WSB 003 : How To Design Events That Get Amazing Participant Feedback

The WorkshopBank Podcast Session 3 : How To Run Unbelievably Successful Conferences and Events That Participants Love Attending and are Incredibly Simple To Organize

In this session of The WorkshopBank Podcast, I interview Adrian Segar who is on the show to talk about how to design events using a method that he created called ‘Participant Driven Events’.

He’s quite literally written the book on this and flies all around the world helping others implement what he advocates.

Participants and organizers alike that have tried this never want to go back to traditional keynote style conferences again. The proof is in the testimonials.

“The beauty of the event process is that in every event I’ve ever done (and I’ve done a lot in 30 years) the group discovers a few things that the organizers had absolutely no idea that other people were interested in.”

If you’re watching the video below then keep an eye out for a special surprise guest at around the two thirds mark and how I very professionally dealt with the intruder.

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In this podcast session you’ll learn:

  • How Participant Driven Events are about putting the power of the agenda into the hands of the participants
  • What the 3 core phases of a Participant Driven Event are
  • What the 3 killer questions participants should be asked at the start to kick the event off
  • What Adrian’s 6 Ground Rules are that are essential the participants agree on at the start to set the tone for the rest of the event
  • Two tools called The Solution Room and The Human Spectrogram

Links mentioned in this podcast include:

Thank you so much, Adrian, for sharing your process on how to design events with us here on WorkshopBank!

Get ready for the next session of The WorkshopBank Podcast coming very soon with a legend in the field of facilitation. In fact, I called him a ‘Godfather’ at one point. You’re not going to want to miss it.

Be sure to subscribe to the podcast below to get it automatically to your computer or device when it’s available.

Thanks and all the best!

 Raw Transcript

WorkshopBank’s audio transcription is done by Speechpad

Nick: So, hello, welcome. I’m joined today with, by Adrian Segar. Adrian’s based in Marlboro Vermont, I think that’s right. And you have more than 30 years experience planning, organizing facilitating conferences. You have your own company, that they’ve been doing this for over 30 years, called Conferences That Work.

In 2011 he was named as one of the 68 most innovated event professionals by BizBash Magazine and one of the top 10 event professionals worth knowing on social media by the National Conference Center.

He’s written a book on participant driven events and we’ll talk about what participant driven events means a little bit later in the podcast, which is published in November 2009 and you’ve got another book coming out in 2013, I believe.

Adrian: I do.

Nick: Which is very exciting. So, I’ll definitely want to talk about that and see what the different between your first book and your coming book is. So, welcome Adrian. Thank you very much for joining us on WorkshopBank and…

Adrian: Thanks.

Nick: …thanks for making the time.

Adrian: Thanks [inaudible 00:01:08] Nick.

Nick: No, it’s an absolute pleasure . So, participant driven events, tell me about what it means. I’ve got a, I mean, I’ve got a vague understanding of what that might mean but I don’t know exactly what it is in your definition.

Adrian: Well, they’re events that while they’re happening, the events turn into what the people who come to them want them to be. So, in other words, the events are designed and take shape, what you might consider the traditional conference program is created at the event through a process where people, first of all, get to know each other, they get to know why they’re there, what they want to have happen at the event if they can make it anything they want it to be and they also learn about each other’s expertise and experience.

And then, these events are, typically, my version of Conferences That Work. Match was skills, the resources in the group with the things that people want to talk about.

Nick: Okay. So, you do very little planning up front of what the event’s going to look like.

Adrian: Absolutely, I mean, in a pewit you can, with longer events, I mean, I work on 3 or 4 day events like this and typically something that’s that long you’ll leave into that traditional element.

You might have a keynote speaker, you may have 3 or 4 major predetermined sessions, just like any conference, but most of the time and interestingly, in most of the evaluations and thousands of people have been to these things over the years. I’ve been creating those for about 20 years.

