Is letting the inmates run the asylum really a good idea? If by “asylum” you mean meeting, Adrian Segar would say it’s past time to hand over the keys. The author of Conferences that Work: Creating Events that People Love, Segar led a recent MeetingsNet webinar on participant-led events. He and his co-presenter, Curtiss Reed, executive director, Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, provided a wealth of tools and resources meeting managers can use to make their meetings participant-driven.

What exactly is a participant-led meeting?

Segar, who has spent the past 30 years creating participant-driven meetings, said they have three main characteristics:

1. They focus on the individual participant’s experience, rather than the organization’s objectives, which is why there are very few participant-driven corporate events, he said. These meetings emphasize participant interaction, connection, and learning rather than the dissemination of predetermined content. “A focus on providing the best possible conference for each individual is a keynote of participant-led conferences.”

2. Participants determine what happens during the event, and they do it at the meeting, not in advance. Meeting consultants have created various meeting formats for the purpose of giving participants a voice. Among these are “open space technology,” “conferences that work,” “unconferences” and “barcamps,” “future search,” and “everyday democracy.”

3. Participant-led meetings tap all the resources in the room, not just those of a few presenters. “I love to think of participants as ‘people formerly known as the audience,’” said Segar. The people become the actual creators of the event, and they create the event they want.

Reed has used Segar’s “conferences that work” format for his organization’s Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future conference for the past two years to bring together leaders from business, government, education, and nonprofit organizations. He said the format turns the traditional conference inside out and sideways—and creates a phenomenal event that has helped his participants move toward the goal of creating environments free of prejudice and discrimination.

Who can benefit from these events?

Segar said that participant-led meetings are well-suited for peer groups—groups of people who have something in common to learn about. These could be associations, ad hoc informal communities, geographical or organizational communities, communities of practice, those who don’t yet have communities of practice because what they do is so new, and groups that need to have difficult conversations.

Vermont Vision’s attendees fell into the last category. Reed said that, because his attendees tend to live and work in silos, they also “tend to construct destructive myths about people in the other silos. The risk we took in developing the conference was that the creative tension we experienced with each partner individually would turn into a toxic, corrosive tension when they came together.” Instead, the conference format, particularly when attendees sat together in roundtables, ended up creating an atmosphere where people were more focused on understanding each other than making themselves understood, resulting in creating positive creative tension.

Why take the risk of holding an agenda-less meeting?

• They are better at providing what attendees actually want and need, said Segar. He added that, at best, the topics a program committee comes up with are the same as what attendees would choose on their own only 50 percent of the time, according to research he’s conducted over the past 20 years. Also, participant-driven meetings enable the program to accommodate topics that arise any time, something that’s not possible when an agenda is set months in advance.

• Participants will make a larger number of useful connections. “Everyone agrees that the most important reasons people go to conferences are to make connections and learn,” said Segar. He quoted Event Leadership Institute founder Howard Givner after he attended one of Segar’s conferences as being a typical response: “Aside from coming back with new tips and ideas, I easily tripled the number of new contacts and formed stronger relationships with them than at any other conference I’ve been to.”

• Participants build genuine communities by creating the opportunities to meet around the topics that have meaning for them. Many times these communities take on a life of their own outside of the meetings, said Segar.

• These types of meetings also support difficult conversations, said Reed. He was initially concerned about using the conferences that work format because Segar had mainly used it with single-issue groups that shared outlooks, values, and practices. “We were bringing together groups who often met each other in toxic arenas of public policy or litigation.” He worried not only about “prying people out of their silos,” but also getting them to feel comfortable with other silo-dwellers. But it worked beautifully for his groups because “participant-led meetings move people toward seeing commonalities instead of differences.”

• You’ll get significantly better evaluations, because people just like them better, said Segar. Evaluations he’s received have an average of 2 percent saying they prefer a traditional event; the other 98 percent give very positive evaluations, he said. He believes that’s because when people participate at a meeting, they learn more, retain what they learn longer, remember what they learn in more detail, and remember what they learn more accurately.

How to build a participant-led experience.

The “conferences that work” format creates an experiential arc from beginning, to middle, to end. You start with setting ground rules and facilitating connections in roundtable discussions. Participants learn about each other’s interests, experience, and expertise through answering these three questions:

• How did I get here?

• What do I want to have happen?

• What experience or expertise do I have that others may find useful?

Using this information, which is captured by scribes, participants build a program that reflects their interests and makes use of the resources in the room. Then participants conduct the sessions—using discussions, workshops, presentations, or whatever format best suits the topic. The experiential arc ends with personal and group sessions that help participants consolidate what they’ve learned and what they would like to incorporate personally and professionally from what they learned at the event.

Reed said Vermont Vision added to this process by having participants write a letter to themselves about the commitments they made and the relationships they formed at the event, which organizers collected and mailed to them six months later. “That letter really captures for them the excitement and commitments they made during the conference,” he said.

Notes about time and space

• Participant-driven meetings take more time. Because they focus on connection and learning through connection, they need to run on a looser schedule than traditional broadcast events, said Segar. One of the reasons open space is such a popular format for these events is that you can do it successfully in an hour or two. Other more structured formats generally take longer to run successfully, he added.

• Conventional meeting space may not work. A room that can handle hundreds theater-style may accommodate only 50 in a circle, and fixed-seat theater settings are out for participant-led events, said Segar. At a minimum there must be enough space for people to move about, and places where people can congregate in small groups.

Listen on-demand to the webinar to learn more about participant-led events, and for details on how Vermont Vision was able to bring together potentially hostile parties to explore difficult issues. You also can download the slides and a list of resources when you register for the webinar. Segar’s Conferences That Work Web site and his book also offer a wealth of information on the topic.