Reflections After My First Time Back

Reflections After My First Time Back

This week, I attended the ASAE Technology Exploration Conference, my first in-person event since January 2020.

My MAIN takeaway was that it was very good to see friends and colleagues in the industry who, for the past two years, have appeared only as small rectangles on my computer screen. I also REALLY enjoyed presenting in person to other human beings who were in the same physical space as me. Presenting online does have its advantages, particularly if you’re presenting something highly detailed or technical where you’re going to need to follow your notes closely, but there is no substitute for being able to read the room in the room.

One of my colleagues observed that an excellent icebreaker right now would be to ask people: “What did you used to be really good at that you’ve forgotten how to do in the pandemic?”

Throughout the day, many of us were joking about not remembering how to pack (I nearly forgot to pack any socks this summer when I went on my first trip in 18 months) or dress like grownups (I remembered – only once I saw other people – that accessories are a thing, and I had neglected to include them, although I did remember all the key components: shoes, hard pants and a belt, shirt that is NOT a t-shirt, suit jacket. I even combed my hair and put on some makeup!).

But I also realized that I’m out of practice at a lot of things that are “normal” at a conference, like sitting and/or standing still for long periods of time, small talk, navigating the spaces, what I need to bring with or have on me (notebook and pen, business cards, badge ribbons).

It was also overwhelming to be around so many people for so many hours, to the point that when I walked into the post-event reception, I immediately realized that I just didn’t have it in me to keep going with standing around and shouting at people in an attempt to be heard while wearing a mask in a crowded space with a lot of background noise, and beat a hasty retreat.

And as a speaker, I realized that I’m rusty, there, too. Fortunately, my group had decided on an informal fishbowl format, and we had a spiffy printed handout to supplement the whitepaper the session was based on. But we forgot to create intro and outro slides – you know, like with the title of the session and all our contact info – and we weren’t exactly super-smooth kicking things off or transitioning from the info portion of the session to the interactive portion of the session. Yes, it *is* like riding a bicycle, and we got into a rhythm pretty quickly (it helped that we were all VERY familiar with the topic and had presented on it in virtual formats multiple times previously), but those first few minutes were a little rough.

As you’re thinking about your own association’s return to in-person events, it’s easy to get focused on what the association needs. The list is long: reg numbers, budgets, vaccine requirements, mask requirements, tech to support both in-person and virtual attendees for increasingly common hybrid events, keeping sponsors happy when in-person attendance is lower and there may be no exhibit hall, keeping people safe around food & bev, etc.

But you also need to think about what your attendees and speakers need. They may have forgotten how to conference. They may not be comfortable with things that were formerly fine (buffets, hugging, crowded receptions). They may need more space to process. They may be more focused on re-connecting with friends and colleagues than with squeezing every bit of content out of the event. They may not want, need, or value the same old same old.

You have an opportunity to do things differently, to respond to new or changing member goals and challenges, to become a vital partner in your members’ personal and professional success. Don’t waste it.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Being a First-Time Attendee

Pen - Paper

Note: my good friend Joan Eisenstodt had asked for people to share our experiences as first-time attendees for her Fridays With Joan column for Meetings Today. I realized that some of my blog readers might not regularly read that column and that my story might be useful to you all, too, so here it is:

My first time at any association industry event was 17 years ago, at ASAE’s old m&t conference. I’d only been in the profession for a few years, and I didn’t know anyone outside the confines of my own association employer and the staff members of our three “sister” associations.

The conference was in town (I live in DC), and being my first one, I didn’t realize that I should clear my evening schedule for the receptions and parties that would take place in conjunction with the event.

So I went to sessions, sat in the back of the room all by myself, didn’t really talk to anyone, and scurried off at the end of the educational program each day to keep my evening commitments. In short, I was the attendee with no friends.

I did learn a lot, but I kind of missed the point of an in-person event: I didn’t expand my network at all.

I didn’t attend another large association conference for another two years. Back to m&t, and I still didn’t really know anyone outside my (still the same) employer and (still the same) “sister” associations.

But I’d learned two key things in the interim: one, keep my evenings free, and two, I was going to have to make the first move. Associations weren’t yet paying a lot of attention to the newbie experience, so I knew it was on me to create a better outcome, and I did.

This time, I pushed myself outside my comfort zone to look for the other person in each room who didn’t seem to have any friends, go over to her, and ask her a question about herself, which is the easiest way for introverts to get conversations with strangers going. That was the start of building the professional network that has sustained me for the past twenty years, through multiple job changes and launching Spark more than five years ago.

