Togetherness

Give your attendees the wheel

a conference lanyard that says “attendee + co-organizer” next to a ticket, car keys, and pencils

At one of our conferences, people walked into the venue on the first morning, and did what 99% of conference attendees do upon arriving at the venue: they looked around for a cup of coffee.

They didn’t find any. There wasn’t a single chrome-and-black-plastic, thermal-insulated canister to be found.

Who the heck puts together a conference and forgets to brew coffee?

Then someone spotted the Chemex. It was sitting on one of the round tables at which we’d seated the participants, like an empty flower vase. They picked it up and looked around. Several strangers began to conspire together. Now it was a quest.

Someone else found a coffee grinder - a hand-powered one. (What the heck?) At another table, filters. The carafe a couple of tables over was, it turned out, filled with piping hot water. Finding the beans took a little more effort: those turned up deep inside the swag boxes, under a layer of tissue paper.

All this only took a few minutes. It wasn’t a formal exercise, at least not the kind we’re used to at conferences. There was surprise, laughter, frustration, collaboration… an easy excuse for conversation with strangers (a bonus for more introverted attendees)… and, of course, really good coffee.

But more than that — and this was our real goal in setting up the DIY coffee hunt — it was a small, practical way of turning everyone present into a co-organizer of the event.

Whose job is it to make coffee? Typically, that responsibility falls to the hosts. Who has free run of the room, the right to move things off of the tables — to make a bit of a mess grinding coffee beans?

Each of these actions is small, but as attendees took them, they created a significant shift, from passive to active, from observer to participant — from “Who’s in charge?” to “I suppose I am.”

Small actions; huge impact.

When participants feel a sense of agency — that they have the power to influence the way the event runs — three things happen.

  • Their investment goes up. If “you get out what you put in” is true, they’ll get a lot more out of the event than they would have otherwise.
  • Deeper bonds form. They’ll remember the person who helped them find the coffee grinder, and the experience of hunting around with them. These kinds of shared moments are the seeds from which future relationships (business, personal, or otherwise) sprout.
  • You, the organizer, learn far more. Participants will give you more candid — and richer — feedback on your event, because they feel empowered to do so. This results in better learning, that you can apply to future events.

You can help cultivate a sense of co-ownership by giving them the wheel, so to speak — not just “inviting input,” but literally putting your attendees in charge of things. Even seemingly small things, like making their own coffee from component parts, can have an outsized impact on everyone’s experience, and make the event extraordinary.


It’s not really about the coffee, of course.

We once gave everyone unsharpened pencils to write with, and set up a communal pencil sharpening table with an old-fashioned manual sharpener that required someone to turn the handle.

We’ve invited empathetic, extroverted attendees to serve as ‘table hosts’ for a pre-event breakfast and lunch during the conference, inviting them to lead conversations and facilitate introductions between attendees.

At Brio, we had participants shuffle seats at the conclusion of each talk, while the speaker set up an activity or a question for discussion.

We’ve kicked off conferences by having everyone raise their hands, and deputizing every attendee as a co-organizer of the event. We welcomed them to the organizing team, and gave them three important responsibilities:

  • to recognize the impact their participation would have on everyone else’s experience;
  • to bring the best of their attention, thought, care, and reflection; and
  • to share their input on how to make the event better.

The principle behind all of these exercises was simply this: to create space for our attendees to co-create the event with us, to invite them to be co-leaders, and to give them opportunities to engage as fully as they wanted to with the experience.

For remote gatherings, we believe this is an even more crucial principle, because deep engagement is harder when we aren’t sharing physical space with each other. Our ability to pick up subtle cues and suss each other out is hampered by clumsy and imperfect technologies, and of course we can’t do the same kinds of collaborative building activities we might do IRL.

However, there are still lots of ways we can design remote events to put attendees at the center, and bring their most creative and collaborative selves to the table.

How can you give your attendees the wheel?

  • What “loose parts” could your attendees help to assemble?
  • What opportunities can you provide for them to actively engage in the planning, design, and implementation of the event?
  • How might you deputize your attendees, in order to more effectively engage their hearts, minds, and contributions?
  • How could you get your attendees collaborating and co-creating with each other?
  • What “standard-issue” elements of your event are prime candidates for a rethink? How might you redesign them in more engaging, participatory, and thoughtful ways?