Humanity’s problem is a meeting problem

Meeting problemIn 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.

And so it goes with meetings.

Emotions

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, our emotions run us, not our rationality. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, wrote a long book about this. It’s why businesses sponsor meetings. It’s why we judge meeting experiences largely based on how they were perceived at their peak and at their end. And it’s why transformational learning occurs when a group experiences a positive emotional connection together.

Want more evidence? Well, information dumps from an expert lecturer are one of the worst ways to learn anything important. And simple workshops that support connection (which may be emotional) between participants around relevant content provide better learning experiences.

Emotions run us; our rationality comes in a distant second. All meeting design needs to recognize this reality.

Institutions

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.

Technology

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.

Consequently, vendors flood us with technological “solutions” to problems we often aren’t even aware we have. In some cases, these solutions are actually manufactured for a plausible yet illusory need. But even when there’s a genuine problem that the right technology can solve, our emotions can make it hard for us to see its value, and our institutions may be resistant to implementation.

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.

Why our meetings are still full of lectures

Why are our meetings still full of lectures?

Well, listen to and consider this June 11, 2021 quote from New York City Mayoral frontrunner Eric Adams:

“With new technology of remote learning, you don’t need school children to be in a school building with a number of teachers. It’s just the opposite. You could have one great teacher that’s in one of our specialized high schools teach 300-400 students…”

When the leading candidate for the Mayor of New York City has this take on how people learn, perhaps it’s not so surprising that we’re still sitting through endless broadcast-style sessions at meetings and conferences.

Yes, switching to active learning is hard, but it’s worth it! Social learning is humans’ true superpower. Learning researchers and our best teachers and meeting designers have known this for a long time. Learning in community allows us to uncover and incorporate all the questions, discussion topics, expertise, and experience available in the room.

Until we elect leadership that has a basic understanding of how great teachers actually teach, and how their students can effectively learn, we’re going to continue to live in a world of meetings full of ineffective lectures.

Video courtesy of The Matt Skidmore Show

When trio share works better than pair share

trio share pair shareOne of the best and simplest ways to build active learning and connection into any meeting is to regularly use pair share. (See Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation, or Chapter 27 of Event Crowdsourcing for full details.) I’ve recently noticed that in some circumstances, trio share — pair share but with three participants — works better.

Advantages of pair share

Pair share has a lot going for it. It’s the most efficient way to ensure that every participant periodically switches into active learning, which, as explained in The Power of Participation, provides:

Pair share duration is minimal. I commonly allow each partner a minute to share their response. Including instructions, a typical pair share might take around three minutes. Getting every participant to actively think and respond to a question or issue in this time pays rich dividends.

Comparing trio share with pair share

A trio share obviously takes longer than a pair share, given the same sharing time per participant. The example above would require at least an extra minute. I say “‘at least” because it generally takes longer (at least at in-person meetings) to create trios than pairs.

In addition, the conversational directness and intensity may be less in a trio share, since each participant is talking to two people instead of one.

On the other hand, each participant is connecting with two other people, rather than one.

None of these differences is a deal breaker. In the past, I have tended to use pair share, simply because my time with participants is limited and pair shares are quicker.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, however, I’ve noticed something new.

When trio share works better than pair share

Ultimately, you can’t force adult attendee participation. Nevertheless, at in-person meetings it’s rare to have people sit out pair sharing. The reason, of course, is unspoken social pressure. Anyone choosing not to participate is obvious to the people around them.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced meetings online, I began to see more people avoiding session pair shares. I’d allocate pairs into Zoom breakout rooms, and, quite often, one or two people didn’t join their allocated room but stayed in the Zoom lobby.

As the host, I’d gently check in with those remaining behind. Sometimes they hadn’t accepted the breakout room assignment and would do so. But more often than not, it turned out they were absent (it’s hard to tell when their camera’s off).

Their unfortunate partners who went into the breakout room had no one to talk to!

At in-person meetings, this is easy to handle. I ask anyone without a partner to raise their hand, and then pair up isolated people.

