The Creativity Zone at Learning Live

What is the best part of any conference or similar professional gathering? It’s the people, of course! From purposeful networking to informal side conversations, the interaction of the attendees will undoubtedly make or break an event. Too often are participants made to feel not at all participatory — that is, they must wander around aimlessly during the intersessions awkwardly staring at strangers’ name badges trying to muster up the courage to forge a connection — even a trite one based on mere job description. Conference goers drift from one “expert” session to another, sandwiched by the ubiquitous chalk-and-talk keynotes.

The saving grace for this type of event is most often the cocktail or other such “social” hour, where people tend to let loose and mingle in more informal scenarios. Great exchanges of ideas can happen like this, and it’s something I affectionately refer to as

“Pub Pedagogy”

all images taken or drawn by me with Paper 53

I think we can agree this format is rather tired and in need of a makeover. After all, we live in a “participatory culture”, says media theorist Henry Jenkins, in which

“everyone has access to the means of creative expression and the networks supporting artistic distribution”

We are used to the democratization of media creation tools, grass-roots production and amplification through social media, co-created knowledge through affinity spaces and other informal learning spaces.

This month I was privileged to curate and host an unique alternative offering at a truly innovative event put on by the U.K.’s Learning and Performance Institute (@yourLPI).

the event had its own Snapchat filter!

“Learning Live” is geared towards the Learning and Development community and prides itself on being a “no lecture zone”. That is, all the keynotes and workshops are interactive and try to be as engaging as possible, with attendees actually making and doing in each session, or participating in “think-pair-shares” during the keynotes (wonderfully executed by Elliott Masie @emasie and Richard Wiseman@RichardWiseman). My role was to develop a special space in the main conference area called the

Creativity Zone

I worked with a great team, including Edmund Monk (@edmundmonk), Colin Steed(@ColinSteed), Nigel Paine, who co-hosted with me (@ebase), Giles Hearn(@GilesHearn) and Pauline Saunders (@Pauline_LPI), who pulled all the details together beautifully. We had a few ideation sessions remotely and pinned down a selection of a menu of ideas. The overarching premise was to

create a space conducive to tinkering and purposeful play, networking and sharing ideas.

Of course the “space” as not confined to the designated area, but extended into the digital realm as well with Twitter challenges.

In this podcast with Nigel Paine and Martin Couzins (@martincouzins) I run through the various micro-spaces:

As mentioned in the podcast, we decided to base all activities around three major themes pertinent to L and D at the moment:

CURATION

COMMUNITY

CULTURE

the Wonder Wall prior to the event

One of the most accessible areas on the “wonder wall” was the

“Playlist” — a place for crowdsourced curation

(albeit more like aggregation since most of the contextualization was done through conversation rather than posted on the board). There were designated spots for attendees to recommend people to follow on social networks, blogs, feeds (hashtags), chats, books, podcasts, sites, and even organizations who are exemplars in the field.

The Post-its made this a low-barrier entry activity and it filled up quickly. Some folks even got involved virtually, making recommendations on Twitter as we tweeted out the progress. People stood around and conversed, and conveniently were able to take photos with their smartphones, bringing a treasure trove of resources back to their organizations.

On the other end of the wall was an area to pose burning questions related to L and D. The idea was that others could “adopt” your question and provide answers via your contact info.

Many conversations were sparked by these queries, as one can imagine.

Along the back wall we featured a section called

“Blog Bites”

The LPI curates a wonderful assortment of blogs by prominent thought leaders in learning. We hyperlinked to these posts and pulled out some resonant excerpts. Attendees were encouraged to write commentary on sticky notes and affix to the post, much like they would interact with the author on the digital blog space.

Next to the Blog Bites wall (and unfortunately near the entry to the men’s loo) was one of my go-to conference features –

the Vox Box

Nigel Paine was brave enough to be our first VoxBoxer

This fell under “Culture” and is basically an iPad, stuck to the wall at face-height with some headphones and thinking prompts. I’ve created these at several events and it’s a wonderful opportunity to capture real-time sentiments from both speakers and attendees. The LPI published several of these after the event:

Find the rest HERE

The Creativity Zone extended into other areas in the form of

Visual Binary Voting

(a museum inspired me with that one), and Twitter challenges (falling under the “Community” theme), such as “Tweet an image of what learning looks like“.

Having a Twitter challenge (or several) is always a good idea, as it brings awareness to the conference hashtag and allows followers who couldn’t be present to participate nonetheless.

Julie wasn’t in the venue but she found us via Twitter!

We also came up with the real-time Twitter Wall idea — so beautiful!

One of the things I’ve noticed as people mingle, whether it be at a dinner party or corporate event, is that they love to share the latest app, productivity tool, or similar bits and bots of expertise in sort of an informal, off the cuff way. We designated an area for that type of sharing called

#onecoolthing

What is your “one cool thing”? For me it was showing a gif making app to Valerie De Pauw of SeaSaltLearning. Donald Taylor (@DonaldHTaylor) and I discussed notebooks and Rachel Burnham (@BurnhamLandD) shared her amazing sketchnotes.

The other side of the Wonderwall was a magical, and perhaps my favourite space in the Creativity Zone. It was a bit of an oasis — a little niche area– secluded from the frenzy of the main floor. This allowed for some intimate conversation and, I think, encouraged participants to be a bit more risk-taking.

Colin Steed and I are passionate about changing the way slide presentations in particular are executed. We are tired of bullet pointed lists and stock photos. As for creativity, I personally believe that

metaphor is one of the key elements in both creative thinking and communication.

One of the most important skills is to be able to make learning sticky, and communicate complexities in digestible ways. The best way to do this is through metaphorical imagery, as I explain in this post.

We set up a complementary wall set called

Visual Vocabulary

On one wall, a selection of photographs (many of which I’ve taken from my travels) that invited passers-by to label with the metaphor that came to mind when viewing the image. The other wall offered word triggers — things significant in L and D such as “change” or “digital disruption”. Participants were asked to sketch right on the wall surface their ideas as to how to depict these terms visually, much as if they were creating the prototype for a slide presentation.

What surprised me is that people were really engaged in discussion and debate concerning these images, and hovered around them for extended periods of time.

The sketching wall was a bit more sparse until the cocktail hour started (no big surprise there, since people tend to shed their fear of failure after a few glasses of merlot).

There was quite a lot of positive feedback regarding the Creativity Zone.

Another idea we came up with, that I think truly helped people forge more meaningful connections, was a creative use of name badges. I also try to

ask people what they love to do rather than what they do (as in what their position is in their organization).

During the registration process LPI asked attendees to list 3 things they considered themselves fairly knowledgeable about and 3 things they would like to find out more about. We envisioned this could be used as sort of a “match-making for learning” resource as well, since we were able to access the data base and filter for key words. A few people took advantage of that, as I had the spreadsheets available in the Creativity Zone, but for the most part I think they were satisfied navigating the sea of badges.

I truly loved this experience and feel honoured to have been asked to cultivate this space. Aside from the aforementioned planning team, I want to give a special shout out to Valerie de Pauw (@vladepop ) for helping set up, Nigel Paine for all his support and also helping set up, and to Krystyna Gadd (@KrystynaGadd) and Issy Nancarrow (@IssyNancarrow) for extra help as “creativity concierges” in the Zone.

I hope more organizations consider this “mise en scène” approach to conferences. The more participants can truly co-create the environment and experience, the better (and the more reflective of what is going on in society). The learning is stickier and the networking is richer.

Tickled to see my friend Damian Corbet, from another innovative conference — Sea Salt Learning’s Social Age Safari.

If you are interested in having me develop a custom creative space for your event, please contact me.