that wasn’t quite true before reporting back, it certainly is afterwards!)

This comes from school. The teacher has a responsibility to check the work done by her students, and it’s a good thing to learn to be able to stand up in front of a group and speak. Workshops are not school. What’s that? The reporting back allows everyone in the group to hear what the other groups have done. There might be something really important. What do you notice about your own reactions when in this type of session? Depending on the circumstances there may be no value to any reporting back at all. Ask yourself why is there a need for reporting back? How will it benefit the group? How will it benefit the reason the group is meeting? Johnnie has written about the perils of the plenary here.

Instead – send someone from each group to ‘spy’ on the other groups and bring back their ideas; pass one group’s work onto another group to ‘peer review’; post on the wall and do a ‘gallery walk’; ask each group to provide a headline only on the most important thing that emerged; do nothing, and follow up with a break; ask each person to write down on a card one thing that emerged from the small group work that’s relevant to <insert topic> then do another process like 35 or Cardstorming or Survival of the Fittest.

If it’s a big event, consider using Playback Theatre as a plenary session – improvised retelling of moments and insights from the event. I’ll guarantee this will be more memorable than anything else you come up with.

Guest speaker followed by Q and A. What could possibly be wrong with this? Anyone who has sat in an audience will know what’s wrong with this. Let’s assume the guest speaker is great. Let’s assume there’s enough time for Q and A (I know, BIG assumptions). You know what happens next – statements posed as questions, the speaker get’s into a one-on-one argument about some detail, you never get to ask your question, you’d love to ask a question but what if it’s stupid and you end up just looking foolish? I could go on. I’m more interested in the alternatives.

Instead – use Poll Everywhere or something similar. Geoff Brown wrote about it here. While the speaker is speaking you can text your questions as they occur to you. They all come into a single web page where someone familiar with the topic can quickly scan them, see what themes are emerging and identify a few questions to ask the presenter, AND the presenter is emailed all the questions and asked to respond. This can then be sent to everyone present. A great way to get a range of questions, and answers, or new areas to be investigated if there’s no answers – and it’s all recorded for secondary analysis if that’s your thing. Make those highly-paid presenters work for their fee!

If the group is smaller, ask people to write comments and questions on cards or stickies, collect these, do a quick affinity grouping and then get the speaker to respond.

Capturing everything. The whole event is recorded. Does anyone ever do anything with those recordings? Someone is responsible for taking notes aka minutes. Who said what, and when. Every bit of paper that’s written on is collected and written into a report. “We’d better keep this, just in case.” Just in case of what? Rarely is it necessary to capture everything. Just because it’s possible to capture everything doesn’t mean we need to.

Instead – plan in advance how you want to share what happened with those who were not present, and allocate some time in the process to synthesising. For example, engage an illustrator or cartoonist to capture key moments – someone like Simon Kneebone can really capture the essence of an event. Some people specialise in graphic facilitation. One of the best around is Lynne Cazaly. Capture pictures, video, sound bites, do a Storify with tweets, encourage blog posts.

Sitting people at round cabaret tables. Arrrgggggghhhhh….I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because people keep doing it – the most recent reason was because it ‘looks more professional’), get rid of the tables! Those big round cabaret tables are good for, oh, maybe cabarets. They’re not conducive to conversation.

Instead – have chairs that people can easily move into a conversational setting, or stack at the side of the room for activities, or arrange for a World Cafe conversation, or an un-conference process like Open Space or Trampoline.

We’ve always done it this way. Yep. That’s probably the biggest barrier to any change. Someone has to make a decision to do something differently. Yes, that involves some risk. Yes, that means you’ll be vulnerable.

Instead – don’t go it alone. Find others in your organisation willing to share the risk with you. Find collaborators from outside who can bring in new ideas. You can start with anyone I’ve mentioned in this post. Good luck.


Don’t lecture me!

