Most of the event industry and our clients continue to assume that if you can make the meeting bigger it’s a good thing.
It ain’t necessarily so.
How we got here
The massive disruption of in-person events since March 2020 has shaken our industry to the core. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events that weren’t canceled have seen drastically reduced attendance compared to prior years. Online and hybrid meetings have seen less drastic reductions.
One bright spot has been the normalization of online meetings for routine connection and collaboration. We have also seen the emergence of new forms of online events, supported by solid business models.
So as I predicted in 2020, we haven’t seen the old normal since the pandemic started, and it’s likely we’ll never see it again.
What we shouldn’t do
The event industry unduly focuses on large meetings. Our trade magazines mainly report on big events, the ones with big-name speakers and eye candy razzle-dazzle. Pandemic-induced smaller audiences engender hand-wringing. What to do? How can we get our old, big events back?
Some respond by increasing their event marketing. Often, however, that’s not a smart move, as Seth Godin illustrates:
Make the announcement louder. Make the logo bigger. Yell. Call more people on the phone to sell them an extended warranty. Send more emails. Hustle harder. None of it works. The problem with the fountain isn’t that they didn’t make a big enough sign. The problem is that the fountain itself is poorly designed… …If you get the design right, you can whisper instead. —Seth Godin, “Make the sign bigger!”
Tired of meetings that don’t end on time? Who isn’t? Things were bad enough when we held our meetings in person. Now so many meetings are online, it’s easy to saddle remote workers with back-to-back meetings. When one overruns, you’re late to the next one. Hey presto, your tardiness snowballs! (And, no, you can’t be on two Zooms at once without going through tortuous hacks.) Sure, sometimes you’re at the mercy of others. But you can stay on time at online meetings when they’re your meetings — if you follow the guidance below!
NOTE: Many of these suggestions are good practice for any meeting!
Before the online meeting starts
Apart from those rare meetings that are ritual courtly dances with every step minutely choreographed, what happens at a meeting is unpredictable to some degree.
Ideally, the only unpredictable parts should be when you’re doing useful work, like sharing ideas, discussing options, making decisions, etc. And setting expectations for the meeting before it starts is key to minimizing the time-wasting behavior that we’ve all experienced during meetings.
You have two tools to set meeting expectations: creating agreements and the meeting agenda.
I’ve facilitated meetings for decades. In my experience, the best way to reliably improve a meeting is to create and (gently) enforce agreements about how participants act there. Consensual group norms generate powerful motivation to keep meetings running smoothly and productively while discouraging unruly behavior. I’ve found that having an appropriate set of agreements eliminates the vast majority of common problems. And if someone still goes down an irrelevant conversational rabbit hole, interrupts others, or talks too much, it’s much easier to lightly redirect them.
Agreements can either be communicated before the meeting or at the start. While there’s no single set of agreements that’s optimum for every meeting, some base agreements should be familiar to anyone who regularly meets online. For example:
Signal via a pre-agreed protocol when you want to say something, e.g., by raising your hand (literally or via a platform mechanism like Zoom’s “Raise Hand”), or via text chat.
If you’ve joined by phone, say your name before speaking.
Additional agreements that are generally helpful include:
Commit to being present at the meeting unless an emergency occurs.
Don’t interrupt. Instead, use an agreed process to indicate you want to speak.
Follow the group’s discussion and decision processes.
Respect agreed time limits on speaking.
Support the meeting’s scheduled ending time.
Besides meeting-wide agreements, agreements about processes you will use during the meeting are very important. Create agreement and a clear understanding about how participants will:
take turns to speak;
discuss issues; and
The processes to use depend on the meeting’s goals (see agenda) and implicit or explicit power differentials between attendees. For example, you’ll use different procedures if a decision is going to be made by consensus, majority vote, or the presiding CEO. I’ve included some examples below.
Whatever processes you chose, be sure to explain how they work either before or at the start of the meeting. Make sure that all supporting technology, such as an on-screen timer, is available and there’s someone responsible for running it.
Providing an agenda in advance
An agenda is a vital tool for staying on time at online meetings, in fact at any meeting. Providing participants with a clear, detailed agenda in advance is respectful and smart. “In advance” doesn’t mean five minutes before the meeting. It means giving attendees enough time to read and review beforehand. This allows people to formulate questions, ideas, and positions on agenda items beforehand, saving time during the meeting. Whenever possible, include participants’ input into the agenda by distributing a draft with a deadline for questions, corrections, and additions for a final agenda before the meeting.
