Meetings

The Power of Observation at Your Meetings

By Samantha Whitehorne / Feb 1, 2013 (Design Pics/Thinkstock)

One author makes the case for why you may want to stop asking members lots of questions and observe them in action instead. Doing so can mean more successful meetings and satisfied attendees.

As I was brainstorming ideas for my blog this week, I came across this blog post by Steve Martin, author of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

In the post, Martin discusses how every business is interested in learning what influences and persuades their customers and consumers (or in the case of associations, their members), and that one of the most common ways to gather this information is to simply ask them, whether through an online survey or focus groups.

However, Martin says no matter how you ask, “there is a fundamental problem with asking people what will persuade them to change: Most of the time they won’t know the answer.” So while people will provide plenty of answers, they’ll have a high likelihood of being wrong. Why?

Hello, post-meeting evaluations. What does this mean for you?

Martin writes, “The great majority of the decisions we make in our information-overloaded, distraction-heavy lives are made outside our conscious awareness, driven more by contexts than cognitions. As a result, asking someone to pinpoint what will influence them in the future is a bit like saying, ‘Tell me how you will behave in the future when you are not thinking about what I have just asked you about?’”

This could be bad news for association meeting teams who often ask current event attendees questions like, “Will you plan to attend the same event next year?” Or “What could we change about the event to increase your chances of attending again?” And that’s not the only bad news: Martin says people are also not that great at recognizing what persuaded them after an event. (Hello, post-meeting evaluations that almost every association meetings and learning department uses to inform future decisions on everything from session speakers to F&B choices. What does this mean for you?)

Martin sums up his point like this: “[W]hen it comes to getting to the heart of what actually drives decisions and behaviors, a message emerges that at first glance appears counter-intuitive: Stop listening to your customers.”

No, Martin isn’t saying associations should plan meetings solely on what association staff members deem the best option. Instead he suggests setting up “small field tests and controlled studies that observe what they actually do.”

What could that look like at association meetings? It could basic (Observing different seating arrangements to determine which generates more conversation among attendees) to more elaborate (recording a handful of attendees as they walk the show floor to discover patterns). And as I mentioned in a blog post a few weeks back, technology will likely make real-time attendee data easier to collect and anlyze.

How does your organization take time at its meeting and events to observe attendees in action? And how do you use this information to inform future decisions?

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now. More »

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