Are You Avoiding Me?

Office conflicts are rarely as damaging as the effort to avoid them.

Conflict avoidance can seem like good “adulting,” but sometimes it’s as effective as hiding in bed with a blanket over your head. I get it. There are times when we are just not ready to grapple with a thorny issue that someone keeps pushing in our face. When everyone on the planet is stressed out, we may not trust ourselves, or them, to be our best selves. We’re afraid things could turn ugly. So, we start by ignoring the issue, and end up ignoring the person. In these days of social distancing, this is easier and more dangerous than ever.

As I’ve blogged about before, there’s merit to performing “decision/action triage” in order to control and assign a time frame to issues we’re not ready to deal with. But, that requires that we also engage with the person forcing the issue in order to agree on a time and place to work through it. Simply avoiding the issue, and the person raising it, is never a good option. In fact, by trying to do nothing you can force two negative outcomes.

First, conflict avoidance hurts organizational health, which is grounded on open communication — especially at leadership levels. If we simply avoid conflict, we lose the opportunity to fully understand what’s at issue and perhaps correct a misconception (our own, or the other person’s) that could hurt the business. We can’t fix what we don’t or won’t understand.

Secondly, when we avoid people because we don’t want to hear them, we create a vacuum in the narrative that they will eventually fill. They’ll start to tell themselves stories to make sense out of your behavior — e.g., you hate me and want to sabotage my career, you are an idiot or a psychopath, or you don’t really believe a post-pandemic recovery is possible. People will make up explanations that are probably much worse than the actual truth. If you don’t tell someone why you are avoiding them, their behavior will never improve and your relationship will suffer.

If you are avoiding someone who is intent on having an uncomfortable discussion, own it. Call them up; set the agenda yourself and arrange for a face-to-face video chat. Sometimes we just need to be vulnerable and hear what we don’t want to hear. Conversely, if you are sure someone is avoiding you, consider what you could do to diffuse the situation. Don’t assume the worst. Leave them a message asking if there’s a way to schedule a discussion, or if there’s a better way to seek resolution. If we cultivate the habit of being discreet and thoughtful when we share uncomfortable information, people are more likely to hear us.

Social distancing is cool, but let’s do what we can to avoid avoidance.

We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

What to do when the scenery changes.

When Dorothy stepped out from her black-and-white Kansas farmhouse into the Technicolor world of Oz, she knew right away she was a long way from home. I know how she feels. Sometimes it seems that the world we called “normal” was left behind ages ago. For those of us in industries that rely on using conferences, trade shows, and expositions to conduct our business, it’s as if the coronavirus was our tornado. Except the truth is, we haven’t been in Kansas for a while. Not really.

Within the last decade, we’ve become adept at using technology to amplify the live experience. We learned to stream video of our live events, incorporate social media, and layer in new digital solutions, such as second screen technology, to be more interactive. We’ve gotten more strategic about applying data analysis, AR, and VR to create more personalized experiences. With these tools in place, there was nothing keeping us from developing the perfect live experience platform — designed to leverage the strengths of each medium within a true, “omnicom” approach. It requires a lot of orchestration. It demands a deep understanding of the unique audiences we’re trying to reach. It means committing to the alignment of message content with the medium, format, or technology that most effectively connects with our audiences. It means doing the hard work of designing a platform for live events that optimizes all of the tools at our disposal.

We simply didn’t make it a priority. In a pre-pandemic world, digital solutions were often characterized as “nice-to-haves” or “too expensive for our event.” I’d go so far as to suggest that the option to develop a practical hybrid event platform simply wasn’t pursued because everyone has had their collective noses so close to the grindstone that we didn’t notice the scenery had changed.

What’s new is that these technologies — and the nascent hybrid technologies now in development — are suddenly, urgently, vitally important to the continuation of our business practices. I see that as a good thing. We need to use this time to re-imagine all the possibilities. Back in March, I posted a blog suggesting that we must make our events more accessible and inclusive, as well as safe. And I called for the creation of Renaissance Teams to explore new solutions for the live events medium.