Timed agendas are very helpful for staying on time. Even if it turns out the written times can’t be fully adhered to, they give attendees an idea of what’s expected and make it easier to reschedule upcoming agenda items on the fly.
Be clear who is running the meeting. Online meetings often need various kinds of support. Be sure everyone knows their responsibilities for note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc.
Occasionally, an itemized agenda is impracticable because the meeting is preliminary and exploratory: for example, a group meeting for the first time to discuss a possible collaboration. Even under these circumstances, be sure you circulate a brief description of the meeting goals and a start and end time.
Check that everyone involved with meeting tasks and support — facilitation, note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc. — is present and ready to do their work. If the meeting is large, a backchannel for these folks to communicate, like Slack, can be very helpful.
Online discussions can often become messy, with people interrupting, taking up too much time, or going off-topic. To avoid this:
Expect to readjust your schedule during the meeting
If you haven’t supplied a timed agenda, it’s important for the meeting leader to share their thoughts on how the group will use the time available. Since it’s rare to precisely follow such plans, regularly recalculate the time allotments as the meeting proceeds, and update/consult with participants on any changes you think you’ll need to make.
If you complete the meeting agenda ahead of schedule, end it early! No one will complain. 😀
Finally, end on time! It sometimes becomes clear during a meeting that the agenda scope was unrealistic. More time is needed to satisfy the meeting’s goals. Asking to extend the meeting duration may be an option, but don’t just keep going. Instead, before the meeting is scheduled to end, estimate how much longer is needed and poll attendees to see if they can stay. Respect their responses and proceed appropriately. Options include:
Continue for an additional agreed-upon time (which you may need to negotiate).
Continue without one or more participants if you can still achieve your meeting goals despite their absence.
Schedule another meeting to finish what’s been started.
It’s important to stay on time at online meetings. Yes, running late inconveniences everyone attending, and some people may have to leave on time, with the consequent loss of their contributions and involvement. In addition, every corporate or community meeting that runs late reinforces the all-too-common dysfunctional cultural norm that all meetings will overrun. The resulting psychological, and emotional burden imposed on attendees who routinely experience losing control of their time is high.
Hopefully, these ideas will help you and your colleagues stay on time at online meetings. Do you have further suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!
It’s easy to start working with Stooa. Registering a (free) account requires the usual information: name, email, and password. You can also add your Twitter and/or LinkedIn profiles if desired.
Once you’ve registered your account, you’re ready to create a new fishbowl.
As you can see, you can specify a discussion topic, add a description, and schedule the fishbowl start and duration (up to four hours; though that would be cruel and unusual punishment). You can also choose a language to use. Currently the choices are English, Spanish, French, and Catalan. On clicking Create fishbowl you’ll see a summary of your new fishbowl, together with a link to distribute to others so they can join it. You’ll also receive an email with the same information — a nice touch.
Starting your fishbowl
When you click on Go to the fishbowl, Stooa will ask for permission to use your camera(s) and microphone(s). (Once you’ve joined a fishbowl, you can choose which ones to use.) Enter how you’d like to display your name, and you’ll see this screen:
When you’re ready to begin, click Start the fishbowl. At this point the camera and microphone will be active just for you. Share a short introduction with the waiting attendees. When done, you’ll appear in one of the five fishbowl “seats”. Click Allow attendees to join the conversation to begin discussion.
Running your fishbowl
At the top of the screen you’ll see the remaining time for the fishbowl, a button to end it, and the number of attendees present. Clicking on the latter displays a list of people currently in the seats, followed by the remaining attendees. The list includes links to the Twitter and LinkedIn profiles of each attendee if they entered them.
At this point, attendees can enter/leave one of the fishbowl seats by clicking on the Join/Leave the conversation button at the bottom of the screen. The other buttons allow participants to choose and control their camera and microphone.
Five participants is a good maximum for a controlled and useful discussion. Stooa smoothly implements entry and departure of fishbowl participants.
When your discussion is over, use the End fishbowl button to close the session.
Stooa review — what do I think?
Here are my initial impressions from a brief look. First, I want to acknowledge Stooa’s creator, Runroom, for developing this tool and making it Open Source: software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify and enhance. Hosting the software so that anyone can use it is another Runroom gift. They explain why they did so here. Thank you Runroom!