November 19th, 2013

This is worth watching again – and again, and every single time you think that standing up in front of a group of people and talking at them will ‘educate’ them about something . It won’t. It never did. It never will. Visit Donald Clark’s website for lots more to back up his arguments.

What does work? Repeated practice over time. Let me repeat. What helps people learn something, anything, is repeated practice over time.

Are we finally letting go of content overload?

November 7th, 2013

Warning: a bit ranty, but ultimately hopeful

Doesn’t really matter how you wrap it up, we’ve been content junkies – we’ll say process and design are important, we’ll acknowledge the value of relationships, we’ll nod when someone says we need more conversations – and immediately do the opposite. We’ll sit people in rows, we’ll get engaging, inspiring and interesting people (if we’re lucky) to talk at them, and pat ourselves on the back for creating such an awesome event. We know it’s awesome because people came, and they told us so. And we perpetuate this approach by colluding with it, agreeing to be be force-fed information, because it’s prettily packaged or delivered in an unusual location. We’ll complain of content overload, roll our eyes at yet another crap powerpoint presentation, and justify our support of such events because of the opportunity to meet and talk with others in the breaks and during the social events.

I say ‘we’ because I have done all of this. I have gobbled up content in the hope that it will help me forget that I’m a hypocrit, or to help me forget that I’m not contributing, or in the hope that somewhere amongst all of this content I’ll find something affirming and nourishing. I’ll gobble up all this content because I’m trapped by the Tyranny of the Explicit and the fear that I don’t know enough.

I look at all the events and conferences on offer, and wonder what’s wrong with me for not wanting to go along with everybody else who seem perfectly happy with the ‘sage on the stage’, for not wanting to be the ‘sage on the stage’.

Here’s three examples that give me hope that we have finally quenched our content thirst and are willing to step into different ways of engaging face-to-face with each other. They are still the exception. We’ll continue creating, and going to, events that are crammed full of content under the delusion that it’s value for money, and in between, we’ll find gems like these that show us there are indeed alternatives. Onward!

1. The Reading Weekend
Here’s how this works (as described to me by Rob Poynton) You get together a bunch of people, and each person brings a book they haven’t yet read (I suspect it doesn’t matter what sort of book it is, but maybe there were guidelines – I either didn’t ask the question or can’t remember that detail) for the weekend. You find some amazing person or place that can provide meals, and choose a venue where people can disperse and be alone. Between meals you read your book, at meals you have conversations. That’s it. “Read between meals, talk over meals.” So simple. You don’t have to talk about your book, but I suppose that inevitably you do. And who knows what magic is woven over that simple process of reading and conversing?

2. Deceler8 Me
This was explained to me by Dr Froth, who has just returned from such an event. It’s designed for entrepeneurs and is the opposite of the accelerator, time to slow down, no internet, located on an island with no cars, small enough that you can walk around it, and the environment itself slows you down. I imagine this would give you space to, well, reconnect, refocus and learn – just as the organisers propose.

3. Trampoline Day Unconference
I love that people have taken Open Space, mashed it up and made it their own. The premis is to bring something to share that you find amazing – you can do this any way you like. There are 30-minute slots that are filled at the beginning of each block by people standing up and pitching their topic. They are allocated a time and a place on the grid and then people go where their feet take them. The Law of Two Feet applies, and it’s a great way of networking and finding out what others are doing. Thirty minutes is long enough to get into a topic and short enough to avoid getting into trouble! For me it’s like an interactive resume: here I am, this is what I do, come interact with me. Personally, it suits me a whole lot better than the traditional networking event where there are endless status games to talk to the ‘right’ people etc.

No doubt there are many more examples – I’d love to hear about them.

Perspective and the echo chamber

September 28th, 2012

There was a moment last week at the Applied Improvisation Network Conference where I felt particularly despondent.

We’d been listening to people talk about what they are doing in taking improvisation skills and practices out of the theatre and into the world. We’d heard of using improv to treat post-traumatic stress in war veterans, in training firefighters, for teaching language skills in Thailand. And more. Amazing work by amazing people.

