Status and power at meetings

status and power

Meeting professionals rarely talk about status and power issues. This is unfortunate because the ways that status and power manifest at meetings matter. Why? Because a majority of those who attend most meetings have little say over what happens at them. Typical meeting formats are rigid, and attendees play largely circumscribed roles.

So, let’s explore the roles of status and power at meetings.

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The mechanics of explicit communication at meetings

explicit communication Last week I shared five ways explicit communication improves meetings. If we lived in a world where sharing a clear message guaranteed that every recipient received it and took it to heart—well, our lives would be a lot less complicated.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. So here’s a guide to explicit communication mechanics that increase the likelihood that people receive and act on your messages.

Explicit communication mechanics summary

To maximize the likelihood that people receive and act on a message you send:

  • Determine the best communication channel(s)
  • Choose the best time(s) to communicate
  • Make sure your message is clear
  • Find out whether your message has been received
  • Repeat messages appropriately.

Determine the best communications channel(s)

Think about the best channel(s) to communicate your message. Here are some examples.

  • You have important information to convey to attendees, presenters, or exhibitors before an event. You might use email, bulk texting, in-app messaging, website updates, or even social media.
  • You’re an emcee on stage and you need to remind folks about the time and place of the evening social. You’ll probably speak to your audience. (But perhaps you’ll sing, or use physical comedy!)
  • The meeting schedule changes mid-event. You might use electronic signage, app push messaging, or hallway announcements to let people know.

Before you choose from available channels, consider timing and repeat messaging factors, as described below.

Choose the best time(s) to communicate

A mistake I’ve made more than once is to try to share information at the end of a session while people are starting to leave. Typically I’ll indicate that the session is over and then remember there’s an announcement I forgot to make. Unfortunately, listening to me becomes a low priority when attendees have already turned their attention to standing up and thinking about where they’ll go next.

To maximize explicit communication in such circumstances, what I try to remember to do is:

  • Preparing recipients to receive a message makes it more likely they’ll receive it. So, prepare attendees at the start of the session. (“At the end of this session I have an important announcement about XYZ.“).
  • Make a clear statement right at the end of the session. (“We’re going to wrap up, but first please listen carefully to this important announcement…“)

Part of a communications plan, therefore, includes choosing the best times to prep folks for receiving and then delivering your messages.

Having a plan is important, but not necessarily sufficient. You also need to monitor the real-time environment and be prepared to alter your plan. As a facilitator I sometimes change the processes I’m using to meet uncovered participants’ needs. Or a portion of a session may take more or less time than expected. When such things happen, you may need to change the timing of your communications on the fly.

Make sure your message is clear

Obviously, if people don’t understand your message your communication will fail. Whenever possible, test the clarity of a message in advance. For example, I try to test instructions I’ve developed for new group work processes with a small group before using them with 600 people. And don’t forget that messaging isn’t restricted to verbal communication. I remember a maze-like conference center that had a totally inadequate printed floor plan. Even though I spent the day before the event familiarizing myself with the layout, I still had a hard time figuring out how to get from one room to the next. Not surprisingly, many attendees got lost and were late for sessions during the meeting.

In addition, to make sure your message is clear, check for understanding right after delivering it. Saying “are there any questions?” and giving people enough time to respond before continuing is the least you should do. For maximal communication use Ask, Tell, Ask, where you ask what questions people have, share your answers, and then ask what they understand.

Find out whether your message has been received

One of the best improv exercises I’ve done really brought home the importance of checking whether people have received a message. In 2016, I played the game “You” at a five-day improv retreat held by Mindful Play, Playful Mind. Here’s what I wrote about playing “You”, though, like all improv, you have to experience the game to fully get its point.

What the game vividly illustrates is that you have to get people’s full attention before you send a message, and then check with them to make sure they’ve received it. Make sure you do this!

