Emotionally Engaging Events by Design

MPI-mag-coverIf you study the most successful, revered events—rock stars of the meetings world, like TED, The Nantucket Project and Renaissance Weekend—you’ll find that they do two things exceptionally well: create vibrant communities that people are drawn to, and deliver adult learning in a way that’s experiential, memorable and moving.

It’s interesting to note that these are not at all novel concepts. “Creating community” and “adult learning” are so embedded in our meeting planning vocabulary that they’re essentially cliché. We all say we’re doing them. But few of us are doing them well.

Community engagement—it’s a relationship

Before getting into the how of community engagement, I think it’s important to address the why—not because you need convincing, but because there’s a good chance your boss does.

I’ve worked with, and for, a lot of smart, successful people who simply don’t see the value of online communities and social capital. The results are difficult to measure, they say, plus doing it well requires a significant commitment of time and resources. Well, yeah, it is sometimes fuzzy and it is a lot of work—because it’s a relationship.

Would that same boss put his kids up for adoption because they sometimes misbehave? Of course not. You invest in relationships for the long term, and you don’t abandon them just because you’re not seeing short-term results.

Shift the selling proposition

So a community is a relationship, and engaging in relationships with your customers completely shifts the selling proposition. Here’s why.

If the thing you’re trying to sell me is a discrete item—as in, registration for an event that occurs in a specific location during a fixed set of dates—I’ll tend to evaluate it on a practical, emotionless level, and it’s easy to come up with reasons why I can’t be there. The dates conflict, my boss won’t approve the expense, travel’s a hassle, it means time away from my family, etc.

But if you’ve engaged me through an active, vibrant community … and in that community I can connect with smart, interesting people who share similar values … and those connections develop affinity and rapport over time, then your in-person meetings become the culmination of something I’ve been investing in.

In the first scenario, which is interruption marketing, you’re saying, “Buy this from me!” In the second scenario, which is invitational marketing, the community is saying, “Come join us for this.”

A community builds relationships over time. Chris Guillebeau, an author and blogger who leads a passionate community of his own, observes that “trust isn’t built in a single action but rather through ongoing presence and reliability.”

Flip the model

A lot of meetings have added online elements (blogs, forums, webinars, video channels) in an attempt to build engagement, although usually just for intervals—pre-event hype and post-event recap—and usually just for marketing purposes.

What I’m suggesting is that you flip the model. Be a robust community that holds in-person meetings, not a meeting that’s trying to add a community.

Hybrid engagement

It’s a model of hybrid engagement, using online tools and resources to enhance and extend the value of your in-person events. You can’t just treat it as more channels for marketing to people, though. You want to give your participants a chance to connect—with each other, with speakers, with you—and then do something with that connection.

For example, make your sessions more “open source” by facilitating dialogue between speakers and attendees, with the expectation that speakers will then tailor their presentation based on what your audience has identified as its most pressing concerns. Or give attendees the means to self-form affinity groups based on shared interests or disciplines, which can turn into professional or social circles that meet during your events.

A friend of mine did his seminary training through a university that conducted its courses online for most of the year. Midway through each term, the students would gather in-person on the university’s campus (flying in from all over the country) to discuss and digest the material they were covering. My friend describes those midterm gatherings as “magical,” an experience you wouldn’t miss because it fulfilled all of the effort you’d invested over the course of the year. That’s what you want your events to be like.

Engaging events stand for something that matters

Of course, you can’t simply build an online forum and expect the world to adore you for it. You have to draw people in.

The good news is you have DNA on your side: humans are hardwired to connect, to associate with others, to form tribes. The challenge is that affiliation alone doesn’t create an engaged community. Simply declaring, “We serve the interests of [insert your industry here]” is not going to win you any passionate fans. Consumer research shows that our purchasing decisions are increasingly linked to our values—we buy things because of what they say about who we are.