Bruce Mau tells us that new wicked problems require new wicked teams to solve them. In the Renaissance, it was possible for certain polymaths (Leonardo DaVinci, Akbar the Great, Galileo, etc.) to have expertise in all fields of knowledge — art, science, literature, philosophy, and so on. Today, the field of knowledge in any one specialty is so vast and changing so rapidly that it is nearly impossible to keep up. That’s why we need diverse teams of experts to act as a composite “Renaissance Person” who can examine the challenge from every perspective, through every lens, to recommend multiple solutions.

This is what we are seeing with the Go LIVE Together coalition. Teams of people representing diverse disciplines — from logistics to digital experiences to microbial-pathogenic threat analysis — are coming together to solve issues relating to safety, impact awareness, and legislation for our industry. It’s the start of something big.

Those of us who are charged with leading our companies, associations, and industries have an opportunity and an obligation to take this on. It’s why you need to support the Go LIVE Together movement. Unlike Dorothy, we can’t go back to Kansas. We can go someplace better.

A Perspective On Sacrifice

Thoughts for Memorial Day 2020

Across the United States, the last Monday in May is Memorial Day, a federal holiday set aside for honoring the men and women who gave their lives while serving in the military. I know many countries have similar remembrances that mark the sacrifice made by fallen heroes. Here, it’s often observed with small-town parades, cemetery visits to lay flowers on the graves of loved ones, and family gatherings that celebrate the beginning of summer.

This Memorial Day, many of us will still be under quarantine restrictions. Parades have been cancelled. Picnics will be limited to nuclear families. It sometimes feels as if we are actually at war, and everyone is experiencing battle fatigue. In fact, the language of war has infiltrated daily conversations and newsfeeds. We talk about combating the spread of the COVID-19 virus, declaring war on the pandemic, arming medical staff, and deploying our frontline workers. Just as in WWII, we’ve seen the conversion of manufacturing facilities to produce a new arsenal — in this case, ventilators, hand sanitizer and protective equipment. Just as in war time, we have true heroes who put their lives on the line: doctors and nurses, first responders, and other essential workers. And just as in war time, some of these people have made the ultimate sacrifice. Sadly, their grieving families can’t even receive the consolation of a public memorial service.

So, this Memorial Day, I salute our veterans, of course. They have earned our eternal gratitude. But I am also thinking of everyone who has had to “soldier up,” who’s had to take a very deep breath and just keep marching forward without knowing what lies ahead. To be sure, the most pressure is on the frontline workers. Thank you to all who serve in this way. But my admiration extends beyond their huge sacrifice. It embraces parents trying to keep their children educated and entertained, neighbors keeping an eye out for each other, and the more vulnerable among us who are quietly self-quarantining and trying to flatten the curve. We are all in this battle. We are all trying to make the right choices and fight the good fight.

I am grateful to each of you.

The Size and Shape of “SAFE”

Setting a new gold standard

In the 19th century, international businesses urged their governments to establish a gold standard that would enable trade between countries using different currencies. The gold standard eased the risk and complexity of doing business across countries and continents by establishing a monetary system that all the trading partners agreed to. Each unit of exchange was equated to a fixed quantity of gold, so that buyers, sellers and investors understood exactly where they stood. It created a platform upon which multinational commerce could thrive.

Today, people are looking forward to the day they can once again congregate and connect without fear of spreading contagion. And to assure everyone involved that this social contract will move forward on a consistent, mutually equitable basis, we need to establish new safety protocols that take fear and risk out of the equation for live events. We need coherent guidelines to ensure the safety of labor, staff, exhibitors and participants. Further, we need them to be drawn up and accepted by the people who understand the big picture — who know the details of how events come together — so that all of the long tail connections involved are factored into the solution. With industry-wide agreement to follow basic safety protocols, families from Minneapolis and software engineers from Mumbai can all attend the event of their choice without having to consider, “Is this safe?” They already know it will be.

This is a primary goal of the Go LIVE Together (GLT) coalition. As stay-at-home sanctions are lifted, knowing that the timing and circumstances will vary from city to city, we need to be ready with guidelines and guardrails, based on proven health-science practices, to facilitate a safe return to live events. And the good news is that, because conventions and trade shows happen as controlled gatherings in ballrooms and convention centers (as opposed to mass gatherings in arenas with fixed seating and an obligation to season ticket holders) we have good options for ensuring safety. We can adjust distance between seats, widen aisles, and direct the flow of traffic. We can spread participation over three days, amping up content quality based on area of interest, and stage-gate audiences. We can rethink how and from how many locations we offer registration, refreshments, and social areas. We have total flexibility.

