Using Human Sciences to Navigate Your Conference’s Future Through the FogOctober 1, 2015

October 1, 2015

Using Human Sciences to Navigate Your Conference’s Future Through the Fog


Hurt,Jeff-VelvetChainsaw110x140Jeff Hurt is executive vice president, education and engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, and is based in Dallas, Texas. Velvet Chainsaw Consulting exclusively services companies and associations with their annual meetings, conferences, education and events. They also help technology, service and membership organizations establish and execute plans and processes that result in improved business results. Hurt has worked in the events/nonprofit arena for more than 20 years including Keep America Beautiful as a consultant/trainer/writer; Keep Texas Beautiful as education coordinator; professional development manager for Meeting Professionals International; professional development manager for Promotional Products Association International; and director of education and events for the National Association of Dental Plans. Originally published by Jeff Hurt in “Velvet Chainsaw Midcourse Corrections.” Contact Hurt at 214-886-3174 or

Our linear and rational conference business models are our default thinking.

Unfortunately, those traditional models cause us to navigate in a fog when the conference challenge is less straightforward. There are better ways to understand how to grow your conference than what you’ve done in the past.

As conference professionals, we are inclined to continue to use models that have always worked enormously well for us. Yet our past has little relevance in the midst of an incredibly shifting culture and context today. We have to unlearn our old flawed assumptions about people — our attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, vendors and stakeholders.

“We need to start investigating the invisible background — that layered nuance behind what we perceive and what actually is.”

Hat tips to authors Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen* for their insights into applying human sciences to today’s business models.

Our Default Thinking for Conference Business Models

Most conference growth plans use a linear model of improvement. They aim at getting the maximum growth and profit through rational and logical analysis. We turn our plans into tasks that use deductive logic, well-structured hypothesis and thorough collection of the evidence — the inputs and outputs.

This traditional linear model borrows business tactics from hard sciences such as physics and math. You learn from past experiences to create new opportunities that you test with your customers. It is extremely successful at analyzing information extrapolated from a known set of past data.

This default thinking helps us improve efficiency, optimize our resources, balance our offerings, increase productivity, improve operations and hopefully get more bang for our buck.

Using the Past to Predict the Future Provides a False Sense of Confidence

But what happens when our conference challenges involve people’s behavior? What happens when it involves people’s irrational decision-making process such as spending one’s personal money for conference attendance?

When it comes to cultural and contextual shifts, a hypothesis based on past examples will give us a false sense of confidence. It will send us astray into turbulent waters and uncharted territories.

Our traditional models of conference planning tend to tell us the way things are. Those take the center spotlight when we discuss our understanding of the conference audience and its stakeholders.

That default thinking shows us what exists in the foreground. We need to start investigating the invisible background — that layered nuance behind what we perceive and what actually is.

Introducing Human Sciences for Conference Improvements

How our attendees experience a conference may be as important as, or more important than, the hard objective facts about our past conferences. We cannot continue to use our past data as relevant to the future.

The human sciences look at the why of people’s decisions.

Why do we need this new conference business practice of the human sciences to understand our attendees’ behavior?

Human behavior can change — sometimes radically! During those changes, no amount of hard data can bring the invisible factors to the foreground.

Using human sciences does not provide us with a model, formula or quick equation to apply to our conference planning. It requires studying and making sense of artifacts, observed behaviors, conversations, emotions and images.

A Complementary Toolkit From Human Sciences

We need to combine our default thinking with a complementary set of tools from the human sciences.

  • When we use past data to explore a new hypothesis we also need exploratory inquiry — examining attendees’ beliefs, attitudes and irrational decisions.
  • When we use the past to answer what and how much, we need to ask and answer why.
  • When we look at the data on what is and has been, we need to also research on what is to come.
  • When we discuss hard, measurable evidence, we need to juxtaposition it with qualitative evidence.
  • When we start talking about correctness and corrective measures, we need to discuss truth, not assumptions and beliefs.

What examples have you seen of conference organizers using human sciences to make decisions about their future conferences? What are some tactical questions from the human sciences that we can use?

What are some other ways to reframe common conference challenges as phenomena? How would you describe a premium conference experience? Send your comments to Jeff Hurt at

This article first appeared on Velvet Chainsaw’s Midcourse Corrections.

*Most marketers [including conference professionals] cling to assumptions about their customers’ behavior that have been shaped by their organizational culture, the biases of the firm’s managers, and, increasingly, the vast but imperfect data stream flowing in, say authors Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen in “An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar,” an article published in the March 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review. Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen are the coauthors of The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), from which their article was developed. C&IT

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