Repeat messages appropriately

Finally, remember that repeating messages appropriately increases the likelihood people will receive and absorb them. Despite your best efforts, there are countless reasons why folks may miss a message. A potential recipient might be immersed in a side conversation, worrying about a family situation, on a bathroom break, etc. Repeating messages, especially important ones, makes it more likely people will hear or seen and act on them.

How often to repeat a message depends on its importance, the environment, and the level of attention at the moment you share it. There’s no right answer. Some people are great at receiving messages; some need to be hit over the head with a stick. In general, it’s better to repeat a message a little too often (with the risk of annoying some) rather than not enough (with the risk that many won’t receive it.)

If available, use multiple channels for your messages. For example, communicate a schedule change with session announcements, in-app messages, and meeting signage. People will generally understand your desire to get the message out in various ways, and it’s more likely people will receive it successfully.

You can’t please everyone

You can’t please everyone. However well you fashion and deliver your explicit communication, some people won’t get the message or act on it. (It’s sobering that despite media saturation of the message that voting is important, about a third of registered U.S. voters don’t vote.)

Nevertheless, maximizing the likelihood that people will receive and act on your messages at meetings is important. I hope that this post gives you some ideas for improving communications at your meetings.

Do you know other ways to improve explicit communication at meetings? Share them in the comments below!

Five ways explicit communication improves meetings

explicit communication When we get together and talk there are sometimes things best left unsaid. But often, explicit communication — saying or writing what’s needed to guide or influence desired behavior — improves matters over staying silent or beating around the bush. Here are five examples of how explicit communication improves meetings.

1—Tell attendees how your meeting socials will be social!

Want to make your meeting “socials” actually social? Don’t just throw a party with loud music. Like many attendees, I love to dance (when the music’s right). But some people don’t; they want to socialize by talking with others. And most people don’t want to dance non-stop for an entire party.

So attendees need somewhere to talk. And unless they possess excellent hearing, conversing with a colleague while Heroes plays from a monster speaker ten feet away is, well, challenging.

I’ve been at too many event parties where loud music was inescapable. They probably contributed to my current need for hearing aids in group settings. These days I often pass on event parties because I can’t hear anyone over the music.

Meeting planners can make me (and many other attendees) happier by giving us somewhere quiet nearby where we can escape and talk whenever we want. Many events do this—but few tell attendees they have the option!

A little explicit pre-party communication will improve your meeting. “Hey, if you want to talk as well as party, take a few steps and enjoy the comfy sofas in the quiet and elegant LuxeTime lounge!” will be music to many ears.

I’ll be there!

TIP: Many people love to dance but don’t want to get any deafer. The solution: provide (sponsor branded?) earplugs! And, tell attendees in advance they’ll be available.

2—Provide and promote places for people to talk

Conference stakeholders who are serious about maximizing connection at their events provide plenty of places besides the hallways to talk and network. Whenever possible, include appropriate furnishings to make these spaces attractive places for people to connect. Then improve your meeting by documenting, promoting, and encouraging people to use your venue’s quiet spaces.

Think creatively about how to do this. For example, session rooms are often vacant at times. Distribute a “quiet meeting spaces” schedule to attendees so they know where and when they can arrange meetings or go on the spur of the moment. And make sure your room signage advertises these spaces to attendees walking by.

3—Frame exemplary interaction between sponsors/exhibitors, and attendees

Sponsors and exhibitors want to meet potential new customers and strengthen existing relationships. Attendees typically want to find suppliers who can solve current problems and meet their needs. For this to happen, these groups need to interact, typically at trade shows, sessions where suppliers lead or contribute, and meeting socials.

We’re all familiar with this dance, but some meetings implement it better than others.

Attendees, especially when they comprise a minority, can be profoundly irritated by overexposure to suppliers. Examples include sessions that are primarily product or service pitches and socials where attendees have little opportunity to talk alone with each other. Sometimes attendees want “attendee-only” sessions where they can talk frankly about supplier experiences.

Getting win-win interactions between attendees and suppliers requires explicit communication with both groups before or at the start of the event.

What suppliers need to hear

Clearly explain to suppliers before the event, that they’ll do best if they don’t aggressively pitch their products and services. Smart suppliers already know this, but there always seem to be some who haven’t gotten the message. In particular, ban sales pitches on stage. Require suppliers who are presenting to describe in advance how their content will educate session attendees appropriately.

If the event is small (and most meetings are small meetings) consider holding a short session for all tradeshow vendors, allowing each supplier a minute at most to pitch their offerings to attendees. Encourage attendees to be there by holding the session right before the tradeshow opens. I’ve found that suppliers and attendees appreciate such sessions and they reduce the likelihood that annoying pitching will occur at other times.

What attendees need to hear

Attendees may really appreciate some meeting sessions that exclude suppliers so participants can have candid discussions about their supplier choices. If your event includes such sessions, let attendees know in advance! (And, of course, make arrangements to ensure that suppliers don’t attend.)

4—Improve the effectiveness of technical checks

By now, we’ve all had to suffer online presenters who:

  • Look terrible; or
  • Are largely inaudible; or
  • Never show up due to “technical difficulties”.

Event producers can minimize these serious defects by holding technical checks beforehand. If only it was so simple!

On a recent weekly Event Tech chat led by Brandt Krueger, we discussed the knotty problem of getting online presenters to do technical checks before the event. Common issues were presenters who:

  • Ignore or don’t show up for the appointment.
  • Turn up and inform you that their session’s equipment/location, won’t be the same as what they’re currently on with you.
  • Say “Don’t waste my time — I’ve done this a million times before!”
  • Are eager to be “checked” but then want an hour of advice on their setup.

How can explicit communication help with these issues?

  • To minimize no-shows, put the requirement for a tech check in presenter contracts.
  • Also include in the presenter contract that the tech check must be held with the same equipment & location the presenter will be using at showtime. (Yes, sometimes this is impossible, but at least the production crew can be warned in advance and schedule extra time to test before the presenter goes live.)
  • For the self-proclaimed experts, tell them it will only take a few minutes (if everything is fine). Tell them that you want them to be seen and heard at their very best, and you’re here to help. Be prepared, if anything needs fixing, to quickly share what the presenter can do. (Brandt showed us a rule of thirds overlay with an oval for the ideal head position to speedily and gently improve a presenter’s video.)
  • And for the newbie presenter who wants you to give a free lengthy consult, let them know you’ve only got, say, 15 minutes for the appointment.

There are no guarantees, but explicit communications like these will likely make your online event run smoother.

5—Include explicit meeting agreements

I’ve left the best until the end. The most important way to improve meetings with explicit communications is by creating explicit attendee agreements (aka covenants or ground rules) at the start of an event.

fairest rules

I’ve written extensively about the importance of agreements and how to use them in my books and on this blog (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Check out these resources to learn more.

But wait, there’s more!

Stay tuned for a post on the mechanics of explicit communications next week!

HT to Brandt Krueger and Glenn Thayer for sparking some of the ideas in this post in a couple of weekly Event Tech chats! (Join us on Zoom, Fridays, noon Eastern Time. We’re a friendly bunch!)

Event innovation, Disney, and souvenirs

event innovation Event innovation has to be more than giving attendees souvenirs.

Seth Godin, writing about extending brands, points out that to be successful you need to create something that’s both additive and new. For example, he compares Disney’s development of Disneyland from its movies, versus Leica announcing a watch.

Unlike Disneyland, Leica’s watch is “a souvenir of a feeling, not the creator“.

“The crappy t-shirt you bought at your favorite musician’s concert is a souvenir, but they shouldn’t count on that as their legacy or the engine of their growth.”
—Seth Godin, Extensions and souvenirs

Disney didn’t just coast on the success of Disneyland. Instead, the company continued to broaden its brand by creating different kinds of theme parks, each presenting “a distinct vision with its own diverse set of attractions”.

