The Seven “Shoulds” of Conference Organization


In the past couple of years I have done quite a bit of speaking at various events and conferences large and small. Pulling off a successful event is akin to cooking an award winning meal.

Time and time again the conferences we remember and return to are those that manage to create a context that is conducive to making connections, those that build a bridge between attendees and speakers with creativity, and through collaboration.

It's not an out of the box recipe

For years I organized events, in many cases working with cross functional teams and volunteers. The most satisfying event were by far customer conferences — I helped organize three major ones in Dublin (Ireland), Bermuda, and Edinburgh (Scotland), shaping the program, selecting and inviting speakers and connecting the dots during and after the event.

It takes a lot of planning and of adapting. The event doesn't run itself while it's happening, it takes some coaching and live facilitating and brokering to loosen up some of the rules enough to allow participants to make it theirs.

Over the years, I also enjoyed developing conversation formats for hundreds of professionals who had the ability to attend 100+ free events. These took various forms. From intense discussions to book launches, fireside chats, and behind the scenes conversations with CEOs and presidents of companies large and small.

Many became opportunities to test ideas and business models — for example, we tested a new PDA ordering system by having the event in a restaurant.

Which is the reason why I know how striking the balance for a productive and memorable experience is not magic. It's done on purpose.

Prized organizers have all the ingredients every organizer has. In some cases, they even have more constraints — like no or little budget and fewer sponsors and volunteers. Yet, like famous chefs, they manage to produce fabulous results.

What's the difference?

As I was thinking about a way to help conference organizers move from good to great, I kept going back to great directors and their ability to create a wow experience for diverse audiences and a vehicle for artists to give their best on stage or on camera.

So here are seven shoulds — seven beliefs that stand at the root of how groups process information and live experiences (in the US), regardless of their level of skill and knowledge. My argument is based on the framework developed by the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis who uncovered the 7 cultural assumptions that drive American choice.

As Jamie O'Boyle and Dr. Margaret King have written, Americans share the unconscious assumption that the base unit of American culture is the individual, not the family, clan, tribe, or nation. Which means we are not by and large building a tribe for the members — we are building it for the individual person or brand. Big difference.

How do you choreograph that group experience when you're starting from individualism?

7 shoulds of conference organization

(1.) Determining your own destiny — the belief that individuals should determine their own destiny needs to be interpreted. Indeed, how people choose to approach an experience is self-driven. However, to provide the richest environment for attendees and speakers to connect, this experience needs to be carefully choreographed. Which means that both groups have a loosely scripted role to prepare for and play. This will reset expectations.

(2.) Control over social and physical environment — by attempting to provide control to individuals, organizers are spending less time exploring group experiences, which is where the richness often resides. A group knowledge flow approach involves a counter intuitive move. That of having fewer, smaller, and more intimate spaces to congregate in. More cafe'-like than big convention. 

(3.) Authority or “bigness” should be viewed with suspicion — this continues to perpetuate the scarcity mindness cycle. And by virtue of that, it forces the belief that the answers reside outside attendees and only some speakers have them. A conference should be fertile ground for exploration and dialogue among all with some in a facilitating role, and not a popularity contest.

(4.) Actions should be judged in a moral light — and I'm not talking just about philanthropy or ethics, although they are both very valid considerations. Walking the talk is a marvelous test when in a group situation where culturally the outcome for the group is rarely considered. A better leadership format is validating the group's vision and helping support it.

(5.) You should have as many choices as possible (not) — you have so many answers available today and fewer good questions. Learning is with the questions, especially as a group experience. There are two factors that put the experience at risk here: a) analysis paralysis at a personal level and herd response as a result; b) which leads to individual conformity that looks like choice. Does the director give you a choice when she makes a movie?

(6.) Anything can and should be improved– "this is the way we've always organized our conference" is not a good enough reason to keep going through a broken process that has not kept up with the times and how people absorb information and participate in the knowledge flow.

(7.) The present should be lived and experienced fully — before we go ahead and look for the future to hold all answers. And we know already it's about the questions. As William Isaacs wrote, so far the digital revolution is giving us connection but not contact… one simple touch of a human hand could far exceed all the impact of all the digital libraries in the land.

What real time learning means

Real time learning doesn't mean using Twitter and Facebook to comment on sessions, speakers, and the program. For all the points outlined above, real time learning means formatting the conversation in a way that is conducive to drawing out and harnessing the collective knowledge and experience in the room and using the dialogue to move to a new place — together.

I'd love to be part of that conference, and we have been on our way there several times in the past. It's a format that requires a different mindset and personal availability to become a true member of the group. Conference organizers and volunteers have an opportunity to create this kind of experience with participants.

How is your identity being shaped by derivative values (I'm cool because I'm attending this conference) vs. reflective values (this conference is cool because I'm attending it)? Answer that question in the privacy of your mind, and you'll know what kinds of events you'll continue to have…

[image by DannyMcL

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0 responses to “The Seven “Shoulds” of Conference Organization”

  1. Love this, Valeria: “Real time learning means formatting the conversation in a way that is conducive to drawing out and harnessing the collective knowledge and experience in the room and using the dialogue to move to a new place — together.” Got me thinking about a few events I’ll be producing in 2011 already …

  2. And you should have kickin WiFi, a clearly displayed password throughout the venue, a good networking area and most importantly… available outlets!

