Tag Archives: Event planning

Strategies for Change: Bill McKibben on Using Events To Battle Climate Change

Lately I’ve been writing about how event planners can get even more impact out of their events by leveraging the resources at their disposal, in order to help create positive change.  This time I’m going to give you a prime example of how things can also work the other way around: anyone with a cause in mind can use events as a powerful tool for facilitating the change they’d like to see come about.

Bill McKibben lives down the road from me in Middlebury, Vermont.  Bill is the co-founder and global organizer of an organization called 350.org, which is focused like a laser beam on the challenges of global climate change. His latest book is Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet

One of Bill’s talents is that he is a very effective storyteller. And if you listen to what he’s saying, he’s actually a pretty scary guy.  (If you want to see what I mean, check out this Charlie Rose interview from last year.)   And that’s the point, of course.  Bill  and 350.org have built their overall strategy based on assembling groups of people and getting them engaged and empowered to take action to steer things in a more positive direction.  That’s a great example of using the power of events to create change.

I recently had a chance to chat with Bill about EventsForChange.  Here are some excerpts from my conversation with him:

As an activist, what part do live events play in your overall strategy for 350.org?

They’ve been at the heart of our strategy. In 2009 we coordinated 5,200 simultaneous rallies in 180 countries, and in 2010 7,400 in 189 countries. CNN called the effort “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history”.  Our emphasis is on very widespread and beautiful action, that we can then gather images of to make more than the sum of its parts.

 You have talked about the need to “build political will”.  Can you give a couple of best examples of how you have used events to educate, inspire and move people to action?

Well, when we did the earlier domestic version of this–called StepItUp, spring of 2007, we had 1,400 events in all 50 states.  And two days later both Obama and Clinton, then running for president, adopted our goal of 80% emission cuts. It was pretty neat.
 

 While planning 350.org events, how do you incorporate strategies for altering the perspective of people who are largely disinterested in the climate change issue?

Many people do that in their own communities. We don’t exactly plan the events–it’s more like a potluck supper. We set the date and the theme, and people come up with remarkable stuff in their own places. 

What role does storytelling play in the process of planning 350.org events?

It’s more in the aftermath. We tell the stories of these events constantly, in words and in pictures. 

What has proven to be the most challenging aspect of organizing events to support the mission of 350.org?

The globe is a big place.

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Brain Rules: “Chunking” Your Event Into Small Bites – Engaging Event Series #3


Too much information, too little time.
 

You know it—this is certainly one of the biggest challenges for us as we navigate life in the early 21st century.  We have access to (and are bombarded with) a virtually endless stream of info, but with hopelessly limited time to sort through it, process it, reflect upon it and apply it to our own lives.  God knows we’ve been trying, though.  Some years back, USAToday reformatted newspapers (remember those?) so that you could quickly scan dozens of newsbriefs right from the front page—a model  that is imbedded into just about every Internet homepage today.  We shifted from spending much of our days on the phone to scanning our email, then to text messaging, and now lots of us are making do with exchanging ideas in 140 characters or less on Twitter. For bloggers, a rule of thumb suggested by some experts is to keep your posts to three paragraphs or so, to ensure that your readers won’t bail out at the sight of a lengthy article (apparently I’m taking a bit of a chance here!).  TED talks have driven speakers to condense their 1-hour presentations down to 18 minutes.  

This is not really a new concept, however.  It’s basically just another way of delivering more “bang for the buck”, only now it’s being applied to your investment of time and mental capacity.  And we’re gobbling it up, despite the fact that it can be stress-inducing.  Most likely it’s going to get worse; Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said “Today, more content is created in 48 hours than from the beginning of time until 2003.”  But if just reading this gets your heart beating a little faster, you should know that there is a silver lining in here: if managed properly, this need to limit the size of our information bursts may actually be better for our brains.

A few years ago I heard a Dartmouth professor named Chris Jernstedt speak about his research into how our brains work and learn.  It turns out that our natural attention span is shorter than you might think: the brain has a hard time processing more than 15 minutes of content at one stretch.  He introduced the concept of “chunking”, which refers to the fact that we process and remember information better when we group it into manageable units or chunks.  We have a finite capacity of short-term memory that can hold information in an active, readily available state, but when that memory bank is full, it starts pushing the oldest deposits out in order to make room for new information coming in. The only way we can keep from “losing” a lot of that information is if we use it right away—that’s what transfers the information into our long-term memory so we can go get it later.  We are much better at retaining new ideas and skills if given the chance to consider and try them out before our brain moves on to the next thing.