Each Disney theme park has a different conceptual focus that differentiates it from the others. For example, Epcot has a “World’s Fair” theme, Hollywood Studios revisits the movie universe, and Animal Kingdom is built around zoology.

Park-specific Disney souvenirs complement and strengthen attendees’ experience at each park, rather than being an afterthought.

Extending your event brand

Similarly, to successfully extend your event brand you need to design appropriate additive and new experiences into it over time. Having a new lineup every year of speakers at conferences, or different decor and F&B at special events is not enough. Providing souvenirs will do little to fix the event in attendees’ minds if their experience is essentially one they have had multiple times before.

It’s hard to create genuinely new experiences for special events like galas, life celebrations, and incentive programs. (Hey, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.) The JKWeddingDance, invented in 2009, became a fun and novel format for Western weddings, but such innovations are rare. It’s not surprising that special events rely largely on creative decor, production, and F&B in an attempt to make the event memorable.

But conferences, where people come to learn and connect, are a different matter. There are many powerful, appropriate, little-used formats available besides lectures, panels, breakouts, and socials. I’ve written books about them. You can fulfill your event’s objectives by incorporating these appropriate formats into your meetings, creating unique experiences worth remembering.

So don’t serve up the same stew of event formats year after year. Event innovation? Or same-old, same-old? It’s your choice. To extend your event brand, choose innovative formats, so those souvenir T-shirts will become something that people will hang onto for years!


Six fundamental ways to make a better conference

The other day, a client booked an hour with me to discuss how to make their conference better. Not much time, but enough for us to uncover and for me to suggest plenty of significant improvements.

Thinking about our conversation afterward, I realized that all my recommendations involved six fundamental processes that, when implemented well and appropriately, will make any conference better.

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Doing peer conferences right

peer conferences Software testers do peer conferences right! (They even call them a peer conference, rather than unconference, a term I don’t like.) As evidence of software tester conference awesomeness, I offer three examples below. But first…

…a short history of the peer conference

I first designed and convened what I called a “peer conference” in 1992 for a group of IT managers at small schools that eventually became known as edACCESS.

During my 20+ years as an IT consultant and software developer, I got to know a delightful international crowd of software testers: those all-important people responsible for the impossible task of making sure that software works. After I talked about my meeting design work with pioneer tester James Bach at the 2004 Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference, the testing community somehow adopted the term peer conference for their get-togethers.

My code development days are long gone. I miss hanging out with the folks I got to know at these events. (Though I’m still in touch with some of them.) Regardless, peer conferences in the world of software testing are still alive and thriving!

And now…

Three examples of how software testers do peer conferences right

1. The 2022 SoCraTes peer conference

Lisi Hocke wrote a long detailed post about her first-timer experience at the 2022 SoCraTes (Software Craft and Testing) peer conference held in Soltau, Germany.

For a quick visual impression of the event, watch this!

Here are some illustrative extracts from Lisi’s post.

Keeping participants safe

Feeling safe is an important psychological requirement for people in any situation, and conferences are no exception (1, 2, 3). Lisi shares another participant’s experience:

Providing a welcoming and supportive environment for first-time participants

SoCraTes 2022 included a Foundation Day “with less people and hence a smaller crowd to get used to. A day covered with fundamental topics without them being too basic, so I learned a lot even with topics I knew about. A day where we had a schedule set in advance, which took away the uncertainty of what would happen. A day to get to know people a bit already.”

Notice how this optional first day used more conventional session formats to make it easier for first-time attendees to integrate into the existing community.

“Over dinner, I realized I was not the only one joining this conference for the first time. Later on, we realized lots of people were new joiners indeed, based on recommendations they chose to give this conference a try. Was really great to see.

