Bigger meetings aren’t necessarily better meetings

Mine is bigger than yours
It’s common to be impressed by a big meeting. Size implies status, and seemingly success. Walking onto the floor of IBTM World—a European tradeshow attended by more than 15,000 event professionals each year—you’re likely to be blown away by the size of the event. (The video above shows perhaps a third of the tradeshow floor.) You think to yourself: this event must be successful because it’s so [expletive] big.

But size isn’t everything.

A quick exercise
(Have someone read this to you s…l…o…w…l…y for the full effect.)

Close your eyes.


Now think of the most important conversation you ever had in your life.

Take your time—I’m not going to ask you what it was about.

Here’s the question. How many other people took part in your conversation?

It’s a small world
I’ve run this exercise at numerous presentations and asked the audience to share their answers via a show of hands. The most common answer is “one”, followed by 2-3, with a few people reporting small group numbers.

No one has yet reported a most-important conversation with ten or more people.

Want significant connection (and effective learning) at your events? Then attendees need to spend significant time talking, interacting, and thinking in small groups. Not just at meals or socials, but in the conference sessions!

Design for content versus design for connection
We know that the two most important reasons people attend meetings are for content and connection. Every meeting includes a mixture of these, but let’s concentrate on some differences between meetings that concentrate on content (100% content versions are called trainings) and those that concentrate on connection around content.

Content-delivery meeting economics improve with size. The income from more attendees covers the cost of the expensive keynoter. And to a lesser extent, it’s often possible to get more glitz for the buck at bigger events, where those little touches for decor and food and beverage become feasible for larger numbers of attendees.

Meetings that concentrate on connection, however, aren’t significantly cheaper per person as meeting size increases. This is because you can’t spread significant fixed costs over more attendees. In fact, to provide the same level of connection at a large meeting that’s possible at a small meeting requires sacrificing valuable face time at the event in order to get everyone into the right small groups needed for effective participation.

If you hold the mental model that when a large number of people are in one place they need to all be doing the “same” thing, then you will fail in running an effective participation-rich event. Two hundred people cannot “participate” simultaneously in a traditional meeting format (though elaborate, carefully designed simulations can be valuable). The trick is to determine how to divide a large group into smaller sub-groups that can use any one of a number of tested designs to facilitate and support participative learning and connections.

For example, a couple of years ago I designed an afternoon for a 500-attendee medical conference. For this group, we split the attendees into ten groups by medical specialty, allowing each group independently to use small group techniques to determine the topics they wanted to cover and then explore them.

Size isn’t everything
Large meetings are not going away. When there is a clear need for them, someone is going to capture the market by executing the demanding logistics of a large meeting better than anyone else. But we are often so stuck on a size definition of success—my 2,000 delegate conference is better than your 100 delegate conference—that we overlook the limitations and frustrations that working effectively with a large group imposes.

Unlike broadcast learning (which doesn’t work very well for adults), participative learning (which research has shown over and over again is superior) doesn’t scale. At a large conference it’s very difficult to deliver the just-in-time learning that attendees need via the rich stew of connection generated by small group process. By carefully dividing up large groups, we can create conference environments that mirror the intimacy and effectiveness of small conferences, but it’s significant work to do this, and requires facilitators who know how to do it right. A well-designed small meeting with carefully targeted attendee demographics offers a much simpler environment for supporting effective connection, interaction, and engagement. That’s one good reason to keep your meetings small!

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