In an era of ultraportable tablets, smartphones, glasses and even watches connecting us to the Internet, Google can find the answer to all of your big questions in .0001 seconds. For our gotta-have-it-now culture, knowledge is instantaneous and everywhere, because we demand it. But there’s still something to be said for books, especially when it comes to thought leadership. The shelf for meeting planning help books isn’t a crowded one, as the industry is still relatively young. But within the collection, there are three authors who stand out: Adrian Segar with “Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love”; Paul O. Radde, Ph.D., with “Seating Matters”; and Marcia Conner, an outside expert who found her way into the meetings and events space with “Creating a Learning Culture: Strategy, Technology and Practice,” among others. The ideas that each book offered up have fundamentally changed the way planners approach meetings, as well as sparked conversations that shake up centuries-old ways of thinking about how we learn.
Starting out as an academic, Adrian Segar went to a lot of conferences. “I hated them,” he says. “They were very little about learning and more about broadcasting information, and also status.” When he moved on to owning a manufacturing company and also working in IT, he began organizing conferences around those topics because he wanted to get together with people who were in his field. “I started a conference where there were no experts,” Segar says. “All you needed was a collection of adults that had a common thing they wanted to learn about together.” After about 15 years of putting on these peer-learning conferences (“totally as an amateur, not as my day job,” he says), he decided to write a book about it. And what that effort amounted to was “Conferences that Work,” which focuses on a way of doing events that turn into what the attendees, not necessarily the planner, want them to be.
“In the pure form of the event, people come together with a common interest,” says Segar. “The first half-day of the event, you learn about who else is there, why they came, what they want to learn, what problems they have, what they want to discuss, and what expertise and experience people have. People always have expertise that other people want to know. Those people end up running the sessions, because people want to learn that.” A smaller group then takes that information and turns it into a schedule for the remainder of the conference, which is now optimized for what the people there really want to discuss.
Most people are cautious about this less-formal, on-the-spot format. But the key is to create a safe environment so participants feel comfortable. Segar advises planners to help people move slowly into a participatory environment so they gradually realize the value of it. “About 1 in 50 people do not like this style of event once they’ve actually been exposed to it,” says Segar. “But the other 98 percent prefer it. If you try to make everyone happy, you’ll never do anything different.”
In “Conferences That Work,” Segar explains the main reason that traditional conferences no longer facilitate quality learning: The rise of easily available information online has been the game-changer. “Up to about 20 years ago, it was true that most of what you needed to do your job was learned in the classroom,” he says. “Traditional meetings were an extension of that and were a very good fit. People knew things we didn’t, and we could go listen to them. But that is no longer true. What has been called ‘social learning’ is now the dominant way we learn what we need to know to do our jobs.”
Segar cites “The Teaching Firm: Where Productive Work and Learning Converge,” a study published by Education Development Center, to prove his point. According to the study, 70 percent of what people need to know comes from experiential learning. About 20 percent is self-directed learning; if you need to know something, you look it up. The final 10 percent is classroom-style learning.
“These are rough figures and depend on the industry, but 90 percent of what we learn today is not in the classroom but from our peers or from ourselves,” Segar says. “Meetings need to match how we learn these days. People often say, ‘the best learning was in the hallway.’ What we need to do is bring that learning into sessions and make it the core part of the event.”
When planning a “Conferences That Work”-style meeting, Segar says planners have to measure success in a different way, by looking past the attendance figure. “Social learning does not work with 1,000 people in a room; you can’t learn from 1,000 people simultaneously,” he says. “But you can learn a tremendous amount in a day from 50 people. These conferences may be small by traditional standards, but success is measured by feedback from attendees.”
Since his first book came out, Segar has surprised himself and decided to write another. This one will focus on participative learning and specific techniques that planners can employ at their own events to involve people in learning. One such technique is body voting on human spectrograms. “It’s having people get up out of their chairs and show their opinion on a particular topic by where they’re standing in a room,” he explains. “It’s a way of physically replicating what happens with audience-response systems. With clickers, the information is confidential. But it’s interesting to learn more about who thinks what. In 45 seconds, you can get a visual picture of the feeling in a room about a particular topic.”
What we’ve known for many years, Segar emphasizes, is that experiential learning is far more effective in creating long-lasting, accurate, more valuable ideas than passive learning. “Learning is about taking risks, to some degree,” says Segar. “You don’t learn anything new if you don’t stretch yourself in some way.”
When Paul O. Radde, Ph.D., was planning a presentation as a grad student at the University of Texas, he set up the ballroom with chairs turned toward the stage in a semicircle. Little did he know that simple move would turn into his signature approach as he planned conferences and later became a professional speaker. The problem with setting straight rows, says Radde, is from the very beginning, you’re inhibiting learning. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, of course, dictates this. If attendees are not physically comfortable, their ability to be creative and solve problems is crippled.
“Setting straight rows seems like an easy thing to do, and most planners think it maximizes seating capacity, but it really doesn’t,” Radde says. “More than that, it requires people to turn their bodies at an uncomfortable angle to be able to see the presentation, sometimes up to 85 degrees. It causes suffering.” He has built his speaking career on the point that seating matters. Appropriately, his book by the same name has become a handbook for meeting planners looking for alternative seating.
