6 Ways to Change Meetings

I know I’m cranky about the meetings and hospitality industry. I’ve worked, sometimes labored, for 40+ years (yes, of course, I started when I was 5 years old with the first event I did: a fundraiser for polio) to make it better and I still experience, hear and see the same old stuff.

People have said to me, “Just be patient.” What does that even mean?!

I write and teach lots about risk and about ethics. Those are increasingly important and I’ll continue to discuss those. Right now, I’m frustrated by meetings that are little different than they were years ago and by people talking about some of the things they've just discovered that I and others instituted a long time ago ... and as if they were brand new. It's just that adaptation hasn't happened, so it appears they might be new.

My friend, Paul Radde, Ph.D., author of Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements, and I have had many long talks about why meeting room sets remain the same. Others, like Lisa Heft, involved in the Open Space movement, have worked to use this concept. Sheesh "Open Space," still unknown to many, was a concept since Harrison Owen coined the term in 1985. TED and TEDX are now models for many—just as "talk-show style" was (and is) popular.

Jeff Hurt writes about all this on his blog and has been instrumental with PCMA and others in making some changes at meetings. And Jeffrey Cufaude writes more about participatory meetings in his blogs, which are certainly worth a read and discussion.

I’ve been fortunate to have clients willing to experiment, who have met great success with said experimentation—albeit with some trepidation prior to the execution of the changes ... even simply with room and delivery designs, or helping speakers learn different ways of incorporating experiential learning on the tradeshow floor and in session rooms; adding creative and relaxing places outside the sessions where meeting participants can share ideas and determine solutions to their dilemmas in comfortable, convenient space.

Why are we not seeing more changes? Some of it is because hotels, convention and conference centers have not been brought into the conversations (Uh huh, I’ve written about the division of how we treat industry vendors and have said that with Hosted Buyer and other design elements, kept suppliers from learning with us versus primarily providing funding and spaces). How can they know about all the cool possibilities if we keep them out of learning? They have not been involved in learning how and why their spaces and policies interfere with productive meeting learning or how, themselves, to learn in different ways. 

Recently in an online discussion about “mindful meetings," I was frustrated with the lack of understanding of incorporating people with different abilities. Isn’t the ADA now 25 years old and shouldn’t we all know that not everyone can stand or walk or wave their arms?

With thanks to Lisa Heft and others, one of the norms of operating Open Space was changed from “The law of two feet”—meaning if the session is not working for you, you may leave—to the “Law of Motion and Responsibility” since not everyone has or can use two feet. Or a lack of sensitivity about those from other cultures for whom some of the interactivity may go against cultural (or religious) norms.Bad Meeting Setup

It’s astounding to me that meeting spaces, primarily rooms, are created in brand-new or renovated facilities that have lights, without controls to turn just those off over where a screen would be placed. Why do AV companies still insist on turning lights down for presentations? Turning lights down means people can’t see to take notes, can’t see each other to connect by noting when someone reacts to a point made so that you can connect later, and less lighting is unsafe (speaking of unwise meeting setups, check up the image I snapped at recent event on the right—yikes!).

Recently, at ExhibitorLive, I heard some heartening news from participants in a session I facilitated (“Beyond Logistics: Principles, Practices and Play” which is designed to help people see and experience different sets and methods of delivery and interaction). A corporation with a new CEO was redesigning the "state of the company" session to be interactive because the CEO said he wasn’t a "talk at you" person.

Others who attended said they would take away from the session ways to increase interaction and interest just by changing the view when people walked in (We used multiple styles of seating in the room including crescents, high-boys and cocktail tables). Look, not everyone can make wholesale changes in their meetings. Just changing a few things can make a difference in how people perceive what will happen, changing their brains from the start.

This list is by far not inclusive. It’s a start. Add your ideas to the comments please, and share this with your vendor (hotel, convention center, conference center, AV providers) partners.

1. Design with the audience in mind. One hour or shorter sessions are now in vogue. With those are breaks of 15 or fewer minutes. Not all participants are the same in their ability to learn and most of us want, after a session, to talk with the event facilitator (aka presenter) and others who participated and then use a restroom, get a bite to eat, maybe check email, and get to another session. In 15 minutes, it’s almost impossible to do so.