Our members are already working with industry leaders, venues and associations to identify and share the latest best practices. There is so much good work going on, led by so many committed organizations, that it is truly heartening. For example, the U.S. Travel Association has issued industry-wide guidelines in a document entitled “Travel in the New Normal.” A broad representation of the industry, inclusive of practically every segment of travel, tradeshow and events, worked with a panel of medical experts to develop these guidelines for reopening the travel ecosystem. This has been distributed to the White House and to each governor’s office. UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, has been involved since early days, monitoring the situation and sharing critical information. They also worked with the International Association of Convention Centres (AIPC) to publish such useful documents as the “Good Practices Guide to COVID-19.”

We are also following the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC). Comprised of world-renowned leaders and scientists in the area of microbial-pathogenic threat analysis and mitigation, they have created the GBAC STARTM certification program that addresses personal safety, enhanced cleaning, social density at events, entrance controls and on-site service and management. These standards are already being adopted by companies and organizations such as Hyatt and the Miami Dolphins. And of course, everyone is closely following the latest CDC guidelines. So the heavy lifting has begun.

But there is much more to do. And it’s easy to do your part. If you haven’t already, visit golivetogether.com and join the movement. Help spread the word on social media. Let people know that live events are critical to our economic recovery and that a safety plan for their return is in the works. You can read more about the safety initiative here and learn how to be part of the plan to move forward.

The future of live events hangs in the balance. Let’s seize this golden opportunity to set a higher standard.

No Laughing Matter

We are hardwired to experience events socially.

Have you watched any of the live DIY versions of late-night TV programs in the social-distancing era? The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Late Show with James Corden, and Saturday Night Live are all offering cobbled-together programs recorded in the hosts’ place of quarantine and assembled with bits from other quarantined performers.

I love that they are putting it out there — they’ve done some nice work and I appreciate the sense of solidarity. But something has been bugging me and I figured out what it is. I really miss the sound of laughter from the live studio audience.

Likewise, when a guest musician puts it all on the line with some heartrending song and there’s no audience feedback, the silence is such a letdown. Even though I’ve never seen these shows in person, I miss that sense of sharing the experience with others. This confirms my belief that human beings are hardwired to enjoy live events socially. Further, when we’re a bit out of our depth, we often rely on fellow audience members, the mavens among us, to inform our own reaction.

Historically, theatres and opera houses would hire professional claqueurs to lead the applause at appropriate moments in a performance. This was especially true when a new piece was being performed and the audience literally didn’t know what to think. When they heard the enthusiastic applause of fellow audience members, they naturally joined in and everyone had a better time.

Many early radio shows and TV sitcoms were performed in front of a live audience so that the writers and producers could see what worked. They then amplified those laugh points with “canned laughter” and, over time, the concept of sweetening the track with a professionally recorded laugh track became common practice. The shows just seemed empty without it.

For similar reasons, even when we can’t make it to a college football game or a favorite pro-sport event, many of us will find our way to a sympathetic bar and watch it on TV with other fans. We feel the need to share the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

It’s all about the shared experience.

This should inform our approach to the design of virtual events. Without the sense that we are part of something bigger, there’s a risk that jokes will fall flat, poignant moments will feel lame, and the call to action will ring hollow. If we create virtual events building on a live platform, as part of an expansive experience, it’s relatively easy to capture and share real-time feedback — that’s vital.

And we can use technology to enhance the interactive aspects of the event, for live and virtual audiences, by digitally inviting real-time comments and questions, enabling audience chat platforms, and inventing competitions in which virtual audience members can earn points by participating and becoming de facto influencers. They can become your virtual claqueurs.

Until we can safely experience live events together, this kind of real-time interaction is imperative. And after it’s safe to get together… it’s still imperative.

The Sound of 2,000 Voices

Choir or cacophony? It helps to sing from the same sheet music.

