I’ve learned about what makes meetings work both from and with many people in my years in the industry. In each Friday With Joan newsletter, I look at subjects of interest, and I look to others to share their experiences and expertise to broaden the knowledge of an individual’s reading and of the industry.

The three people interviewed, Jeffrey Cufaude, Paul Radde and Sarah Routman, all have been in my life for many years. I asked each different questions because of their areas of expertise. Their responses, in alphabetical order by last name, follow. As you read, reflect on the issues we face in meeting design and how we can get away from the standard and typical design.

Add your design ideas and comments on this related blog post to expand on what they’ve said or what is in the blog. And if you’d prefer to have your comment posted anonymously, write to me at FridayWithJoan@aol.com and let me know what you want posted without attribution. Your comments will be kept confidential.

Lastly, some of the comments have been edited for clarity and length. If this results in any errors, I take responsibility and ask forgiveness to the three contributors.

About the commentators, in my words and their own:

Before Jeffrey Cufaude and I met (when serving on an ASAE Task Force), I was told we had to meet because of our shared passion for better design of meetings and their content and content delivery. Based on what I’ve learned since, from his writing, our conversations, and sitting in workshops he’s designed and delivered, and designing and delivering a workshop with him where we experimented with setting and content, I asked him to participate.

About Jeffrey Cufaude: Being an educator is one common thread through my career positions in higher education, association management and now as a facilitator, speaker and consultant.

I have been designing workshops and facilitating leadership conferences since my days as state president of the Illinois Association of Student Councils. Creating meaningful and memorable learning experiences matters a great deal to me.

My general feeling about meetings and conferences is that while some things certainly have gotten better, they are full of unrealized potential for more intentionally designed experiences that yield more demonstrated impact. I alternate between mild disappointment and extreme anger that this is still the case. [Emphasis is Joan’s because of the same emotions]. I genuinely believe the majority of people involved in meeting design know better, so I am at a loss for why more are not doing better.

You can contact Jeffrey at info@ideaarchitects.org and on Twitter at @jc46202.

Paul Radde, Ph.D., asked me to write the foreword for his book “Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements.” It’s been my “go to” to help explain and show others, especially hotels and convention centers, how and why the way rooms are set for meetings doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been and how they can be “audience centric.” One of the things I was delighted to learn was that Paul had worked with the Deaf and Interpreter communities, in which sightlines are even more critical.

About Raul Radde: I first experimented with innovative seating arrangements at the University of Texas Student Union in 1968. Later, I served as logistics chair for four National Speakers Association annual conventions, providing room sets that face each participant toward the presentation. I wrote the standard for the industry in the CIC [now EIC] 6th edition Meeting Manual. [As noted, Paul] authored Seating Matters with over 50 illustrations. Meanwhile, I’ve begun an information campaign on the shortcomings of rounds for classrooms and banquet setups.

I’ve dedicated 30-plus years to meetings logistics in addition to professional speaking on the challenges of maintaining professional presence in this age of overwhelm--You Must be Present to Win, Lead and Succeed! [Paul was also named 2014 Meeting Innovator of the Year-Educator, by Meetings Today].

A promoter of “function over form,” my research with more than a thousand meeting planners attending “Meeting Architecture” seminars found straight-row seating physically painful for 50 percent to 70 percent within 25 minutes, limiting their ability to pay attention, and to see and hear the presentation. Over the past 33 years, I’ve found no hotel brand in which the C-level executives are aware of the millions of painful seated hours set by their brand each year under the guise of standard theater-style seating and classroom sets. I welcome your comments at DrPaul@Thrival.com. (Put only “Seating” in the subject line.)

I’ve known Sarah Routman since she was a little girl. Her father was my beloved high school civics teacher--about whom I’ve written before because of his influence on my thinking about educational settings. He put our (awful!) tablet chairs in a circle in his classroom and invited us to his home to discuss current events. It was there that I met Sarah. Happily, Mr. Blum and I reconnected at my high school reunion and I learned about Sarah’s work with Laughter Yoga, and I knew I wanted her input for this.