(fast forward to slide 17 to skip to the main ideas)

Problem is, a lot of the time this doesn’t happen.  And it’s one reason why we tend to tune out long, boring presentations that seem to go on and on, even if they are accompanied by zippy PowerPoint slides.  Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t explore a subject in depth; it just means that it will be more effective if we design an experience where the subject matter is broken up into bite-sized pieces that our brains can finish chewing on before we try to cram in another big fork-full of information.  It’s fine to schedule a 1-hour presentation or breakout session, as long as you “chunk” the material into several coherent segments and periodically give participants the opportunity for personal reflection and—ideally–interaction with others.

Here’s a quick summary of strategies for helping to make sure your program “sticks” with the participants:

  • Identify the most important information, concepts or skills to be delivered.  Leave out the fluff—you don’t need it. 
  • Break the program down into a series of manageable chunks.  Design 10- to 20-minute segments where you will introduce new information and then ask participants to use and apply it in some way.  
  • Build in time for participants to think about how they might relate the information that’s just been presented to their own business or personal lives.  Relevance is what makes it stick.
  • If you can swing it, conclude with an opportunity to reinforce key takeaways.  Refer back to your original goals for the session and, ideally give audience members the opportunity to share their own conclusions with others.

As a bonus, most people will experience this kind of program as being more engaging, more energizing and ultimately, more valuable.  So like Mom used to say, finish chewing your food before taking another bite.  That’s the best way to enjoy a big meal and, apparently, consuming information works pretty much the same way.


“Are we making any difference?” Engaging Events Series, Episode 2

What can an event planner learn from a couple of physics professors? 

In his book What the best college teachers do,  Ken Bain tells the story of two physics professors at Arizona State University who wanted to find out if all of the time and effort they put into planning and delivering their courses was really making any difference in the way their students thought about things.  So they set up a very simple experiment: they would choose one fundamental physics concept and measure whether their physics course made a significant impact.  They decided to focus on the principles of “motion” and their students’ understanding of how motion actually works.  They pre-tested their students, did their normal 15-week semester gig and then re-tested everyone at the end.  And guess what? They found that, despite all of the time and effort expended by all, when it was all over their students thought about motion pretty much the same way as they did before they took the course. 

As a professional trainer and college professor myself, that story scared me half to death.  If you’re in the business of planning events, you should be, too.  Because it suggests that much–maybe even most–of the event experiences we create (and a classroom is definitely an event) may not be making much of a lasting impact and, if that’s the case, then we’re wasting a whole lot more of our time than we are aware of–not to mention forfeiting tremendous opportunities to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives while we have them gathered together. 

What can we do to help ensure we’re having an impact? Well, it appears that one key element of effective event experience design is a variation on the “less is more” rule: make sure you’re focusing on just a very few critical points or objectives—or maybe even just one.    Of course, this requires some consideration of what your most important outcomes are.  What do you want to be different once the event has concluded?  Which goals are must-haves, and which are just nice-to-haves?

Now back to that physics class: one lesson learned, according to Ken Bain, is that it’s better to focus on just two or three main concepts or competencies and hammer the hell out of them, and not worry so much about covering everything in detail.  Often the mistake we make is to try to cover too many bases at once, because we’re afraid of leaving out something important.   In the case of a college course, this can take the shape of trying to get to the end of the textbook before the semester is over, even if it means that we don’t fully lock in the most important ideas or skills along the way.  There’s nothing wrong with accomplishing multiple objectives at the same time, but not if it means failing to nail the most important ones.

We live in a world where it feels like there is never enough time to do what we need to do.  But remember that old time management adage: “there’s always enough time for the things that are most important.”  The next time you’re planning an event program or experience, don’t worry too much about doing as many things as you can with the time you’re allowed.  Instead, start by making sure you get the most important outcomes really right.  Because in the end, that’s what will make it worth the time and money you’re investing!


