Rethinking Conferences: Participant-Led Events vs All The Rest

I’m now convinced that there are two types of events: those that serve the interests of participants and those that primarily serve the needs of a small group of organizers (or, worse, the egos of the speakers).

I’ve been slowly coming to this conclusion after leading or helping to organize two 135-person events every year for the past four years (and attending my fair share of others) — Web of Change and Greenpeace’s Digital Mobilisation Skillshare, the latter of which just wrapped last week and hit several high water marks for me (kudos @captaintracy!) and crystalized some thinking here.

The challenge, as I see it, as it that our prevailing event models aren’t providing enough value to enough participants. And now that I’ve seen what’s possible, I think it’s time we expect more from (and ask more of) the events we attend. 

  • Panels rarely deliver (see Darren Barefoot: Why conference panels are awful, and how to fix them); it’s painful to watch a group of people try to work together for the first time or compete for airtime, and we usually walk away with little more than a thin, wandering exploration of a topic or theme. (Guilty, sorry everyone)
  • “Un-conferences” are unpredictable and get dominated by those comfortable with the approach or the more aggressive types; good sessions happen when an effective facilitator steps up to host a real discussion, but my experience is that most sessions at these events are no different than typical conference panels. (Also guilty.)
  • Plenary speeches are boring: Only Barack Obama has a shot at capturing the interest of the entire audience for the entire time slot he’s given, but it’s even a stretch for him. This is why I think we’re seeing growing interest in fixed-length “ignite” or TED-style formats. If you don’t like the content, it’ll be over in a few minutes!

There are, of course, exceptions to all of the above — we’ve all stumbled upon that one mind-blowing talk or session that (possibly) made the three day trip worth it. My point is that despite the best intentions of event planners, the well worn paths of least resistance in event design on balance do not reliably deliver the value that we should all expect as participants.

I think this is why conference-goers tend to cite the people they met and human connections made outside of sessions as the high point of their experiences.

The question I’ve been pondering is this: Why should we have to spend the majority of our time at events looking for that diamond in the rough? Crossing our fingers in hopes of experiencing that One Great Session? Why can’t the majority of our event experiences achieve that level of quality?

Well, I now know it’s possible, because I’ve been lucky enough to experience events where the majority of people seem to get value the majority of the time — and even a bit of magic if we’re lucky.

Here’s what I see as the defining criteria for a participant-driven event. The mechanics of organizing and facilitating an event that achieves these principles are the domain of my friend and mentor Allen Gunn (Gunner) of Aspiration who has been refining and perfecting this model for more than a decade.

1. Everyone gets a voice. 

This is what separates events with audiences from events with participants. If event organizers don’t give everyone the opportunity to speak or say at least a few words—ideally at the start—then they’re implicitly telling participants that they’re not as valuable as those with formal speaking roles. It sets up a two class system and gives permission to non-speakers and non-organizers to start becoming invisible, allowing themselves increasing opportunities to check out and teleport into email and social media land.

It may sound improbable but I’ve repeatedly seen up to 140 people say their name and share one useful piece of information about themselves in under 20 minutes. Or a room of 125 people get introduced in pairs or small groups enough times to not only get excited about the other people in the room but also discover that other people are excited about them being there and that they’re valuable participants too.

2. Everyone a teacher; everyone a learner. 

When you eliminate that two class system of speakers vs attendees, the entire dynamic changes. The urge to focus your time and attention on people with speaker badges disappears, and the perceived need to climb your way up into presenter status fades away. Everyone wears the same badge because, if you planned your event right and attracted a good group, everyone has plenty to share about their experiences (“expert” or not) and everyone is at least worth talking to.

At each of the last three DMS events, a majority of participants facilitated sessions.

And the experiences I’ve had at Web of Change over the past few years in which a participant finds herself unexpectedly sharing a transformational experience have been greater than just about any keynote talk i can remember.

The trick is attracting participants who are as interested in learning as they are in sharing. If you set this expectation at the outset, before people register or apply, you can almost guarantee you’ll have eliminated the a-hole factor. Unfortunately your in-n-out keynoters won’t be much use at this kind of event, but hey maybe you’ll wind up with extra money for the closing party.

3. Participants know best

I think organizers assume that putting participants in the driver’s seat automatically means chaotic “un-conference” with no agenda except a blank wall for half-baked session ideas. There’s a happy medium to be found if you pair “wisdom of the crowd” with a process or structure that lets you actually surface this wisdom.

Take the overall agenda. The approach I’ve seen Gunner facilitate many times now magically gets dozens if not hundreds of random post-it notes clustered and categorized on a wall for everyone to see in 8 minutes (see: agenda hack). The result is a reflection of the group’s needs and interests, from which additional sessions can be designed.

As for sessions, a few basic guidelines for session facilitators can go a long way toward creating a productive session for a group of ideally no more than 15 people (again, credit to Gunner):

  1. Identify the purpose of your session: What will participants achieve, build, or experience by the end?
  2. Actually facilitate: Find out why everyone is there so you can meet their needs, and reign in conversations that take the group away from the session’s purpose. This means that facilitators do not need to be an expert on the topic they’re convening.
  3. Ensure everyone gets to participate. Sharing brief stories and experiences is great, but you’re going for dialogue, not presentation. As Gunner would suggest, “if there are N people in the room, aim to speak one N-th of the time.”

I’ve seen over-preparation backfire in a ton of ways, like incentivizing presenters to take attendees hostage while they run through a powerpoint, but most importantly it means that you’ll get what the presenter thought was important rather than what the group assembled was interested in hearing. If you want to sit and listen to a lecture, no need to get on a plane: fire up the world’s best talk on the subject without ever leaving your couch.


My main takeaway is that event and facilitation design can either enable the best in us, or not. The schoolhouse event models make too many of us want to rebel — we engineer longer breaks for ourselves when we’re only given 10 minutes, we mentally or physically check out of talks that don’t capture our full attention, etc.

There’s still a time and place for the one-to-many model (ie well-crafted talks or presentations), I just don’t think they’re nearly as an effective use of time as the many-to-many model when assembling a group of smart, talented, and interesting people. 

The participant-driven model empowers and engages attendees in ways consistent with larger societal and technological shifts. We’re increasingly accustomed to customizing and crafting our own media and experiences, so why not our events? Attending an event designed in the broadcast model is increasingly going to feel as anachronous as wading through TV commercials.

I’ve glossed over the details of how you actually run such an event, but head to Aspiration’s Facilitation wiki for the best set of resources, and check out a few quick hits of what it looks and feels like, from our recent DMS (more here):

Gunner on the facilitation model:

Last year:

Some of what makes Web of Change unique: