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Transforming Your Attendees Through the Hero’s Journey

April 4, 2019

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about transformative design. I believe it is the “yes and” to experience design. It’s going beyond creating an experience for your attendees, and figuring out how to change them in some way so they leave your event different than how they started.I think transformative design is what gets us to a place of making real impact with our events and making real change in the world.The challenge is that people don’t transform easily. Think about the last major upheaval to your life. Hopefully it was a pleasant milestone—a wedding, moving to a new house, a job change. Mostly though, transformation comes from being put in some kind of position of pain or discomfort: an accident, an argument, a death. In some way, the fact that these are things you can’t plan for is what makes them prime time for transformation; it’s something unexpected that forces you to see things in a new way. When everything is status quo and working, we tend to not think about how we could be different. We want to continue keeping things nice and level.So how to apply this to events? No one is going to want to come to a conference that causes them discomfort, especially when there are fun, experiential events to compete with. But, you have to build a lot of trust with attendees before you can put them in transformative situations. I think there are some pathways we can try.I’ve become very interested in the hero’s journey. I just struggled through The Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, so you don’t have to. (It’s a very dense text.) It is the definitive work on the hero’s journey. What is so fascinating is that it is universal. Stories from different cultures and languages share these same concepts, and as humans we relate to these types of stories from something deep within our souls.I’ve seen this concept applied to events in terms of how the content is put together. Using storytelling concepts, you introduce things in a way that builds up to a climax and personal discovery. I’ve been using this structure to create a journeymap for attendees, to help them have a transformative experience.Here’s my thinking on how you could apply this to the attendee journey:

  • It begins with a call to adventure. Destiny has summoned the hero and sometimes a guide appears. Frame your registration as a call to something greater. More than a gathering, this is an opportunity. And if you are able, provide some type of wise guide—a chatbot, a staff contact, an influencer—someone who will drop nuggets of wisdom along the way.
  • Next, they must cross the first threshold—a challenge or sometimes there is a guard they must pass, using brains or brawn. While it would be interesting to have attendees face a cage match on the way to registration, it’s probably more friendly to create some kind of fun quiz before a badge can be picked up. Now they have the keys to enter.
  • Now the hero must survive a succession of trials, often with assistance from the wise guide, either with advice or with some kind of powerful token that provides protection. There are many fun ways to accomplish this. Set up a scavenger hunt, where you collect ideas from each session. Have people complete quizzes before they enter a room. Maybe even try some fun physical challenges like running through tires or playing one piece from a giant Jenga. The wise guide and protective token can be represented through your event app, or program guide. Perhaps attendees are given a code word or sticker that allows them to pass without taking a challenge.
  • Then there are two more big tests to overcome. First, the hero overcomes some kind of major barrier, something that no one else has been able to beat. By doing this, the hero wins the respect of the goddess. Finally, the hero has to defeat the biggest, baddest monster; and is able to do so with some kind of special knowledge or trick the goddess has provided. Consider framing your big central keynote as the “goddess” who is providing the wisdom. And the big bad monster could be some kind of industry issue that is tackled in working groups after the general session.
  • The final step for the hero is to return to their previous life, now transformed, and bring the special knowledge/skills/riches back to their community of origin. For this, make it easy to note the key takeaways from the event, perhaps with a special tear out page in your guide that can then be hung by the attendee’s desk.

It is very important to note that the hero never completes these tasks on their own. They always, always, always have help. And that’s you—the planner. Ultimately you call them to the challenge, you guide them along the way, you give them the special knowledge they need to reach the final level.

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