As the events industry frames the plan about how and when we all start gathering again, will your voice be heard? There’s a better alternative to just whistling in the dark or having a shouting contest with people who disagree with you politically. Join a choir. Amplify the strength of your voice by singing with others who share your convictions.

Last month, Freeman united with business leaders from across the industry to launch Go LIVE Together. This movement, which began with 84 founding members, has grown to over 2,000 representing thousands of businesses. We add to our numbers every day. I am personally gratified and humbled by this response, and I know the other organizers of our coalition feel the same way. It means that our intentions and our course of action have been validated by the people who know best what must be done.

We are bound together by the belief that nothing in the world will ever replace the power and need for live events. To that end, we have joined forces to:

  • Enable events and trade shows to open safely, once stay-at-home orders are lifted, by following common guidelines. These standards will adhere to the best medically backed scientific practices for protecting workers and attendees at live events;
  • Raise awareness with government officials, so that they understand the true impact events have on economies and job creation. We will illustrate the benefits that a safe start-up will have on healing the U.S. economy;
  • Seek relief by supporting legislation to rebuild the industry in a way that serves to accelerate economic recovery.

There’s a beautiful holiday tradition in Japan in which people come together to form a massive choir, 10,000 people strong, for Daiku concerts in which they sing the choral section of Beethoven’s jubilant Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.” Of course, the choral arrangement is written for different vocal parts — soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. There are soloists leading some sections. But 10,000 people come together and sing one song and it is amazing. Powerful. Joyful.

Let’s raise our voices in that spirit. Let’s share our message as if we are a vast choir, singing one song in unison.

It’s been estimated that 6.6 million jobs in the live events industry have been affected by the pandemic. If only a fraction of these people work together, we will be a mighty force. Imagine what we can accomplish. Imagine how far we can be heard.

You can add the strength of your voice to ours — bringing your ideas and convictions — by joining the movement at GoLIVETogether.com. Use the facts we’ve gathered and the tools we offer to spread the word through social media. When it’s time, reach out to your elected representatives.

By all means, join the chorus. Who knows what music we can create when we raise our voices as one.

Authentic Empathy

Staying true to who you are says it all.

If you follow my blog (thank you) you know that I’ve been thinking a lot about how leadership, in the best of times, demands integrity and authenticity.  And in darker times, we also need to be mindful about meeting people where they are — especially if we know they are feeling threatened, frightened or abandoned.

This has been a challenge for brand marketers who rely largely on mass media channels. One after another, brands with highly-targeted, award-winning campaigns have pivoted their messaging to something more pandemic-appropriate. It explains why we are seeing so many look-alike ads on TV these days — with meditative piano music, stirring images, and a trusty voice over assuring people that “Brand X is here for you.” The intentions are sound, but it starts to feel generic.

There’s got to be a better way — one that’s brand-authentic while still being empathetic. This timely Progressive Insurance ad gets my vote for best-of-season, because it is 100 percent on-brand and stays true to who they are.


Instead of playing the same sad tune as everyone else, they have a little fun by showing their quirky sales team experiencing the kind of epic Zoom fails that are emblematic of the new normal. With so many of us working from home, helping kids with distance learning, and wishing grandma happy birthday on Skype, it’s totally relatable. It’s funny. It creates empathy. The message is authentic.

We can all learn from this as we plan how to move forward, especially those of us in the live events industry. Regardless of whether we all meet in a conference hall, connect via streaming digital, or interact using a new hybrid platform, we need to approach people with empathy and authenticity. We have to acknowledge that they have experienced many, many changes in the last few months. And we have to be honest about setting expectations for even more change as we learn to interact in ways that are socially responsible and that mitigate contagion. Ultimately, it’s change for the better. But we are growing weary of constant change.

That’s why we need to lean into the one thing that shouldn’t change — who we are and what we stand for. If people trusted you before the pandemic and you have stayed true to your core brand values, they will trust you going forward. So ask yourself how can I, my brand, my company, my business, my association, solve some of the problems my customers are grappling with? How can I make them glad they chose to work with us? What gesture of appreciation can I offer them, beyond mere platitudes? Start with authenticity: say what you mean and act on it. That’s all any of us really want.

