Are Your Annual Meetings Producing Life-Giving Oxygen Or Life-Draining Experiences?

Oxygen, we can’t live without it.

We need it to live, breath and function. This colorless, odorless, tasteless gas is the third most abundant element in the universe next to hydrogen and helium. It changes everything it touches. It forms compounds with almost everything it contacts and creates something new.

Most molecules in living organisms –carbohydrates, fats, proteins–contain oxygen. They release energy in your body.

When you drive your gasoline-powered car, cook with natural gas or burn wood in your fireplace you burn something that releases energy. Fuels like gasoline, natural gas and wood combine with oxygen to release energy. Withhold the oxygen and you stop the energy dead in its tracks.

Your Conference Schedule Is Like Oxygen
Much like the oxygen we need to live and breathe, your conference lives or dies dependent upon its schedule. The annual meeting agenda impacts everything it touches. It can be a life-giving force or a life-draining format.

When you combine the schedule with learning and education, you can have one of two results.

1. The life-giving, energizing customized conference experience

2. The life-draining, exhausting, been-there-done-that “one-size fits all” conference experience

Efficiency Is The Religion Of The Meetings World Not Effectiveness
Most conference schedules are based on outdated societal structures and beliefs that are wrong for what attendees need today. They are based on the most efficient use of time and space, not the most effective use of time and space for learning. Efficiency is the religion of the meetings world yet our attendees are demanding effectiveness.

Most annual meeting schedules try to replicate a work and education model whose original purpose was to organize factory workers to stand in assembly lines, repeat a task and create a final product. Attendees are treated like robots: take directions from experts, never question authority and produce results. Attendees are like assembly line products. If they attend the right sessions, receive all the right inputs, they will all leave having produced the same results. NOT! That’s not what’s needed to succeed in a service economy.

Today, our current societal structures mostly depend on an information and service economy where we can tap the collaborative brainpower of our employees. The focus is on sharing knowledge and experiences, innovation and problem solving. Yet, our conference schedules continue to propagate didactic lecture-based monologues as if we are preparing our attendees to enter life’s manufacturing facility and produce the same product.

The enormous disconnect between how we think our schedules work and how they actually work is the heart of unsuccessful meetings today. Most of what is usually planned and arranged in the annual meeting’s schedule actually prevents learning. It becomes a barrier to problem solving, collaboration and innovation. The presenters’ monologues or panelists’ dialogues limit the active participation of attendees. Often the annual meeting schedule acts as if we are withholding the oxygen from those that need it most.

Breathing Oxygen Into Your Conference Schedule
Effective conference schedules build in “adult white space” where attendees are given adequate time to deconstruct and reflect on content received. Instead of short 15 minute breaks allowing just enough time for attendees to race to the next session, organizers build in 30-, 45-, 60- and even 90-minute discussion periods for attendees to take concepts from sessions and discuss them with others. The emphasis is on less content and more application…deeper learning and understanding. Discussion sessions follow all general sessions allowing attendees to discuss important concepts shared.

If attendees can’t recall information presented in a session, they can’t use it, which means it is worthless. It’s like clothes we used to wear in the back of our closet, just taking up space. Compound that by scheduling as many lectures or panels in a day as possible and information is just being spoken into the ether world without much impact. It’s just taking up space in the conference schedule.

Meeting professionals must help attendees to remember and understand information. We must create new schedules that serve as catalysts helping attendees remember, recall, rehearse, associate and think of ways of applying new information.

That means less content and more time spent analyzing and evaluating content that is already given. It means helping attendees look at content from a variety of perspectives. It means clear and streamlined learning objectives. It means more in depth time spent discussing key concepts with others and less time passively listening.

The challenge facing conference organizers is providing education experiences designed to engage the mind, help the brain retain and understand concepts, and allow attendees the chance to deconstruct concepts with other attendees. Creating schedules that foster this experience is like providing life-giving oxygen.

What are some successful techniques you’ve used to create life-giving experiences where attendees can remember, recall and understand new concepts? What keeps you from changing the traditional conference schedule?

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Hurt, nancyrubin and Zerista Pro, MariAn Klein. MariAn Klein said: RT @nancyrubin: Are Your Annual Meetings Producing Life-Giving Oxygen Or Life-Draining Experiences? […]

  2. Adrian Segar says:

    Hi Jeff! I’m in the middle of facilitating a four day conference (edACCESS 2010) that doesn’t have a single didactic session scheduled. We’re having a great time, and learning a lot!

    One session we’re excited about is a case study session tomorrow morning where all attendees will work on a collaborative exercise, using only online tools, to create a plan for drastic budget cutting measures at a fictitious organization. The exercise includes process observers and and plenty of time to debrief and discuss what we’ve learned.

    I’ve decided to write another book about participatory techniques like this for conference sessions, and would love to tap your wealth of experience in this area.


  3. Scott Gould says:


    So this is how I’m thinking of doing things next time around to create this:

    1 month in advance – keynote content from the speaker is shared and discussed with 4 facilitators.

    Then on the day:

    20 minute keynote

    4 facilitators then share their views (30 secs each) – they then go into the ‘crowd’ and begin facilitating discussion around the 4 view points.

    This crowd discussion is breathing space – they can get up, get a drink, move – for 30 minutes – at the end of which there is an official 10 minute break before the next keynote.

    This means that people are actively engaging with each other and sharing their learning. It means there is breathing space to get up, move, get the blood flowing, etc.

    My question, then: can we mix breathing space with this kind of facilitation?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I think that approach is right on target. Can you mix breathing space with this kind of facilitation? Sure, if you have the right facilitator and have set good ground rules, you should be able to invite people to get up and move around. You could even have some highboy tables where people stand around tables for discussion.

      Your insight and feedback is always appreciated.

  4. Scott Gould says:

    Hey Jeff

    Thanks for the ideas here. As I’ve said before, you provide such inspiration and practical help – I am *so* indebted to you!


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