Be Careful of Format Fetish

I loved being a part of the IGNITE presentations at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference and other events.  The enthusiasm for different content delivery approaches was great.

But I experience a slight unease and deja vu as I see some conference planners rush to add IGNITE, Pecha Kucha, or TED-style talks to their conference schedules. Here is why.

Years ago when Open Space first got mainstream attention, everyone wanted to try it.  Often, however, what people introduced as Open Space was really some inadequately structured time tacked on to a conference or included as part of a workshop.  It had little to do with the true spirit and principles of Open Space, nor did it use its methodology.  As a result, some participants had unsatisfying encounters with what they thought was the Open Space meeting technology when they actually had not experienced it at all.

Meeting professionals, presenters, and facilitators must beware of format fixation or fetish: using a format for format's sake.  Not all learning formats or discussion processes are best suited for all content or every meeting or conference.
  • Not every webinar has to include polling.
  • Not every panel discussion has to include presentation segments from the panelists.
  • Not every general session has to include a keynote speaker.
  • Not every conference has to include breakout sessions.
Every content segment can be brought to life in dozens if not hundreds of different ways. Our mantra as planners or presenters needs to be: It's about the learning.

At minimum we must consider if the format is appropriate for the participants, the content, and the overall learning experience we are designing.  We also need to examine if our intended use reflects the format's true methodology and principles, or if what we are planning is really "in name only."  If the latter, we shouldn't use the name.  Showing a limited number of slides for a limited amount of time does not fully equate to an IGNITE or Pecha Kucha experience.

Shiny new technologies or formats will always catch our eye, and we most definitely should be looking for them and experimenting.  But choosing to adopt or apply them needs to serve the learning experience we are trying to create and the needs of the participants we seek to engage.  Otherwise we do a disservice to ourselves, the participants, and ultimately to the format or technology itself.


John Windsor said...

Excellent post, Jeffrey. Radical perhaps ("What, no keynote speakers?! No breakout sessions?!"), but absolutely on target for how organizers and presenters should approach these experiences.

Joan Eisenstodt said...

I love you for all the right reasons. BINGO! on this one! OMG -- it makes me nuts to see all the "me-toos" on all these. It goes to also calling an "unconference" one that is structured and using Open Space when one means something else and jumping on any bandwagon that looks cool. Meetings still need objectives and goals and formats need to be thought through for the audience and content and .. well, YOU know, Jeffrey. I hope others hear it.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

John: Thanks for commenting. of course, I see value in conferences that do include keynote speakers and breakouts if they support participants needs and the desired nature of the learning experience.

And Joan, you've been carrying this flag far longer and more valiantly than I have. With so many voices calling for clarity of objectives for events, hopefully one day we'll all experience greater alignment between intention and action.

Kristi Sanders said...

Thanks for this Jeffrey. You make some great points. I'd add that your observations could be extended to the virtual arena where emcees used to hosting live events feel like they can just show up and be virtual hosts using their stage skills rather than taking the time to learn what challenges and opportunities for engagement virtual conversations offer. Beyond the goal-setting and prep work the planners must do to ensure the formats are functional for their group, they have to educate their staff and hire the right presenters, ones who know how to do more than just appropriate whatever approach is in vogue.

William said...

Jerrey, great minds and all that....

I am putting together the association 2 day conference programme for EIBTM in Barcelona this December and it's going to be an interesting challenge of balancing the old with the new.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Thanks for sharing your post William and good luck with the EIBTM conference. I'll actually be in Madrid and Barcelona (primarily holiday) November 26-December 4. If I could be of assistance, let me know.

WilliamEvents said...

Thanks. I might well drop you a note re EIBTM!