Why Your Conference Needs Meeting Anthropologists

Looking Back

Your annual meeting needs a couple of meeting anthropologists!

No, not a couple of people in Raiders of the Lost Ark clothing, carrying shovels and picks.

You need curious people, preferably outsiders, to observe your meeting participants’ actions, behaviors, decisions and group culture. You need to know how your attendees interact with each other, respond to your schedule, react to your speakers and content, align with or against your plans and generally conduct themselves at your conference.

Most meeting organizers and their staff are too busy overseeing the logistics of the event to observe attendees’ actions. Yet they need that data.

Usually meeting organizers rely on post-conference surveys to collect data from their attendees about the experience. But that is not enough. That only gives a snapshot into that attendee’s mind about the questions asked. It does not accurately illustrate your attendees’ actions, behaviors and decisions during the event.

You need some outside observers with an intense curiosity about how your conference attendees act, behave and respond.

Your Conference As A Society

Annual meetings take humans out of their daily routines and force them into a new environment. Attendees suddenly face unfamiliar surroundings, a strange home base, untried schedules, unusual meal routines, different ideas, new connections, foreign sleeping patterns and unknown experiences. It is an abnormal situation.

The conference attendees form a temporary society with new rules and expectations. A society is a group of individuals that have common associations. That association can be culture, interaction, location, role, social status, work or some other relationship.  

Within that conference society is a plurality of other groups and small communities. Some practices of these smaller societies are assimilated into the larger conference society. Some traits are seen as offensive or contradictory to the values of other groups. Within the larger conference society exists an unspoken expectation and tension on how everyone is expected to behave and act.

Yet in today’s world of networked individuals, new behaviors are emerging. Some are creating new rules and systems of behavior, even within face-to-face experiences. Some are defying old patterns of beliefs.

Thinking Like Meeting Anthropologists

Your conference society portrays specific patterns of behavior and actions. The challenge is whether you have the bandwidth to objectively observe how they are responding to your conference.

You need a couple of meeting anthropologists to uncover what people are doing, where they are going, where they are congregating and how to make things better for them.

Here are some questions your curious meeting anthropologists should consider:

  • What patterns of attendee behavior are you observing?
  • Where are attendees congregating?
  • Where are they not congregating?
  • What venue and environmental pressures are shaping the attendee experience?
  • What parts of the conference schedule are attendees avoiding?
  • What are attendees carrying with them to sessions?
  • How are attendees communicating with each other?
  • How are attendees reacting to the flow of the conference experience?
  • What are attendees feeling about this experience?
  • How are attendees behaving in education sessions? 

What other things would you ask your meeting anthropologists to observe?  What would be the benefit of inviting meeting anthropologists to your next conference?

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  1. Another great post. Some of the conferences I attend are packed with technical sessions. After awhile it is just to heavy. Lots of information, no movement, interaction, the room gets hot.
    Also the presenters are experts in their feild and they are not speakers. Sometimes nervous, fumbling, speaking to their notes. The time plods by.
    Because I am a guest speaker and not “in’their industry, i likely don’t get as much out of it than other delegates do.
    When i am in the audience i think,,, hmmm, wouldnt it be good if they had a way to break this up? get people moving, interacting, etc.
    Or this might be better for speaker and audience if it was facilitated. The pressure and attention away from the speaker and towards the goal or learning

  2. Cool Jeff!!
    Such a weird coincidence. I always ask people what the one subject they would study if they could go back to school and study absolutely anything. Mine has always been cultural anthropology, I took several courses in college and they were my favorite.

    LOVE this post!

    A cultural anthropologist would look to unlock the rhythms of behaviour. They would solve riddles of patterns and even look at the biological shapers of a conference.

    Wait, did I already say how much I love this post? 😉

  3. Paul Salinger says:

    Very interesting idea. I wonder if it scales for a large conference like Oracle OpenWorld or CES, for example, where there are multiple audiences with multiple behavior patterns and interests?

    I’m almost thinking you need a small army of anthropologists, socioligists and maybe psychologists to really understand the behavior patterns, needs and thinking of large conferences that are diverse in audience and content.

    This would be interesting to try though at an industry conference like MPI or PCMA where the audience is pretty much focused on one kind of topic.

  4. thom singer says:

    This is a great post. A conference is a mini-society, and if you remind people of this, they will react positively. Too often attendees are as distracted as those in charge of the event.

    Hiring good speakers, who will stay and participate in your event is one way to get “anthropologists”. Many speakers can speak at 50 – 100 events per year, thus making them experts. The problem is too many speak and flee the scene within 30 minutes.

    Those who stay and are engaged can bring value far beyond what your paid them to speak when you ask them for their feedback and observations about an event.

    Thanks for this post, as it spurred me thinking about the added value that can impact meeting planners!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Ah, you are already thinking like a meeting anthropologist! Thanks for sharing some of your insights and tips on improving the meeting experience.

      I can see you in your Indiana Jones hat now! You would make a great meeting anthropologist studying conference socieities. I like the way you framed it, “unlock the rhythms of (conference society) behavior” and “conference biological shapers.” Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      Interesting thoughts about needing a group of anthropologists for large conferences with multiple audiences. Makes sense to me!

      Thanks for extending the conversation on your blog and for reading as well. Great thoughts on your blog too.

  5. ‘@Midori – my alma mater, Northwestern U has a terrific performance studies grad school, where they do this exact kind of thing.

    @Jeff- thanks for this post. Now I finally know what to do with my perf studies degree!

  6. A wonderful idea! Social psychologists for years have observed groups for evidence of specific behaviors that help them understand members’ motivations, thoughts, and feelings. Putting such observations into a formalized structure would be of immense use to savvy program planners.

  7. […] I easily know mine. It’s Cultural Anthropology. So imagine my surprise when I saw this post from my dear friend Jeff Hurt (whose blog is my all-time favorite). It’s totally relevant to […]

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