What Makes Meetings Matter

December 15, 2006

By Jeffrey Cufaude

Years ago I had the chance to speak with an actor I admire after his performance in a long-running Broadway musical.  Tedious as the question may have been for him, I asked how he managed to get himself engaged for every performance of a show he had been doing for months, eight times a week, over and over again.

He quickly acknowledged that some days it was a tremendous challenge.  But before walking on stage for his first scene, he said he always reminded himself of one thing.  He wanted to give a performance for the person in the theatre who had never been to a musical before and might never attend one again, the type of person who maybe got dragged along by a friend.  For that person (and everyone else in the theatre) he wanted to give the kind of performance that makes life come alive on stage for a few short hours, the kind of performance that could help make someone understand what the fuss about live theatre is all about.

It is that sound advice that helps keep me inspired when I am about to do a workshop on a topic I’ve addressed dozens of times.  It is the sound advice that helped keep me challenged as a meeting planner when I was designing an event I had already reimagined several times.

It is all too easy to focus conversations about designing better learning experiences on tools, techniques, and logistics. We will never eliminate the need to do the fundamentals better or to do them with greater imagination.  And I hope my observations this week have indeed stimulated some new thinking about some of the critical elements for any successful meeting or conference.

But what should really engage us in the design of meetings and conferences is the wonderful gift and opportunity we are given, the gift of people’s time, attention, needs, and aspirations.  People come to meetings hoping to find something, some with greater aspirations than others, some with greater intentions than their peers. 

They come to find new insights or ideas that might help them do their work better. 

They come to hear about the next great thing that might help them better serve their customers or members. 

They come to learn processes that will prevent crises from occurring or help those in need when disaster does strike. 

They come to revel in what it means to be a member of their industry or professional and be surrounded by tens or thousands of like-minded individuals. 

They come to connect, to make friends, to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. 

They come to learn, to laugh, to share, to challenge, to have fun.

We owe it to them—and to ourselves and the meetings industry—to design each and every meeting and each and every aspect of that meeting as if it is the only one a person might attend in their life.  To pour the power of our ideas, and knowledge, and passion, and capabilities into every nook and cranny of every meeting room, into every last square foot of the exhibit hall, and into every minute of the program no matter how long or short. 

That awards banquet that you’ve planned for more years than you would care to admit isn’t just about getting the menu right, the count correct, or the script timed perfectly.  Yes, that matters.  But what matters more is that you create an environment that allows people to truly engage with each other, to enjoy the company of their peers, to make a meaningful connection that might one day later lead to a new job or getting a helpful piece of advice at just the right time, to celebrate the accomplishments of leaders in their industry in an authentic and meaningful way.

Our ultimate definition of success has to expand beyond attendee satisfaction and the bottom line, though they both are critical indicators to guide our efforts.  We are only truly successful when the people attending our events, meetings, workshops, and conference become more successful.  Our efforts are worthwhile if their subsequent efforts are more meaningful.    Making that happen, meeting after meeting, time and time again, needs to be in the soul of every meeting planner.  All the rest is just window dressing.

Spicing Up Session Formats

December 14, 2006

By Jeffrey Cufaude

If variety is the spice of life, than a lot of meetings and conferences need to visit the seasoning shelf.  I think I attended or spoke at upwards of 75 meetings this year, but only a few included what others would describe as nontraditional session formats. 

I’m not knocking keynote speeches, charged panel conversations, or interactive group exercises.  I like them.  I do them.  They work.  But I’m fairly surprised that we don’t try and liven up more content with different formats.  Here are a few that I wouldn’t mind seeing on a conference agenda:

The Mock Trial in which a belief or hypothesis is put on trial with luminaries from your constituencies playing the various parts in this legal play.  You can have them also serve as the jury or let the audience render the ultimate judgment.

The Irish Wake or a Funeral in which we acknowledge the death of ideas and practices that served a grand and glorious life but finally passed on of natural causes.  Imagine the amusing eulogies you could give for finally stopping use of an outdated software package. 

The Grand Retirement Party would be a variation on the wake or funeral in which you retire and celebrate programs, services, beliefs, or practices that made valuable contributions over the years, but need to be retired.

The Pro-Con Debate is one of the most provocative, but underutilized formats.  Take a major issue facing your profession or industry and line up “sides” who can make provocative assertions in favor or against a particular action or perspective.  In a relatively short period of time you can engage a large number of voices and explore a wide range of viewpoints.

Game Show formats are always a good standby. I’d be delighted to see a conference version of 1 vs. 100 the new show that pits an individual's expertise versus the collective wisdom from a “mob” of 100.  I think it would be an educational and entertaining format to explore some of the basic facts or concepts people need to know about your organization or industry or could be an interesting way to explore content for a certification exam.

Compelling content has to be the foundation for any program regardless of how spicy the format might be, but mixing things up can help engage (or reengage) participants fairly easily.  What formats would you like to see at the next meeting or conference you attend?

