Shifting From Serving Attendees To Involving Participants

If you haven’t made the shift from ‘serving attendees’ to ‘involving participants,’ consider this your wake-up call — and your roadmap.

Image by NinJA999.

The Participatory Class

Sociologists identify today’s networked individuals as the participatory class. As part of a participatory culture, we expect to create, collaborate, connect, share, and learn interactively. We feel that our contributions matter. We share a social or emotional connection with one another that helps solve problems and develop new solutions. It’s a culture that permeates our personal lives and our workplaces — and needs to be encouraged at the meetings that we attend.

Four Principles To Increase Participation At Your Conference

Here are four principles to increase participation at your conferences.

1. Shift From Push To Pull

A push is anything that asserts itself into a situation and changes it. When someone pushes you, you tense up and stand your ground. If your participants are only feeling pushed, they will begin to push back. Pushing information, dense content, and over-structured formats will overload people.

Pulling is different. If someone pulls you, you might resist, but in a different way. You don’t push back. In a conference context, a pull is a way to draw people along in the direction they are already moving. By creating open-ended questions, offering opportunities for story sharing, and getting out of their way, you are pulling people toward participating.

Participatory conferences give registrants online itinerary planners and exhibitor- and session-search tools to customize their experience. They offer personalized recommendations for making the conference worthwhile on an individual basis (think Amazon). Participants pull the information they want based on their filters and your specific recommendations.

2. Increase Active Learning

Participants desire learning experiences designed around the problems they need to solve, not the certification they need to obtain or maintain. They don’t want one-way monologues from experts or panels. They don’t want information dumps that they could get online or in print. They’re looking for education opportunities where they are part of the discussion and involved in the problem resolution.

Participatory conferences hit the active-learning mark by having a strong speaker selection process with well-defined learning objectives — and a focus on facilitation. Specific activities that encourage everyone to be part of the learning are incorporated into each session.

3. Make Learning A Process

Participants realize that deep learning is rarely achieved in a 60- or 90-minute session. They’re looking for content to review before the conference that enables them to dig deeper during the session by asking questions. And afterward, they want post-conference content, including the tools that help them implement what they’ve learned.

Participatory conferences offer pre-conference webinars, blog posts, and online discussions to help set the stage for a richer on-site learning experience. They also capture some of the rich face-to-face experiences and make them available post-conference.

4. Build Community

Nothing does more for career advancement than networking with like-minded professionals. In today’s digital world, self-organized communities are launching and growing like wildfire. They often provide the emotional glue that makes attending face-to-face events invaluable.

Participatory organizations embrace e-community platforms and invest in becoming better community managers. Kill the outdated listservs and organize micro-communities around participants’ biggest challenges.

Put Them In The Driver Seat

Making the shift to a participatory culture requires thinking about the registrants’ involvement and becoming learning-centric. The hallmarks of a participatory meeting are less hierarchy, more transparency, and increased trust. Organizations that benefit most from a participatory culture leverage technology to improve their reach and effectiveness.

An online e-community is one of the silver bullets for active participation. It takes much more than a good technology platform. Feverbee Blog – The Online Community Guide, will get you headed in the right direction.

This article was adapted and written (well, ghostwritten by me in collaboration with Dave Lutz) for Dave’s People & Processes column in PCMA’s Novemeber edition of Convene. It is reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. © 2010. 

What are some other things you can do to shift from serving attendees to involving participants in your conferences and events? What keeps you from involving participants in your conference planning and implementation?

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