One of the strongest intangible attributes of a healthy conference is how much sharing takes place. Too often, competition and self-interest get in the way of sharing what’s most helpful.
Professions that deliver conference sessions with a high level of sharing – not diluted or generalized from the stage – are often in fields linked to prevention, healthcare, education and philanthropy. Protecting, curing, developing and caring are noble causes, and sharing the secret sauce is viewed as the right thing to do. Conversely, conferences that have a higher deal-making quotient tend to hold their cards closer to their chests.
Creating a Safe Environment for Sharing
Regardless of your industry, there are strategies conference organizers can adopt to help grow conference participant sharing, collaboration and co-creation.
Shift from speakers to facilitators of learning – Sharing is best achieved in small groups. To make this shift, speakers will need coaching on how to engage the participants in meaningful dialogue. They will need to focus less on delivering content and more on helping the learner uncover what the content means.
From a learning or facilitation-design perspective, interspersing content with conversations is most effective. An example of this is called chunking. Ten or so minutes of content is presented, followed by a provocative open-ended question that is used to frame small-group conversations. This cadence can be repeated numerous times to fill a 60- to 90-minute experience.
Think/Write/Share is a proven and effective strategy for helping create a safe space; especially for introverts.
Prime for trust – It’s important to build rapport before getting into deeper conversations. Easing attendees into sharing with one another should be done within the first few minutes of an experience. Ask them to introduce one another and share something novel (like first job, super power they wish they had) to set the tone for deeper sharing. Opening and getting buy-in with a presenter/attendee agreement can help establish expectations and ground rules for designing a safe space. Here’s an example of an agreement developed by Jeff Hurt, DES, executive vice president of education and engagement at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. It helps set the tone for safe and collaborative learning experiences
Raise the sharing bar – With help from one of our most respected experts, Judith Glaser (organizational anthropologist and author), participants can engage in transformational – not transactional – conversations by:
- Listening to connect first, not for opportunity
- Putting others’ agenda ahead of your own by asking open-ended or tell-me- more type questions
- Reinforcing success and progress.
The Proper Set-Up
Inclusive conversations are best achieved in groups of two to three participants. After initial conversations, two groups can be brought together to share and take the conversation to the next level. The most effective set-ups will be small cocktail rounds with four or five chairs. Alternatives include larger rounds of six, rectangular tables for six or even chairs rearranged by the participants. Sharing several small-group discussions with the larger group can be helpful to the process.
Leveling the Playing Field
Large companies, especially those in the pharmaceutical and financial services industries, tend to have greater restrictions on what they can and can’t share. Slide decks often need corporate approval. Professionals who work for these companies can share more in a small-group setting. We need to do a better job of designing learning experiences that offer all of our attendees the opportunity to share in small-group conversations.
Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2018
How do you coach your speakers to make education sessions more participatory? What are some of the creative room sets you’ve used to encourage small-group conversations?