Behold The Power of Events: Occupy Your World

It’s been 35 years now (yikes!), but I still remember being blown away after seeing a new movie called Network, where Howard Beale (an inspired Peter Finch) exhorted us all to go to the window, stick our heads out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  Here’s what he said: “I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street…all I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad!”  In the movie, his unscripted live TV rant inspired millions of viewers across the country to throw open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell!” out into the street.   It was a commentary on the power of the mass media to mobilize people to action.  Who knew that, a few decades later, social media would help produce the same kind of results?

Fast forward the DVR of your life to 2011. You see similar dramas playing out, no?  Only this time, it’s not fiction. First it was the historic events of the Arab Spring.  Then London got in on the act. Now it’s our turn in the US:  Occupy Wall Street.  Occupy LA.  Occupy Boston.  In case you missed it, last Wednesday it was Occupy Colleges Day.   I got a heads-up that morning from Elaine Young, a faculty colleague who is our resident social media expert, that a walk-out and rally had been scheduled for noon that day on the Champlain College campus here in Burlington, Vermont (as well as at 71 other colleges across the nation). As it happened, I was in class about an hour before that was to take place with a group of Event Management students, so I casually asked if any of them was planning on walking out.  Turns out only one of them had any clue what I was even talking about.  So I used it as an opportunity to talk about Occupy Wall Street and the wide variety of event offspring it was spawning.  There were a lot of unanswered questions.  We wondered about who the event planners were, what their objectives were, how they had managed to attract so many participants, whether anyone was really in charge of the “program”. We speculated about how they might define whether their event was successful—the ROI, to put it in current professional lingo.  What were they hoping to accomplish, exactly?

This reminds me of an editorial I read in the New York Times a couple of days ago about Occupy Wall Street. Here’s part of what it said:

“If you stopped by Zuccotti Park in New York and asked 10 protesters what their goals were for Occupy Wall Street, you might get 10 different answers…One protester said he and others were calling for “more economic justice, social justice — Jesus stuff — as far as feeding the poor, health care for the sick.” Another protester, a former Marine who was elected by Occupy Wall Street participants to speak for them, told NPR that he wanted to overthrow the government and reconstruct it.”  Now we have labor unions and other established interests joining forces with Occupy Wall Street, adding their own demands.  And that’s just New York—look at all of the variations in other cities around the country.   As the editorial points out, “This has led some reports to call the group unfocused, but that may be normal for an emerging movement.”  I’ve heard it suggested that the “We are the 99%” call is simply a way of establishing solidarity, a feeling of sharing a common purpose.  But at this point, the reality is that no one can say.  What we do know is that people are mad as hell.

Back to the classroom: after kicking it around for a bit, I got back to the business of talking about building an event budget, our topic for the day. Then–shortly before noon—all but three of my students stood up and walked out.  At first I felt a little insulted; after all, I’m busting my butt trying to offer them something of value here! Don’t they know this stuff is important to their futures?  But then I realized that they were motivated by honest curiosity, by the desire to find out what this event was all about.  And that’s really at the heart of education, in my opinion.  They were taking advantage of a unique opportunity to be part of something as it unfolded.  I still don’t know who organized that little event on our campus, although I did stop by the gathering in the courtyard about 20 minutes later (and yes, most of my students were still there–listening, absorbing, processing).    What I do know is that whoever initiated the event was successful at engaging a number of students, some of whom were inspired enough to take a turn speaking their minds to the small but intent crowd.  Oh, and the local TV station even showed up (perhaps because of a well-placed tip from our PR guy, Stephen Mease? Or does credit belong to the anonymous event organizers? Or someone monitoring social media channels?) to film the goings-on and help spread the word.

At this point it’s hard to tell what the outcomes of all of these Occupy events will be.  From an event planner’s perspective, they have been highly successful in attracting an audience–both the participants and the media reps who are telling the story as it plays out.  But so far “the stories” (as is the custom in modern-day infotainment) have focused mostly on the camera-friendly human dramas being played out, not about any particular issues or solutions to the problems people are saying they’re mad about.

It remains to be seen whether these events will lead to any lasting changes.  Events can be powerful tools for engaging people, harnessing their energy and ideas, and moving them to constructive action.  And as event planners, we know that it’s a colossal waste of time to go to all of the trouble of pulling an event together if there are no measurable results when it’s all over.   If you were in charge of the “Occupy” movement, what would you do to move these events beyond simply venting frustration?


