Monday, September 10, 2012

Becoming Engaging

Why call it a genealogy conference? Why not do something radically different next year to engage participants? Really try to blow things out of the water, so to speak? Set RootsTech on its ear!
How about calling it the 'XYZ" society's MEGA FAMILY HISTORY WORKSHOP or something radically different? A catchy new title will mark the departure from the old, stodgy (read that boring) lecture format. "Workshop" implies active learning, particularly more so when compared to the word "conference".

Cease calling us presenters, instead use the term moderator. That distinction gives promise of group interaction.

Make sessions 90-120 minutes. Dedicate 1/2 the time to "slides" interwoven with detailed Q & A and demos. Why not learn one thing well, rather than two poorly in fast-forward mode?  Creative, confident, well-informed moderators can handle this "flying by the seat of their pants".

Ask participants in advance to bring something to share. The moderator will pick 3-4 that are particularly appropriate. It isn't about the "instructor" looking good, it's about class participants seeing other folks they may know who are making progress in their family history work. Use a timer and gong (or cow bell) to keep the sharing time moving along.

Poll the participants. Q & A don't have to come from participants, moderators can involve participants by asking questions like:
  • How many use this site? Any breakthroughs?
  • Who might consider changing to this software? Why?

Take a ten minute break or two. This invites conversations in small groups, and give the moderator time to preview a few "share" items brought by participants.

Brainstorm. Differing points of view and a variety of user experiences enhance participants' exposure to new concepts.

Advertise the use of hash tags, and appoint a participant to interject with comments from the feed. This provides real-time feedback for moderators and takes into account those who are too shy to raise their hand during the session.
Provide free wifi so all participants can use their laptops and tablets.  This encourages "following along" as a website is demonstrated. Active, hands-on learning doesn't require venue-provided equipment.

Team Teaching. Not a roundtable, not a panel - just two instructors playing a friendly game of racketball with everyone in the room. One can demo, while the other walks the room, judging the responses, providing interaction from Twitter feed, aiding internet exploration if that's the topic, cajoling participation from even the most reluctant person in the room. Then switch roles to mix it up for the next talking point.

Let's engage in conversations, rather than lecturing.
A genealogy conference is no longer about reading a "scientific paper" behind a podium with a few slides on the screen -- it's about exploring research techniques together, comparing notes on record groups, sharing the latest "how-to" resources and, to quote Linda McCauley's blog title, Documenting the Details.

What other "crazy" ideas would work?
Happy family tree climbing! 
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.

Twitter: @DearMYRTLE
G+: +Pat Richley-Erickson
Second Life: Clarise Beaumont    


  1. Dear MYRTLE,

    "Team Teaching" ... It has been an honor to help present with you, in person and online, and have been part of your presentations. The Fairfax Conference experience was the best, for me. I wouldn't all what I did as "team teaching", but clicking a mouse and collaborating with you was a Blast.

    The excitement of the group of folks that shared that experience, did learn lots. Some walked away with tasks that they CAN DO, and were enthused is committing to your assignment, out side of the session.

    As you mentioned earlier, the class next door, may have raised concern about the excitement coming from YOUR Workshop - or Lab class.

    Thank you,


    1. DearCOUSIN,
      Working with you, and learning whether in Second Life, large-group webinars or our more recent one-on-one webinars is invigorating. You have different ways of looking at our task as genealogist that inspire me to do better in my own work.

      Myrt :)

  2. Disclaimer ... Having seen Myrt in action over a period of time, I'm just plain biased.

    All of us could learn something from Myrt's writing on this topic.

    Have you seen her in action? A few things come to mind; in haste here. I've never left a Myrt session without

    (a) learning something rewarding that I hadn't known previously about other participants in the session;

    (b) often because of the audience participation, I know I'm going to come away from a Myrt session with something closer to a 360 degree perspective on a topic

    (c) being able to directly relate the topic to something or several things current in my personal work (something I hadn't thought about before);

    One biased bear. --GeneJ

    1. DearBEAR,
      Working with groups like this is easy, because of mutual respect. Sometimes its hard to see a different way of doing things, but sitting around a camp fire or a round table, or rocking on the front porch together is the perfect environment, whether literal or virtual.