I felt I had nothing to offer. It’s all being done, and done much better than I could ever hope to do it. Instead of being inspired, I found myself feeling dejected.

Later in the day I was sitting in the sun talking to my friend Eric Nepom, an amazingly talented scientist, educator and improviser, and passionate about finding ways to bring improv and science together. This is a passion we share so we were doing some evil planning on how we might make that happen.

It was then that perspective kicked in. I’d been sitting with about 200 people passionate about the value of improv in all walks of life. There’s a lot more people out there in the world who know nothing (yet) about the potential of improv. And there’s so much that needs to be done in the world, that there’s space enough for all of us. The shift in my perspective came from a shift in my circumstances, going from being part of a roomful of people receiving information, to a picnic table outdoors and a rich one-on-one conversation.

I realised I’d fallen into the old trap of being in an echo chamber – hearing only the voices saying the same thing – and taking a scarcity view of the world. The scarcity view is fed by competitiveness and a belief that there’s only so much to go round, so you’d better get in quick or be the best at something to get some of the action. The abundance view – that there’s more need than is being met and space for everyone to bring their unique talents, skills and perspectives to change the world – is far more hopeful and nourishing.


Collecting insights

September 26th, 2012

There was a lot happening at the Applied Improvisation Network Conference in San Francisco. As well as the pre-planned sessions, and the open space offerings, the one-on-one and small group conversations, and the serendipitous moments, there was the Twitter and Facebook back channel, photos being posted on Flickr, videos being made, drawings made, and people blogging. I tried to capture a small slice of the whole conference using Storify. It was the perfect opportunity for me to try this platform for myself. You can see for yourself here.

There’s more to an event than logistics and registrations

July 23rd, 2012

Designing, organising, structuring, promoting, facilitating, and hosting a conference has provided me with a few insights that I’d like to share – just in case you find yourself in a similar situation. Here’s a few random thoughts.

There are so many considerations around a venue – location, facilitates, cost, public transport, parking, helpful staff, flexibility, vibe, atmosphere, spaces to just sit and chat, access to outdoors, access to good coffee, a bar. Putting the time in to finding the right venue is well worth it. The Amora Riverwalk in Richmond ticked all these boxes.

Most people will forgive almost anything if the food is awesome. Especially if it includes freshly-baked, crispy and gooey Portuguese tarts!

By all means start with how events are usually structured, then play with it. What if you replaced the pre-conference workshops with longer in-conference workshops? What if you found an alternative to a conference dinner? Question every assumption you’ve ever had about events. You may still want to include something that’s been a tradition, and you will have thought it through rather than blindly following said tradition.

The experience
What experience do you want people to have? What memories will they carry forward? How can you make the event eventful?

Personal Invitation
If there’s people you really want to come to the event, send them a personal invitation. Even high profile people might say yes, and the worst they’ll do is ignore you.

One less thing
This from Open Space – what’s one less thing you can do? At AIN Downunder: Thriving In Uncertainty we had concurrent workshops. We didn’t ask people to sign up in advance, or on the day – we simply invited them to go where they wanted. It worked fine. Given the opportunity, people will self organise.

If you’re hosting, then you’re the host from inception to beyond
Be a real person, be known, be seen, be heard, be helpful. It’s good to have one person as a focus, go-to person. There might be others behind the scenes helping. I don’t think people want to correspond with an organising committee or whatever, they want personal contact. It means a lot of work. Organising an event IS a lot of work.

Have an easy-to navigate web site
Doesn’t need to be fancy, after all, it only has a limited lifespan. I use WordPress themes and create web sites myself, keeping it simple and with lots of information that people might want.

Use an on-line registration outfit
There’s a few of these around. I use Eventbrite. It’s easy to set up, automated, and they have the BEST help desk I have ever come across. No kidding.

Social media
Communicating through Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc is an integral part of communicating an event these days. Do it, or find someone who can help you.

