I’m starting to wonder if I am addicted to improvising!  I find being on my feet and on the edge of not knowing what is going to happen next incredibly exciting, energising and a rich source of personal creativity.   The flip-side of this is that I find I get bored easily and one of my biggest sources of boredom often comes through being a delegate at big conferences that are heavy on highly scripted, one-way, stage-led content.  I notice I become bored at these events even if I am genuinely interested in the subject matter. 

Assuming that I’m not the only one who has had this sort of experience I have become curious as to what sort of conference would really hold the attention of somebody like me?  Where might some of the key principles of performance improvisation be helpful in creating a conference that better engaged and energised delegates?  In challenger terms, would it be possible to run a conference that has more ‘dance, prod and shuffle’ than ‘slides, scripts and sitting’? 

Giving freedom to others to act
Whilst conference design is an important element of any event, too much pre-ordained structure can have a negative effect on delegate engagement and energy on the day.   The very nature of conferences that have a large amount of pre-prepared materials is that they need a large amount of one-way delivery to convey the messages to delegates which in turn leads to a lot of sitting and listening.  The act of sitting and listening can, at best, be a drain on energy but at worst can encourage delegate daydreaming, apathy or frustration that the only people with a voice are those on stage.

I recently helped design a large group conference for 750 senior leaders in which we experimented with the idea of giving delegates more freedom to engage in conversation.   Each conversation was teed up with a 3 minute video, followed by a brief bit of context setting by a senior leader who then posed a simple but specific question to the delegates to provoke a 30 minute long conversation.   This cycle that was repeated several times over three days.  This simple structure both created a boundary and freedom at the same time, allowing delegates to engage in some energising and challenging debate which lead to some valuable group insights and further questions.

Sitting at the edge of chaos

The catch in giving more freedom to delegates is that the leaders of the conference have to give up an equal amount of structure and control.  Irrelevant of how well crafted the set-up of the session is, the resulting conversations are inherently unpredictable which can be rather anxiety provoking for those in charge and a habitual reaction to this rising anxiety is to hastily apply structure or tools to make it all feel a bit safer for everyone.  However my experience at the recent conference was that it was in these periods of raw, unpredictable conversation where moments of magic and meaning occurred, moments where suddenly the pieces clicked into place or a new challenge was born.  Developing a greater tolerance for ambiguity and an ability to sit at the edge of chaos for a little longer than is comfortable is a key skill for leaders and facilitators to develop and the best way to do it appears to create moments like this and then grit one’s teeth for as long as possible!

An ability to improvise and adapt – saying “yes” to the mess

Becoming more comfortable at the edge of chaos is a difficult first step for leaders to take, however developing an ability to then improvise, adapt and work with the ‘mess’ follows soon after.  Training in some of the basic skills of improvisational theatre is a wonderful way of developing  an internal compass that can help navigate through the chaos.  At the recent conference I spent time helping leaders develop some of these skills through experimenting with processes of accepting, building on and then feeding emerging themes back to the delegates in order to keep things in perpetual motion and to keep the delegates both engaged and working hard.  From experience it appears to be the case that the more comfortable the leaders are with this way of leading, the less anxious the delegates are.

It seems to me that, whilst content is the reason why I may chose to attend a conference, it is the way in which I am invited to engage with the content that is the key to maintaining my own excitement and energy.  Ironically, it also seems to me that, in design terms, a less-is-more approach is key to creating a conference with more dancing, prodding and shuffling and that trying too hard might be the root cause of creating the opposite.

How much of the structure in your conference design is there to reduce your own anxiety versus creating the desired delegate experience?

Where can you let go of your structure a little to foster more spontaneous conversation and debate?

How do you get in your own way of being able to improvise and say “yes” to the mess in front of others?

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