Joan asked the follow up question: “What do you think is the best way to not be lonely at a conference and/or what do you think conference organizers can do to lessen loneliness at conferences, especially for people who are new to an organization or company?”

My answer: “My favorite thing – when it works – is the ‘conference buddy/mentor’ idea. You have to match people up in advance and encourage them to communicate before the event, and then hold some sort of a meet up for your pairs right at the beginning of the event – the one I think works best is a pre-opening reception gathering, where the pairs can meet in person and the mentor is trained/instructed beforehand that her job is to bring the newbie with her into the opening reception with her and spend at least the first 30-60 minutes introducing the newbie to others.”

What have your experiences been when you’ve been a first-timer at an event? What has worked well for you in trying to find your niche? What has your association tried to help your first-timers fit in? What has – and hasn’t – worked well for you? Why?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

It’s Not Magic!

I’m in St. Paul today presenting for the Midwest Society of Association Executives’ annual meeting today. Two of my sessions are on familiar topics: The Mission Driven Volunteer and my Carpe Annum IGNITE session. But one’s new: Your Membership Dilemmas SOLVED!

In it, I plan to share the great secret of consulting.

Of course, not everyone can be in St. Paul today, and I don’t want to exclude people unfairly, so I’m going to share the magic trick here, too.

Are you ready?

  1. Ask better questions
  2. Hold out for more alternatives as answers

That really is it. I mean, consultants also bring (hopefully) experience in the field (in my case, associations) and in particular disciplines in that field (membership and marketing for me) and the breadth of knowledge and experience that comes from working with a bunch of different types of organizations and keeping up on the latest research and trends.

But I truly think that what helps us help you is that we focus on asking better questions (one of THE keys to making good decisions) and that we don’t let you settle for the first, most obvious answer – we make you keep digging.

That’s really it.

So now you don’t ever need to hire someone like me again!

Ok, not really (I hope). But if you can build the capacity to think in those terms – ask better questions and push for more hypotheses – you can definitely increase your success with solving problems in-house.

Are You a Student or an Attendee?

Thanks to the efforts of Jeff Hurt (among others), those of us who speak frequently in the association world are well aware of the principles of adult learning, particularly those around frequent, active participation, engagement, being solution-oriented, providing content in small chunks with ample opportunity for practical application, etc.

And yet I know I’m not the only one who works to incorporate those sorts of things into presentations, even warning people at the beginning of sessions that they’re going to be highly interactive and sharing an agenda up front that includes active learning exercises, only to get dinged in evaluations for not standing there and talking at the room for an hour.

“But everything I know about adult learning tells me they want and need all that interaction and activity! Why don’t they?!?”

This morning on the subway, I was reading a recent New Yorker article profiling author Jennifer Weiner. One of the events it covers is a presentation she gave for the Renfrew Center Foundation, so the audience would likely be mostly clinicians who treat people with eating disorders. But her presentation, which was reported to have gone over very well, was of the inspirational life story variety. Which struck me as odd. Wouldn’t doctors want scientific presentations? Also, Lauren Hefner and I presented the Membership Development course for ASAE’s Association Management Week yesterday. The course intentionally incorporates some adult learning principles, the two of us worked in even more, and, by all reports, it went over well.

Putting the two together, I had a small epiphany: what if it comes down to the difference between between being a student and being an attendee?

What difference?

Students are there to LEARN. Attendees – at least some of them – are there to BE ENTERTAINED. And if what you’re expecting is to sit there for an hour and be told a nice story, and the person in the front of the room is asking you to engage and think and interact, that session is not meeting your expectations. A little over a year ago, I had a total crash-and-burn, salt-the-earth speaking experience that foundered on exactly this problem.

What does this mean for conference organizers and the speakers they line up? I think it’s important to try to figure out which type of audience you have, and choose/inform your speakers accordingly. And what if events offered “passive” and “active” tracks, in addition to subject area tracks? We’d probably have to come up with a better name for them, though. Maybe “traditional” and “interactive”?

Frequent speakers, what do you think? Am I on to something here? If so, what do we do about it?

10 Tips for Creating an Effective Marketing Piece

I’m headed to Providence to speak at CESSE this week, and one of the sessions I’ll be participating in will be an idea swap where we’ll be sharing marketing materials. I’ll be facilitating the discussion, and the nice folks at CESSE asked me to prepare some general tips to help people as they reviewed each others’ materials.

So I figured: why not share them with you, too, blog reader?