About Sarah Routman: During my teenage years, my father observed that I seemed to be a “non-conformist.” At that time, I didn’t pay that much attention to what he said. Upon reflection, I think either he saw in me what I had not yet realized, or I paid attention and carried that notion with me.

After achieving a degree in creative writing and another in photography, I entered secondary education through the back door, avoiding student teaching by bringing my life experiences with me. I believe that I was, in fact, a better teacher from the get-go because of taking the non-traditional approach, and was by nature an “experiential educator” in both my English and Drama classrooms.

After obtaining a Master’s in Adult Education, I ran two nonprofits in Minneapolis. Currently as a Leadership Instructor and Wellness Champion at the University of Minnesota, I also run my own business, Laugh for the Health of It d/b/a Serious Giggles. As a keynote speaker, consultant and program planner, I work with a huge variety of clients and love the incredible flexibility in creating interactive healthy laughter sessions regardless of space, group size and their individual mobility levels, or time allotted.

Each session is customized to the goals and desired outcomes of the group, allowing me to combine my love of teaching with a keen interest in health and wellness using skills in Reiki and Reflexology.

More recently, I became a coloring book artist, and returned to photography, having published my first book of photographs accompanying a friend’s poetry. To learn more visit my website. You can learn more about and order the books--Laughter Doodles and the book of photographs and poetry, Moving Through Life--at Amazon.com. To learn more about my work, look here, and connect with me on Facebook here.

Following are the questions to each colleague and their responses.

Q1 to Jeffrey Cufaude (JC): Why do you think meetings (conventions, conferences, seminars) continue to be designed as they always have been--a bit like what I call the worst grammar school experience: opening general session (home room); short time to move from that space to breakouts (next classes) without time for nourishment of body (food and bio breaks), mind (discussions with others) and souls (just time out)? In what ways can we better design meetings of 25 or 50 or 100 or 5,000 and larger?

JC-A1: I think many meetings still reflect what might be considered a traditional design because they work “well enough,” and this is acceptable to both participants and planners.

Acceptable, however, is an unacceptable metric for meeting success. We need to move from relying on attendee satisfaction scores and instead utilize a far more important metric: How well our meetings advance the purpose and profession for which they are designed, those who work within it, and the impact these professionals have on others.

If a meeting’s content and community do not effect positive change in the profession or among the professionals practicing within it, I consider it unsuccessful, regardless of how highly attendees might rate it.

A few core design principles and practices you might find helpful in creating this type of impact include:

  1. Exploring how your design might accelerate participants connecting to (a.) the conference community and the individuals within it from whom they might receive the most value, and (b.) the content and solutions they most need to acquire.

  2. Ensuring that conference content goes beyond merely raising awareness of issues or topics to helping participants acquire tangible skills and commit to new habits and behaviors.

  3. Infusing and integrating the core values for a meeting into every single element of its design, ranging from content choices like the speakers you select to community-building choices like the size of tables you use at your opening meal function. Meetings include hundreds if not thousands of details, each of which should be managed through the lenses of the values and qualities you want participants to experience at your gathering.

  4. Select a new set of metrics to determine your meeting’s success. For example, a conference I helped design identified having participants engage in meaningful conversations with five new individuals as a desired community outcome for their one-day event, designed ways to support it happening, and then asked on the evaluation how many such conversations respondents had.

  5. Aggressively extending the impact of your conference content and community before and after the event, as well as beyond those directly participating in it.

These are a few of the approaches I draw on to guide my conference and workshop designs. Implementing them (and others you consider) may involve building consensus and new thinking among any colleagues or committee members whose support you will need.

Perpetually educate them (and yourself) by sharing content from trade publications such as this one and taking field trips to see how other learning experiences (be they a meeting or some other type of gathering) are designed in different ways. Intentionally solicit their commitment to a general bias for experimentation and trying new things. Then place a lot of what author Peter Sims calls “little bets,” subsequently investing more significant resources in the changes and innovations that work best.