Stooa was easy to register and use on Chrome or Safari. First time users should have little difficulty, as the entire onboarding process is designed very well. I haven’t used the tool with a large number of attendees, so I can’t say how it holds up under load. Given that the number of folks simultaneously on video chat is limited to five, I expect it will work fine.
Stooa succeeds admirably in its purpose as a single process tool that facilitates effective group discussion.
Currently, you can’t remove a fishbowl participant. This could be a problem if you used Stooa for a public fishbowl discussion, publicized via a link on social media.
In addition, with all seats filled, there’s no way for waiting attendees to indicate that they’d like to join the discussion, so a fishbowl host doesn’t know how many others are waiting to speak. To deal with this, attendees could use a backchannel tool like Slack to message the host that they’d like to join in. Alternatively, adding a hand raise option to the attendee list would help to solve this problem. And incorporating a simple text chat for all attendees into Stooa would provide even greater flexibility.
Stooa is not the only tool for running online fishbowls. In July 2020, I shared how to use Zoom to run fishbowls online. Zoom is, of course, a fee-based platform, but many organizations own a license and Zoom does many other things as well. In this situation, Zoom includes attendee text chat and hand raising. And its breakout rooms allow you to create, inside a single tool, the fishbowl sandwiches I use to facilitate group problem solving.
For better meetings, we need to focus on learning, not education.
Yes, sometimes, cultural or professional “requirements” mean we have to provide education. That’s so we can “certify” that we’ve educated attendees to some prescribed standard. But is that all our meetings should be about?
Learning, not education
After all, it’s what we actually learn that’s important, rather than the “education” we receive. As Seth Godin says:
“Education is a model based on scarcity, compliance and accreditation. It trades time, attention and money for a piece of paper that promises value.
But we learn in ways that have little to do with how mass education is structured.
If you know how to walk, write, read, type, have a conversation, perform surgery or cook an egg, it’s probably because you practiced and explored and experienced, not because it was on a test.
Seth is talking about the potential failure of online education, but his point that we need to practice, explore, and experience to learn is true for any kind of meeting. Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde pointed this out a hundred years ago:
The meeting is over. Did anyone learn anything? And how would you know?
An EventTech Chat discussion
I greatly enjoy participating in EventTech Chat, “a weekly conversation about meeting and event technology, including software, hardware, and audiovisual for in-person and online events” hosted by pals Brandt Krueger and Glenn Thayer.
During last week’s chat, one of the topics we discussed was whether there are differences in how people learn online, as opposed to face to face. This led to conversations about learning styles (be careful, they’re mostly mythical and barely useful), the importance of taking responsibility for your own learning at meetings, and how meeting formats affect what people learn.
Are you a regular reader of this blog? If so, you might have guessed—correctly—that I had plenty to say about these important issues. There is plenty of solid research on the best ways to support effective learning. We know that:
Which brings us to an important question we hardly ever ask about meetings…
Did anyone learn anything?
In my book Conferences That Work, I shared a story about when I—and everyone else in my graduate class—never admitted we didn’t understand what our teacher was teaching us for weeks.
…toward the end of my second year I was understanding less and less of a mathematics course I was taking. The professor seemed to be going through the motions—he asked few questions, and there was no homework. Elementary particle physicists are either mathematicians or experimentalists. I was the latter, so my lack of mathematical understanding was not affecting my research work. But the experience was disconcerting.
And, as the semester went on, the percentage of class material I understood gradually declined.
One day, our teacher announced that we would be studying Green’s Functions, a technique used to solve certain kinds of equations. After the first 20 minutes of the class I realized that I understood nothing of what was being said, and that I was at a crucial turning point. If I kept quiet, it would be too late to claim ignorance later, and it was likely I would not understand anything taught for the remainder of the semester. If I spoke up, however, I was likely to display my weak comprehension of everything the teacher had covered so far.
Looking around, I noticed that the other students seemed to be having a similar experience. Everyone looked worried. No one said a word.
The class ended and the professor left. I plucked up my courage and asked my classmates if they were having trouble. We quickly discovered, to our general relief, that none of us understood the class. What should we do? Somehow, without much discussion, we decided to say nothing to the teacher.