Setting the stage for change: Getting your audience into creative learning mode

— The Engaging Event Series, #5 —

Today I feel like telling you about some overlapping ideas I’ve stumbled across from three very different people, who all happen to be brilliant, creative thinkers.  Each of these ideas has something to do with the challenge of helping people get into a mental and emotional space where they can most effectively absorb new information, brainstorm ideas, solve problems and develop creative solutions.  In other words, think differently.

Up first: Jeff Lieberman, host of the awesome Time Warp program on the Discovery Channel. Jeff says that creativity does not involve thinking; it involves attention–being in the moment. As he puts it, “Creativity comes from the moments we stop thinking.”  Here’s what Jeff has to say about the popularity of his TV show:

“The pieces that I developed in the arts and on the TV show created this feedback cycle where I noticed more and more that what I was working on was primarily engaging because of this initial sense of wonder it created. No matter what infor­mation you want to get across, this initial emotional reaction is necessary.” Simply put, this is what we mean by “getting their attention”.

Jeff says he noticed that people are only watching his show because in the first few seconds of each program, they see something that is totally foreign to them, and that opens them up. “When you’re in that receptive state, everything is different. When you’re in a state where you know that the things you are observing are outside of your realm of experience, you open yourself up to treat­ing things in new ways. It’s always about that initial three seconds, when you first engage this animal impulse of wonder and your audience is left speechless.” This is the true opposite of boredom—where we begin to “tune out” and, eventually, change the channel.  That’s the natural enemy of engagement and change.

I heard a similar message in a conversation I had recently with Russ Bennett, a designer, builder, sculptor, musician and social activist who lives just over the mountain from me in Waitsfield, Vermont.  Russ has done visual design and site layout work for most of Phish’s large extravaganzas as well as the incredibly successful Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee (a worthy focus for a future blog post on the power of events—stay tuned). Russ believes that when you create an experience with music or theater, your audience comes to you with an open mind—and if you associate an agenda, learning objective or cause with the experience, you can truly move people to change the way they think and ultimately the way they behave. In the case of a festival like Bonnaroo, the context of camping out with 80,000 strangers and sharing a vibrant, multi-sensory cultural experience takes people out of their normal day-to-day operating mode and opens them up to new experiences, as well as new ways of thinking about things. And evolving our thinking is the first step in improving our actions and results.  

Why is this so? I got some insight into this from a webinar I attended last month led by Andrea Sullivan, who runs a company called BrainStrength.  Andrea explained that “states of mind” are the emotional, cognitive and physical condition from which people are operating at any given moment. (In the events business, we might also think about states as “experiences”.)  The more of the brain that is activated by the immediate experience, the more your audience will become engaged.  Activating not only the mind, but also the body and multiple senses, will increase the impact.  Whenever your body is engaged, your brain is engaged and focused on that very moment, as opposed to thinking something that happened this morning or that needs to happen by tomorrow.   Again, as Jeff Lieberman says, creativity comes from the moments we stop thinking. 

The brain also responds powerfully to emotion.  So creating personal meaning for people—establishing relevance to their lives and the things that are important to them—can build an emotional connection that will support a change in thinking. Tapping people’s emotions helps them learn, by opening them up.  If you can create a context and activities that put people in such a state and then attach good feelings to it, you will be well on your way to getting your attendees into creative learning mode.

Of course, you don’t have to blow up a banana or build a campground for 80,000 people to accomplish this (although it certainly might help). These principles can work in any situation, with any size group–even with an audience of one.  But when you’re designing this initial experience, it’s generally not a bad idea to have fun and include some simple physical activity.  And if you can start out by creating that little sense of wonder–that intriguing idea, image or experience that falls outside of our normal experience–that will set the stage for receptivity and creative thinking. 

What are some innovative ways you have seen or done this yourself?  Feel free to add a comment below…


Conference design strategies that deliver a punch

The Engaging Events Series, #4

In my last post about Meeting Design, I talked about the two fundamental principles for enhancing the impact of any meeting: 

1)  Minimize The Presentation Time, and
2)  Ramp Up The Interactive Time. 

I also promised a sample list of techniques that I’ve seen used or experimented with, that ratchet up the ROI on the time invested by sticking to the guiding value of “Get on, get to the point, and get off!”.  The value of this approach is that attendees can spend less time passively “receiving” information and more time processing it and figuring out what to do with it. As you’re reading, think about other similar approaches you’ve witnessed, because you might be asked to share one yourself when this is over.  