Most of the evaluations really, the most positive evaluations are usually about what I call the peer sessions. The sessions are created through this process during the event and people love those because they created them themselves and they were on topics that they wanted to talk about.

Nick: Okay, and what are, what’s a typical peer session? Can you give me an example?

Adrian: Well, a peer session can be about anything that the group, the group, the beauty of the process is that it works with any group of people with a common interest. So, I have been asked to do these for such a wide variety of groups.

This year, I mean, a few months ago, I did one for independent garden centers in the United States. Next month I’m doing ones for people who train a bank personnel in the United States. IT non profit, I did a conference earlier this year on diversity issues for the state of Vermont.

I mean, any group of people who have a common interest can use this process and zone and they can discover what they have in common. And the beauty of the process is, I mean, I’ve been doing this for a long time, is that in every event that I’ve ever done, people discover, the group discovers through things that no one, that the organizers had no idea other people were interested in.

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: Very often you discover that someone in the audience who has tremendous expertise or experience that really useful to other people, that no one knew about and the process uncovers that very early on and people say, “Oh, you know about that? I really want to hear about that.” And the next thing you know, that person is running a session about it.

Nick: Oh wow, oh wow. So, literally, the participants run the sessions. That part of the . . .

Adrian: They do, they do. And the beauty of it is, is because, again, it’s not, no one is expecting a formal presentation. How could you when you just discovered that you were going to run a session on something that it turns out, that you know about that other people were interested in?

It’s a very formal process. Most of the sessions are relatively small. In a group discussions you might have a panel, if they’re 2 or 3 people who, actually, have some expertise or you might have one person leading something or describing their experience and the whole process ensures that what’s of most interest is what happens.

Nick: Okay.

Adrian: But there’s always surprises. That’s one of the reasons I love doing this thing is that you never know what’s going to happen.

Nick: And that’s probably one of the reasons why participants love it so much as well because no one likes a boring predictable conference. Surprises are where it’s at. So, could you just skim over and summarize the process that you use with a conference?

Adrian: I’ll try. Though, again, I always say to people the only way to really understand how it works is to experience it.

Nick: Sure.

Adrian: But, very simply, there’s, sort of, opening, the heart of the session and the closing. The opening has two parts. One is, the first part is called a round table where groups of up to 50, 60 people answer something I call the 3 questions and each person has some time to, is given time to think about their answers to these questions and then 1 or 2 minutes, answers them to the entire group of 50, 60 people.

And the questions are, for which there are no wrong answers, are, how did I get here? In other words, why did I come to this event? Which people can talk about anyway they like. What would I like to have happen? If this conference is wonderful for me, what could happen at it? You can be very specific, I want to learn about this or I have this particular issue that I really want to work with.

And the third question is, what expertise and experience do I have that other people here might be interested in? In an hour or two, again the time frame depends on the time frame of the whole event, typically, at least, they have to be at least a day and a half to use this kind of process. But within an hour or 2 you know a huge amount about 50 or 60 people in your group. And themes for the event have become obvious and so forth.

The next this that happens is a session, something called, what I call peer session sign up and it’s a two-part process where people, first, suggest sessions that they might want to have happen and then there’s a sign up process where you find up who’s interested in particular sessions and also you discover people who might be interested in leading or facilitating those sessions.

And then there’s a process that a small group goes through that takes that and turns everything that’s happened so far into a conference schedule that looks somewhat like a traditional conference schedule except that it’s optimized for the group, for the whole group.

And then, the middle of the event, you round out that program. So, that’s like a traditional conference. You, actually, do all that.

And then I have two closing sessions. One is called a personal introspective, which is an opportunity for people to actually think about what has happened, what they’ve learned during the event and what they might want to change in their professional usually life as a result, as a way of giving, honoring people and giving them the time to actually think about that and making it more likely that those ideas you’ve come up with or those resolutions you’ve made will actually occur.

And the final session is what I call a group perspective and that’s a session where everyone comes together and it’s a way of thinking about the event, the future of the event and the group. Do we want to run this event again?