The class only ran a few more weeks, and the remaining time became a pro forma ritual. Did our teacher know he had lost us? I think he probably did. I think he remained quiet for his own reasons, perhaps uncaring about his success at educating us, perhaps ashamed that he had lost us.
When I didn’t speak up, I chose to enter a world where I hid my lack of understanding from others, a world where I was faking it…
…Probably you’ve had a similar experience; a sinking feeling as you realize that you don’t understand something that you’re apparently expected to understand, in a context, perhaps a traditional conference, where nonresponsiveness is the norm. It’s a brave soul indeed who will speak out, who is prepared to admit to a conference presenter that they don’t get what’s going on. Have you stayed silent? Do you?
Silence isn’t golden
Silence during a presentation, and a lack of questions at the end does not mean that anyone learned anything. As Jonah Berger reminds us in Contagious, “Behavior is public and thoughts are private.”
If my teacher had bothered to periodically ask his class whether they understood what he was attempting to teach, or, better, asked questions to check, we’d likely have told or shown him we were lost.
So, how can we discover if anyone learned anything?
Ultimately, we can’t ensure or guarantee that anyone learned anything at a meeting. As Glenn pointed out during our EventTech Chat, the ultimate responsibility for learning is the learner’s. Attend a meeting expecting that the leaders will magically transfer learning to you without doing any work yourself? You probably won’t learn much, if anything.
Nevertheless, we can actively help people learn at meetings by implementing the principles listed above. (Check out my books for complete details.) But there’s one additional thing we can do to maximize and extend learning during our meetings.
How to help people consolidate what they learn at meetings
During our EventTech Chat, several participants shared how they consolidate learning during or immediately after an event. Folks who have learned the value of this practice and figured out the ways that work best for them may not need what I’m about to share (though even they can often benefit).
What I’ve found over decades of designing meetings is that the majority of meeting attendees do not know how to consolidate what they learn there. So I designed a closing plenary that gives each participant a carefully structured opportunity to review, consolidate, and reinforce what they have learned at the conference. They also get to develop the next steps for changes they will work on in their professional lives. It’s called a Personal Introspective, and takes 60 – 90 minutes to run. (You can find full details in Chapter 57 of The Power of Participation.)
Did anyone learn anything? There are no guarantees. But, following the above advice will make it significantly more likely that your attendees will learn what they want and need to learn. Do you have other thoughts on how to improve how you or others learn at meetings. If so, please share them in the comments below.
What are the fairest rules to use when running meetings? This might seem like an odd question. You might ask, “Fair to whom?” or, “What do you mean by fair?” I think it’s reasonable to concentrate on fairness to participants: the majority of those involved with the meeting. As to what being fair to participants might look like, let’s turn to the ideas of the moral and political philosopher John Rawls.
In his influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice , John suggested that “the fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”
All meetings have rules, whether overt or covert, conscious or unconscious, that influence how they proceed. These rules are embedded into every aspect of the meeting, from the seating arrangements (1, 2, 3, 4) to the meeting formats employed. We usually think of rules as guides to process. But, at a deeper level, rules instantiate issues of status and power.
Status and power at meetings
I think of status at events as the relative levels of proclaimed or perceived social value assigned to or assumed by attendees. And power at events is an individual’s capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of attendees.
Typically, but not always, higher status implies greater power at meetings.
In wider contexts, status is situational. The low status janitor at a big corporation may be the high status head of their family at home. Some say I have high status in the event industry, but when I’m facilitating a roomful of subject matter experts, I’m the most ignorant and lowest status person present.
At a traditional meeting, however, perceived status roles rarely change significantly during the event. This leads to a number of problems, which I described in my first meeting design book: Conferences That Work.
Here are the six agreements — The Four Freedoms plus two other agreements — that I’ve been using for years.
The fairest rules and my six agreements
Which brings us back to John Rawls’ intriguing and bold statement on what the fairest rules would be: “those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”
Let’s use Rawls’ suggestion to explore the fairness of using the above six agreements at a meeting.
The first agreement…
…is that everyone has the right to express their point of view. At many events, only high status people talk. I remember the physics conferences I attended as a lowly graduate student, where the prize-winning physicist lectured for fifty minutes, and only his (yes, they were all guys) colleagues and rivals spoke at the end. The tacit assumption was that you didn’t speak unless you had something brilliant to say.