  • TED Talks.  Let’s start with the most famous example of concentrated presentations in a group setting.  I’m told that when TED talks were originated, speakers were asked to expound on a subject of their choosing, with a limit of 6 minutes to get their point across.  The current formula allows for a relatively comfortable 18 minutes, but I’m sure a lot of speakers have been used to getting 45 minutes or more to address the same topic.  In any case, this requires the speaker to get very focused on the underlying message they want to convey and to deliver that message in a compelling manner.  Note that you don’t need the TED folks to come to town in order to use this technique—just find your own experts. (Or show a YouTube video of a TED Talk.)  And keep in mind that what will make a TED-style talk most impactful is if the presentation is followed by an interactive discussion, where audience members are given the opportunity to do their own talking!  That’s what will ensure a connection between the ideas being presented and actually learning and applying them after everyone has gone home.

  • Flash Point.  MPI created this approach for their conferences.  Similar to TED Talks, a series of industry experts get 15 minutes each to present on a relevant, thought-provoking topic, which again requires them to concentrate their message.  Flash Point sessions can last a few hours, with attendees filtering in and out according to their personal interests (and the quality of the performance, of course).

  • Pecha Kucha.  Adrian Segar, author of Conferences That Work, describes this technique as “haiku for presentations – twenty slides automatically advanced, each shown for twenty seconds, while the presenter shares his or her passion about a topic. Because each presentation lasts just 6 minutes and 40 seconds, presenters are challenged to be concise, targeted, and creative—and you can pack eight attendee presentations into an hour-long conference session.”   20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide, then make room for the next topic.  That requires focus…generally a good thing!

  • Learning Lounges.  Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chain Consulting describes this PCMA initiative as “an adult learning playground with a blend of informal and formal learning.  It consists of a variety of 15-minute, interactive education sessions, live webcasting, and self-directed learning groups.  Learning Lounge features at the 2011 Convene Leadership event in Vegas included peer-to-peer discussions, six theaters offering continuous 15-minute TED style presentations, the Social Media Expert Bar, the Supplier Showdown, and the PCMA365 Livestreaming Studio.

  • MPI’s Solution Room.  Used at EMEC in Dusseldorf this year and on the program for MPI-WEC this month, The Solution Room is a 90-minute, attendee-led wrap-up session for enhancing reflection, learning and change action.  Using “unconference” techniques instead of presentations, speakers from previous concurrent sessions are used to facilitate the conversation and answer questions, while attendees help each other determine best practices for their own businesses. It combines self-reflection and coaching by both experts and colleagues sharing similar challenges.

  • Cafe Conversations.  A precursor of The Solution Room, I first saw this approach at MPI’s MeetDifferent in Houston a few years ago as a breakout session option.  A large whiteboard placed just outside of a large conference room listed the table numbers inside and attendees could write whatever topic or current issue they were interested in discussing next to a table number and then go sit down at that table.  As others arrived, they could scan the list of topics on the whiteboard and either join a table of interest, or add their own subject to the list and start their own table.   Before long, there were more than a dozen tables in action–some had such a large group that there were double rings of chairs around a banquet round;  at others only two or three people may have landed.  But in each case, everyone was talking about a topic they had elected to participate in.  And if they found that the discussion was not engaging enough, they had the option to simply stand up and move to another table with an interesting topic.

  • 1-Minute Sound Bites.  Another technique for applying and sharing what’s been learned is simply to  pause every so often (ideally, after every 7-10 minutes of new information presented) during a presentation to allow tables or small groups of participants to take just one minute to exchange ideas about what they found to be most valuable about the ideas just presented.  This is another example of Chunking material so that it will be absorbed, retained, and taken back to work!

  • Mind-Map Tablecloths.  A variation on the 1-Minute Sound Bite is to cover tables with paper tablecloths and provide markers for each table to capture group mind-maps that illustrate concepts or applications that the participants have been discussing.  Participants are given the opportunity to collaborate and literally create a picture of their most compelling ideas.

  • Key Takeaway Feedback Cards.   Before letting everyone scatter, as a presenter I sometimes will ask each attendee to fill out an index card (or it could be part of an evaluation form–as long as it’s not too long!) that will tell me one key takeaway that they will take back to work with them.  If there will be an opportunity for follow-up, I may also ask them to identify one question they still have, or something they would like to know more about now that the session is over. That not only gives me valuable information to work with in the future, but it also provides an opportunity for each person to review and summarize their own thoughts about how they might apply the ideas offered during the session when they get back to their workplace. When it comes down to it, that’s the whole point, right?

Have you seen or used other strategies to deliver a punch to your meetings or conferences?  Feel free to share them in a comment below.


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