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New meeting formats: Are we really ready for them?

I was recently reading the cover story of this month’s Association Now, Meetings Remix, by Jeff Waddle and it got me thinking. I truly see the value in having less structured and less podium driven meetings but in some way I am skeptical of whether most audiences are truly ready for it. I ask this because of what I see in various situations within ASAE itself.

At ASAE Annual in SD Karen Bresson of the Society of Actuaries, Barry Pilson of Americans for the Arts and I conducted a session on creating a sales culture within your organization. We wanted the session to be truly interactive and wanted most of the content to be audience generated. Not one of us had done this type of session before but we thought the expertise of the audience was much grander than just that of the 3 of us so we went for it. When we first arrived in the room it was set up primarily theatre style, with a few rounds. With the help of Mike Skiados we moved more chairs to the tables and asked people as they entered to please go to a table. It was a busy job since most people migrated right to the back of the room. Eventually we had most people seated around tables and then we described that this was going to be a highly interactive session where they would work with their table mates to come up with solutions to a challenge which they would then present to the room. At that point an amazing number of people walked out. Was it because they didn’t want to participate and only wanted to be spoken at? Or was it because the seminar was not marketed to be as interactive and participatory as it in fact was going to be? Or was it a combination of both?

I also attend a large number of ASAE Idea Swaps on various topics. The Idea Swaps are designed to be interactive forums where people share information, ideas and challenges around a particular topic. I am always amazed at how many people come and do not say a word. All they want to do is listen and take notes. There are always plenty of people to speak but one would think that if you know that it is designed to be interactive you would be prepared to participate when you get there.

I understand that not everyone is as vocal or cares to share their thoughts as openly as I do. However, if you take the shy people out of the equation I still see that a lot of meeting attendees do not want to work to get solutions. Instead they would rather have someone at the podium telling them the right way to do something. Am I hanging out at the wrong meetings? Or is this type of approach not quite right for a certain portion of the meeting population at this time? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Comments

Our entire annual meeting is in an open forum for the entire 1 1/2 days. We've been doing this for about 10 years and our members love it. I think the key to getting it started though is to know your attendees. We generaly have about 100 people in the room and many of them have never missed a meeting. We also get to know the new people in the room before they ever get onsite. We begin every meeting by asking all attendees to stand and introduce themselves. Our managing director also makes it a point to know something about each attendee when he asks them to stand up. Our speakers always come from the industry and are prepped to involve the audience. This probably wouldn't work for a large group but we'll never go back to power points; in fact, they are banned from our meeting.

We just worked with the Golf Course Owners Assn on an open agenda leadership retreat and the response on site and since has been very positive. But we did a work upfront to prepare the participants and we had a couple of people in the room who were proponents. It did take some nudging, but once the work groups got started, they moved along.

I think its so driven by expectations and at an annual meeting where we're very used to filing into a room and listening with a few case study discussions, it may hard to suddenly upend. I would like to see the sessions really promoted as open space, perhaps with call-outs in the promotion materials, chatter on twitter or other blogging to highlight would help. It brings to mind the ongoing skepticism on micro-bloggin and blogging in general - its being adopted, its good for some, great for some topics/use and one of many tools.

I think there are multiple issues at play here including the participant expectations and session marketing already highlighted.

We also have to get out of seeing interaction/participation as always being extroverted and verbal. People learn, contribute, and participate in different ways and some participant is going to be introverted and silent. That's one of the problems with eliminating handouts. Structured appropriately they can be a powerful engagement tool for more introverted learners.

And some people come to a session simply wanting answers ... not to "sit around and table and talk with people as clueless as me" ... which is how I think some of them see these very conversational formats.

In our current economic client, I'm seeing participants hungrier (or more demanding) of immediately usable and practical solutions. Rightly or wrongly, they might perceive some sessions formats to be inconsistent with or less likely to address the significant pressures they are feeling/facing.

I'm one of the people who walk out of these sessions - and I'm not shy. I expect you - the speaker - to share your knowledge with me. I didn't pay a hefty registration fee so you could merely be a facilitator and make me perform.

And don't think an "interactive" session makes you or your information any more marketable or legitimate.

If you plan to talk about a subject in which many people are knowledgeable, an interactive setup will be more workable. But if you are sharing specialized knowledge, you should expect people to want to listen to you.

By the way, I don't want a handout created by the participants. Many of them know less than I do.

It can be challenging in 90 minute annual conference sessions to allocate the time to both teaching and collaborative learning. The interactive format I like best is a blend of bringing in rich content and good group processes for people to test the content and make it their own.

In any good interactive learning experience or most any other meetng you have to build in time for orientation and trust-building. People have to understand the objectives and structure for the learning experience and they have to get to know the facilitators/presenters and their fellow participants/collaborators. And the interactive exercises have to be focused, well designed and clearly explained. In my experience if you can follow this flow you will have trouble reconvening the larger group for a final sharing and recap.