In the beginning, things were still a bit new, strange and even stiff; as it often is for me these days when suddenly seeing lots of people in real life. Within a short period of time I could loosen up, though. The more people I got to know, the more I relaxed and felt at ease.”

A participation-rich session format — World Café — was introduced at the end of Foundation Day

The World Café supplied an appropriate introduction and transition to the Open Space format used during the rest of the conference.

“To set the scene, a World Café was hosted by the wonderful Juke, getting all of us connected to SoCraTes and each other. How it worked? We had three rounds, a new question each round. For each group, one stays at the same place while all others look for a new group to join. The one who stays welcomes the new people and shares what the previous group had talked about. Usually this is supported by taking notes and drawing on flip charts or similar means.”

Open Space

SoCraTes 2022 used the participant-driven Open Space format to determine what sessions participants wanted to hold. Though Open Space is just one of the formats you can use to create participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, it’s probably the most well known and is often an appropriate process to use.

“In short: we build the agenda we want to see! And that’s what happened. It’s fascinating how you can really trust in the system. The queues to briefly present the proposed topics were really long, and the emerging schedule looked amazing. So many awesome topics…”

Session leaders used a wide variety of participative formats

Check out Lisi’s post for descriptions of many appropriate innovative session formats, including ask me anything, brainstorming, blind ensemble programming, the pipeline game, exploring feelings while reading code, a Code Retreat, and a retrospective.

Some closing insights

About listening and learning…

“The entire conference felt like a version of the world that could exist. Many small and large customs help people to get along better with each other. It starts with the name tags alone: ​​take off the name tag if you’re too introverted to talk to people right now. A red tape means you don’t want to be photographed. The name tags are magnetic and hold the creative badges that people use to announce their pronouns – with a lot of artistic flair if you like.”
—Eric, SoCraTes 2022 — a conference report [translated from German]

Compare the innovation and excitement at SoCraTes 2022 with just about any other conference you’ve attended. Can you see why software testers like Lisi think that peer conferences rock?!

2. The Unexpo Experiment

Here’s another example from a software testing peer conference, TestBash Brighton 2018. The conference designers invented a way to create “highly engaging, interactive and fun” poster sessions. Check out my post that describes this “excellent example of how to invent, explore, evaluate, and improve new meeting formats”.

3. A free guide to creating peer conferences

Want to create a peer conference, but don’t want to buy any of my excellent books on this topic? (Hey, you can buy all three for just $29.99, but that’s OK 😀.) No problem, the Association for Software Testing published an excellent free introductory guide to creating peer conferences. Learn more about it, and download it here.

Final thoughts

I love and respect the software testing community because its practitioners think carefully and seriously about how to design their conferences. And then they implement and test their innovative designs, discovering what works and what doesn’t while also being open to the joy and excitement of the unexpected. A beautiful mixture of serious exploration, learning, and fun.

That’s the way to improve meetings!

Image attribution: #SoCraTes2022 peer conference photo by Markus Tacker

A class is a meeting

Though I don’t teach college anymore, I’m interested in educational class design because a class is a meeting. And much of what we can do to design great meetings is applicable to college classes too.

So I had high hopes for a September 7 2022, City University of New York webinar introducing Cathy Davidson‘s and Christina Katopodis’ book The New College Classroom, which is “about inspiring, effective, and inclusive teaching at the college level.”

Sadly, I was disappointed. Not so much by the information presented but more by the way it was done. Talking about incorporating active learning, interaction, and participation into college classes is great. But talking does little to change the behavior of those listening. The speakers didn’t model what they were preaching during their talk!

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Engagement beats technical difficulties

technical difficulties Earlier this year, I designed and facilitated an online workshop that was marred by technical difficulties. The workshop was several hours long, and some (but not all) of the participants reported that my video feed froze at times. Luckily, my audio feed was fine.

Shortly afterward, I talked to a client who had participated in the workshop. I asked them about their workshop experience.

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