  1. Short is better than long. Don’t stuff too much crap in there. This is not your only chance to talk to your audience ever in the history of human beings. They are not going to read pages and pages of text. Trust me on this one.
  2. Speaking of text, pictures are better than words. And make sure you keep your visual look consistent. It’s OK for an event to have its own logo, but it should work with your normal logo and fonts and colors. Your audience should know at a glance that this piece is from you.
  3. Use color! Innovations in print technology have really brought the cost down. There’s no excuse for visually dull pieces these days. And pay attention to what the colors you choose say about you.
  4. Use image heatmapping. We normally think of this related to websites, but you can test any image. (Crazy Egg is one of my favorite sites for this.)
  5. Speak in their voice, not yours. We’re all familiar with the “benefits, not features” thing (or at least we should be), but you also need to use their language. You talk with engineers differently than you do with nurses or accountants or beer wholesalers or construction contractors.
  6. YOU MUST HAVE A CLEAR CALL TO ACTION. This probably should have been the first tip, and yes, I am shouting. If you’re not clear about what you want people to do, you are not ready to invest in a marketing piece. End of story.
  7. Proofread. Triple check your details. Is the date right? Is the time right? Is the location right? Is the website URL right? Are the prices right? Also, make sure you actually included all the relevant details. I got a marketing email the other day for an event that didn’t tell me what day it was, what time it was, or where it was. When I clicked on the link, I at least got the date and time from the website, but still no location. How am I supposed to go to that event?
  8. Generally speaking, serif fonts are more readable in print, san serif fonts are more readable online. It’s OK to break this rule, but do it consciously, and in either case, make sure your font is not too small! Your 25 year old marketing assistant may be doing the layout, but you need to make your your 55 year old CEO member can actually read it.
  9. Run an integrated campaign. Print is great. Email is great. Social is great. The web is great. You know what’s really great? When you use them all together in a coordinated way to create a campaign where the pieces compliment and build on each other.
  10. Have a little fun. Of course, you have to know your audience, and a mostly student audience is very different from a mostly PhD in chemistry audience which is very different than a most surgeon audience, but be engaging and hip and energetic, not dull, dry, overly formal, and too serious. You’re trying to get people interested in and excited about your product or service, right?

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

The presentation Peggy Hoffman, Eric Lanke, and I recently gave at ASAE’s Marketing, Membership and Communications Conference on volunteer engagement was about learning to manage volunteers by being a volunteer, aka “Walking a Mile in Their Shoes.”

I addressed this topic by sharing my story of volunteering with the National Capital Area Food Bank as a means of illustrating the following points:

  • Learn by doing: What can we learn about what works, what doesn’t work, and what our volunteers need to be successful by volunteering ourselves?
  • Have a defined task: Do your volunteers know exactly what you need them to do?
  • Create clear expectations: Do your volunteers know what constitutes success at their volunteer tasks, and how they’ll know when they’re done?
  • Match skills to opportunities: Do you work to find out what your volunteers are really good at and really passionate about before matching them with assignments?
  • Ensure their time is well spent: Do you respect your volunteers’ time?
  • Show that their efforts are appreciated: Do you make sure your volunteers see the impact of their work? Do you report back on what happened with the ideas and recommendations they provided?

Per our session design, I then asked attendees to apply those principles to answering the following question: What have you learned from your own experiences as a volunteer that you can bring to your role as a manager of volunteers to improve their experience with your association?

Our session participants came up with some great advice:

One woman talked about her experiences as a soccer mom to point out that we need to be careful not to over-complicate or over-manage the process. If people want to volunteer, make it easy for them to contribute and get involved. Be ruthless about stripping away any unnecessary hurdles.

Another attendee warned us, based on her time serving on the PTA, to beware death by meetings. It can be hard for 100% volunteer organizations to find good facilitators, but that’s critical to respecting your volunteers’ time. When people are forced to waste time in long meetings that go nowhere and accomplish nothing, they quickly become disillusioned and disengaged.

One participant referenced phone banking to raise money for a college alumni association to illustrate the importance of communicating with your experienced volunteers. If processes, procedures, goals, policies, etc. change, new volunteers won’t know any different, but your experienced volunteers will be confused, and, again, potentially turned off to volunteering for your organization.

What have you learned from your own experiences volunteering that you can apply to your association work to help you do better by your volunteers?

Tweeting Your Notes

I’m moderately active on Twitter…other than around conferences, when I am a profligate tweeter.
What’s that all about?

I use Twitter to take my conference notes.

Colleagues have, in the past, asked me to explain how I do it, and with the ASAE Annual Meeting about to kick off, it seems timely.

What I do is not fancy.

Tweeting my notes, laptop version:

If there are outlets and wi-fi, I use TweetDeck on my laptop. I add a column with the conference hashtag (in this case #ASAE12). I look up the speaker/s in a given session so I know their handles. Then I summarize their main, key, salient points in less than 140 characters so I can append the conference hashtag and hopefully a /via @whoever said it.