When It’s Okay to Go Outside Again

Being safe and feeling safe may not be the same thing.

Is it safe to go outside yet? It’s a question we’ve all asked at some time or another. Whether the object of our fear was a tornado that drove us to the basement, a high school crush so intense we hid in the restroom, or an extended lunch spent avoiding a boss waiting to assign anyone some thankless task, we’ve all sought refuge from time to time. And there’s always a pivot point where we feel it’s okay to make our move back to the daily norm.

Unfortunately, we’ve been sheltering a long time from COVID-19, and the signals have been kind of vague about how long it will last. We are all eager for the “all clear” sign. But will we trust it? I suspect that the longer we’re in quarantine, the scarier it will be to come out.

This must be a consideration when those of us in the Live Events industry start planning for a rebound. We need to think about a global population reeling from the trauma of a pandemic caused by the kind of casual human contact that typifies participation in a conference, trade show, exhibition, or ticketed entertainment event.

There’s a precedent for this kind of lingering fear. After 9/11, many people were reluctant to fly. The global response was to add elaborate security measures that forever changed the boarding procedures — and a way of life — for all of us. In the wake of 9/11, the anthrax scare rekindled fears and additional security measures became part of the new normal. Mass shootings and other terrorist actions further heightened our sense of vulnerability and fear. Today, we don’t really blink twice when asked to step through a scanner at the airport, or through metal detectors at a sports arena or even our kids’ school. On some level, these new routines are reassuring, even if they’re annoying.

So what should we be doing now to anticipate the feelings of people whom we hope will rejoin us at our events when it’s officially safe to come out? How can we make it feel safe to mingle at live events where large crowds will be gathered? A recent TrendWatching report points toward “ambient wellness,” wherein those hosting live events “embed health-boosting measures into the very spaces that their customers pass through, making staying healthy effortless.”

We are working with our events partners to establish new, industry-wide safety standards. Convention centers and event planners are already considering measures to ease congestion, promote better air filtration, provide wellness booths, and even screen people for temperatures. Most likely we’ll be given hand sanitizer at the doors. And the wearing of face masks may become a sign of respect for fellow event participants that are as ubiquitous as a lanyard and credentials. It’s vital that we consider both what is required to keep people safe — and what it will take to help them feel safe.

A coalition of businesses representing various aspects of the Live Event industry is working to solve this and related challenges. Together, we are advocating for additional funding to support safety standards. And we are considering other programs that might encourage attendance at Live Events, once sanctions are lifted, because we believe this is needed to accelerate economic recovery. This has everything to do with learning to be smarter, more generous, more innovative citizens of the world. As we state in the Freeman manifesto, we “stand in support of the human commitment to create prosperity, economic impact, knowledge, learning, and social connection.” The live experiences we produce collectively, as an industry, create a space where innovation, change, and purpose come together.

Although people in the coalition represent diverse organizations, each is a champion for the power of live events and the need for live, large-scale human connection. It’s how good ideas spread and how innovation become contagious. If you’d like to be part of this movement, visit golivetogether.com. It will help you stay informed about opportunities for action and provide access to tool kits you can use to engage your employees, partners, the media, and legislators. You are also invited to join Go LIVE Together colleagues who are connecting via the usual social channels: Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn.

Until it’s safe to come out, don’t! But there’s so much we can do right now to get events back on track. We don’t have to be afraid. We just have to act responsibly, be proactive, and collaborate on solutions. Let’s help people come together in a way that is safe. Let’s do what we can to help them feel secure. Let’s go LIVE together.

Designing LIVE — Our Better Angels

There are inherent advantages to the self-policing nature of live events.

One benign outcome of the pandemic is that is that people have become more comfortable with the various technologies that let us connect virtually. Further, I suspect that as people spend more time connecting through social media, they are gaining both an appreciation of and a wariness regarding how it contributes to the larger conversation.

I am a huge advocate for integrating virtual connections into live events. But for me, the isolating nature of the pandemic has underscored the irreplaceable nature of face-to-face. In considering what we value most about “LIVE,” Bruce Mau finds it revealing to compare it to the most ubiquitous marketing channel, social media.

