Tag Archives: events

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…


Meeting Design: It’s all about the experience, not the info.

“If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind,
give it some more thought.”      – Dennis Roch
 

Lately I’ve been writing about something I call Events 2.0, which is a nod to the term Web 2.0.  By that I mean events that go beyond just a passive TV-style experience and build in not only audience participation, but also make it possible for every participant to contribute to the experience and, ultimately, the value everyone takes with them when they leave.  That can take a lot of forms, depending on the type of event.  But if we’re talking about meetings or conferences, here are two fundamental principles for improving the impact of any meeting: 

1)  Minimize The Presentation Time. Get on, get to the point, and get off!
2)  Ramp Up The Interactive Time.  Spend at least half of the time facilitating interaction among participants, rather than just telling them stuff.

If a one-way information dump is needed, that can be accomplished a lot more efficiently through other means besides meetings.  Send out an e-newsletter.  Record a YouTube video. Distribute an old-fashioned memo.  Include background info in the event program.  Get yourself a bullhorn.  Those are all effective and reliable ways to distribute information to lots of people.


The whole point of bringing people together is to give them the opportunity to experience something that wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t shared with others, in the physical (or online) environment you’ve created for them.  And ideally, that will include interactions between the participants, whether it’s just swapping ideas, collaborating on a project or sharing a group physical activity–or even better, all three.  It doesn’t matter what scale of meeting we’re talking about: 6 people around a boardroom table or 3,000 people in a general session at the convention center. Same rules apply.

I get some pushback on this when I’m in a position to determine how much time a presenter will be given to show their stuff.  It might be a professional who is used to doing 45-minute stand-ups and I’m asking them to limit their presentation to 10 minutes.  Their first reaction is that they couldn’t possibly cover their topic with any depth; they would only be able to give it “lip service”.  (I’ve learned that lip service, if done well, can actually be pretty powerful.)   I see the same thing with groups of my students preparing presentations of their semester projects and, when I tell the four of them that they will have 12 minutes to present, they sometimes protest with, “We can’t possibly present our whole project in that much time!”   And you know what?  They’re right.  But there’s always enough time to present what’s most important.

The hard part?  Figuring out what the most important points are and finding a way to get them across in a compelling manner.  You might only be able to impress 1 or 2 or maybe 3 significant takeaways on your audience.  But that’s okay…as long as those few lessons will be lasting and useful.  If they only remember, accomplish, or learn how to do one thing when your time together is over, what do you want it to be?  If you’re not clear on that, you’re probably not designing the experience for maximum impact and ROI, or Return On Involvement

Of course, there are a lot of people working or experimenting with creative approaches to these challenges, and some of them have actually been doing it for a long time.  Next time out, I’ll give you a great list of examples of event techniques that are getting better and better at this.  In the meantime, make sure you’re getting right  to the point!  Your attendees—or better yet, “participants”—will thank you for it.  (And they’ll also get a lot more out of it.)


Events 2.0: The 4 Secrets of Fully Engaging Your Attendees

Yes–I’m going to share some secrets with you!  So remember, this is all just between me and you and your colleagues, Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends/fans, kids, neighbors and anyone else you feel like chatting up.  Of course then it won’t be much of a secret, but that’s okay with me.  The more, the merrier!

But let’s start with a question: What is it that makes great live events better than just getting the same content some other way?  Think of some examples–like the difference between a truly memorable dining experience and the thought of just having the meal delivered to your home or hotel room. Or watching a DVD of a music festival compared to actually being in the middle of it all.  Or reading the minutes of a business meeting vs. participating in it.  How about watching a well-produced YouTube video of a keynote speaker instead of being there?  (Hmm…I bet that last one was not so obvious. But you get my point.) Why do I suggest that the last example is the weakest?  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of dynamic and inspiring keynote speakers out there.  But the question is: what do you really get out of the experience of attending an event that can’t be substituted with some kind of copy? 

For some reason, this reminds me of that term “Web 2.0”.  Now, for those of you who haven’t been indoctrinated to this terminology yet, Web 2.0 refers to the second “version” of what we call the Internet.  If you’re old enough to remember as far back as the Clinton presidency (yes, that includes you, Millenials), Web 1.0 was pretty much a new form of one-way information distribution.  When you visited someone’s webpage, you could read whatever information they had prepared for you, sort of like an online brochure.  Heck—they even had photos and stuff.  But it was pretty much a static experience; you viewed it and moved on.  There is still tons of Web 1.0 content out there, and it’s not likely to go away. It’s flexible, convenient and it definitely serves a purpose.