With no time to process what's been learned, we’re likely to not retain it. With no time for peer-to-peer learning (aka "networking"), we are not given opportunities to exchange ideas to increase our retention and use of information.

2. Change room sets for better sightlines, interactivity and comfort. Paul Radde’s book* has lots of great examples that are acceptable to hotels because they are "known sets" (theatre, schoolroom, crescents) done differently. Think about how people behave in meetings—sitting at the back (because they’re afraid they’ll be "called on," or know they need to leave or are afraid they will want to leave—“law of motion and responsibility”—and don’t want to disturb others.

Lots of aisles, lots of space for those who need interpreters or who use a mobility device, all contribute to inclusion and learning.

Even changing from straight theatre or schoolroom to herringbone, with more aisles, will change the perspective of those who enter the room. We can create environments that delight and encourage our brains and bodies to think differently from the minute we walk in.

3. Provide to hotels, conference and convention centers (you do know there’s a difference, right?!) or other meeting venues the rationale—the why—for different use of space. Yes, you may have to pay for more space and yes, you may be able to negotiate the charges differently. And it will be worth it if the outcomes can be better measured for how people participate.

4. Call presenters or speakers “facilitators” for some sessions and help them learn to incorporate interaction. “Q&A at the end” is still prevalent and doesn’t allow people to think, or aural learners (like me) to talk out loud about what the issues they are trying to solve are at the time a point is made. It can be done without disrupting the flow of a session with the right training for those presenting or facilitating.

In addition to training, there are costs involved to provide wireless handheld mics and "runners" to ensure that what is said by participants is heard by the session facilitator and others. There is new technology that allows mics to be thrown about or for us to use our mobile devices. Once you commit to having interactivity for some but not all sessions you can then negotiate the support. 

5. Set norms for meeting behavior. In many cases, if one is to earn CEUs, a meeting participant must stay in the room for the session length. And still, one has biological and other needs! Giving people explicit permission to behave as they need to—as long as it’s not disruptive to others—makes a huge difference in perception and participation. My norms, in addition to providing, at the start, the location of emergency exits and restrooms, are:

  • Question assumptions.
  • Put yourself in someone else’s place.
  • Set mobile devices that sing/ring/etc. on silent please. Social media use is encouraged.
  • Don't forget about “Motion and Responsibility."
  • Please: No audio or video recording or photos of slides and session.

6. Include creativity. Years ago, Disney Institute provided, at industry meetings, spaces for specific sessions or between sessions where participants could go and relax, blow bubbles and play while processing what we heard or prepare our minds for what we were about to hear. Stumbling into their space was a refreshing change of pace after a long day of pretty traditional (straight rows, speakers talking at us) sessions.

I was part of a session where, at the start, we were asked to take off our shoes (optional of course), put our heads down on our arms on the tables, and listen to a story.

I bring "creative stuff" (ModelMagic, WikkiStix, Magic Springs, crayons or colored pencils, Smart (peppermint scented) Smencils, and more) and place the items on the tables or in a location from which they can be accessed by all. “When one’s hands are engaged, one’s brain is more engaged." Don’t force people to sit and just listen unless that’s how they learn. Give people options in session rooms and in other areas.

We can implement what are, for many, small changes. We don’t have to accept what has always been done as the only way to conduct meetings. We have to commit to creating different ways of learning and participating that looks different to wake up brains that are expecting the same things that have always been delivered and thus tune out before a session even begins.

Will you commit? And how?

*I wrote the foreword for Paul’s book, Seating Matters, for which I was not paid nor am I compensated for promoting (as is the case with all of Paul's work and training). I wish more meeting venues would invite him in to train sales, convention services, and set-up staff in how to make our meetings work better.

As always the views expressed are my own and may not reflect those of Meetings Today or Stamats. You can respond to this below in the comments section or by emailing me at FridaywithJoan@aol.com, especially if you want your comments to be posted anonymously.

And if you have not provided your Strengths for our study of the strengths of meeting professionals, please do so here.

Posted by Joan L. Eisenstodt

Follow Joan on Twitter: @joaneisenstodt

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