Online, this takes too much time, and those without a partner suffer.

Using trio share instead of pair share online

So I’ve started using trio share for online meetings. There are two reasons.

First, trio share reduces the impact on “orphaned” participants. If one person in a trio doesn’t join, the remaining pair can still reap the benefits of pair share.

And second, trio share gently increases social pressure for attendees to participate. Bowing out of pair share affects one other person. Avoiding a trio share affects two.

To conclude

Whatever you do, some people will opt out of small group work. Their reasons are — their reasons. We need to accept that. Switching to trio share for online work is a small tweak that seems to improve participation. And creating a meeting environment where small group work is more likely to occur is always worthwhile. 

What’s your experience of using pair share and/or trio share at in-person and online meetings? Please share in the comments!

Schedule breaks during online meetings!

schedule breaks during online meetingsProviding downtime during any meeting is important, but it’s especially important to schedule breaks during online meetings.

What happens if you don’t schedule breaks during online meetings

Some people have the attitude that attendees at online meetings are grown-ups and they should be given the freedom to take a break when they want and/or need to. Let’s explore this.

Obviously, there are times when online meeting participants need to take a break. They are working from home and their kid falls down and hurts themself. Or they have to take an important call they’ve been waiting for from their boss. (Hopefully they explained that at the start of the meeting.) Perhaps they have a physiological emergency.

You can’t do much about people who need to take a break. But, by scheduling breaks at an online meeting you can drastically reduce the number of people who want to take a break, and do so because they have no idea when they’ll next get a scheduled opportunity to take a break!

When you don’t schedule enough breaks, people will leave an online meeting seemingly at random. Sometimes they’ll do this because they need to, but the other meeting attendees don’t know this. As a result, the meeting will feel unnecessarily disjointed, and it’s easy for participants to conclude that the meeting is not so important, or boring, or a waste of time. (Of course, meetings can be all these things, breaks or not! But there’s no need to make the experience worse than it already might be.)

To summarize, scheduling appropriate breaks during online meetings makes it much more likely that people will stay present and only leave if they have to.

Why attention span is especially fragile at online meetings

Let’s think about in person meetings for a moment. Long face-to-face meetings — a conference for example — are invariably broken up into sessions, interspersed with scheduled breaks, meals, socials, etc. We are used to building scheduled breaks into in person meetings. And such breaks inevitably involve movement: leaving a meeting room for refreshments, moving to another location for the next session, etc.

Unlike in person meetings, there may be very little downtime between multiple online meetings. Online meeting participants don’t have to get out of their chair and walk to another room to join a new meeting; they just click a new Zoom link. Moreover, online meeting participants usually have no idea whether other attendees are on their first or tenth meeting of the day.

Consequently, it’s not unusual for people working remotely these days to become Zoombies (no, not this kind, hopefully). Sitting for long periods in front of a screen is a recipe for inattention. Our brains simply can’t maintain peak alertness without regular stimulation of movement (our body, not someone else’s), active engagement (e.g. answering a question, engaging in conversation), or meaningful emotional experience. In my experience, most online meetings contain very little stimulation of this type. Scheduled breaks allow us to create this vital stimulation for ourselves.

Even if a meeting facilitator is aware of the importance of scheduling breaks to maintain attention, there’s another factor that makes it harder than during face-to-face meetings.

Reading the room at online meetings

At in person meetings, it’s fairly easy to read the room and notice that attendees are getting restless. People start to squirm a little in their seats. Their body language telegraphs they’re tired or inattentive. A good meeting leader/facilitator will see this and announce a break, or ask the group whether they can power through for another fifteen minutes.

It’s harder to read the room during online meetings, because we have less real-time information about the participants. It’s difficult to judge how people are doing when all you can see is their upper body in a little rectangle on your screen. In addition, most microphones are muted, so you can’t hear people shifting around in their chairs or audible distractions nearby.

Scheduled breaks reduce the need to reliably read the room with limited audible and visual information available.