It isn't always risky business

December 13, 2006

By Jeffrey Cufaude

Commenting on my first post this week, Sandy Biback noted that when she tries to get some of her clients to make changes in their meetings, they are risk-averse and more concerned with a little CYA.

Fair enough. I've been in similar situations. Too often when a participant in a meeting design session describes  a proposed change as potentially risky it is a discussion ender rather than a problem-solving starter.  That has to change.  All choices involve risk.  When someone reacts to a proposed change in a meeting as being somewhat risky, we might respond with the following:

"You know, it could be.  So what can we do to minimize the risks you perceive while still accruing the benefits of the proposed change?"


"Yep, there is some risk involve.  But the question we need to first answer is whether or not what we are considering has some really valuable benefits to offer if implemented successfully. If we agree that’s the case, then we can devote our attention to risk management considerations."

In addition, while brainstorming sessions generally focus on the risks associated with possible meeting enhancements, they don’t often explore the risks of doing nothing.  They fail to do so because those risks are occurring out of sight and as a result, are out of mind.  But while you and your colleagues are debating a proposed change for your meeting, remember that some of your desired attendees might be …

  • Building their own professional support networks and communities through one of the many social networking sites publicly available.
  • Using powerful search engines to locate experts and information they have identified as relevant to their work.
  • Talking to a few trusted friends about conferences (other than yours) that they have discovered as worth attending.
  • Culling through the better blogs and podcasts to quickly familiarize themselves with a wide range of ideas and perspectives on a topic your meeting program addresses in a far more narrow fashion.
  • Spending the $500-$1500 they might incur in total costs of attending your meeting in other ways that meet their learning needs: buying lunch for a different industry expert every month; forming a monthly book club; taking a course at a local college or university; hiring a tutor to learn a new technology.

While you do nothing, they do something.  And while what they are doing may not be the best bang for their buck, it may be more cost-effective than waiting for you to take a calculated risk. 

Yes, choosing to make changes in a meeting or conference may involve some risk, but choosing to not experiment at all maybe the riskiest choice of all.

Different strokes for different folks

December 13, 2006

By Jeffrey Cufaude

A current cruise line commercial features hoards of passengers all moving in lockstep fashion, doing the same thing at the same time in the same way.  It could just as easily be a commercial for some meetings or conferences.  We need to experiment more with offering different options that provide the same value.

If one of your major social events is a big dance party, why not also offer a more subdued lounge area where people can enjoy the music in the background while having good conversation with colleagues?   Many popular nightclubs offer different floors either with music from different decades or different social experiences altogether.  Why not have several concurrent social events, each offering a different format that might appeal to different social styles present among your attendees.

After a general session, why not offer a track of concurrent sessions, each of which explores the keynoter’s content using different formats:  open space conversation, case studies, moderated panel, speaker Q&A, etc.?    Or do as the Association Forum of Chicagoland did at one of its conferences and offer discussion./implementation sessions organized by job functions.  Each functional area discussed how it could apply the speaker’s ideas in their daily work.

The same idea can be implemented in an individual breakout session just as easily.  Presenters looking to help participants apply their content can create several different ways in which people simultaneously do so, some people could gather in a  group discussion, some could work through a case study, some could complete a worksheet on their own, some might mindmap implications of the content.  Each group can then highlight their learning for those who were engaged in a  different exercise.

No one says an entire room has to be set the same way.  At one of their Great Ideas conferences two years ago, ASAE & The Center for Association leadership offered a general session room with a mix of more than a half-dozen seating styles and participants gravitated towards those they found most appealing.  Half of the participants at the annual TED Conference gather in a traditional auditorium while the other have enjoy the session from a Simulcast Lounge replete with multiple mini-theatre viewing areas, blogging stations, and other informal gathering spaces.

Doing a boxed lunch?  Great.  Why not offer different spaces where people can eat?  One room could feature short video clips on educational topics that people could watch while eating.  Another might offer short presentations on personal development topics.  One might be a "technology-free zone," where people can enjoy lunch absent cellphones and PDAs.

One size rarely fits all.  While treating all participants the same definitely makes a planner’s job easier, doing so will rarely create the types of conference experiences that individuals desire.

Is Your Meeting Welcome Mat Out?

December 12, 2006

By Jeffrey Cufaude

One of the most interesting conversations I have been part of this year brainstormed ways in which typical meetings can be more welcoming.  A group of us literally walked through a conference in slow motion looking at every single detail and determining any enhancements that could make it Welcome_matmore welcoming, more inclusive, more person-friendly.  In a very short period of time, we had filled pages and pages of flipcharts with ideas both big and small.

Do your meetings put out the welcome mat?  How, and for whom?  As industries and professions increasingly become more fragmented or specialized and organizational composition becomes more diverse in all aspects, we need to be more vigilant about assessing the welcoming nature of the learning experiences we provide.  And I’m talking about much more than meeting a few special dietary needs.