JC-Q2: Many meetings depend on a “call for papers” or presentations, some accepting all that are sent; others, especially in the association world, with a committee to screen submissions and select from those. How can content and who delivers it be better determined to meet the needs of audiences, and especially as issues in all fields change quickly?

JC A2: Or differently asked, “How can a conference ensure the right people talk about the right topics in the right ways?

It can’t if it relies too much on responses to a call for programs or assumes too much about the capabilities of the presenters submitting. Doing so essentially outsources responsibility for the quality of a conference’s learning experience to chance. We also fall short when we expect participants to make informed session selections from 5-word descriptions, particularly if they provide little information about learning formats or content level.

At minimum, determining and trying to ensure these three “rights” requires that meeting professionals:

  • Implement a more data-driven approach (both quantitative and qualitative) to content selection, identifying both short-term and longer-term topic and skill-building needs of participants. Consider implementing a year-round environmental scanning/content advisory group that can inform content conversations throughout your organization.

  • Create a more strategic call for programs that orients submitters to the needs identified in your data collection and the overall core values and learning outcomes for the meeting. Selection criteria should favor proposals aligned with both.

  • Create a sense of purpose and community among presenters and facilitators, treating them as a conference faculty collaborating to achieve shared goals and impact. Require a minimum amount of participation in faculty training(s) augmented by making additional resources on adult learning, alternative session formats, and presentation and materials design available for individuals to access as desired.

  • Help presenters design more engaging sessions by offering them concrete examples of “before and after” session designs, as well as peer coaching from some of your top-rated presenters and/or program design consultants.

  • Ensure presenter deadlines allow for the most current content to be showcased in their sessions. Requiring slide decks months in advance and not allowing any changes does not.

  • Reserve session slots for “real-time” program additions based on emerging needs or current trends, and reserve space and time blocks for participant-driven discussions to be added on-site.

  • Ensure content shared en masse (i.e., in a general session) is complemented by application sessions that engage people in meaningful conversations connecting the content to their specific responsibilities and organizational dynamics.

  • Expand the session design/learning formats information collected on program proposals and what subsequently is shared online or in program apps or books. Enable participants to make more informed choices.

Paul Radde added this:

Being ignorant means “not knowing that you don’t know” afflicts these selection committees. Only established, professional decision makers will step outside of the mainstream listing of topics, so the speaker with something distinctive to say has to couch it within a common topic area. “Needs assessments” from members would help, or late breaking issues in the profession. Many of the more recent varied sets utilizing living room furniture involve bulky, hard-to-store inventory, and will not last. It would have been better for facilities to break out of the tortuous straight row practice and use of communication-stifling banquet rounds that are over five feet in diameter.

I recently contacted an association education director to inquire about the topic of the inherited trait of “high sensitivity/perception” in their programming. Missing. Absent. These professionals deal daily with employees and issues that arise due to this inherited trait. The research has been out for 21 years, was featured in the book Quiet, and includes much of the discussion on introversion. Yet the state associations selection committees have had no exposure to the topic, hence it is not even on their radar. “High perception” is a critical criteria for numerous jobs. 

JC-Q3: Describe for you what an ideal convention would be like in delivery, environment and ability to interact with others (participants and speakers) for it to have the most impact for the best outcomes.

JC A3: An ideal convention would advance the purpose and profession for which it is designed, those who work within it, and the impact these professionals have on others, the success metric I originally outlined.

How this convention applies and brings effective meeting and session design principles to life must reflect the unique purpose, culture, values of the profession and professionals for which it is designed, regardless of standard meeting design practices. As such, it could take many forms and may include elements that meeting planners in other industries could consider misguided.

The ideal convention does not try to provide all content to all learners, an impossible aspiration that produces ho-hum experiences. Instead, it explicitly identifies what content and for which learners it seeks to best serve, and then ruthlessly aligns every design choice to support that decision.