OK, so how long can people meet online without a break?

It depends. Online meetings that focus on making a single decision can, if well-designed and facilitated, be useful and over in twenty minutes. No break needed! In my experience, though, most online meetings run 60 – 90 minutes.

If the attendees aren’t participating in back-to-back online meetings (unfortunately, increasingly common these days) it’s reasonable to schedule a 60-minute meeting without a break.

90-minute meetings are a stretch, and scheduling a five-minute break around the middle will help participants regenerate.

If you feel impelled to run a longer meeting, I strongly recommend building a five-minute break into the agenda every 45 minutes.

If you’re still wondering why meeting breaks are important, check out this light-hearted review on the value and science of white space at events.

What you ask people to do during breaks is important, and I’ll share my suggestions below.

How to schedule online meeting breaks

There are several ways to inform participants about online meeting breaks.

The most obvious is using your meeting agenda, distributed before the meeting. Simply add a five-minute break in the middle of your 90-minute meeting, or include a couple of five-minute breaks during your 120-minute meeting agenda.

Alternatively, you can announce scheduled break times at the start of the meeting. Be sure to repeat this information once any latecomers have joined.

A variant is to announce at the start that there will be breaks, say, every 45 minutes or so, but the exact time will depend on how the meeting proceeds. Ask participants to speak up if more than 45 minutes passes without a break.

Finally, you may occasionally need to schedule an impromptu break. For example: an unexpected issue arises that necessitates spending five minutes to get data needed to make a decision. Under circumstances like this, an impromptu break may well be appropriate.

Whatever method used to schedule breaks, periodically remind participants when a break is coming up. For example: “We have a five-minute break scheduled in fifteen minutes; let’s see if we can get everyone’s thoughts on this issue before the break.”

Directions for attendees during breaks

Finally, it’s important to give clear directions to participants before each scheduled break. Here’s what to do.

  • Obviously people need to be clearly told the length of the break, and the time the meeting will continue. Display a countdown timer showing the break time remaining; this is an essential aid for getting everyone back online on schedule. If your online meeting platform doesn’t have this capability built in, the meeting leader can share their screen during the break, displaying a large-digit timer counting down the minutes.
  • Suggest that people turn off their cameras and do some movement and stretching exercises, or, if there’s time, go for a quick walk. Even short amounts of movement increase our in-the-moment cognitive functioning and ability to learn. (See Chapter 4 of The Power of Participation for more information on the benefits of movement.)
  • If the break is for a significant amount of time, for example, a lunch break, you may be giving participants some preparatory work before the meeting resumes. Before the break, provide clear instructions on what is needed. For example: “During lunch, please spend a few minutes thinking about the options we discussed this morning, and be ready to share and justify your top choice when we reconvene at 1 pm EDT.”

Conclusion

I hope this article has been helpful explaining how to schedule breaks during online meetings. As always, your comments are welcome!

Why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it

switching to active learning
A September 2019 research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences clearly illustrates why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it!

Lecturing has been the core modality in our education systems for centuries. Sadly it still is, even though we know that active learning provides superior quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning beats the pants off the “receiving knowledge” model drummed into our heads through years of listening to teachers. (For a full explanation of why active learning modalities are superior, see Chapter 4 of my book The Power of Participation.)

So why do we continue to use broadcast-style formats?

The NAS study gives us some important new information:

[M]ost college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods…We find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.
Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, L Deslauriers, L S McCarty, K Miller, K Callaghan, and G Kestin

Let’s look at these three conclusions in the context of meeting design.

Most meeting presenters still lecture

The majority of college STEM teachers choose traditional teaching methods. And most meeting session presenters resort to lecturing as their dominant session modality.

Attendees learn more when presenters use active learning modalities

We have had research evidence for the effectiveness of active learning modalities for more than a hundred years. (The pioneer of memory retention research, Herman Ebbinghaus, published his seminal work in 1885.)

A large body of research over the last twenty years clearly shows the superiority of active over passive learning.

“Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment. Extensive research supports this observation, especially in college-level science courses (1 2 3 4 5 6). Research also shows that active teaching strategies increase lecture attendance, engagement, and students’ acquisition of expert attitudes toward the discipline (3 7 8 9).

College students are the focus of this research. There’s no reason to believe that these conclusions would not apply to adult learning during meeting sessions.

Superstar lecturers and motivational speakers

Here’s a striking conclusion from the NAS research:

“Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments. This suggests that attempts to evaluate instruction based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods. For instance, a superstar lecturer could create such a positive feeling of learning that students would choose those lectures over active learning.

Including highly paid keynote speakers at meetings is a meeting industry fixation. I’ve argued that the evaluations of such sessions are unreliable. Now, the NAS research buttresses my point, by providing an important explanation why expensive keynote lectures are so popular at meetings. People perceive that they learn more from a smooth lecturer, while the reality is that they learn less!

Conclusion

There is overwhelming evidence that we can improve meetings by switching to active learning from passive lectures. And we now know that the popularity of fluent lectures, as measured by session evaluations, is based on an incorrect belief by attendees that they are learning more than they actually do.

Finally, the NAS report indicates that a simple intervention can overcome false perceptions about the efficacy of lectures.

“Near the beginning of a physics course that used… active learning …the instructor gave a 20-min presentation that started with a brief description of active learning and evidence for its effectiveness. …At the end of the semester, over 65% of students reported on a survey that their feelings about the effectiveness of active learning significantly improved over the course of the semester. A similar proportion (75%) of students reported that the intervention at the beginning of the semester helped them feel more favorably toward active learning during lectures.”

Consequently, we need to educate stakeholders, presenters, and meeting attendees about the benefits of active learning modalities at meetings.

Image attribution and original inspiration for this post: Inside Higher Ed & Kris Snibbe / Harvard University

Thank you Stephanie West Allen for bringing the above research to my attention!

Three better alternatives to the conference lecture

Three better alternatives to the conference lectureAh, the ubiquitous conference one-hour lecture. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Actually I don’t need to do that since Donald Bligh listed them all in his classic book What’s The Use Of Lectures?, first published in 1972!

Rather than reiterate the shortcomings of broadcast-style teaching, I’ll go positive. Here are three better alternatives to the conference lecture.

As an example I’ll use a three-day conference I’m currently designing. The participants are four hundred international scientists who only get to meet en masse every few years. It’s important to give them excellent opportunities to discover and connect with cross-disciplinary colleagues and ideas. They also need to share a massive amount of information about their current research in ways that maximize appropriate learning, fruitful connections, and future collaborations.

Here are three better alternatives to the conference lecture we’re using for the middle of the conference arc. In my experience, each of them is far more effective than a traditional conference lecture.

1 — Short bursts of varied content followed by breakouts

Most academic conferences schedule large numbers of simultaneous lectures. Instead, we’ve designed sessions with multiple short serial presentations, aka lightning or speed talks. By “short” I mean four minutes per scientist. After a batch of these talks, each presenter moves to a separate space in the room. Participants are then free to meet in small groups with the presenter(s) they chose for in-depth discussions.

We’ve scheduled 165 lightning talks grouped into 16 thematic sessions.

The four-minute time limitation nudges each presenter to focus on the core aspects of what they want to share and how to communicate them as effectively as possible in the time available. In addition, audience attention remains high because the presenter and their material is changing every five minutes, well within the ten minutes Bligh and John Medina cite as a maximum before listener attention flags.

Each session is assigned a facilitator, a timekeeper, and a staffer who projects a pre-assembled master presentation slide deck for the four-minute presentations.

2 — Poster sessions

Poster sessions are a variant of the above format. Presenters stand in front of a standard size poster they’ve created that summarizes and illustrates their content. (We’re using e-posters, which not only eliminate the need for the presenters to print, pack, and securely transport a large poster to the conference but also make changing posters between sessions quick and efficient.)

