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, health care, 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.
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 enable this format, 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 themselves to each other and share something novel (i.e., their first job or super power they wish they had), to set the tone for deeper sharing. You can establish expectations and ground rules for designing a safe space by having your presenters/speakers sign an agreement.
› Raise the sharing bar According to organizational anthropologist and author Judith Glaser, participants can engage in transformational — not transactional — conversations by:
1 Listening to connect first, not for opportunity
2 Putting others’ agendas ahead of their own by asking open-ended or tell-me-more type questions
3 Reinforcing success and progress.
Large companies 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 crave the kind of authentic sharing that can be nurtured in a small-group setting. We need to do a better job of designing learning experiences that offer all participants these opportunities.
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.
Jeff Hurt, DES, Velvet Chainsaw’s EVP of education and engagement, has developed a presenter/attendee agreement that helps set the tone for safe and collaborative learning experiences. Find it at convn.org/safe-conversations.