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: Often, there are initiatives that come out of the conference. People, a group of people say, “It would be really cool if we did,” X, Y, and Z, in future, some of us, and the final, so the group perspective is not an opportunity, a facilitated opportunity for everybody to talk about those things from a group perspective, as apposed to a personal interest perspective from the previous session. That’s the outline.

Nick: Okay. So, the organizers of the conference are very much not taking the front of the stage role. They aren’t the ones that are controlling every element of output from the stage down in down towards the audience. They just, literally, stand back and let it happen. Did I . . .

Adrian: Right, you need, yes, you need to facilitate what I’ve just described.

Nick: Okay.

Adrian: My book that came out three years ago that you mentioned in conferences that work, creating events that people love, describes in detail how to do that. And the third part of the book is, kind of, incredibly detailed step by step process about how you facilitate this event with.

And one of the things I’m sort of proud of is that people buy that book and people are using this process all over the world now. I keep hearing, every week I hear about people who are running events using the model and they often, I didn’t even know they were running them because the book apparently is clear enough and detailed enough for people to actually take it and . . .

Nick: Just doing it.

Adrian: . . . and do it. And so, I’m proud of that. The second part of the book is also, about how you prepare for one of these events and quite a few, and it’s starting to be adopted in event planning by event planning staff and universities because I’ve been told it’s a very useful compendium of information for anyone running a conference, even if you’re running a professional event.

Nick: Sure.

Adrian: So, there’s a lot great information about budgeting and marketing and so forth for small events there.

Nick: But am I right in thinking you’re seeing more and more, this is a growing area, right? So, more and more people are designing conferences in this way because of the great feedback that they’re getting.

Adrian: Well, I think, yes, I think that there’s that, that the most common evaluation comment that I get is you’ve kind of spoiled me for traditional events. I don’t want to go to the traditional events again. I want to go at this pacing that I want to do. So, it’s growing in that way.

But the other reason why I think the meeting industry and I’ve been promoting these approaches to the traditional meeting industry for the last couple of years, NPI and allot of the other meeting associations is because I think face to face events that we’ve had for hundreds of years now have been radically affected in ways that I think the traditional meeting industry often is not aware of yet because of the rise of online. I mean, when you can see, and this wasn’t true eight years ago, eight years ago Facebook didn’t exist. YouTube didn’t exist, TEDx didn’t exist.

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: You can get amazing content, video content, you can see a speaker online at your convenience. The whole the traditional rational of conferences being a place where you go for content is . . .

Nick: Is changing.

Adrian: . . . is changing and people aren’t going to go to face events for content so much anymore. They’re going to go if the connections, the networking, the sharing about things that are relevant and the opportunity to get their specific questions answered

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: And participant-led events are fantastic for that. One thing I should mention that I do, which I think is really important, though it’s not for everyone, is that I use ground rules at the start of my events about confidentiality. And as a result a lot of the discussion is often about pretty intimate stuff that you never talk about . . .

Nick: Outside.

Adrian: . . . outside or you, and you would certainly never talk about if the event was being streamed or you were concerned that your boss might hear about it and so forth.

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: But it’s a wonderful opportunity when you’re with you’re peers, the people who also do what you do, know some of the problems that you have in common to actually share some often quite intimate things in a safe environment and that’s another, sort of, feature of my particular model. Not every participant-led model uses that, uses that . . .

Nick: Great. And how do you go about . . . what process do you use to set the ground rules at the beginning? Do you have a favorite?

Adrian: Well, I have, for Conferences That Work, I have a set . . . if you’re doing facilitation work with a group over a long period of time, it’s best to actually let the group to figure out its own ground rules. But at Conferences That Work, we don’t really have time to do that.

I have set of six that I offer to people and basically say, here they are, this is the rational for them. They’re called the four freedoms and there are a couple of other rules about, one is about confidentiality and the other is about really mundane but important, staying on time. I ask everyone to agree to them at the event and they do.