One potential drawback of simultaneous sessions is that presenters can’t attend another presentation that’s taking place at the same time. In a thematic poster session, this prevents presenters from engaging with other presenters who are standing next to their own posters. To allow individual presenters the opportunity to engage with some of the other presenters and their content, we’ve divided each poster session into two 45-minute parts.

Each poster session begins with half the presenters giving a one-minute summary of their work/poster to everyone present. Attendees then spend the rest of the 45 minutes browsing content that interests them. The poster creator remains available for explanations, elaborations, and discussions as needed. The process is repeated for the second set of presenters.

The need to create and deliver an effective one-minute presentation concentrates a presenter’s mind wonderfully!

Each session is assigned a facilitator/timekeeper and a staffer who makes the appropriate e-posters available for the presenters.

We’ve scheduled 125 poster sessions grouped into 7 thematic sessions.

3 — In-depth interactive sessions led by one or more experts

In addition this conference includes a small number of longer sessions on key organizational and science issues. The formats for these sessions vary, but they are all designed to incorporate ten-minute or shorter chunks of presented content or provocative questions interspersed with small group active learning activities.

Such sessions provide more effective and appropriate learning than a traditional lecture. They supply learning that is personalized, and that will be remembered longer, in greater detail, and more accurately.

Three better alternatives to the conference lecture

Given the sheer volume of information available from the assembled scientific minds at this event and the considerable investment of time and money to hold this conference, it’s important to use session formats like these three better alternatives to the conference lecture. They maximize rich knowledge transfer and the likelihood of making the kinds of “aha” connections that can lead to significant advances in the conservation work and research these scientists perform.

Image attribution: Marisha Aziz

It became necessary to destroy the conference to save it

It became necessary to destroy the conference to save it

Destroy the conference to save it

When mistaken beliefs about methods and outcomes harden into dogma, harm follows. The professional meeting industry largely believes that:

We don’t have to make the same mistakes we made in Vietnam. We know how to design conferences that maximize just-in-time active learning, productive engagement, relevant connection, and successful outcomes.

But if we continue to try to save conferences by keeping them the way they’ve always been, we’ll continue to destroy the conference to save it.

Why you should run The Solution Room at your next event

The Solution Room is rapidly becoming a popular meeting plenary. Invented at MPI’s 2011 European Meetings and Events Conference, the session fosters active meaningful connections between attendees, and provides peer support and solutions to the real professional challenges currently faced by participants.

Participants rate The Solution Room useful and valuable. They really enjoy the opportunity to meet a small group of peers in a safe, intimate, and relevant manner, and be both a consultant and a consultee on a current professional challenge each group member chooses. Here are testimonials from an MPI session:

Unlike many participatory formats, The Solution Room scales beautifully, whether there are 30 or 1,000 people in the room. The resources needed are modest: paper-covered small roundtables, colored Sharpies, sound reinforcement, and a good facilitator.

Although the format was originally conceived as a closing session, I’ve found it to be a great opening plenary, especially if time or space constraints prohibit running The Three Questions roundtables. By ensuring that each small group contains a mixture of newcomers, experienced, and veteran professionals, first-time attendees get to know peers with industry experience (and the veterans often learn a thing or two from the younger folks at their table).

You can tell that Solution Room sessions are a success when they end — and no one leaves. Instead, the small groups go on talking about everything they’ve discussed; they don’t want to stop sharing. I see a lot of enthusiastic business card swapping at the end. Participants tell me that they made valuable long-term connections through the meeting and sharing that took place during the session.

Want to learn  more about how to incorporate The Solution Room into your next event? You’ll find everything you need to know to run The Solution Room in Chapter 34 of The Power of Participation. Or contact me — I’d love to facilitate a session for you!

Adrian Segar Speaker Tips Interview

After a one-day Participate! Lab for Dutch professional moderators, Otto Wijnen interviewed me about presentation and speaker tips for making presentations more effective by incorporating active learning. Apart from a brief introduction and closing in Dutch, the 13-minute interview is in English.