Finally, this ideal convention’s design reflects and supports the organization’s overall content sharing, professional development and community-building strategies and intentions. The impact of any single event is diminished when it is not considered as part of the larger whole.

Paul Radde (PR) Q1: In what ways did your background inform the further research you did into the environment for meetings and in particular the seating?

PR A1: Becoming familiar with the facilities at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., confirmed the need for people to be able to see each other to communicate, and to have adequate lighting. A great number of the general public, young and old, have lost some degree of hearing, though they may be unaware of it or embarrassed to ask for assistance. If seated in a straight row, with “the good ear” away from the presentation, they may be unable to hear and thus may miss content. Provide either no or inadequate lighting and those who rely on reading lips [or those with low vision] may miss out.

Hiring knowledgeable technicians who can set the sound levels commensurate with the hearing ability of the demographic in the audience makes a huge difference. Alas, sometimes the sound and lighting techs may be unaware of the needs of the audience or still believe lights must be low for visuals to be seen!

PR Q2: Why does seating matter? In what ways does it contribute to the outcomes of an organization? An individual presenter? A participant’s learning and good or bad feeling about what they experience?

PR A2: Speaker/humorist Tim Gard, says, “I just want to be seen and heard.” Audience members want to see and hear, and only those knowledgeable about A/V and room sets provide the means to be seen and heard with input from the meeting planners and the facilities.

Think about it: You don’t see orchestras or choruses set up in straight rows! Musicians would have to twist their necks just to see the conductor; they could not breathe and sing, or play wind instruments for long if doing so. Any audience in straight row seating is also constricted. However, few evaluations cover any aspect involving seating. 

Solution: Face each participant toward the presentation for better sight, hearing and comprehension.

PR Q3: There’s been great resistance to changing how meeting rooms are set by hotels, convention centers, even IACC-approved conference centers, and from groups themselves. How do we, after all the years you and I and a few others have tried, make the “meeting ship” move? What rationale can make these changes happen?

PR A3: In spite of the adaptability of many speakers, advance notice and practice is welcome. Having a 360-degree audience [in a theater-in-the-round set] means that a speaker will always have about 30 percent of the audience experiencing their back. A more advised set-up would, at most, be about 220 degrees of the circle set. A speaker needs to be advised of the set in advance, and be taught and practice how to move to include the audience. Nido Qubein, CPAE, [http://www.highpoint.edu/president/] walked a mobius strip, or infinity design, on stage so that he was facing, moving forward and addressing some 150 degrees of the circle from stage middle, then turning to face and address the other 150 degrees with some overlap. 

Change suggested from the outside meets passive resistance. I have introduced setup crews to more efficient ways of setting a room. It would save facilities millions in dollars and time if they just paid attention. But unless it comes from and is blessed by management, it doesn’t take hold.

The top down, “power over” management structure provides cover for status over competence. I have found banquet set-up staff to be knowledgeable about and innovative in their ability to set up spaces. Alas, they have no say. All parties must be involved in this innovation--the general manager, owners, management companies, sales, food and beverage and operations--so that everyone is on the same page. 

Sarah Routman (SR) Q1: Humor can be touchy since many use it incorrectly. Laughter is another issue, right? How does it contribute to learning? To how people feel when they are working? Attending a conference?

SR A1: It is well known that including [appropriate] humor in everything from relationships to a doctor’s office to the workplace results in numerous benefits. What people don’t often realize is that the person who may not have a good sense of humor, or who may, for whatever reason, not feel deserving of a good laugh, does not have to miss out on all the fun or the benefits! Research indicates that your body does not know the difference between spontaneous laughter that erupts when you find something funny, and intentional laughter that you can learn to do to make yourself feel better, feel happy, and even to reduce pain.

No joke! It’s true that a typical Laughter Yoga session will lure some people out of their comfort zone, and even those who feel somewhat stuck and are a bit stubborn will find themselves smiling and laughing despite their best effort to maintain that “serious” front--because laughter is contagious, and once you start, your body releases chemicals that make you feel so good, you want more. [Joan’s note: Search for “Research on Laughter and Learning” and you’ll wish you’d used appropriate humor or Laughter Yoga sooner].