      Mutual respect makes it work.

      Thanks for your comments. I'm blushing. But seriously, the effectiveness of these sessions lies in the multiple thought streams being shared. If I cannot turn on a light-bulb for someone, there is another in the group who can make things easier to understand.

      Moderators can provide the tone where the group discussion can flourish.

      Myrt :)

  3. As far as I can see there is, imho, only one tiny thing wrong with this approach - it lessens the ability to do useful webcasts of conferences. Doing a webinar of a workshop is much more difficult than a lecture. If there is a way to overcome that... then Full Steam Ahead!

    1. Hiya Andy!
      How about if the moderator fosters the use of multiple microphones, and the venue can provide two cameras for the webcast? That might do the trick.

      Myrt :)

    2. That could work I suppose. It will just take finding the right use of the right technology.

  4. That's exactly what we need! Forward thinking to get more people engaged in family history research. I believe that one solution might be to get more of the newbies out there to attend these events. Those who aren't yet members of a society, or who haven't begun to do serious research are holding back because they think genealogy is complicated. Let's show them it can be fun and exciting, and that there are lots of resources out there for them to lean on.

    1. DearED,
      Thanks for your reply! YES, the concept that this is "doable" is really important.

      Besides once newbies are bitten by the genealogy bug, the research won't seem so difficult.

      If someone had told me I'd LOVE to stay up til all hours of the night scouring the internet for just one more clue, I'd have said they were crazy.

      If the most recent poor turn out at a national conference is any indication, we DO need to make RADICAL changes to the way we share our experiences.

      Myrt :)

  5. Dear MYRTLE, The ideas you have presented would make conferences so much more beneficial for participants. Rather than just an overview of a topic, the presenter (or presenters) would be able to really dig into the methodology and resources available for the topic. One possible drawback, though, might be the need for fewer participants in each session in order for effective interaction to take place.

    1. DearDENISE,
      I've run workshops like this with 250 people in the room where people realize they aren't each going to get a chance to speak. But any time you have additional comments from participants is a good thing. Skillful moderators can guide the discussion without allowing an individuals to hog the mic.

      Myrt :)

  6. Wow - lots of ideas and lots of things to think about! Some of the best learning environments I have had - we turned in our research plan/brickwall before the seminar, we found that others had similar issues, the instructor had reviewed the plan/brickwall beforehand and provided suggestions, others with our same "type of issue" worked together to brainstorm ideas and research suggestions - it was fun, engaging, really opened my eyes to additional research (someone else looking at your problem with new eyes), and a few of us have stayed "research buddies" and/or send a quick email if we have a question or find a new data source. We also had lectures and hands-on sessions. You really do need to mix it up! Thanks for getting us to rethink!

  7. I love the term "workshop" - it makes it sound like I'm going to accomplish something. Also, I think one characteristic of genealogists is that we like to share and collaborate. I love the idea of longer sessions with the ability to share, either with the group overall or with breakout groups. Even something as simple as doing a "raise your hand" poll makes those attending feel more like they are sharing with the group. And team teaching would make participation by the group easier as well, especially if you have mini group time during the session. Love these ideas... I think that when you expect to really take part in a presentation you are more excited to attend and the information really sticks with you.

  8. In other settings I have found "fishbowls" to be a productive approach -- a small circle of people are invited to interact with the presenter/moderator and one another (a kind of think tank seminar). One or two open chairs are provided so anyone outside the circle can join in for a time to ask a question or make a comment. The liveliest sessions have a lot of movement into and out of the smaller circle. The presenter/moderator's primary job is to make sure the conversation stays focused on the topic at hand.

  9. Very interesting ideas! A workshop format (or at least more interactive lecture) is probably appealing to many people. I certainly learn more by "doing" something than just "hearing" about it. (And thanks for the blog mention.)