Anyone who's ever attended, spoken at, or organized an event or a major conference knows this—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 the context that is conducive to making as many connections happen as possible. Building a bridge between attendees and speakers, helping people engage with the expo or trade show floor, and with each other and the topics.
It's not an out of the box recipe
Anyone who has organized events knows we work with cross functional teams and volunteers. Some of the most satisfying event are customer conferences—many organizations in technology call them user group events. They're great ways to get to know customers and prospects better, get them to know us and what is coming up in the product pipeline as well.
Say the event is in another city or country, like Dublin (Ireland), Bermuda, or Edinburgh (Scotland). Do we include bits that bring the city in or the attendees out into it to complete the experience? We may think of shaping the program, selecting, and inviting speakers, but how do we connect the dots during and after the event?
It takes some forethought and planning to create and event—but also a healthy dose of adapting once the event is underway. Because the event doesn't run itself while it's happening, it takes some live facilitating and doing to help participants to make it theirs and have the best experience possible.
Best experience depends on goals—some people come for the topics, to learn more about something, and probably to network with peers:
- an explicit want—keep in touch with how the industry talks about xyz topic, find a company that does xyz because I'm working on something in the next week plus (very likely), or month (still top of mind), or quarter (a stretch), or year (congratulations, you're a visionary entrepreneur!), meet or see xyz person
- a less obvious, yet still important, need—learn about xyz as a piece of a larger puzzle,or stay relevant in industry or job, find a company that does xyz as a likely partner, meet xyz kind of person to partner with in the near future or longer term
The first reason is easier to deliver on. The less obvious reason, when present, takes a little more doing. Because it's a hope—that the time and energy to attend the event or conference will pay off beyond the explicit goals. Which is where making the environment as conducive to interaction as possible will nudge luck closer to opportunity.
There are many different even formats, keynotes with themed tracks are the most popular and easier to scale. But conversation formats work well, when the moderator is engaged with the topic and the producer cast the characters well.
Other kinds of formats support specific goals—from intense discussions about a problem, to book launches and get to know the author, to the intimacy of fireside chats where the audience is part protagonist, and behind the scenes conversations with C-level executives at their company or business.
Some formats became opportunities to test ideas and business models—for example, we tested a new PDA ordering system by having the event in a restaurant.
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?
Great conference organizers do the same job as great directors, with their ability to create a wow experience for diverse audiences on one hand, and providing the vehicle for artists to give their best on stage or on camera on the other.
Experience is also rooted in culture. American audiences are generally bored watching French or Italian movies due to the character-driven plot, where a lot of the action is the inner dialogue with some representation in actual conversation and the hero being the character that tried most.
Making the effort to get better doesn't score too many points in the U.S. where sports get measured inch by inch. Based on working with companies like Disney and Sea World learning how groups process information and live experiences, the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis says there 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.
This argument is based on the framework developed by the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis and their seven cultural assumptions that drive American choice. According to Jamie O'Boyle and Dr. Margaret King, Americans share the unconscious assumption that the base unit of American culture is the individual, not the family, clan, tribe, or nation.
Which means when we're creating experiences, we're we are addressing the needs of the individual person or brand. Big difference. This is where many who are used to build for European or Asian markets get a little confused. But the good news is that we now have the tools to help people tell us the level of engagement they want to have with an event.
Given smartphones and tablets, that the technology has caught up by being in everyone's pocket, how do we choreograph the conversation part on top of it? How do we make a group experience when the starting point is individualism?
Thought starters based on culture as the leavening ingredient.
Seven shoulds of conference experience
(1.) Determining our own destiny
The belief that individuals should determine their own destiny needs interpretation. How people choose to approach an experience is a guessing game because it's self-driven. However, to provide the richest environment for attendees and speakers to connect, we can choreograph the stage on which it happens.
Both groups could have a loosely scripted role to prepare for ahead of the event. This will reset expectations on how to play based on individual goals.
(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 nooks around convention halls, less narrow paths to and from content areas. Venues like hotels are a challenge.
Noting where and how people congregate and flow at events, despite the physical settings can help find a more suitable venue.
(3.) Authority or “bigness” should be viewed with suspicion
This continues to perpetuate the scarcity mindset cycle. And by virtue of that, it forces the belief that the answers reside outside attendees and only some of the speakers, like keynotes, 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
This is not about philanthropy or ethics, though they are both 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)
Two factors put the experience at risk here
a./ analysis-paralysis at the personal level with herd response as a result;
b./ which leads to individual conformity looking like personal choice.
Does the director give us a choice when she makes the 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.
More better questions rather than pat answers in the themes. Learning through questioning at the individual level and as a group experience are good ideas to try.
(7.) The present should be lived and experienced fully
Be here and now before we go ahead and look for the future to hold all answers. We know already discovery happens through asking good 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. Taking a hint from culture, and combining it with our social nature, 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.
Community managers know facilitation and connection are essential to productive dialogue. Because they know communities evolve at a faster pace than businesses; and so do standards or commonly accepted practices and behaviors. See also how simple rules evolve in communities.
If asked, we'd likely say that the kind of conference we'd like to attend is built to create personal access and opportunity in addition to knowledge sharing. To achieve this format we requires a different mindset and personal accountability to make the live experience work for the people who shows up.
Conference organizers and volunteers have an opportunity to create this kind of live experience.
What kinds of events do we want?
Which camp are we in on the question about identity that follows? Is our identity shaped by derivative values (I'm cool because I'm attending this conference) or reflective values (this conference is cool because I'm attending it)?
Answer the question in the privacy of your mind, and you'll know what kinds of events we'll continue to have...