Why you should care

Because better conference design means you beat that midafternoon slump and actually learn something.

OZY’s educational wing, OZY EDU, is touring the nation’s colleges to bring important conversations into the classroom. First up: The Future of Work. We’re exploring how everything from automation to the gig economy is reshaping work, and how the education system can keep up. Read more.

Within five minutes of getting onstage at the 2015 Health 2.0 conference in Boston, Robin Zander had the 500-strong crowd on its feet, kicking freebie tote bags under chairs and stuffing iPhones into pockets. The former circus performer turned event producer and founder of the Bay Area work-design firm Spring Space gave the confused delegates a big smile and instructed them to change seats with the person standing next to them. Ostensibly, the shuffle was to introduce the following speaker’s theme, but Zander’s secret purpose was to get people moving. “It was the only time in two hours that they’d stood up and moved,” Zander says.

An astounding 1.8 million conferences are held in the U.S. each year, contributing an estimated $280 billion to U.S. spending and $115 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product, according to a 2017 report in the Journal of Convention & Event Tourism, which reflects a growth of 6.4 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively, since 2009. Despite this enormous uptick, event formats remain static — think keynote, panels and occasional workshops. Even buzzworthy sessions — such as Google I/O or Apple’s keynote — have attendees yawning and twitching their butts by midmorning. But a new breed of conference creators aims to blow up those rote agendas.

As adults we do education the way we were brought up — sit and passively absorb.

Robin Zander, founder, Spring Space

The inspiration comes from the education space, where interactive, hands-on tactics are changing how children learn. That’s not for the cool factor, but because it dramatically improves understanding and retention. But these Harvard-pioneered methods have been ignored at conferences, where the default approach is “sit in your chair and listen,” Zander says. However, at the annual FunnyBizz marketing conference in San Francisco, attendees throw red balls around the room to keep the creative mindset active, and at ZenDesk’s 2016 Australian meetup organizers distributed a coloring book/event guide — colored pencils included — that depicted business relationships.

“As adults we do education the way we were brought up — sit and passively absorb,” says Zander. At conferences, that approach translates to “keynote followed by keynote by keynote.” In some ways he gets the status quo, noting it’s “easier to build a boring event than one that’s exceptional.” But he’s a vigorous advocate of change. “I’ve never seen a panel I like — person A talks, then person B talks and then the facilitator asks if anyone has any questions,” he says. “They’re poorly designed keynotes with audience Q&A.”

That doesn’t mean panels are obsolete — they just need to be reframed. Since 2016 Zander has run the two-day Responsive Conference in New York City, which focuses on accelerating industry change. This year, on the Future of Work panel, six people sat in a circle onstage under strict instructions to ignore the audience and speak only to each other. It created an intimate vibe and ended up breaking the fourth wall with real discussions minus the faff of protracted introductions.

Zander’s not alone in reframing the conference scene. In August, during the inaugural OZY EDU symposium at Stanford University, professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from the Stanford Life Design Lab walked onstage with a set goal in mind. “This is not a lecture; it’s a workshop,” said Burnett in his opener to the session. After breezing through a few image-heavy slides, he handed out charts for people to fill in, doodling encouraged. “Think about the craziest path your life could take,” he said. “Now 3, 2, 1 — go!”

This was an abbreviated intro to the lab’s Design Your Life class, which was initially intended for Stanford freshmen and is now offered to any interested adult. For Burnett, good learning experiences need to be custom-built — everything from the content to the design of the venue. For example, he says most conferences try to cram in so many people that they seat 16 to a table that’s 8 feet wide. “You can’t interact with someone that far away from you,” he says. “We use 4-foot tables — if you’re not close enough to someone to see their eyes, you’re too far away.”

Glazed eyes are an event planner’s worst nightmare, and many are trying to instill excitement by using interesting venues. SXSW turns Austin into a citywide adult playground — and Zander approves. “I craft a bit of FOMO to all my events,” he says. “I like the feeling in a building when there’s so much going on you can’t engage with it all.”

This is the perfect application of the educational practices of Eric Mazur, the Harvard Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics. “Active learning, not passive [learning], makes it impossible to sleep through a class,” he told Harvard News. “I’m trying to turn my class into a kindergarten.” His interactive classroom methods — which include hand-held poll buzzers and discussing, instead of reading, course material in class — are now used internationally, and grades have risen correspondingly, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Burnett’s hopeful that the students of today will run future conferences based on the immersive way they’ve experienced school, making them far more dynamic and potentially integrated with tech that delivers augmented and virtual reality. Transforming the adult conference circuit is definitely feasible — but creative sessions are still the exception rather than the norm.

Till that day, get the most out of your next conference by taking a page from Zander’s playbook. “If you’re bored, you have the ability to leave — in any setting,” he says. “This is your time; you’re paying money to be there, so if the experience is not right, change it. Take a call, eat a bagel, meet a speaker you liked — that’s your prerogative.”

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