The first agreement I have a group make is that anyone has the right to share their opinion with others in the group. For a low status person (like me at those conferences), that is a great freedom to have. If I had explicitly been given it, I might well have had the courage to speak all those years ago.
High status individuals at the physics conferences reinforced their high status by speaking publicly. They maintained or gained status, at the expense of others who did not. That was not fair.
I think my first agreement clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
The second agreement…
…is that everyone has the freedom to ask questions. Like the first agreement, this freedom allows low status group members to speak up. In particular, it removes the—often self-imposed—barrier to asking a “stupid” question. How often have you not understood what someone said, but failed to ask them a clarifying question “because it might make you look stupid”?
Of course, having the freedom to ask a question, even if you’re worried it might make you look stupid, often has an unexpected outcome. It frequently turns out that other group members have the same question! And it’s often the case that the reason many people have the question is that the speaker has been unclear about what they were saying, or perhaps even said something incorrect.
Speaking truth to power often involves questioning what a speaker has said. High status individuals may not like this. So I think my second agreement also clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
I introduce the third agreement at meetings…
…by saying, “it’s about the F-word.” <Pause>. “Feelings.”
Meeting participants don’t, in general, spend much time expressing how they feel. Although that’s often the case because feelings aren’t relevant to a group discussion, sometimes people think or feel it’s inappropriate to share how they feel with others, especially to a group of strangers.
This agreement says it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling. It gives individuals permission to talk about sensitive issues, if desired. Besides being potentially healthy for the sharer, it is often validating and helpful for group members who feel the same way. Talking about how you’re feeling reduces power inequities in meetings where dominant members try to push through a contentious decision. Giving participants the freedom to share how they feel can help ensure that more voices are heard.
Like the first two rules, this rule also supports low status and low power individuals in a group. So it also implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
The fourth agreement…
…is a meta-agreement that gives participants the freedom to say that they don’t feel the three preceding agreements are being followed. Though I’ve never heard this freedom invoked at any conference I’ve facilitated, I feel confident that its existence, and the group awareness that everyone has agreed to it, helps prevent the kind of dismissal, shaming, and bullying behavior that can surface at traditional meetings.
In some ways, this agreement is the closest framing of Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion. It says not only have we agreed on rules that minimize power differentials but we also have the right to call out instances when these rules are not being followed.
The fifth agreement…
…is about keeping what is discussed while the group is together confidential. I’ve written in more detail about the value of this important agreement here. Interestingly, this agreement potentially benefits all participants, whether high or low power/status. Why? When anyone shares, they potentially reveal something about themselves. A group confidentiality agreement helps increase people’s feeling of safety, possibly making it more likely they will share something sensitive.
The corporate CEO risks confessing that they have been neglecting a company-wide issue for too long. A mid-level manager shares their difficulties working with their boss. A new hire summons the courage to ask what they think is a basic question, to which they believe they should know the answer. All these actions are more likely when the initiator trusts that the group will respect their confidentiality.
The fifth agreement, therefore, is probably the easiest agreement for high status group members to agree to. They have something to gain too. It epitomizes Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion.
The sixth agreement…
…is about staying on time.
A meeting may have a predetermined schedule, or the schedule may be negotiated and constructed on the fly, as typically occurs at peer conferences (aka unconferences). I have been at too many conferences where unchecked, self-important presenters run way over their allotted time, causing an inevitable train wreck with subsequent sessions truncated and even cancelled. (Here are a couple of my own unhappy experiences.)
Applying Rawls’ suggestion would mean that all presenters would agree to present as if they had been scheduled at any point in a meeting program: the first or last session, or at any time between. As the above article explains, the resulting program, where everyone stays on time, offers many advantages to everyone involved.
How do your meeting rules fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?
How do my six agreements fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?
Pretty well, I think!
Take a few minutes to think about the rules — overt or covert, conscious or unconscious — that you use to run your meetings. How does their fairness fare? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
If you discover you are still enabling power and status imbalances at your events, you are not serving your participants well.
I do not have a magnetic personality. I would never have been cast as the lead in the classic ad series “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen“. Yes, I’m a recovering academic, so I love to talk. But that doesn’t mean that people always hear me.
And that can occasionally be a problem when I’m facilitating group work.
