Tag Archives: outcomes

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?

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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.


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!


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!


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