Not too many years later, Web 2.0 took things to a different level: now, instead of being limited to whatever the webmaster of each site puts on display for you, much of what you see on the Internet is “user-generated” content—and the “users” are us.  Pretty big paradigm shift, actually.  Easiest example?  Facebook. Think about how much of what you see on Facebook has been created by Mark Zuckerberg and the massive staff down at FB Headquarters.  Other than the ads on the sidebar, the correct answer is “very little”.  It’s just a shell created in order to allow people to share their knowledge and creative ideas.  By definition, every social media tool does pretty much the same thing.

So what is Events 2.0?  Same idea, basically.  Any time you go to an event and just sit there and take it in, you’re in Event 1.0 mode. Nothing wrong with that necessarily; you can still enjoy and maybe learn a few things from it.  But take it up to V2.0 and now the participants are not only involved, they’re actually contributing much of the content.  And that’s engaging—just as much as going to that amazing restaurant or contributing your ideas and solutions at a business conference.  But like Facebook, someone has to design the structure of the event so that it will get people engaged in the first place. And that’s where the secrets come in!

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a sponsor trying to build relationships with your target clientele, or a corporate trainer bent on raising the skill level of your employees, or an activist trying to inspire people to your cause.  To fully-engage your audience, you’ll need to build these four components into the experience you provide:
   

  1. THE HOOK. To get people engaged, first you need something that initially attracts their attention and draws them in.  This doesn’t just distract them; it also gets them into a receptive state by shifting their attention, so they can leave behind whatever else they were focused on before.  A slightly goofy (but effective) version of this: Flash Mobs.  Take a look at the example below and see what I mean. Notice how the “attendees” respond towards the end.
     
  2. CONTENT RULES!  Of course, you need to present something that’s relevant or otherwise fascinating to this particular audience; otherwise, their attention will quickly move on.  Ideally you’ll have something that answers a question, need or opportunity they have or–even better–introduces them to one they didn’t know they had.  In any case, none of these secrets apply if you don’t have something that will be of significant value to your audience.  So plan on spending a big chunk of your time on this one. Otherwise, none of this matters.
     
  3. DESIGN FOR INTERACTION.  This is really the Events 2.0 part. Getting someone’s attention and delivering fresh content is just getting started: you also want to create an experience where everyone needs to participate on some level, whether it’s physically, intellectually, emotionally, or all three.  That’s the main thing that interactive events can provide that can’t be substituted by one-way communication.  Put people in a situation they’ve never been in before.  Provide the opportunity to experience and respond to something new and learn from not only the “expert” presenters, but from each other. This is the power of bringing people together. In the end, engaging experiences usually leave us changed in some way, but it doesn’t happen by itself–you need to create the context.  And remember that in many cases, your presenters will not have the skills and experience to create this, so you may have to help (or get help). 
     
  4. CLOSE THE DEAL.  Here’s the Big Finish: it’s not enough to get people thinking.  In order to convert the event experience into useful take-aways, it’s critical to build in time for participants to individually process, reflect on and plan how they might use these new ideas and experiences.  This is the real work, but it’s the part that will lead to concrete results.  People need some time to think on their own, but it can help to provide the opportunity for discussion, collaboration or even hands-on group activity. We know enough about how our brains function to expect that, without this step, most of what we’ve encountered during the event will dissipate fairly quickly.  This is also the time for committing people to action, to ensure that the event has a lasting impact.

If any of these steps is missing from the design of your experience, you’re probably stuck back in the time of Events 1.0.  And I would bet that your event is not getting the impact it could, or should. 

In future posts, I’ll be expanding and providing specific examples of how people are really applying these principles to take their events up a notch and you’ll have the opportunity to share your own stories and secrets.  For now, feel free to leave a comment about anything that this post brought to mind!


The Starfish Story: one step towards changing the world

You may have heard this one, but I find that it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it every once in a while.  First let me tell you the story, and then we can talk about it. 

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. 

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)

 
We all have the opportunity to help create positive change, but if you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself thinking, “I’m already really busy, and how much of a difference can I really make?”  I think this is especially true when we’re talking about addressing massive social problems like tackling world hunger or finding a cure for cancer, but it pops up all of the time in our everyday lives, as well. So when I catch myself thinking that way, it helps to remember this story.  You might not be able to change the entire world, but at least you can change a small part of it, for someone. 

They say that one of the most common reasons we procrastinate is because we see the challenge before us as overwhelming, and that a good way to counter that is to break the big challenge down into smaller pieces and then take those one at a time–like one starfish at a time.  And to that one starfish, it can make a world of difference.

 

“A single, ordinary person still can make a difference – and single, ordinary people are doing precisely that every day.”
Chris Bohjalian, Vermont-based author and speaker


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.


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!


%d bloggers like this: