So, You're the One On the Program, But I'm the One Expected to Provide Content?

David Patt has been on another one of his tears about forced “interactivity” in meetings — in posts like this one, and in comments on other blogs (sometimes these feeds just all run together). I think it started with this Acronym post from an Associations Now cover article.

On this one, I am totally on David’s side.

Let me go on record as saying that I am tired of going to conference workshops where lazy … er, I mean “provocative” … presenters ask the attendees at round tables to “take 10 minutes” and speak with the random people who happened to sit at the same table with them. Maybe the presenter assigned you a “task,” and expects you to “report” after your discussion; or maybe it’s just a brief discussion period to give the presenter an opportunity to wander from table to table trolling for clients.

Whatever the stated reason, it has never been anything but a complete waste of time.

I think some of these attempts are classic examples of “learning the wrong lesson.” The lesson people think they are learning is, “Our attendees always talk about how valuable the ‘hallway track’ is, so that means they really want to just talk to each other.”

The point they are missing is that the “hallway track” is so valuable BECAUSE it happens in-between program events and in the hallway. Those stolen moments of conversation and connection are made more important by the fact that there is a program happening around them. If you just stick all your attendees in a big open hallway and tell them to have at it, then there’s a certain percentage of people who will think that’s fantastic and get a lot out of it. But there are a lot of other people (a majority, David suggests, and I suspect), who will stand around thinking, “Wow, what a waste of my time.”

So the response has been to try to bring the hallway conversations INTO the workshop. Presenters knock a good 20-30 minutes out of their presentation by inviting small group discussion in the midst of their workshop. But this satisfies no one because the people who are REALLY into the hallway track aren’t in the room (they’re in the hallway), and the people in the room are stuck listening to the one guy at their table who thinks he knows more than the presenter anyway (or has something to sell).

Now, I’m not saying that all interactivity is wrong. I’m saying it has to be CLEARLY promoted. For example, if you’re doing a workshop that’s going to be a review of a case study with different groups taking different roles, then that’s how you describe it — and people know what to expect. Or a workshop that’s clearly promoted as a “discussion” on a topic with a “discussion leader.”

But if it’s just a workshop as they are usually promoted, then the presenter should comfort herself knowing that everyone in the room is there because they think SHE is the expert and they want to hear what SHE has to say.

Finally, to those speakers who try to “break the ice” by involving the audience, a cautionary tale: at a meeting we held the week before last in Houston, a speaker tried to make a point about generations by asking a member of the audience how he got along with his parents when he was a teenager. After a long pause, the audience member said, “I don’t like to talk about my childhood.”

Um … AWK-ward.

(Oh, and that meeting the week before last in Houston? Brand-new “little” event for us, for a professional niche in our industry … sold-out crowd of more than 300 people … twice as many vendors as we expected … and other than that one awkward moment, a huge success all around. That’s just a little shout-out to all of the economic doom-criers out there.)

3 comments on “So, You're the One On the Program, But I'm the One Expected to Provide Content?

  1. Thanks for recognizing the importance of this issue, Kevin.

    I attended a session where three CEOs were to explain how they managed turnarounds. I’ve managed turnarounds so I was very interested to hear what they did.

    After describing the circumstances facing them, they asked the audience to break into groups and discuss what they would have done in these situations. After that, the presenters would reveal what they did.

    I wasn’t interested in what others would have done. I wanted to know what these CEOs actually did.

    So, I walked out and caught the second half of another session.

    The breakout (which was not advertised) was inappropriate for that topic. It might have been OK for another topic, another audience, or a turnaround workshop.

  2. Kevin,

    As you know since you were brave enough to send 2 of your folks, on Halloween Kevin Whorton and I held our second in a series of seminars on association marketing called State-of-the-Art Association Marketing (www, It was held at SHRM in Old Town and we had about 35 pretty high level association marketers attend.

    The event was part traditional “lecture” by Kevn and I and then part audience participation. As far as I could tell the attendees got a lot of information out of both pieces.

    We did let all attendees and potential attendees know that they were going to play a role in the content for half the day so everyone there was very prepared to do participate. Our #1 goal was to get every attendees primary marketing challenge solved before they left the room. I would say we succeeded with 90% of the folks and to me that is pretty darn good.

    We are going to be sending out a survey asking attendees what they thought but if any attendees, including your folks, are reading this feel free to share both the good and the bad as I think it is useful to the entire community as we all plan meetings for the future.

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