The most engaging events (or organizations, or people) stand for something that matters, are passionate about their values, articulate those values clearly and persuasively, and aren’t afraid to polarize people who don’t stand with them. If you’re bland and inoffensive, nobody will hate you. But nobody will love you either.

Yancey Strickler, a founder of Kickstarter, has a great way of putting this. “Fame,” he says, “is a lot of people caring about you a little.” Engagement is a few people caring about you a lot.

Communities form around ideas or causes that feel purposeful

My previous organization, the California Building Industry Association, has a membership of home builders and land developers. Real estate development tends to be a very numbers-driven business, and yet there’s something profoundly human about the product it creates—home, neighborhood and community.

And so I helped create a new meeting, apart from our annual convention, that was a deep dive into those very topics. We called it “The Vine, a conference on the nature of community,” and declared it to be a space for better understanding how and why social bonds form—so that our members might use those insights to create more thoughtful, human-centered developments. We then brought in artists, activists, poets, anthropologists, and even one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, so that it wasn’t just a roomful of developers talking to themselves.

As you might imagine, it polarized (by design) a large portion of our audience, and it never grew to more than 200 participants in any single meeting. But it generated levels of engagement (quantitatively and qualitatively) that we’d never seen before—or since.

Whatever industry you’re in, there’s something with meaning and purpose at the core of it. Find that, ideate around it, build on it, and connect people to it.

Govern a community with principles, not rules

My final observation about creating community is that it’s ultimately going to be beyond your control, and that’s something you’ll have to accept. Don’t overprescribe it. Facilitate it, but don’t try to own it.

A community wants to be governed with principles, not rules. When you create a set of rules, you come across as rigid, and people will find a loophole in them anyway. When you create a set of well-thought-out guiding principles, you’re treating the community like responsible adults—and the community, in turn, will begin to police itself. (My favorite example is from the photo sharing site Flickr, whose terms of use include: “Don’t be creepy. You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.”)

You’re not the architect of a fixed system. You’re the gardener of an ever-evolving ecosystem.

Adult learning begins with the arc of a story

As I said at the beginning of the article, great events deliver adult learning in a way that’s experiential, memorable and moving. Fortunately there’s a model for how to do this.

Throughout human history, nothing has stirred people’s hearts and imaginations like stories, and every story follows an arc. So should your meeting.

When you plan an event, approach it like you’re making a movie. Every detail that goes into your movie needs to support, and flow with, the story you’re telling. Your program needs pacing, just like a movie plot. Some segments will be upbeat and vibrant, some will be calm and contemplative, some will be rich and generative, and so on. Your music, lighting, stage sets and other sensory cues must follow suit, otherwise your story becomes disjointed.

Most importantly, you, the planner, provide the unifying vision. A meeting is comprised of thousands of details, some big, some small, all supporting the story you’re trying to tell. Your job is to give coherence to them.

Make learning sticky by making it experiential

Neuroscience research shows that when you can embed emotional experiences into learning, people will process it differently and retain it more effectively.

Dev Patnaik, author of Wired to Care, explains that there are two regions of the brain responsible for this: the amygdala, which processes our emotions, and the hippocampus, which is essential in the formation of long-term memories. “The more emotionally charged an event is,” he says, “the more vivid it feels to our amygdala, which then helps our hippocampus to hold on to the event for the long haul. That’s why our most emotional memories are also our most vivid ones: our brains literally encode them more forcefully than they do other data.”

At one of the meetings of The Vine, we featured a dramatic performance by three young actresses. Their play, “The Secret Ruths of Island House,” was a re-enactment of interviews they’d conducted with elderly women from a seniors’ care center. It was a poignant and haunting reminder that so much of our cultural heritage is simply bottled up when we relegate our elderly to these facilities—a point that would not have been nearly as powerful if made by an academic speaker with a PowerPoint slide.

For another, we brought in two world-class musicians, a pianist and a cellist, who performed an improvisational duet. The first time they had ever played together was at this meeting in front of this audience. At intervals throughout the performance, they’d take a break and talk to us about the process of improv, intuition, co-creation and flow—insights that had even greater meaning because we were hearing them from performers in the moment.