Aside from the comfort factor, if people are set in straight rows, they can’t see the people around them, which Radde says is a major factor in learning. “You see a head snap; it alerts you to something of interest,” he explains. “Say you’re sitting near a person who seems to be responding the same way you are to the information; they’re surprised, amazed, etc. If you two feel similarly, there is more likelihood you will look up that person during a break, possibly forge a relationship and learn something from them.”
When people are uncomfortable and lack a line of sight to the presentation, they’re less likely to network and won’t be learning from nonverbal communications, Radde says. “Audiences always respond better when they see each other—a yawn gets a yawn, a laugh gets a laugh. A learning community is stymied when set in straight rows.”
Radde’s views on seating have continued to evolve since “Seating Matters” was published. He says he’s become “anti-round and pro-square and pro-rectangle” when it comes to tables. He also has discovered some suppliers making advancements. “I’ve seen tables at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency in the shape of a cross. They are ideal for different people coming in and starting conversations with each other,” he says.
On a larger level, Radde says meetings are moving from a top-down, expert-on-the-stage event to utilizing more of the resources in the audience. “Where it’s really moving is toward immersion, a term that Michael Dell used,” he says. “You [use] frontloading—some prior information about the presentation, maybe an interview or assessment that gathers information, social media going on during and after, blogging that starts before and goes on during and after—so [your event] is not so much a single dot on the landscape. It transcends in time and connectivity, as much as people want to have.”
“The word itself almost has to change,” Radde says. By becoming more educated about the topics before arriving at the conference, individual participants can benefit as well as the audience as a whole. “Part of the passivity has followed its way into the process. Ask not what the topic can do for you; also ask what you can do for the topic,” he says. “You get a presentation you deserve when the front end has not been done. It has to start going both ways.”
What will it take to help people succeed easily and quickly? That was the question Marcia Conner asked herself as head of training for Microsoft in the late ’80s. Tasked with growing Microsoft’s customer support program from 100 people to thousands, Conner was forced to radically rethink how people learn to be successful. “I didn’t want to fall into the same kind of rhythms that other organizations had used, modeling how school has always worked,” she explains. That rethinking meant being more in tune with how human beings are wired to learn and take in information.
“Conferences have modeled how school has been in the past, and now that we live in a different environment…it’s time we rethink all of our events,” says Conner. “Just because we’re accustomed to sitting down and listening doesn’t mean it’s the best way.” Conner highlights two main ideas on brain science as they relate to learning in her book, “Creating a Learning Culture: Strategy, Technology and Practice.”
The first is that the human brain is wired to pay attention to novelty. “That’s what allowed us to evolve to where we are. If something was unusual or unique, it was our best opportunity to learn something, or it was our largest threat.” She encourages meeting planners to come up with fresh solutions to the traditional forward-facing, classroom-style education sessions. “Same hotel, same stage, same chairs, same carpet, same schedule…we’re used to that rhythm, that’s how we know events to go. Where is the emphasis on what’s radically different?” Changing the focus from what is known to what is radically different helps people connect ideas with opportunities of the future, Conner says, and the whole point of facilitating better learning is to enable people to make better decisions.
Secondly, we are wired to construct new things using what’s around us. What makes human beings unique is we’re capable of “taking a little bit of information from here, a little bit from there, mixing it together and being able to build, invent and see the possibility of something new,” she says. “That requires not just having one person speaking at you or attending eight different sessions in a day. It’s being able to have the skills to distill the most important points, not necessarily from the speaker’s perspective…but based on how the information affects you.”
That distillation of information is the opportunity conferences present. They have the potential to create a “rich knowledge stew,” Conner says. But that stew doesn’t come from a 40-minute session listening to a speaker with 10 minutes at the end left for questions. She suggests adopting a flip model that includes 10 minutes of “big ideas” at the beginning, followed by 40 minutes of people thinking together and coming up with new ideas.
To facilitate cooperative learning and thinking, conferences first have to make the right moves to get people meeting and networking with each other. Conner describes one event that did this very well. “They didn’t give out name badges, which forced people to actually meet each other,” she explains. “You couldn’t just scan everyone’s name badges and judge whether they were of interest to you. The emphasis was on sparking conversations between people.”
There’s no denying that ubiquitous technology can have an impact on the human interactions that take place at conferences. But Conner stresses that tweeting, texting, Facebooking and more are all simply an effort to stay connected. “People have become quite intolerant of environments where they can no longer connect,” she says. “People will leave the room if they don’t have Wi-Fi or can’t use their mobile devices. That’s not a distraction for them; that’s how they’re connecting ideas with how they need to learn.”
An individual’s motivation for attending a conference influences their overall satisfaction with the event. Conner says people learn for three reasons: 1) They’re trying to achieve a goal, such as trying to find the next big idea or a specific expert; 2) They’re motivated by relationships they build with other people and are energized by the excitement of social situations; and 3) They have a love of learning. People generally are motivated by a combination of these reasons. But the common denominator is human interaction. “There’s something to be said for people really deeply feeling comfortable so they can focus on the knowledge between them,” Conner says. “Here’s our opportunity to have better-connected events: People are far more likely to get their goals met. It’s not just the knowledge but also the actual social success. It satisfies all three goals.”
The key for planners, Conner says, is to understand why people are attending events. “For some, it’s to gain new knowledge, but with most, it’s to make better decisions. To find the sweet spot between those two is to do something really remarkable.”