  3. I think you’re on to something. Wouldn’t it be great if conferences create more conditions & sessions where people can interact? And how about this value: My life is cooler because I’ve had some aha’s and made some real connections. I think that’s really what people go to any event for.

  4. @Arik – can’t wait to hear what you’re up to. With your smarts and connections, we’re in for good conversations.
    @Jon – the outlets should be *in* the sessions and not int he hallways. People want to be in the rooms…
    @Kat – there are more than two options of either speaking or tweeting 😉 Outcomes welcome any day. Good thinking.

  5. Really thoughtful writeup, Valeria. Several of your points raise one of my biggest beefs with conferences — they don’t do enough to harness the collective wisdom of the crowds.
    There’s always this vibe that all the brains are on stage and the rest are just lucky to be there and bask in their brilliance. When in fact, the collective wisdom and experience in the audience usually dwarfs even the most overloaded panels.
    But how can event planners make the most of that? It’s going to take a lot of creativity and experimentation to figure that out, but the event planners who make the effort are going to discover something pretty incredible.

  6. So good, I broke out the notebook and took notes analog-style. 🙂
    I’ve been thinking about organizing a conference-type event in 2011, so this is very timely food for thought (as usual). Small groups and “expert” facilitators, getting together face to face to raise the bar together. Mutual empowerment.
    Rather than convince people they’re part of the herd, I’d like to try instilling a desire to *lead* the herd. Like Mark said, it only takes a few…

  7. This is auspicious.
    It speaks to our patience for all the wrong things in life.
    We listen patiently for an hour or more to boring and uninspired presentations(answers).
    But watch as someone rises to ask a question that takes a little longer to explain or is not that articilate, and the udience becomes impatient and sometime hostile.
    We and the conference industry has become captured by a not so subtle dynamic ( an operating system) that unconciously or not makes it incredibly hard for anything unexpexted, real, authentic, human to happen. What are we scared of?
    “one simple touch of a human hand could far exceed all the impact of all the digital libraries in the land.”
    Indeed and does.

  8. @David – we could start with room configuration. Some sessions should be circles, others discussions on a thesis or paper that takes a position with distribution of copies of the paper (best not to try to do that by PowerPoint, which is just a delivery mechanism). Open space is where most of the interesting stuff happens…
    @Brian – I’m so glad to be helpful to you. You have given much to this community and many others. Let me know how it goes. And try a couple of different formats.
    @JDEbberly – which is why the hallways are usually filled with animated conversations.
    @Peter – yes, the “you are keeping me from something/making me late” syndrome. I think about it as cars zoom by me in my morning run. Good question, what would happen if we blew up the current operating system and built something different? The parties afterward are an impossible venue to speak and connect, so there is no escape from the cycle. I tend to book dinners, breakfasts, lunches whatever is available, to meet with people for as long as it takes.

  9. I am very interesting in the process behind the organization of successful conferences and I find this article very interesting.
    I have been writing about the progressive end of real-time conversations due to all the asynchronous alternatives we all have and prefer more and more, and I believe conferences are one of the last and most effective example of effective real time conversations everyone should try out as much as possible.

  10. Great thoughts. Certainly timely as we’re 30 days out of our user conference and starting to plan for 2011 – and reviewing feedback from attendees. Love the following two points:
    The present should be lived and experienced fully — before we go ahead and look for the future to hold all answers.
    real time learning means formatting the conversation in a way that is conducive to drawing out and harnessing the collective knowledge and experience in the room and using the dialogue to move to a new place — together.
    These are thoughts we’ll weave into our planning.

  11. @Gabriele – there is also a way to organize connections of live and online in real time. What’s funny is that Fast Company called its conferences “Real Time” ten years ago, and now we’re discovering the term 😉
    @Patrick – so much of the usefulness of a conference is grounded in what people do in the moment. Yet, somehow, so much time is spent planning the conference while attending. The second point is near and dear to my heart. It can be done with some thoughtful planning. I was glad your other speaker was in my session, for example. Had the room been a bit wider, we might have gotten into the conversation earlier and involved more people. I did it more that way at IABC this past week and it seemed to get everyone’s juices going.

  12. To help imagine/do something different I use a “head body feet” flick book technology:
    Divide each page of a blank note book into three. Cut along the two middle lines.
    On each page of the top part write a different operating system – socratic, fish bowl, open space, interview, debate, breakfast etc etc ( ask an event co-ordinator how many they can list)
    On each middle page write a different content theme.
    On the the bottom of each page describe a different physical space – board room, lunch room, museum foyer, art gallery, street corner, island, river boat, graveyard (or how to arrange the chairs – circle, lined up, no chairs, table in and table out).
    Flip, experiment, have a little courage, watch and create a one off experience.
    It works surprisingly well (if your measure is long term influence). But, if you use the current measures of conference success you’ll be terribly dissapointed).
    Curiously, in terms of meeting outcomes I find the determing factors in terms of lasting consequences are operating system, then space and then by a long way content. Sure content gets them in the door but the magic is in the combination of space/operating system and the personal stories/experience/agendas that walk in.
    Thanks for reminding me of my fast Company days.

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