We Participate, Therefore We Are

This spin on cogito ergo sum (English: “I think, therefore I am”) could possibly be a good motto for all conferences and events.

Social Learning

We participate, therefore we are.

Our learning, understanding and knowledge are developed in participation with others. Social learning occurs through conversations about the content and through grounded interactions and engagement with others. Often when we discuss a concept or issue with someone, we are internalizing and integrating it into our own personal framework. It is though social learning that we seek practical knowledge to solve our professional problems.

Many conference organizers know that much of the true learning and understanding happens in the  hallways. Inside the conference education sessions, attendees receive information. Outside the education rooms, attendees start to socially construct their own understanding. Most of what we know, we have learned with and from others.

We, as conference organizers, have to find ways to capture what happens in the hallways and move it into the education sessions.

Moving Hallway Discussions Into Conference Education Sessions

We participate, therefore we are.

That phrase is exactly where I think conference organizers should begin to focus their meeting planning efforts.

  • We should be designing conference experiences that encourage registrants to transition from attendees to participants.
  • We need to discover new ways to help individuals move from passive attendees to active participants.
  • We must shift from planning one-way lectures to more facilitated discussions.
  • We need to switch from sixty- to ninety-minute lectures to sessions that provide short spurts (ten- to twenty-minutes) of content that serve as catalysts for seventy- to eighty minutes of discussion.
  • We need to move from securing industry experts as speakers to contracting skilled facilitators that can capitalize on industry experienced participants in each session.
  • We need to see our conference participants as the industry experts and subject matter experienced (SMEs).
  • We must find a balance of the “what,” the content, and the “how,” the learning process.
  • We must stop seeing our meetings as containers for distributing information and start seeing them as a process to facilitate learning.
  • We must come to grips with the fact that “information” is a commodity and that “education” is something that has significant value.

Traditional Conference Education Strategies

So much of our conference education strategy relies on transmitting explicit information so attendees can amass sufficient amounts of content to their satisfaction. We spend little time on how to apply that information or practice it. We spend little time on helping others retain that content.

Most conference education sessions focus on how to pour knowledge into other people’s heads. We treat knowledge and information as a substance and the brain as a container. Without realizing it, we’ve bought into the concept that a lecturer or speaker is like a faucet. They can spout knowledge and pour it into each attendee’s brain. That’s assuming that there is nothing already in the attendee’s brain and that listening is the best way to distribute that information. Those assumptions are incorrect.

Engagement, through active participation, not passive listening, is critical to learning, retention and understanding. John Seely Brown says, “…We are constructing knowledge all the time, in conversation, through narrative.”

Brown says that through stories and narratives we construct a framework that our mind begins to understand. It is through conversation with others that we construct our own mental frameworks. It’s in conversations that we create knowledge.

Ratio Of Participants Talking Versus Attendees Listening

So how much time in your annual conference is dedicated to attendee conversations? What is the ratio of listening to speakers versus participating in discussions?

Let’s face it. Registrants come to conference with a list of problems they want solved. It doesn’t matter if our education sessions address those problems or not. Instead of trying to force-feed information and content, let’s create conferences where we see our registrants as a community of practice and learning a process. Then participants, regardless of experience, can use inquiry to ask others about their experiences.

It is up to conference organizers to transition from meetings as containers of commodotized information to conferences as conduits of learning.

Why are so many conference education sessions information data dumps? How can we move registrants from passive attendees to active participants?

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  2. Jo O'Rourke says:

    I totally agree with the sentiment BUT – aren’t we already doing this? I know I am. Sometimes I find one of the most important factors inensuring the success of a conference that has been designed explicitly with participation and delegate objectives in mind, is pre-event communication. It’s simply not enough to expect delegates to turn up on the day all wearing their ‘sharing and open’ hats. Brief them on topics ad issues, tell them about the opportunities you’ll be giving them on the day, get them talking to each other via social media.

    As organisers, I feel the biggest ‘we must’ is that we must get over the idea of a conference starting and ending on the day of the event. Think of conferences as a part of a larger process, as a conversation starter/firelighter. Conferences are amorphous spaces we help to create (ie delegates and speakers/facilitators also contribute to the creative process) into which people, ideas and conversations can flow and grow.

  3. Spot on Jeff. And, swimming upstream to the conference planning to make it easy for would-be attendees to suggest topics and formats – beyond facilitated discussions.

    For examples:
    1. A condensed 2 hour charette of disparate “experienced” folks to have a facilitated discussion to solve a problem or seize an opportunity that matters to the group/

    2. Speed consulting sessions 1:1 in a ballroom at the same time there are roundtables for topic idea exchanges

    3. “panel” discussion asking 3 disparate experts for their two best tips in 8 minutes, then Q & A w/ participants in the room, coordinated by an MC/facilitator….

  4. I think Jo’s comment hit the nail on the head. Utilize and engage with speakers ands attendees BEFORE the event.

    It’s kind of like having an audience with a US presidential CANDIDATE…before the election you can walk right up to him/her and ask questions, say hi, etc. but AFTER their elected well, good luck trying to get a hold of them then! 😉

    So, network and engage with speakers and attendees BEFORE your conferences and perhaps you’ll increases your chances of having their ear AFTER the conference is done!


    By the way, I’m a speaker at the 1st Ever Social Media Camp in Canada, coming to Victoria, BC Oct. 3. I’m going to try and incorporate some of your strategies for the benefit of myself and all attendees!

    – Don

  5. So instead of hiring “Speakers” – maybe we should be hiring “Sparkers” – Knowledgeable experts who “spark” meaningful dialogue among attendees. You hit it right on the mark, Jeff. Kill the 90 minute lecture and replace it with 10-20 minute conversation catalyst segments.

    Call for Sparkers, anyone?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts! So, so, glad that are already implementing this process in your conferences & presentations. That’s fantastic. Unfortunately, many U.S. conference organizers have not caught on to this yet. Thanks for leading the way!

      Wow, those are some great tactical examples that people could implement easily. Thank you for adding them. I really like your two-hour discussion to solve/seize an important problem for the group.

      Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts. Yes, the pre-event strategies with speakers are so important. We’ve unfortunately got in a habit of thinking of meetings and conference as one-shot experiences. When we see them as part of an extended eco-system experience, we all win! Here’s to a very successful Social Media camp in Victoria!

      Great idea to hire “Sparkers” who ignite meaningful conversations among participants. Love that. Thanks for adding it!

  6. […] an article from Velvet Chainsaw, a business consulting site, Jeff Hurt describes the importance of industry conferences and […]

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