Ultimately, as we’ll see, it’s a good problem to have. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
But, obviously, people need to listen to me sometimes, so I can facilitate them doing their work. And, there are certain situations when they have a hard time listening to me.
If you facilitate group work, you probably know what I’m talking about. Effective group work includes periods when group members are working with each other, not you. And when they’re having these conversations, they are not listening to you. They are (well, hopefully) listening to each other.
Which means that getting their attention is difficult.
On this occasion, we used a setup I’ve never experienced before. Dan and the students were together in person, and they decided to display me on a front-of-room screen but also run a simultaneous Zoom meeting so I could see the students individually and talk with them one-on-one.
(Production pros will recognize this arrangement is susceptible to audio feedback problems, which did indeed hold up the class a bit. To minimize them, have participants use headsets when possible. Otherwise turn off individual computer speakers and all mikes except for the one in-person participant currently talking.)
I began the class with a quick pair share between students, giving each pair a couple of minutes to share with each other why they were taking the class.
At which point, I completely lost everyone’s attention.
The ignored facilitator
Two minutes went by, and I asked the students to stop sharing so we could move on to the main segment of the class, where I answered any questions they wanted to ask me.
Nothing happened. The students kept on talking. They were enjoying learning about each other and they didn’t want to stop.
I asked again. Several times. I increased my speaking volume, but it was as if I had been banished from the meeting. I was 1,600 miles away, the students weren’t listening to me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Dan to the rescue!
Thankfully, Dan noticed that I was being ignored. He was in the room, and his students are used to listening to him. After a couple of announcements, the students’ conversational hubbub diminished, and I was back in contact with the class.
The rest of the class went well. I closed with another pair share for students to share their takeaways with each other. However, before this one started I made sure to ask Dan to bring it to a close!
Hear me! Getting a group’s attention
Even when I’m present in the room, the same scenario often happens! Yes, there are people who can usually get the attention of an energetically conversing crowd. But I often find it hard. Knowing this, I’ll sometimes find someone in the group who has this gift, and ask them to get the group’s attention for me when needed. Alternatively, you can pick a leader who’s known to the group, like Dan was, for this role.
There are many methods that teachers and trainers use to get attention. To learn more about them, see Chapter 22 of my book, The Power of Participation.
Although the difficulty of getting a group’s attention is a problem that facilitators face regularly, in the big picture it’s a good thing.
Why? Because, when a competent facilitator has trouble getting attention, it means that participants are actively working with each other. Have you ever left a meeting session full of excitement and ideas for future work, perhaps having made important new connections in the process? (Or have you hung around afterwards, continuing conversations?) When this happens, the facilitator has done their job well.
So if you’re facilitating, and sometimes find it difficult to bring group members reluctantly back from engagement, don’t fret. Remember that your pain is their gain.
Image attribution: “2010 IACA Conference – evening reception at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum” by Corvair Owner is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. and modified with additional graphics.
In 2009, the biologist E.O. Wilson described what he saw as humanity’s real problem. I think it’s also a meeting problem:
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” —E. O. Wilson, debate at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Mass., 9 September 2009
Wilson sees emotions, institutions, and technology as disjointed in time. Emotions have driven human beings for millions of years, our institutions are thousands of years old, and we can’t keep up with our advances in technology.
Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.
The things we do reflect our culture. And the organizations we’ve constructed incarnate our culture. Our largest and most powerful institutions — political and religious — are also the oldest, with roots thousands of years in the past. What we think of as modern business meetings and conferences are hundreds of years old. Changes in their forms and traditions have been principally influenced by technology (see below) rather than any deep changes in human psychology.
The traditional top-down formats of meetings and conferences reflect the top-down structure of the institutions that still largely dominate our world. Traditional institutional norms discourage the creation of meetings that provide freedom for participants to steer and co-create learning and connection experiences that are optimally better for everyone involved. All too often, top-down institutional culture leads inexorably to hierarchical meeting formats.
So there’s a disconnect between what’s best for meeting participants, due to their fundamental psychological makeup, and the dictates of their institutional bosses and the organizations that organize the events.
And finally, there’s E.O. Wilson’s “god-like technology”. Even though technology is continually being redefined as anything that was invented after you were born, it’s impossible to ignore how rapidly technology has evolved and changed our culture and our meeting experiences. I carry in my pocket a phone that has more computing power and far more utility to me than a machine that filled an entire office building when I was a student. And the COVID-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated how technology has allowed us, almost overnight, to redefine what we have thought of as meetings for hundreds of years to a largely—at least for now—online experience.