However, I too have been the victim of the learning experience grazers. For example, in one annual conference last year, I did the content overview with some quick group exercises to an audience of about 100 people. When we then held a follow-on session to drill deeper into the content, in this case scenarios, we had a significantly smaller crowd. This was a design the association volunteer leaders wanted and I was delighted to help them develop.

When we saw the small attendance at the second session, the volunteer leaders explained the fall off in interest to me this way: Their members come to these meetings with lots of needs and little time to learn as much as they can. They probably felt like they got what they needed from the first session and had to move on to another topic before their time and registration fee ran out.

I realized that as a consumer of these high-ticket meetings, I often choose to do the same thing. If I had just thought more deeply about what the consumer might want in this case, I would have steered the volunteer leaders away from what we all thought would be a popular experience. As volunteer leaders,they had different objectives for the experience than the attendees--hoping to start a dialogue about change,

So there are a lot of factors that influence what meeting participants do. You have to ask more questions about the culture and preferences of the attendees and even challenge the assumptions about shared objectives for the sessions. People usually have good reasons why they graze for the experiences they need and want.

These sessions are almost like social media. 90% lurk, 9% passively participate, and 1% do the heavy lifting.

I do think it is about expectations. Sometimes I need a session where an expert just feeds me information. Other times it is the interaction and dialogue I seek. I would love to see conference that had the same topics, but you could go to a session with a traditional speaker, or you could go to one that was group dialogue and idea sharing.

We talk about diversity, in any number of dimensions of our worlds, but then we create an expectation that all folks (attendees for example) will react and behave uniformly. I would suspect several dynamics were playing out here, and, with investigative delving, could be ranked ordered so two or three reasons would surface most predominately.

1) Prior expectations that the presentation will be the traditional professor-student learning relationship.
2) "Attendance shock" to walk in to a room, with no prior preparation, and be confronted w/ a sudden expectation of "performing" and being a "knowledge participant." Instead of being a sponge, one is suddenly asked to be the faucet.
3) Not wanting to be outshined by more expert speakers and audience members. The continuum range from novice beginners to experienced "seniors" to self-perceived "experts" probably occupy the fabric of the chairs.
4) An expectation of efficient use of time, with speakers having prepared in order to offer maximum material/information in a minimum period of time. Open forums would likely produce a great percentage of "chatter noise" of good intentioned hand-raisers thinking they had something valuable to add - or worse, speakers/facilitators forcing everyone to say something.....anything.......well, often times little.
5) If the hospitality events from the previous night were long and enjoyable, a morning of interactive meetings may be the last thing a dormant, recovering brain seeks.
6) Diversity of personalities with a common interest in the topic, but not in any common excitement in performing the role of impromptu speaker.
7) Like with undressing an onion, we have a center core of committed member volunteers as nucleus, giving of immense amounts of time and talent, and then declining degrees of involvement as the layers of the rings move outward. Seminar participants would also fit this group profile. Even some people at a Rolling Stones concert don't want to sing.
8) Etc.

"If I had more time, I'd write you a shorter letter." It takes hours of preparation and practice, to offer terse, concise packets of awe-inspiring information - be it in writing or speaking.

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, man/woman, practice!"

Matt's comment reminded me that a sound conference design strategy includes offering similar content/topics in varying session formats.

As a speaker (former journalist) I like varied formats - where the topic, speaker and format are known to attendees well in advance. Some popular and somewhat interactive formats in which I've been involved include:
• keynote followed by "in conversation" where I interview a notable expert (who is not a vivid speaker)

• keynote followed by a "meet the expert" session where all experts at different round tables in the adjacent room have knowledge on a topic related to the keynote

• keynote or breakout followed by attendees posting favorite tips they learned on a community bulletin board

Re twittering and blogging during sessions, few people can multi-task, research shows, so it may be a hip practice among some yet being fully present with the speaker or panel and the people you meet in the hallways and social activities may be more valuable and enjoyable than checking your devices and twittering away.

One thing that is an extreme two-edged sword that all meeting planners, attendees and speakers will have to somehow manage is the valuable and potentially privacy-invasive image and audio taping - from phone to flip video this can lead to fun coverage of a conference or huge controversies. I've been writing about meeting formats over at movingfrommetowe, for example here
http://www.movingfrommetowe.com/2008/03/07/keep-attendees-involved-eager-to-return-next-year/

Like all the others who've commented, I too like varied sessions at conferences and wish that the content AND delivery would be noted. We rarely note the diversity of learning styles (thanks Todd Wurschmidt for what you wrote) as we plan and execute a conference.

And when people walk out, it can be ok - it means it was not being delivered to their style or that they just wanted to go elsewhere .. or they didn't like the speakers/trainers/facilitators. (Hard to accept tho' when you are the one at the front of the room.)

Jeffrey Cufaude has it right: we need to do the same topics in different formats and note what the formats are. Why aren't we doing that?

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