Within a few weeks of your meeting, people won’t remember specifically what you told them. But years from now they will recall, with perfect clarity, how you made them feel.

Adult learners are catalysts and collectors

A colleague of mine conducted research on what people expect from meetings, and he found that participants generally fall into one of two profiles: catalysts and collectors.

The catalyst is a Type A, cut-to-the-chase personality. This person wants actionable insights that he can take back to the office and begin to apply right away. The collector is more of a Type B personality who’s fascinated by interesting ideas. Even if she’s not sure what to do with the idea just now, she’ll tuck it away for later, confident that at some point it will fit into a larger puzzle of ideas.

Your program needs to offer a blend of content for each of these profiles, for two reasons. First, you have both types in your audience, and second, a program tailored entirely to one or the other wouldn’t have (borrowing again from the movie analogy) balanced pacing.

Some speakers will clearly fall into one camp or the other (Tom Peters: catalyst; Malcolm Gladwell: collector), and some will provide a little of each (Seth Godin). When you plan your program, make sure you’ve got a mix of both.

Environment matters

When mapping out your program, make sure you’re matching activities with environments, otherwise you’re fighting the makeup of the brain. When you put people in a standard hotel ballroom, you’re triggering the memories of every meeting they’ve ever attended, and they’ll behave according to script. But getting them into a unique, unconventional setting (like a theater, concert hall or museum) cues a completely different response. It preps them for something new.

Having said that, I realize that a lot of nontraditional venues are simply impractical for meetings, particularly those that are highly AV-dependent. If a hotel or conference center works best for your event, look for ones that have great outdoor and interstitial spaces—especially gardens—and use them. Nature stimulates creativity, so make it a feature of your program.

Psychologists have also found a relationship between ceiling height and cognitive performance. Large rooms with high ceilings are conducive to creative thinking and wide-open idea associating. In smaller, more confined spaces, people perform better at logical, linear, problem-solving tasks.

Create opportunities for interaction—but don’t force it

A critical piece of adult learning is understanding how and when to incorporate interaction. You can’t force interaction (it will usually backfire if you try), but you can create the kinds of conditions where it’s more likely to flourish.

One of my favorite examples was a conference where our lunches were packed, family-style, in picnic baskets. As we exited the auditorium we were told to form groups of six. Each group was given a basket, an assortment of drinks, and a blanket to spread out on the lawn. What struck me most was how naturally I fell into casual conversation with strangers while picnicking on a blanket together, much more so than when seated at a banquet table in a ballroom. (I should also mention that this was a very casual conference where jeans and t-shirts are the norm. You wouldn’t want to try the picnic idea for people in suits and skirts.)

Name badges are a great opportunity to bring more of people’s personality to the surface. Ask attendees to upload a photo that reflects their interests or hobbies, or give them three lines of “Ask me about…” to fill in, then print their photos/responses on their badges. It’s up to them how much (or little) to share, of course, but every tidbit on every badge is a potential conversation-starter.

What you want to do is make it easier for conversations to begin, not dictate that people have this particular conversation right now.

If you want to be engaging, be engaged

An often-quoted piece of advice is that if you want to be interesting, be interested. In the same way, if you want to be engaging, be engaged.

You’re passionate about something in your particular field, otherwise you wouldn’t keep showing up every day. Take that passion and embed it in your events—and in the community that fuels your events. Connect with your audience, and make it easier for them to connect with each other. Stand for something that matters. Believe me, people will notice.

Ultimately, what do people want? To experience meaning and purpose. To feel connected to something larger than themselves. To contribute. To be missed when they don’t show up.

An engaged community, with engaging meetings, can provide those things. That’s what being a meeting planner is all about.

(This article was originally written for Meeting Professionals International. The fancy, formatted, e-reader version is here.)

 

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