If you are worried that someone will make fun of you, let me put those fears to rest. Laughter Yoga is a lot of laughing and some stretching and breathing in between. It is NOT typical yoga with poses, requiring a yoga mat and special clothes. It’s a come-as-you-are opportunity to get healthier by learning how to add more laughter to your life.

Laughter Yoga has just 2 rules:

1. We make eye contact, which increases the connection we feel toward others and helps to lower our inhibitions and fosters trust.

2. We agree, by participating, that we will suspend any judgment of others. We are not laughing at each other. Rather we are joining together to support one another through silly laughter games.

As adults we tend to take ourselves so seriously that even if we do laugh at work, it’s usually not a genuine belly laugh, but rather, a controlled agreeable “Hahaha.” Unlike adults who laugh on average only four to 20 times a day, kids log between 200 and 400 guffaws daily. In a Laughter Yoga session we return to that silly, ridiculous, child-like nature which has enormous health benefits.

My own before and after surveys line up with the research that suggests that when we share laughter with others, we are much more likely to reveal honest things about ourselves whether we’ve laughed with strangers or friends. Though I’m the only one that talks during a session while others make contact through laughter and, for many, visually (although this is adaptable to an audience of people with low vision or people who are blind), almost 100 percent of participants indicate that they feel friendlier toward other participants after the session, regardless of how well they know the others. Because Laughter Yoga provides a great workout (you can shed 50 calories engaging in a mere 15 minutes of deep belly laughter!), people feel energized, which makes for a great start to a busy day, or a pick-me-up after lunch at an all-day meeting.

The laughter games stimulate focus, creativity and can help boost memory. What a fabulous way to build morale, combat compassion fatigue, encourage self-care, build stronger teams and address stress management. Because every Laughter Yoga session ends with a laughter meditation (a sustained laugh followed by deep breathing and relaxation.), you will have lowered your blood pressure and even boosted your immune system. All that, without hitting the gym, striking a yoga pose or even needing to leave your chair!

Some of what has been said about the impact of what people experienced from the workshops backs up what I knew and helps solidify the work.

“It sets the tone the rest of the day.” (Wonderful, happy, engaged!)

“It was great to use team members to demonstrate the exercises, and provided much needed laughter and techniques that can be utilized in the workplace.”

“At first, I must admit, I thought it was going to be ridiculous. However, I ended up loving it and it’s so easy to do the ‘Smile-Ups’ every day!”

“It was fun seeing people laugh that you have never seen/heard laugh before. (Not because they don’t have a sense of humor but because we only deal with them in a serious professional manner).”

SR Q3: Your expertise is in education and in Laughter Yoga. What does your research and experience tell us about the benefits of laughter and laughter yoga, especially at meetings where the content is heavy? How do we make it accessible for everyone? People going through a personal loss? People who may not have the ability to use all their limbs?

SR A3: Every Laughter Yoga session I do, whether on the phone (I lead a 15-laughter call every Monday morning at 9 a.m. CST: 218.339.2460, Code: LAUGH#, or 52844#) or in person, begins with “Smile-Ups,” which simply invites people to begin to let their guard down, and stretches the cheek muscles to get in shape for the laughter that follows. Smiling shifts the brain chemistry by releasing endorphins that make us happier. Everything builds on that.

A key message of the sessions is that we have each experienced many life challenges. We may not be aware of others’ issues, but we all have things with which we and others struggle. While we cannot often choose our life challenges, we can choose how we respond to any given situation. Happiness can be a choice, even if we cannot control the specific things we must endure. Laughter can be especially useful in a setting where there’s a serious topic. Also known to increase focus, productivity, creativity and improve memory, laughter suddenly becomes not that “silly thing,” but something that can seriously help deal with heavy content because it allows us to make our way through the tough stuff without the stress and tension that often distracts us from keeping our attention on the matters at hand.

