Blog > “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

January 23, 2012

I’m in a foreign country, working with my client, to prepare for a two-day facilitated event with 150 or so people from multiple countries and organisations. While many things are familiar, I’m very conscious that I’m not at home. I received an email from the Australian Government alerting me to some imminent dangers, someone tried to snatch my shopping, and I’m hearing lots of people speaking languages I don’t know. It’s not uncomfortable per se, just a little bit unnerving.

Which is probably how many people feel coming into an event, a workshop or a conference. It’s why people often demand a detailed agenda – a sort of safety net – to be assured that they have some sense of what’s going to happen. So if it’s assurance and safety and a sense of well-being that people want, maybe we can provide that without the traditional agenda?

I’m not a fan of detailed agendas. I think they provide a false sense of security, the illusion that someone is in control and knows what is going to happen from moment to moment. The best workshops and events are emergent, building on what comes from the previous sessions rather than a sausage machine that churns out some pre-determined outcome – or in the worst cases, seats people in rows for hour upon hour while they are force fed information, with little or no interactive and engagement.

Yet it is still important to give people coming to this unusual, out-of-the ordinary event some sense of what’s going to happen and how they are expected to show up. I’m often called in too late to have impact on how this is done, yet there are still some ways of creating a welcoming and sense of comfort with a dash of curiosity and surprise.

Pre-event logistics: Anyone who travels a lot knows how useful it is to have information about the country you are travelling to, it’s entry requirements, how to get from the airport to the venue, what the climate is like, the local customs, where to change money, what to watch out for etc.

Welcome Pack: When checking in to the venue it’s nice to receive (or if the hotel is really good, find in your room) an individualised welcome pack that includes some up-to-date information about timings, where to go for breakfast and dinner, a map of the venue, a local map, and a treat – a sweet or chocolate. This signals that the organisers know you are coming, and that, well, you’re welcome!

Active Hosting: I learnt this from my friend Anne Pattillo who is a master at active hosting. I’m not so good, but I’m learning to do it in short bursts and to recruit others to help. It’s making sure people are greeted when they enter the workshop or conference space. It’s obvious, but it confirms they are in the right place and helps them navigate the space.

When I travel in foreign airports, I often lose the ability to read signs. I know, it’s weird. I put it down to a combination of tiredness, tinged with anxiety. Sometimes it’s not even that. The signs might be ambiguous or misleading. So I’m always looking for someone to ask. There’s something so much more personal about someone explaining where to go, compared with standing bewildered wondering what to do next. We should try and avoid people feeling this way at conferences.

Identity, Connection, Action: I learnt this from my other friend Antony Williams (seems I’m always learning from my friends). This is a nice little reminder about what people need when they enter a group for the first time: they want to be recognised first as an individual (name tags and individualised materials help); then they want to find out who else they know in the room and to connect, and who they might like to know, and connect in some way; and finally they like to move into some action that is relevant to the reason why they have come together.


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