Are your meetings welcome to people trying to live healthy lifestyles?  Do you make sure your schedule allows time for people to exercise and that the hotels for your event have fitness center hours that will support people’s desire to do so?  Is protein available at all your meals and breaks and have you ensured reasonable portion sizes?  Yes, we all like a little guilty pleasure on our meeting menus, but the emphasis should be on little.

Are your meetings friendly to introverted learners? So much of our world reflects an extroverted bias.  Honoring introverts means allowing ample time for reflection and recharging one’s batteries away form group activity.  Sessions need to honor all learning styles as best they can, but many presenters don’t know what that would include from a session design perspective.  You can support their efforts by providing them practical tips and pointers.

Are your meetings friendly to people of differing religious faiths? I’m amazed how frequently a conference or even conference call gets scheduled for a major religious holiday or how many faith-specific references I hear from the podium.  While some think of this issue as political correctness, I’d like to think of it as morally and socially appropriate.  It has much less to do with politics and much more to do with etiquette and respect.

Are your meetings friendly to people not represented in the majority population for your events?
  I’m talking both in terms of typical demographic considerations (age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), as well as professional position or interest area?  I attend a lot of meetings and conferences, and I can tell you that in 2006 I can count on both hands the number of general session keynoters who have not been middle-age white males.  That strikes me as ridiculously inconsistent with today’s world.  The bottom-line litmus test is whether or not people can ‘see themselves” or their various “selves” in what your conference is offering.

I encourage you to take one of your meetings, gather a small brain trust, and examine where you’re rolling out the welcome mat and who might feel like they won’t get past the bouncer at your door.  I think you’d be surprised at what opportunities exist for you to make your events more inviting and more inclusive.

Let Me Sneak a Peak

December 11, 2006

By Jeffrey Cufaude

What’s on your iPod?  What’s in your Netflix cue?  What shows do you Tivo?

In this age of social networking, we like to turn to others to help guide our choices.  Simple technologies allow us to more easily find, connect with, and tap into the brain trust of a much larger group of individuals than before.

Except at most meetings.  Yes, we are getting better at more strategically incorporating shared interest groups and other communities of like-minded individuals into conference schedules.  But when we talk about tapping into the interests of the community, we have a lot of unfulfilled opportunities.

While I'm a heavy user of sophisticated electronic community-building software whenever it is  part of a conference, here are a few easier-to-implement tactics:

In meeting registration materials spotlight a half-dozen or so actual attendees and the mix of activities they plan on attending during your conference ala “What’s on your meeting schedule?”

In addition to the traditional speaker bio have each presenter share one book and one blog related to their presentation that they consider “must read.”

Add a field to your registration database asking participants to identify a question or topic they would most like to engage with others around during your meeting.  Print it on nametags and in your participant directory.

In a general session, create some optional “reserved” seating areas for people with common job functions.  Then allow time at the close of the session for people to share with each other how they plan on applying the speaker’s ideas.

Organize your registration area not alphabetically, but by local affiliates, states, or some other demographic that makes standing in line a potential networking opportunity.

Do a “stand up or raise your hand if this statement describes you” exercise at the start of a session.  Read a variety of demographic statements of characteristics and ask people to stand if the statement applies to them.  It provides a quick visual of who’s in the room and can facilitate some fast connections among kindred spirits.

Exactly what is it that everyone is waiting for?

December 11, 2006

By Jeffery Cufaude

Apparently not everyone got the memo.  That's the only plausible reason I can think of why so many meetings and conferences are still the same mind-numbing gatherings that have been turning us into drones and zombies for years.

In case you didn't get the memo here is some of what it said:

--We've shifted from being in the "meeting planning' business to being in the "connecting business," connecting individuals to the people, ideas, information, and resources they need to achieve their goals and aspirations.  As a result, getting the banquet guarantee exactly correct will no longer earn you a raise.

--People actually come to events with ideas, interests, and passions.  Therefore, we shall not suck the life out of them by starting our gathering with an endless number of talking heads.  Anyone doing so will have their resume forwarded to Macy's Thanksgiving Parade department where swelled heads are indeed important to display.

--Packing people into a ballroom and providing alcohol and cheese cubes is not a "networking event."  We will intentionally help participants connect to the individuals who have knowledge and connections they most seek.

--The most brilliant presenters of information are frequently among the least capable facilitators of learning.  To ensure participants have powerful learning experiences, we select, coach, and support all presenters (even the big names with the big fees) to create engaging sessions that balance their knowledge with the wisdom of the crowd and help attendees connect the content to their everyday efforts.

These four points are just the beginning of the conversations we should be having.  Actually, enough talk, let's focus on action.  We already know better.  It is long past time for us to start doing better.  The clock is ticking and people's patience is waning.  Let's not make them wait any longer.

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