The tension between emotions, institutions, and technology at meetings
Wilson’s definition of humanity’s problem resonates for me. As I’ve shared above, our emotions, institutions, and technology also frequently conflict when we are planning meetings. There isn’t a simple solution that perfectly responds to these elemental forces that affect what we do. In the meetings industry, our best meeting problem solutions recognize the effects of these forces on our gatherings and use conscious design to take advantage of them.
That means designing meetings that incorporate active learning via creating emotional experiences together, working with institutional stakeholders to convince them of the value of emotion-driven, participant-driven, and participation-rich approaches, and using the right technology — often human process technology — to make our meetings the best they can be.
Yes, humanity’s problem is a meeting problem. But we have the tools to solve it. All we need to do is to use them.
I’m noticing that event promoters are increasingly using the word “unconference” to describe traditional conferences. <Sigh>. Please stop doing this! There’s a big difference between unconferences and traditional events.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines an unconference:
“An unconference is a participant-driven meeting.” “Typically at an unconference, the agenda is created by the attendees at the beginning of the meeting.” —Unconference, Wikipedia
“In particular, the word ‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend and actively participate in. You will shape the event by taking part in discussions, feedback sessions, and similar formats that need your input.” The Search Central Unconference is back, Google Search Central Blog
Wow. According to Google, “‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend”. Umm, Google, that’s what happens at every conference! Oh, you also get to “actively participate in” sessions? Google, we call that “having a discussion” or “a breakout”.
Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Sorry, Google, but calling your conference an unconference doesn’t make it one.
Let’s call what you’re doing an ununconference.
Sadly, Google is not alone.
A few examples of ununconferences
Here are three ununconferences that people promoted this week. I noticed several others, but adding all those black bars to remove identifying information takes time. Twitter is full of folks who already know they’ll be “speaking” at an ununconference (e.g., the second example). The last example announces that their “unconference” is closing session proposal submissions six months before the actual event!
Conference programs that are predetermined with attendee input are not unconferences
I have been convening and facilitating unconferences for 30years. (I prefer the term peer conferences, but no one else cares.) Why? Because they provide a far better conference experience. Better, because creating the conference program in real time at the start ensures that the event optimally meets participants’ in-the-moment wants and needs.
“In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want. —Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator, February, 2012
Seth Godin puts it this way: “We have no idea in advance who the great contributors are going to be.” Just about every unconference I’ve convened or attended, has brought to light participants whose valuable knowledge, expertise, experience, and contributions were unknown to the conveners (and most, if not all, of the attendees). You can’t do this effectively at a traditional conference with a predetermined program.
Unconference is not a marketing soundbite
Marketers: stop using “unconference” as an event marketing buzzword. We’re not selling cereal here. As Robert Kreitner says, “Buzzwords…drive out good ideas.” Unconferences are participant-driven, which involves building the program in real time during the event. Having (well-designed) discussion sessions during an event is great, but that doesn’t make a meeting an unconference.
I care about how people use the word “unconference” because I’ve met too many folks who believe that an event that’s billed as an unconference must be one. Then they attend and are underwhelmed. I’d hate to see unconferences suffer because marketing folks see the word as a way to make an event sound hip, sophisticated, and cool. Let’s banish the ununconference instead!
What is the mix of presentation versus interaction at your meetings? What should it be?
Traditional meetings focus heavily on presentation. Interaction is limited to a few questions at the end of sessions, plus conversations “outside” the formal sessions. And this has been the norm for hundreds of years.
The written word
Let’s explore the popularity of the written words presentation versus interaction over time. If you do this, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, you’ll notice a curious thing.
In 1804, the earliest year included in the Google Books database, the word interaction barely appears. The word presentation is a hundred times more frequent. Both words slowly become more common over time, but presentation stays predominant. But, in the 1950s, something strange happens. The popularity of interaction abruptly rises. In 1964, interaction becomes more frequently used. It has remained in first place ever since.
Presentation versus interaction at meetings
Society, as reflected by books in English, now talks about interaction about twice as often as presentation. But our meeting designs, in large part, haven’t changed to reflect this shift in cultural awareness. Presenters still rarely incorporate interaction into their sessions, even though there are ample reasons why they should.