Practicing Laughter Yoga often helps us deal with the unexpected by offering alternative perspectives that we may have previously been unaware of, so even the heavy things seem surmountable. The fact that we are not laughing “at” things or people, but simply laughing for the health of it, also helps keep it accessible.

The laughter exercises are completely flexible and can be adapted to any mobility level. While my strong preference is either an empty room (with chairs, in a circle, for those who need them), these sessions can be done in any room configuration. When you keep your imagination close at hand, anything is possible and wonderful unexpected things can happen! I have often led sessions for groups in wheelchairs, and have included blind and deaf participants as well. If you can laugh, you can do this.

Joan’s final question to all: Before you--or I--die, what is one thing that can be accomplished to make meetings--their environment, content, content delivery--more targeted and geared to outcomes?

Jeffrey Cufaude: More organizations invest in moving their event design and helping their speakers move from presenting information to facilitating learning.

Paul Radde: It’s a continuum of increasing participation and initiative on the part of the audience member.

There is a trend in the meetings industry from mere attendance on the part of the audience member, as indicated in the term “attendee,” in which the planner is expected to attract, wow, engage and provide new experiences. The responsibility is on the planner, while the attendee simply has to show up, be passive without any requirements, or be educated and entertained, if interested.

The growing edge of that trend is moving from 

(1.) Passive attendance--prove to me this is worth my time and attention, to

(2.) More “interactive” and “engaging,” with Q&A, message boards, discussion and reporting out, to 

(3.) “Participative” and “involving,” with de-identified case studies, in-boxes, using improv, role-playing, to 

(4.) “Immersion,” which requires a level of responsibility from all parties to the meeting. This reciprocal relationship requires more of the audience member, who is expected to take initiative, state what they are willing to contribute, or even instigate--beyond the usual statement of their “expectations.” 

Immersion is generated from the fact that most people have a lot more to offer than is ever expected, allowed or required of them. As participants, there is little opening to operate out of their “box.”

One of the greatest three-day meetings began with the organizers throwing the meeting open to the participants to devise a program to which each contributed and participated. Impromptu “talent shows” bring people out of the woodwork and surprise even themselves [Joan’s note: Find and watch WordPlay, a documentary about the crossword tournaments created by Will Shortz, to see a very different kind of--and good--meeting format!]. Meeting immersion includes activities such as on-going improv, acting out case studies, exploring diverse perspectives by inviting outsiders to participate, and learning to dialogue toward truly understanding each other and being understood.

Remove the “glass wall,” an invisible barrier that exists between the audience and the industry. Open up the dialogue among all parties. We talk about accommodation, yet do little to persist in getting on-going feedback and involvement from those who attend with which to guide improvements. Meeting planners are not the only ones who can create more effective meetings. To begin with, feedback needs to be more than quantitative data; we need open-ended responses in order to listen for the innovative ideas, what the participant is both offering and asking for. 

Professional roles can become straight jackets. Planners and logistics persons are loathe to collaborate on improving room sets. If they even allow the requested room set, it is only with reluctance and trepidation. This is part of the glass wall that needs to shatter. We need to bring the best to our events, even if that means stepping aside and letting the participants devise the program.

A full cycle of involvement would provide for detailed, open-ended feedback from participants, provide structures and mechanisms to elicit information, and ensure a flow from participant through the meeting personnel and back. Ultimately planning needs to be up to everyone who is interested, concerned or has something to offer. And that contribution needs to be evaluated, implemented and the source recognized.

*“Attendee” is too passive a term for this conversation. Participant is better. Immersion is the ideal.

Sarah Routman: Add more LAUGHTER, of course! Every laughter session that I do is tailored to the group, so with careful questions and consideration, it can help shape the entire meeting to be sure the outcomes are identified and successfully addressed. The best part is when, after a session, participants say they utilized the laughter techniques and skills throughout a conference to encourage each other, reenergize the group and celebrate successes. With laughter, everyone wins!

Click here to view additional content in the 06.02.17 Friday With Joan newsletter.