“Imagine social media in the light of day, without the sinister dimension of unbridled, anonymous nastiness,” Bruce says. “LIVE is governed by our better angels, by etiquette and conventions of social conduct.”

Certainly, the anonymity afforded by online platforms brings out the worst in some people. These are avoided in LIVE events, whether they are conducted virtually or face-to-face.

In LIVE, not only are there consequences for bad behavior, but there are ample rewards for those who contribute in meaningful ways. Events transform the experience from merely a place, at a moment in time, into a custom experience where people choose to gather with purpose. They attend conferences, expositions, and branded events because they hope to get something back. They seek new business solutions. They build their network of experts and influencers. They investigate best practices. They feed their curiosity about new innovations. They find inspiration. All of these things are more readily available to those who walk in the door with an empathetic mindset, eager to collaborate and open to the ideas being shared.

Some of this correlates to a sense of accountability that doesn’t always apply to virtual sessions. It’s easy to become distracted and lured away from a screen, but one positive outcome of the global crisis is that people have been forced to adopt habits that let them become better about focusing and contributing in live-but-virtual situations. We are learning to treat participation in live virtual engagements with the same respect we give face-to-face meetings, where we have invested time and money to attend. In reality, anytime we commit to being with people — in person, on the phone, or through a web platform — we have skin in the game. It’s called “building relationships,” and we can’t do without.

Ironically, the incursion of digital marketing into our personal and professional lives underscores the meaningful and uniquely sensory connection that is only possible through the human medium of LIVE events. And the beautiful thing about LIVE events is that they can easily embrace digital technology to expand through virtual connectivity — including audiences who are unable to attend in person.

By designing LIVE with our better angels in mind, and including enhanced virtual participation from the beginning, we can reach beyond our immediate audience to connect with more people than ever before. In this sense, LIVE becomes the platform for launching new, hybrid solutions that allow us to be more inclusive and diverse, while leveraging the benefits only LIVE can offer.

I miss the energy that I can only find on the floor of a LIVE event. And I can’t wait to get back to the important work of designing events to be even more inclusive, more broad reaching, and more personally relevant. That’s what’s possible in the new era of LIVE.

Getting Back on the Bike

It’s what we do after we fall that matters.

The other day, attached to an email from an old family friend, was a video — an old home movie shot on a spring day, probably on Super 8, with no audio. It shows a little boy on a big new bike. His mom gives him a shove and he pedals a confident loop around the front yard. But, when he stops, his legs can’t reach the ground, and he falls hard, with the bike on top of him. He looks at his mom, shakes it off, and walks the bike back to try again. The banana seat comes up to his ribs, and he has to use the porch step to climb back on. The next fall isn’t as hard. Soon, he’s riding like an old pro.

I haven’t thought about that bicycle in years, but the video brought it all back. It was a beauty. When I pedaled really hard, the handlebar streamers fluttered out and I imagined I was flying. I don’t really remember falling down, but I do remember worrying that I would. I was afraid I couldn’t learn to ride that gorgeous bike. And I remember my mom assuring me that I could.

This object lesson in falling and getting back up came at a good time for me. It’s been many, many years since I’ve faced something where I actually worried about failing. But this pandemic and the economic fallout — defined largely by what we don’t know — is a confidence shaker. What if we don’t have what it takes? There is so much riding on each decision and each action that it can be paralyzing if we let it.

Here are a few lessons we can all take from a little boy, a big bike, his mom and a spring day. We only fail if we stop trying. We will learn the skills we need and someday we will master the bike because we will grow to fit it. It will take us to places we’ve never been. And that sense of freedom will be magical.

Today, around the world, we face a challenge that is bigger than any of us can face alone. It’s seriously intimidating. We also face an opportunity to explore new things and to liberate ourselves from outdated assumptions and business practices. Many of us in the Live Events industry share an audacious vision that requires us to get back on the bike and keep riding. We will most certainly fall a few times, but we can help each other back up. And we can keep pedaling until our fear becomes joy.

Our industry-wide movement is adding members every day. You can join us at www.golivetogether.com. You can learn about opportunities for action and toolkits you can use to engage your employees, partners, the media, and legislators.

Bring your worst fears and your brightest hopes. We’ve got this.