Publications: Author of Conferences that Work: Creating Events that People Love and The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences that Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement and Action. The Little Book of Crowdsourcing Event Secrets is set to be published in the third quarter of 2019.
Title: Facilitator at large
Degrees: B.A. in Physics from Merton College, Oxford; Ph.D. in elementary particle physics from University College, London
What led to writing the book, Conferences that Work?
I invented the format by accident 26 years ago when there were no expert speakers on administrative computing issues in small schools to invite. I needed a format that would allow a room of strangers to learn about each other and the issues we were interested in by using the expertise in the room.
I asked people, “If this conference could be amazing for you, what would it be about?” Then I built a program around those topics, with people in the room leading impromptu sessions. Often, the results are unexpected. The sessions are not polished; there is no PowerPoint. Often it is more like a discussion than a presentation, but that is why it is effective. My research shows that asking in advance doesn’t work. At traditional conferences with fixed programs set in advance, at best half of sessions offered are what attendees want.
That participant-driven conference is still going as a four-day program, with sessions generated over the first half-day.
I discovered that people love the format, and that led to writing the book 10 years ago. I was an amateur in the meeting industry, and that led to some mistakes, but it also gave me a fresh perspective at a time when meeting design wasn’t really a “thing.”
What has been the reaction in the market?
A lot more people are using the peer-conference principals to varying degrees and I have facilitated conferences for groups, such as PCMA Convening Leaders. Just-in-time learning gives people what they need right now.
Why did you decide it was time to write another book?
The Little Book of Crowdsourcing Event Secrets is about how to create conferences that turn into what participants actually want and need. People love being heard and having their needs met. Crowdsourcing allows you to that.
I wanted to expose more people to the format. I am just one person doing it, and I wanted to put it out into the world.
Why Conferences Need to Change
Lectures are a terrible way to learn. They are a seductive meeting format because they provide an efficient way of sharing information. However, they are the least effective way of learning anything. Over time, we rapidly forget most everything we’ve been told. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it more accurately and longer.
Everyone has expertise to share. Instead of limiting content to a few “experts,” peer conferences uncover and tap the thousands of years of experience in the room.
Informal education rules. Today, only about 10 percent of what we need to know involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90 percent is informal—a combination of self-directed learning, experiential learning on the job and learning at conferences with our peers.
How do you know if a crowdsourced event is successful?
You can feel the energy level. By definition, these sessions are about things people want to talk about, so how can you lose? If you try to predict what people want to talk about six months before, it won’t be accurate.
What are three ways that event professionals can integrate your techniques into an event?
One way is to set aside a block of time—a couple of hours during a lunch, for example—to do sessions that are crowdsourced the day before.
One of the beauties of sticky notes is if you put up an issue and a session doesn’t result from it, the facilitator can connect you with the one other person at the conference who really wants to talk about the topic, and that can make the whole conference worthwhile. It is a great way to meet people.
What do people need to watch out for when planning a crowdsourced event?
The biggest mistake is making it a conference track instead of committing across a time block. Most people have not experienced these formats and they might not choose it, even if they would enjoy it if given a chance. Then the conference organizer concludes people are not interested. Pick a period of time and commit to it. Then people generally keep it in the program and extend it over time.
You have to create a safe environment for people to share. It can feel risky to talk about a challenge at work. That is why you need to agree to rules at the beginning, so that people feel comfortable. Otherwise, you won’t get the juicy stuff.