Discover what attendees want to talk about with Post It!

by Adrian Segar

Ever wanted a way to find out what people at a meeting would actually like to learn, discuss, or ask questions about? Post It! is what you need. It’s a simple technique that can be used at various levels for:

  • All the attendees at an event.
  • Breakout groups discussing a specialty set of topics.
  • A single conference session.

If you’re a conference presenter with an audience of less than 50 people, you can use Post It! to rapidly discover audience interests and to help decide what those present would like to hear about.

Alternatively, Post It! provides an effective and efficient way for a group to learn and reflect on its members’ interests. If you need to process in more detail the topics uncovered, consider using the affinity grouping technique described in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love (and my upcoming book too).

When
Run Post It! at the opening of an event, breakout group, or a single session.

Resources
It is surely no surprise that you’ll need one or more sticky notes (e.g. Post-it® brand) for each participant. If you’re using Post It! for a presenter tool at a single session, supply a single 2” x 3” note to each attendee. For a group display of topics, supply one to four 6” x 8” (preferred size) notes, or 3” x 5” notes if posting space is limited.

Make sure that you have sufficient pens available. Fine tip marker pens are best.

Finally, you’ll need clear, accessible wall or notice board space where notes can be posted. Walls should be smooth and clean, as sticky notes don’t adhere well to rough or dirty surfaces. If you’re using Post It! as a presenter tool, the posting area should be close to where you are standing in the room so you can easily refer to it.

How a presenter can use Post It! to shape the content of a session
Before the session begins, give each participant a single sticky note and a pen. Ask the audience to write down the one topic they would like explored or question they would like answered during the session. Give everyone a couple of minutes to write their response and collect the notes as they are completed. As you collect the notes, browse their contents and mentally categorize their contents into broad themes. For example, some attendees ask specific questions, some may want an overview of your topic, and some may want you to cover one particular aspect. Once all the notes have been collected, briefly read each note out loud and add it to a cluster of similar notes on the wall next to you. You may find a note that is unique and needs to be placed by itself.

Once all the notes have been stuck on the wall, it should be clear to both you and your audience what the group is interested in. Don’t feel obliged to cover everything mentioned. Instead, use the notes to make a plan of how you will spend your time with the group. Describe your plan briefly, and apologize for topics that you’re not able to cover in the time available. Even if you don’t cover everything requested, your audience will have the information to understand why you made the choices you did. If you’re going to be available after the session is over, you can invite attendees to meet with you to talk more.

As you continue with your audience-customized session, you can refer to the note clusters to confirm that you’re covering your plan.

How you can use Post It! to make public the interests and questions of a group
Before the session begins, decide on the number of sticky notes to give to each participant. The number will depend on the size of the group and the length of time available for any resulting sessions. Suggestions for the number of notes to be provided are shown in the table below.

Size of group  Suggested number of notes for each attendee
20 − 30  2 − 4
30 − 50  2 − 3
50 − 100  1 − 2
100+  1

Hand out this number of sticky notes and a pen to each attendee. Ask the audience to write down one or more topics they would like explored or questions they would like answered during the session, one per note. Tell them they do not need to use all their notes. Indicate the wall area where notes can be posted, and ask them, once they have finished, to post their notes on the wall. Give participants a few minutes to write their responses. As the notes are posted it is natural for people to hang around the wall and read what others have written. Let them do this, but ask people to allow late posters to get to the wall.

Once all the notes have been posted, provide some time for everyone to take in the topics and questions displayed. This group sharing can then be used as a starting point for Open Space, Fishbowls, Plus/Delta, and other group discussion techniques discussed in my upcoming book.

Photo attribution: Flickr user edmittance

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  • This is the kind of real-time session-building that we hope to see more of. The energy in these sessions is often higher, and we bet the retention level is be pretty high, too. Passing this idea on, along with a reminder for recycling bins, for all those Post-Its!

  • Sue Pelletier

    I’ve been in Open Space sessions where this was done, and it was fantastic! How much time do you need to allot? And at what size group does this become too unwieldy? What about trying to do something similar online ahead of time for larger groups–or does the response rate and energy really depend on everyone being in the room and doing this together?

    • Good questions Sue! Using Post It! for feedback to a presenter at a session of fifty people typically takes 8-10 minutes. Using it to publicly display topics of interest to a group takes about the same time, though the total time needed to view the results will be more if the group is very large.

      I wouldn’t run a session-centered Post It! for more than about 70 people. For a group interest Post It!, provided you have a large enough wall with good access, the technique is feasible with several hundred people if there’s enough time available for perusing the results. You could run Post It! at the start of an event and leave the resulting wall up for a day or so for people to explore at their leisure.

      I’ve written elsewhere about my experience asking attendees about their interests in advance. Sadly, your concern is valid-response rates are low and the responses one gets (and I’ve analyzed this) do not agree particularly well with what attendees actually choose when they’re asked at the event.

    • I ran a variant of Post It! after breakfast at the 2015 PCMA Education Conference for 700 people in about 30 minutes. The attendees then went off to other sessions. A small group then spent another 30 minutes clustering the notes and deciding on a dozen sessions, including appropriate leaders, and assigned breakout rooms. These crowdsourced sessions were then held after lunch the same day. They were very well attended and received great reviews.

  • Myra

    Breaking the silence in a conference needs a lot of effort, interaction and ideas to engage your audience to take part in any activities that you prepared in an event. I really admire those event coordinator for bringing the event alive.

    I once attend a Conference Management Brisbane where this post it ideas was done. All of the attendees were participated and present their ideas actively which result to a successful conference event.

    • Glad you liked this technique, Myra. I’ve found it to be a great way to involve attendees in a session and make it relevant to their needs.

  • Adrian, I like this and I like the lead in to Open Space etc. I also use the ’35 technique’ in a parallel way. Don’t know if you know this? (I can email a detailed explanation). In a nutshell, everyone writes their 1 top idea (question, whatever) on an index card, then you do a highly interactive ‘rate and rank’ process to find cards that many people agree with (high scores). A count down to see who scored what (with candy prizes for top card authors–fun and energy) yields high scoring cards (often themed into key areas). These can then set up the Fishbowl or Worldcafe or whatever … Same logic, complementary method. 🙂
    Stephen

    • Stephen, yes, I am familiar with Thiagi’s Thirty-Five, like it a lot, and describe it in detail in my book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

  • More detailed information on running Post It! can now be found in my book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

  • Yohai Rosen

    Cool way to better adjust your talk towards your crowd.
    In the last conference I organized, the speaker that was coming up last actually showed up first thing in the morning, listened to all other speakers, took notes and incorporated everything in his own talk. He beautifully summed the whole day up which added a lot of value to his session. I’m sure it’s part of the reason it was voted unanimously as the best talk of the day.

    Adrian, do you have any suggestions on how to achieve the same thing in bigger conferences?

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