I mean, it’s really remarkable how you can create a very safe environment in a short amount of time using some explicit ground rules. I’ve written about this on my blog.

Nick: Yes. When you get to the point when you get that agreement, do you feel a big change in the room, in the atmosphere?

Adrian: It’s very interesting. I [inaudible 00:14:56], I mean, for the first 10 years I did these events, I didn’t have those ground rules and people, but people moved that way.

And I still had these intimate . . . there were intimate conversations, but once you make them explicit, I think I’ve noticed that people are more willing to talk about . . I mean, it’s completely up to each individuals comfort level.

Nick: Of course.

Adrian: You don’t have to talk about anything.

Nick: Yes, it’s not an interrogation.

Adrian: No, it’s not. It’s certainly not. But you’d be amazed what people will do and talk to, often to a whole group about, that they would never do at a traditional event. Because they feel safe, they’ve decided that they feel safe about talking in this way.

And I think that’s very, very important to anybody in an industry that . . . I’ve heard this so many times. I mean, I know for example, I’ve talked to numerous doctors that meet with small groups of other doctors every few months and I’ve heard this said multiple times and they say, “We have these meetings and we talk about things because there are things that only doctors would really can talk to other doctors about. And I, kind of, give people that opportunity if they want to take advantage of it at my conferences as well.

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: And I think it’s important and I feel good about doing it.

Nick: Yes, definitely, definitely. I’d really like to dive into one other topic that we’d talked about before that we started this call, I think you call it the solution room.

Adrian: Yes.

Nick: And then come on to your book next year that you’re releasing next year and hear what that’s all about. So, how’s does the solution room work and where does it normally fit in in the process?

Adrian: I like to run the solution room at the start of an event but you can run it at the end of an event. My preference is to run it at the beginning. And what it is, and again, this is not a . . . this is, sort of, participant-led but it’s something you can use in a traditional conference and it’s becoming very popular.

It was only invented a year and a half ago. Actually, a meeting Professional International European NPI Conference in early 2011 and what it essentially is, is an opportunity for everyone to get peer consulting about an issue that they identify, that they choose for themselves from their peers. Again, in a sort of safe, relatively safe, if you feel safe, confidential environment.

It’s a very, very simple technique and I don’t think any of us who have been working creating this feel that it’s something that didn’t exist before, but to actually, I think, use it in a conference session . . . I just ran it, for example, at the NPI Chapter Business Summit in Dallas a couple of months ago in September for 250 people is, I think, new.

These kinds of exercises are usually done in executive retreats and so on with smaller groups. But this thing scales very nicely. I don’t actually see it. If you have a large enough room you can run it for 1,000 or 2,000 people if you wanted to.

And the core of it is a process where people, 6 or 8 people sit at a round table and everyone who’s come up with, or previously come up with a personal problem they would like help with, would they appear. So, it can be any kind of, can be something very specific, it could be . . . it’s interesting again, often the problem is that people will only talk about our people problems, I would say, I mean, it depends on the industry.

But maybe, often, it’s not uncommon for that half the problems to be issues on working with staff or bosses and so on, or organizational culture and so on. Or the could be completely technical issues about, I’m choosing a new system, I need a new computer system to do this. Can you give me any advice?

People can choose the problems. And what happens is, essentially, every one at the table gets the same amount of time to explain their problem and then you get consulting advice from the other people at that table, and then we move onto the next person. So, everybody provides a peer consulting and gets consulting from the group. And it’s a very, very, very, a very, very popular and successful format.

And that’s bracketed with a couple of, I use this technically human spectrograms technique, this is body voting, to actually, first of all, show how much expertise there is in the room. A lot of people, the concept of peer consulting is kind of new to them. You can point out in this room with 250 people in Dallas that there were 3000 years of meeting experience in that room.

Nick: Wow.

Adrian: I mean, that’s a huge. When you point, when you show that to people, people say, “Well, I can probably get some help here.”

Nick: Yeah, because you’re going to do something with that.