Why sustainability is not “good”

A couple of years ago, I saw Jeffrey Hollender speak at a Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) conference.  Jeffrey was a co-founder (along with a guy named Alan Newman, who went on to create another Vermont brand, Magic Hat) of Seventh Generation, a company that makes “environmentally friendly” cleaning products and is a leader in the corporate social responsibility movement.  Imagine an auditorium filled with a couple of hundred business people bent on being more socially responsible, and Jeffrey comes out with this: that he didn’t consider 7thG’s products to be good. Because there’s a big difference between “less bad” and “good”. He said that, “as much as I like Seventh Generation products–and I think they’re great–they are only ‘less bad’. All of our products create CO2 emissions, they create garbage, and they use natural resources. They’re better than our competitors, but they’re not good.”

He went on to say that it’s not enough to try to reduce the amount of damage we’re doing to the world—we need to renew and repair the damage that’s already been done, and to work towards positive change.  I figure that if we’re all headed for hell in a handbasket (although personally I’ve never actually ridden in a handbasket), the only thing “less bad” will accomplish is to slow down the ride a little bit.

Physicians taking the Hippocratic Oath agree “to do no harm.” Green hotels reduce their negative environmental impact by conserving energy, composting and reusing sheets and towels. Seventh Generation works hard to formulate products with far less undesirable chemical byproducts. And while producing special events may seem a whole lot different than manufacturing laundry detergent or treating patients, Jeff’s point about going from “less bad” to “good” still applies.

Don’t get me wrong; sustainable measures aren’t just good–they’re a great idea.  It’s fairly common practice to incorporate at least some sustainable practices into events these days and that’s definitely moving in the right direction, but we can do better than that. There are many opportunities to use The Power of Events to leave the world a little better place than before—and that’s good!


Breaking out of TV-Mode

The Engaging Events Series, Part 1

Here’s a simple question for you: why do people come to events? 
To help answer that question, I’m going to ask you another: Take a minute and think back.  What are your personal favorite events, out of all the ones you’ve ever been to?  Your answers might be different depending on the type of event—you might have a favorite social event, a performance of some sort, or maybe it’s the most memorable conference you’ve ever been to.  Or think about the best course you ever took in school (every class is an event, no?), one that you really got into and, probably, took the most from.  In all of these cases, what was it that made these events most memorable, even years later?


I’m going to take a guess: I bet it’s because you got deeply engaged in whatever activity was taking place and because of that, you threw yourself into it—using your brain, of course, but possibly also your emotions and maybe even your body, or all three at the same time.  And you took from it an experience that still comes to mind despite the time that has passed.

I’ve been a college professor for over twenty years now, and one of the things I dread most is a class (my audience, you might say) where the students go into what I call “TV-mode”.  TV-mode is when you sit on the couch with that glazed look on your face and the remote control in your hand, ready to jump to another channel if you’re not appropriately stimulated for a period of time.  TV-mode is when you have adopted the role of the watcher and expect someone else to do all of the work.  It’s the difference between participating and just showing up.  And it rarely results in much of lasting value.

So I’ve put a lot of thought and effort into designing experiences for my students where they can’t stay in TV-mode. For centuries, the traditional educational method has been what presenters like to call the “sage on the stage” approach—where the content expert lectures to the audience, who sit passively and listen, as if knowledge was something to be poured over their heads and simply absorbed.  It’s one-way communication and, although it may be entertaining and informative, it only rarely results in measurable change or action.  And in the age of YouTube and podcasts and Twitter and eBooks, it can make the event experience appear suspiciously unnecessary.  Instead, I’ve learned that the most effective way to use the time we have together is to avoid spending too much of my own time as the “sage on the stage” and play more of a role as the designer and facilitator of an experience created for them.

Lots of event professionals are experiencing great angst about the future of live events, particularly meetings and conferences.   Will people continue to invest lots of money and–perhaps even more valuable–their time in traveling and attending events, when they can get the same information by going online or ordering it from Amazon.com?  My answer is: yes, they absolutely will!  But only if you deliver an engaging experience that delivers value far beyond what they could just as easily read or watch on their TV, computer monitor or iPhone.  And that means an engaging experience, one that gets them actively involved.  The same principles hold true whether you are gathering face-to-face, or doing a teleconference or webinar.  You need to design ways to get people “out of their bubble”.   Remember when you were a kid and your mom or dad used to say, “Get off that couch, stop watching TV (or playing PlayStation, if you’re younger than a Boomer) and go outside to get some fresh air and exercise!”?   Well, this is the adult version of that.

Why is this important?  Because it is the key to maximizing the impact of your event and changing the way people will think, act or behave in the future.  And in the end, that’s why people come to events.

