Engagement in Action: Key Takeaways from EAF

Written by Lucie Robathan on August 2, 2017

We’ve all been sent event feedback surveys, asking us politely about our experience, and collecting comments, concerns and suggestions for improvement. It’s usually difficult to fill these in, especially because we often aren’t sure what we even wanted, what we should have expected, or what we would prefer – let alone how to articulate it.

But what about if this feedback survey format were transplanted into real life? How would it look if feedback, collaboration, and co-creation were weaved into the actual tapestry of an event?

I went to this summer’s Engaging Associations Forum in Ottawa last month with the aim of gathering impressions from attendees at this uniquely collaborative industry event. The forum was created in 2013 to offer association executives a place for peer-to-peer exchange, dynamic education, and participatory learning opportunities, and it piqued our interest in its commitment to innovation and cooperation.

The conference was not just engaging by name alone. Organized and planned meticulously in order to foster exchange, its collaborative structure also worked to reveal what it was that attendees had been craving. It was, essentially, a feedback survey in action. After observing the event carefully over the two days, and gathering responses from people attending, these were the most powerful takeaways:

Participation enhances the learning experience.

“The organizers have a deep understanding about associations and the current issues they are experiencing. I particularly enjoyed the case studies that were shared which make the lessons learned more meaningful and memorable.” – Melanie Hudson, Events Planning and Facilities Officer, National Association of Federal Retirees

We all want to participate meaningfully in conferences, to be listened to, and to feel included in the conversation.

But to put this into action is a daunting task: are you brave enough to sit front and center during the keynote with your hand in the air, or to insert yourself in front of a speaker to make an introduction and pick their brain?

The EAF setting was designed to place interaction at the heart of each session, and to make each attendee feel part of a team.

With an eclectic mixture of tables, chairs, stools, couches and desks dotted around the main room, vibrant and cheerful lighting and furnishings, and a variety of media screens along the wall, the very layout of the space encouraged engagement and made people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.

As well as the hand-held microphones available, a couple of soft Catchboxes were constantly being thrown between attendees over the audience’s heads, enabling quick and lively discussion. For those who were less keen to speak in a crowd, there was an app in which questions could be posted, and then up-voted by attendees to then be posed by a facilitator.

Participation became the norm, and as a result, every speech, presentation, and learning opportunity became inherently collaborative. The message here was clear: when we are actively involved in the process of knowledge generation, we feel more connection to the content, thereby making our learning experience much more enriching.

There are informal learning opportunities wherever peers gather.

“I love how the informal setting of EAF lends itself well to a collaborative mentality. There is a relaxed vibe that seems to encourage people to be more open to sharing, not just their success stories, but also their organizational woes. And when those troubles are shared, everyone is on board to help hash out possible solutions. That supportive environment is just one of the many reasons I keep coming back.” – Andrea Myers, CAE

It’s not trivial that we anticipate the social aspect of conferences as much as we do the session content. Time spent talking both professionally and personally to our peers is such a valuable source of knowledge, experience, and insight, and it’s important to have a space in which to do that candidly and honestly.

Formally and informally, the EAF provided this. A peer-group, co-creative mentality was more subconsciously established by the number of volunteers involved in the process; attendees who voluntarily took on active roles throughout the conference, serving as conversation facilitators, scribes, photographers and more. This supportive network created a bridge between attendees, organizers, speakers and sponsors that made everybody feel like they had a seat at the table, and added a very human element to the running of the event.

“I’m a physical learner; I have to physically do something in order to retain it, so the more I can experience the more I will learn. And most things were set up to be an experience. Even the Birds of a Feather [the networking dinner for association executives to discuss common interests] was a nice experience - that didn’t have to do with Association work – but was well worth it to feel like a person at the event. It put you in a comfort zone to be more participatory during the rest of the event.”Emery Wolfe, Technology and Multimedia Specialist, Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association

More formally, the session structures were geared towards peer-to-peer exchange: one session took the form of a clarity council, the aim of which was to arrive at tangible solutions to a problem through a group exercise in questioning.

Another series of discussions were set up as idea labs, which were essentially a series of round-table conversations around certain topics; facilitated by one expert but emerging entirely through the participants’ contributions. The queries, concerns and suggestions provoked by these idea labs quickly spilled out of the confines of the tables and became rich fodder for conversations and connections through the remainder of the day. The key points that emerged from these idea lab discussions were recorded by a group of volunteer scribes, to be compiled later into an eBook that will be distributed to all of the attendees, keeping the conversation active and engaged long after the fact, and providing further opportunities for learning and discovery.

An interesting takeaway from this is that we shouldn’t overlook the importance of social time, and shouldn’t disparage chewing something over with a peer or colleague – those moments could spark surprising revelations.

A transparent process is a constructive one.

The feedback survey in action was perfectly exemplified in the transparency with which the forum was run.

throughout the two days, the organizers had tactics in place to receive immediate and actionable feedback (“thumbs up if you are getting what you want out of this”, “how’s the music level?”), meaning the experience could be adjusted on the spot.

The opening speech given on the second morning was a frank and honest discussion of how the previous day had gone, the lessons learned from it, and the ways it could be improved upon.

There were several outcomes of this transparency: the attendees who were themselves responsible for planning events gained a huge amount of insight from being included in the process, the real-time feedback discussion meant that problems could be ironed out much faster, and people could participate in curating the experience they wanted from the conference.

This can absolutely be a lesson to our organizations when it comes to engaging members and creating a valuable member experience. Associations can harness the knowledge and expectations of members themselves to create a more engaged membership by focusing on collaboration. They can invite members to co-create their own experience, whether through actively providing feedback, volunteering, or acting as ambassadors, while demonstrating that this feedback is being received and actioned.

So if you want to have a more engaged membership base, the lesson from EAF is simple and clear: include your members in the process. What do they want? What are their expectations? What are they unhappy with? Ask them. Facilitate participation, foster professional and personal interaction between members, and work towards a culture of transparency in your decision making. Offering members a seat at the table makes this process easier, more efficient, and more constructive.