Tweeting my notes, iPhone version:

If there is a lack of wi-fi or outlets (or both), I use the Twitter app on my iPhone. I go to Discover and search for the conference hashtag and the speaker/s handles. Then, once again, I summarize the main points and tweet them (which is a little more challenging to do when I’m typing on the iPhone virtual keyboard rather than my trusty MacAir).

Taking notes during a session keeps me focused, so my mind isn’t wandering to my email or Facebook or I Can Haz Cheezburger. Taking notes via typing rather than writing ensures I’ll actually be able to make them out later (my handwriting is terrible). The 140 character restriction and the fact that I’m often on the slower iPhone keyboard force me to dig for the meat rather than just transcribing everything that’s said. And the sharing benefits the community of people watching the hashtag.

After the conference, I go back into my own Twitter profile and do a simple copy-n-paste on my tweet stream, then run a few simple Word find-and-replace jobs to clean things up a bit. I suspect there are more sophisticated ways of dealing with the tweets post-event, but I haven’t spent the time to research them, so if you have advice on that count, share it in the comments.

That’s it.

How do you capture content you want to remember at conferences? What tech tools and tricks do you use?

Sections Instead of Breakouts

A few ASAE calls for proposals have hit recently, and it’s gotten me thinking about conference sessions.

On the one hand, associations want to recognize the expertise and knowledge our members hold and give them a platform to shine and a chance to share that knowledge and expertise with their peers.

On the other hand, we all gripe about conferences we attend where all the speakers are volunteers. Some of the speakers aren’t very good, and a lot of the content is shallow or too basic, people seem ill-prepared, the slides are bad, etc.

I’m calling myself out here, too – I’ve been the griper, and the under-prepared speaker that’s being griped about.

Preparing all these proposals got me thinking about learning experiences in my own life. Which got me thinking about grad school, where I taught political theory to freshmen.

What if we dumped breakout presentations in favor of university-style sections?

What would that look like?

You’d start with a fairly traditional presentation by a recognized PAID expert in a given topic. Everyone who was attending would be required to do prep work, familiarizing themselves with a common canon (books, articles, blog posts, videos, podcasts, whatever), allowing them to operate from a shared base of knowledge (that would NOT be restricted to the book s/he just wrote that the presenter is shilling). Which means your PAID expert could actually speak at a high level and have some chance of being understood.

After the “lecture,” the larger group would split into discussion sections, which would be led by expert VOLUNTEER MEMBER facilitators, with knowledge of both the topic at hand and how to keep a discussion moving, whose job would be to ask interesting questions and keep the conversation flowing at a high level. And since all the attendees would enjoy that shared base of knowledge from doing the prep work and from the high level presentation, they’d actually enjoy substantive conversations about important topics, as opposed to devolving into the “this is how we do it at my association” (dare I say it?) drivel that usually results from the table exercises at our conferences.

What would that learning experience look like?

Looking into My Crystal Ball

I’ll be speaking for DMAW’s Bridge Conference in August. Leading up to the event, they’ll be devoting a feature in their July issue of AdVents to“Fall 2012 Predictions from the Experts To Jump Start Your Year-end Planning.”

They asked each speaker to answer (in 75 words or less) the question:

What development, trend, or marketing innovation do you predict will be in place by the fall of 2012 to influence every direct marketer’s year-end planning?

My answer?

Mobile. The percentage of people using smart phones is going nowhere but up, and it’s having an increasing impact on the ways we can engage our audiences and on their expectations of us. From apps to mobile-friendly websites to ensuring your emails render correctly and legibly to the ability to take mobile donations, nonprofit organizations MUST become fluent in mobile in 2013.

How would you answer the question?

What Do You Mean You Don’t Want Me?

Last week, the ASAE annual meeting proposal notices came out. Some of us got in, some of us didn’t, and some got a little of both.

Now there are half joking – but that also means half serious – conspiracy theories floating around about certain people or groups being intentionally excluded.

I think we have a mote and beam problem here.

How many of our organizations are open about our selection criteria for our conferences?

  • Does being a frequent presenter count for you – or against you?
  • Do we consider old scores?
  • What does having a “name” in your field get you?
  • Are there unwritten rules?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

sxsw takes an interesting approach: people vote on the sessions they want to see (ASAE has incorporated elements of this in the past, too). Sure, that can turn things into a popularity contest, but popular vote isn’t the whole story, and it helps attendees feel connected to the event.

What can you do at your organization to be more transparent about why people are accepted or rejected for volunteer service, conference presentations, magazine articles, etc.?