Up Next: Strategies for Engagement
As this blog series continues, I will be offering lots of examples of strategies event planners are using to engage their audiences, increasing the impact of their events and make a difference in people’s lives and their communities. 

In the meantime, I want to return to my original question: what is the most impactful event you’ve ever been to, and what do you think made it that way?


Targeted Change: 3 Ways to flex your event planning muscles

Positive change sounds great.  But what does that look like, exactly?
Everyone I talk to about my EventsForChange initiative says it sounds like a great idea. But then, I can tell that their brain immediately switches to “what does that mean, exactly?” mode.  The concept sounds fine, but the implementation isn’t always obvious. 

What kinds of “good” can we accomplish?  In his book Saving The World At Work, Tim Sanders says that a “good” company is “one whose mission is to improve the lives of everyone in its footprint: employees, suppliers, customers, supporting communities, and the planet.”  In Corporate Social Responsibility, Philip Kotler and Nancy Lee write that social responsibility is “a commitment to improve community well-being through discretionary business practices and contributions of corporate resources.”  So when we’re talking about events, I think it’s useful to think in terms of improving individual lives, the local community and maybe even the planet.  It all boils down to a simple question: how can we leave this world a little better place than before our event took place?

Now here’s the thing: YOU get to decide what kind of change you want to promote.  As the great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra said, “You got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”  According to Yogi, it all starts with being clear about our objectives.  And once you have an objective in mind, it’s time to design an event experience that will produce the results you’re intending.  Here are a few targeted changes that can be built into any event experience:

  • EDUCATE & INFORM: you can take the opportunity to raise awareness and concern about a cause, an initiative or a political issue.  Information is power and you have the means to inform many while you have everyone gathered together in one place.  Support a behavior change campaign.  You can help bring about changes in both attitude and behavior by creating an engaging experience that alters people’s perspective.   
  • COLLECT RESOURCES:  The most obvious example here is: any kind of fundraising strategy.  You can raise money through donations from attendees or by padding the admission or registration  fee to supply a little extra.  Vendors and exhibitors could donate a portion of their proceeds.  Sponsors can provide in-kind contributions of goods or services that they provide, often for a fraction of the retail cost. And if you design a truly engaging experience, you will inspire them to give even more.  Much of this is not any different than you normally do when executing the core elements of your event–you’re just directing some of the resources to another place, spreading the wealth. 

    But it’s not just about money.  You’re also in a position to recruit people who can provide time, expertise, problem-solving abilities and even brute force for accomplishing a task or re-shaping the physical environment.  You’ve got them right there; now it’s just a matter of creating the conditions where their money, goods, ideas or efforts can be focused on a specific task that will somehow improve lives.
     
  • ORGANIZE & INSPIRE ACTION:  You know this: it’s not enough to get people’s attention and deliver a message.  The only way you produce a lasting impact is if there is some change in behavior, and often that won’t happen unless someone champions the effort and facilitates the process of moving people to action.  While everyone is here, let’s get something done!

    Get a commitment from folks to go out and spread the word to 10 others after the event is over, or to distribute materials. Vote through a policy or rule change.  Organize an email-writing campaign to your legislators.  Build something or do something  to improve the physical environment. Back in 2008 at the Democratic National Convention, a dozen or so people from the Vermont delegation carved out a few hours one afternoon, went to a local school, and built them a new playground structure.  All it took was for someone to spot the opportunity, collect tools and building materials, and build it into the program.  Attendees, staff, presenters, sponsors…all of them can be organized to leverage their time and talents while they’re there. 

Of course, if you’re planning or executing the event, this doesn’t mean you have to do all of these things by yourself.  Delegate to a staff member, if you can.  Make it part of your agreements with vendors or venues.  Or there are plenty of cause-related or non-profit organizations that would be more than happy to have a stage for spreading their message, collecting money, recruiting volunteers or organizing action.  Your power ultimately comes from pulling together multiple stakeholders and from accessing available resources.  It’s just a matter of finding partners that match well with your audience and the change that you’re interested in supporting. The key here is to recognize the unique opportunity that occurs when you gather an audience together and to use it while you have the chance!

So if you’re an event planner, I have a question for you, while you’re here:  can you offer an example of how you’ve used any of these methods to flex your event planning muscles and create a positive change?   How did you go about it?  Share your story in the Comment section below.


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