Adrian: So, there’s some of that and then there’s some bracketing at the end, there’s some spectrograms about peoples comfort levels. So, people can talk about can demonstrate how comfortable they feel with the process before and that’s compared with how comfortable they feel afterwards and people see, in general, that had a very good experience and so forth. But that’s the essence of the solution.

Nick: What’s a spectrogram? Sorry.

Adrian: A human spectrogram, it’s called a body voting or…

Nick: [inaudible 00:20:44]

Adrian: . . . the human graph and it’s a very simple way and it’s one of the techniques I talk about in my next book, of voting, low tech, no tech voting. But it can be used in, actually, lots of different ways and what it is, is you have a clear space in the room where there’s no furniture and you have people line up between the two walls in that space, your each end of the room, and one wall, for example, with the experience spectrogram, you might say, “If you just entered the industry go and stand by this wall over here.”

And then I want to arrange yourselves by the number of years you’ve been in the industry. And you say, “You’ll need to talk to each other.” So, people just, everyone get’s up and they arrange themselves, “Oh, 18 years. Oh, you’re 17. I should stand here.” And so forth.

And, so you have a visual, this is just one way of doing it. You get a visual, everyone can see what the distribution of years of experience in the industry is, very quickly. You can do that in a few minutes and then you can do things like, well, the median is here and there’s 250 people here and the median is 11 years so we have 3000 years of experience in the room. Things like that. And then you can do all kinds of other things with it too, which I can tell you about if you want to know.

Nick: Yeah, definitely.

Adrian: And people are going to [inaudible 00:22:05] it comes out.

Nick: I loved it, that would be great. So, tell me a little bit about your book coming out next year. So, how does it differ from your previous one and what are you looking to target in it?

Adrian: Well, who I’m targeting is anybody who runs a conference because unlike the first book, which is where you have to buy into the idea, this sort of radical idea that participant-led conferences actually might be a wonderful thing but people, your attendees, might actually like to go to. This is a compendium of participative process, which will improve any conference sessions, in my experience.

And the book is, it’s a two-parter. The first part is, why, if you participate and your learning, your learning is much better. So, in other words, if you want to learn, if you’re going to spend all this time and money coming together to meet other people and do what you do face to face, how do we learn best.

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: And we’ve known a long time now that sitting and listening to someone talking is a [very cold] of learning stuff. But if you participate in your learning your retention is better, you’ll retain it more actively, you’ll retain what you learn for longer, and also you have the opportunity to make your learning relevant to you. So it’s sort of just in time learning.

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: It’s the kind of learning you, it’s like, I can determine what I’m learning here and I’m going to learn what’s important to me. So, when you have . . . the first part of the book, which is probably fairly short because it’s . . .

Nick: Sorry, here is my, here is what I . . .

Adrian: Here is your horrible 2 year old.

Nick: It is my 2 year old here, exactly. She’ll come and join us.

Adrian: So, the first part of the book is the rational for participatory learning and the second part is a compendium of many different techniques you can use for participatory learning and they’re grouped into, sort of, a opening techniques about connecting with people, learning about people, guiding what’s going to happen at an event.

Techniques you use at any time for discussions, for voting, I have a whole chapter on different ways of voting, which don’t use, sort of, clickers and gizmos and so forth, public voting and then a closing techniques, like the personal interest introspect and groups perspective and many others, as well. I talk about the use to close effects.

Nick: Okay. So, there’s lots of actionable stuff in there as well. There are loads of tools.

Adrian: Yes.

Nick: Tools that just didn’t make it into the first book or tools that are completely new that you came up with?

Adrian: Well, again, I don’t think, there are a few of those tools I have invented and I have my spin on a lot of them, but I’d say most of these things and some of these tools have been around for a long time.

Nick: Yes.

Adrian: But they haven’t been widely used. I mean . . .

Nick: Yeah, I think, or used in this context, which is the most important thing.

