The best bit about Like Minds Conversation Helsinki was when the panel got up and crossed the invisible divide that separates speaker and attendee, and began chatting with the people in the crowd like equals. Because guess what, that’s what they are: equals.

Almost a year ago, when I was forming the ideas for Like Minds, I knew that ‘attendee’ would never be a word in our vocabulary. Everyone at Like Minds is a participant – whether they stand and delivery a keynote, turn to the person next to them and share their experience, or help guide a group a discussion.

The reason for this is quite simple: people are smart. The speakers are smart, and the listeners are smart.

I’m now seeing the word ‘participants’ replace ‘attendees’ all over the web. It certainly seems this participatory form of event is catching on – and I love it. In a people-to-people world, a people-to-people event needs to be participatory in order to ensure people learn. Note this isn’t about the speaker satisfying their ego, or the listener satisfying their lust for criticism – this is about learning.

Inspired by my friends Jeff Hurt and Dave Lutz who write the number 1 event management / event design blog in the world (at least, in my eyes), I’m sharing what we found in our latest event what worked and didn’t work, by experience, in regards to creating a participatory learning environment.

Killing the Divide

Worked: Preparing keynotes and panels. I know it’s obvious, but all too often a keynote is being prepared on the plane, and the panel in the corridor before hand. Preparation means I’ve thought about what the community of people who are present need to hear – not just what I’ve said before. Don’t underestimate speakers – they want you to help them prepare and want your direction on how they should prepare.

Didn’t work: Laptops for keynote speaker notes. The best thing about TED Talks is that they are so focussed and well oiled that they impart exactly what they want to communicate, free from fluff or ‘urms’. This means as a viewer I get to connect with them, free from standing behind a laptop, and connect to their ideas that have been well thought out and are being clearly communicated. This is the way I’m going for the future – no laptop notes.

Worked: Panels with giving people who seek the truth on behalf of the listeners. You need strong people on the panel – but they need to be able to give and take, speak and listen, and act on behalf of the listeners. This means carefully selected panelists based on their facilitation skills, more than their speaking skills.

Didn’t work: Un-facilitated panels. Our panel preparation wasn’t good enough, and we left the panels unmoderated. I actually think we need facilitators more than moderators. A facilitator will help keep the panel focussed, and also draw questions from the floor.

Worked: Having panelists go into the crowd and begin talking with the clusters of groups. A few people said they enjoyed this even more than the keynotes. We called this ‘Crowd Discussion’. What we also did was ask people to sit it different seats each time they came back from the break, which increased discussion the new people that were engaging with one another.

Didn’t work: Adjusting the break length and crowd discussion length when the internet participants were lost because the stream went down. We shouldn’t have adjusted the experience for the people present to cater for the ones who weren’t present. Mistake.

The Future – Your Leading Thoughts

I’m keen to hear your feedback on this. As you know, I have a little event framework for four levels of learning: person-to-people, persons-to-people, people-to-people and person-to-person. So, person-to-people could be a keynote; persons-to-people could be a panel or interview, etc.

  • What is the future of participation in events, in your opinion?
  • What would you like to be done different to increase your learning? (I’ve got a suspicion we could use my 7 Levels of Particpation model here.)
  • How do you increase participation without creating disorder and therefore reducing the potential to learn?

Cool photo courtesy of looking4poetry

Archived Comments

  • Markus

    Hi Scott,

    There were a few tricks we discussed that you should definitely keep in mind for the next event, in particular with regards to the presentations. Couldn’t agree more that the panels need more structure, and a facilitator / moderator. A more structured preparation might well help the focus / quality of the discussion, e.g. trending topics / suggested reading / Skype conference to cover the ground in advance. The interaction worked very well, but would have been even better if a ‘host’ had been introducing people. All in all a great participation event though.

  • JeffHurt


    Wow, we should put you on our PR payroll! ;) Thanks for the shout out.

    Glad some of your new innovations worked for you too. Love your “Crowd Discussion” concept and I can see why attendees enjoyed that. Great idea.

  • beckysocial

    I wish I was there. Just sounds fantastic. Well done Scott and thank you for sharing!

  • / Scott Gould

    Right on Markus, that’s what I’m doing :-)

  • / Scott Gould

    LOL – Thanks Jeff.

    Crowd discussion worked very, very well. Need to tweak though.

  • / Scott Gould

    I’m sure we’ll see you in October :-)

  • Dave Lutz

    Hey Scott, thanks for the shout out! Here’s a link to a recent post about Panel’s and their effectiveness. You’ll find quite a bit of gold in the comments.

  • / Scott Gould

    Thanks for that Dave – JUST what I needed to read!

    I also have a stack of Midcourse Correction blog posts to catch up – expect lots of comments there from me soon! :-)

  • Deborah Dawton

    Scott: we ran an event in December last year called The Edge. One of the things we did was invite 15 or so leading lights in design to sit in the crowd and participate like eveyone else. What was great was the surprise on peoples faces at finding themselves sat next to one of their heroes. Younger designers told us that they never got the chance to speak to speak to the speakers – bridging the audience/stage divide was too daunting for them. The aim was to bring the speakers off the stage and into the audience and it worked brilliantly. Those people who actually spoke also stayed for the whole day. Our design “heroes” also then hosted lunch discussions where their admirers who could really get to know them. Thoroughly recommend it. Deborah

  • / Scott Gould

    I love this. We started doing this when we had our lunchtime speaker slots at Like Minds Conference in February – people could sit and have lunch with their heroes, so to speak.

    I’ll have a look at the website and get more info about what you did!

    Thanks Deborah :-)

  • Rosa Garriga

    Hello Scott,

    I was just catching up with your last posts, and I’m glad I did it! It sounds like a fantastic event, love your ideas to increase brainstorming, crowdsourcing… you’re so right about the role of facilitators!
    by the way, do you know why TED speakers don’t have a laptop? Because they rehearse the session before, they make sure that the presentation is 100% perfect, like if it were a movie… they even put make up on the speakers. One speaker told me how much she had learnt to deliver great presentations thanks to the training she received by the TED people…

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Rosa

    Totally – I knew TED did something like this – and that’s what I want to do.

    Do you know how else they train speakers?