Have a logo
This comes in handy for all sorts of things. For AIN Downunder I used fiverr. Best $5 I ever spent.

Know your limitations
Book-keeping stresses me and makes me grumpy. I can do it, but I don’t want to, nor do I like it, so I find someone who does like it who can help. Be realistic about what you want to do and don’t want to do, and find others to do the things you don’t want to do.

Ditch the committee
Helpers are fantastic. Committees suck. Have one or two people making the decisions – have others providing ideas. Listem, learn, question and then decide. And accept offers of help!

Does it serve the event?
This from Geoff Brown and the Airey’s Inlet Music Festival. They have a mantra: “Does it serve the music?” If not, they don’t do it/include it. It’s easy for events to become diluted, trying to be all things to all people. A small, well focused event can change the world, as much (if not more) than a ginormous mega-event.

PS: All endorsements are because I like the products/services.

Capturing the essence of improv

July 22nd, 2012

This is a fantastic summary of highlights and insights from AIN Downunder: Thriving In Uncertainty from April Seymore.

Why do you go to conferences?

June 10th, 2012

What does the word ‘conference’ conjure in your mind? The man sitting next to me on the couch is a scientist, so his view of conferences and mine vary enormously. As a facilitator, I get to attend many different types of events, and experience the different ways in which people interact. I also attend events as a participant, sometimes as an organiser, sometimes as a workshop leader, and facilitator, and occasionally as a keynote speaker.

Some of these events are called conferences, a word that seems to now to mean all things to all people – from the traditional academic conference with refereed and pre-prepared papers and posters through to the more recent trend in un-conferences, participant-led content and delivery. A conference then is not one thing. A common question on looking at conferences to attend or contribute to is ‘what type of conference is this?’

The ‘type’ of conference makes all the difference.

The latest trend is TED-talk type conferences – not only are there fully sanctioned TED conferences and TEDx conferences, organisers are providing opportunities for TED-type talks for all or part of the conference. And there’s conferences offering breakout sessions, master classes, deep conversations, interactivity, hands-on workshops, panels, hypotheticals, drumming – you name it.

There’s also Open Space Technology, Trampoline, and Barcamp type conferences – all grouped under the term ‘unconference‘ where the emphasis is on the participants and the style encourages participant-led discussions and workshops.

And everything in-between!

These thoughts, and many more, are on my mind as I prepare to host a conference here in Melbourne called Thriving In Uncertainty. It’s much easier to attend a conference than host one. Yet there are also benefits to hosting – for me, it’s an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of what a conference can be, to explore new ways of being together as a group under the banner ‘conference’, and to build new connections.

It’s 12 months this weekend since I attended Gathering 11, hosted by David Hood. Only 12 months. Goodness, so much has changed since then. Little did I know that that three-day conference in Melbourne would lead to all sorts of new directions, new friends, and new opportunities. A sliding door moment? Maybe.

Gathering 11 would be hard to categorise, and it’s to David’s credit that he’s willing to continue pushing the boundaries for this year’s Gathering 12 (September 21 – 24).  Get there if you can! (Sadly, I have another commitment on the same dates in another continent – can’t expect the planets to align all the time!)

Gathering 11 was the beginning of my little experiment to Show Up. Let Go. Jump In. based on my belief that the best way to approach anything new is to first of all turn up, then let go of expectations, and jump in – become involved in some way.

And I’m also reminded again and again of the very wise principles from Open Space which fundamentally influences my approach to conferences: whoever comes are the right people; whatever happens is the only thing that could have; when it starts is the right time; and, when it’s over, it’s over.

These principles remind me that no matter how much organising and preparation we do, fundamentally we’re dealing with people – living, breathing human beings with all their varying needs, wants, expectations and idiosyncrasies. Trying to please everyone is impossible.

So I’ll work on giving them an experience they’ll remember and creating opportunities for meaningful connections.

What are you looking for in a conference?