Adrian: Or used in this context. Yes, exactly. The concept, the idea is to bring these all together in one place so that people will want to say, you get a whole set of tools and in a consistent format.

So, I mean, each chapter, about each tool, it talks about it, it describes it, then it says this is when you should use it, then there’s a section on the resources you need to get ready, and then there’s this is how you do it in painful detail or appropriate detail.

Nick: Fantastic. It sounds like a very similar format to the way we write up tools for WorkshopBank, actually. So, it makes a lot of sense.

Well, Adrian, thank you very much and I think before my daughter writes too much on my desk I’m going to bring this chapter to a close. But thank you very much and . . .

Adrian: Can I just let people know about the new website where you can read all about this stuff.

Nick: Of course, and I’ll include all the links, as well. But yeah, please, go for it, for the people listening.

Adrian: It’s simply, ConferencesThatWork, all one word, ConferensesThatWork.Com.

Nick: Okay.

Adrian: And that’s where I hang out. I have a blog there with hundreds of posts about all different kinds of things, I mean, but events related and participation techniques related and so forth. And there’s details from my book there.

Nick: And if we put contact details on the podcast, you’ll be quite happy to have people reach out to you etc.

Adrian: Absolutely.

Nick: Fantastic.

Adrian: I love to talk to people about this stuff, as you can probably tell.

Nick: Yes, I’m married. Well it’s a fascinating approach and it leans very heavily on change management, doesn’t it? I mean, involving people in solution as early as possible in the process will guarantee your success. It’s exactly the same kind of approach but just using a totally different area of work and I think it’s great. I mean, what you’re doing is excellent and all kudos to you.

Adrian: It actually, I should just mention that I have, I think I have six blog posts about facilitating change on that, that are sort of an occasional series about issues about facilitating change. So I’m certainly interested in change management myself.

Nick: Well, fantastic. I’ll make sure link to those as well in the podcast.

Well Adrian, thank you very much for joining me and I know I caught you on a bit on the hot this morning but I’m appreciate you making the time and I’m sorry we got interrupted a little bit at the end but I think the essence of the conversation got across. So, thank you.

Adrian: I had fun. It’s great to meet you Nick and I appreciate the interview.

Nick: Excellent. Cheers, Adrian.

Adrian: Cheers. Bye, bye.


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About the Author

Nick Martin helps leaders & consultants improve team results with resources, advice & coaching through

  • A really interesting exchange. I liked Adrian’s observation that ‘people don’t go to conferences for content anymore – they go for the connection and the experience’. A good wake up call for the industry! Thanks Nick and Adrian

    • Pleasure Jan and thanks for the comment. Personally I’ve always viewed conferences as networking events rather than for content consumption. If I’m looking for content I prefer to see a movie or something.

      What I like about Adrian’s approach though is that it takes it two or three steps further and adds a tonne of unpredictability into the mix. If I knew, as a conference goer, that whatever was about to happen at the conference I was going to was going to be really useful but I didn’t know exactly what that was likely to look like I’d be a lot more excited about going in the first place.

      I suspect that this might be how a lot of conferences are designed in the future. With the customer in mind.

  • […] Feedback by Adrian Segar Here’s Nick Martin of Denmark’s workshopbank interviewing me about participant-driven events, ground rules, The Solution Room, The Three Questions, and […]

  • Nick, this is a great interview, I happened to have been in last EIBTM and just realize from Adrian’s web site I have missed him in Barcelona!!
    Question is: how does Adrian’s “Peer conferences” relate to Open Space technology designed by Harrison Owen?
    Seems to be a similar approach to OST, what are the main distinctive differences, is this specific for professional peer-development?

    • Paul, I’ve written about the differences between Open Space and Conferences That Work in my book, Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and also here:

      While both designs are participant-led, Conferences That Work is a more structured design than Open Space. The additional structure allows participants to learn about each other and to create an optimum conference program together rather than by decree, and it provides closing sessions that support participants decisions about changes they may wish to make as a result of the conference, both as individuals and as a group.

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