Six ways to keep attendees comfortable and improve your event

Six ways to keep attendees comfortable and improve your eventWhile stuck in cramped seats during a six-hour Boston to San Francisco flight recently, my wife gently pointed out that I had become quite grumpy. She helped me notice that my lack of body comfort was affecting my mood. Luckily for me, Celia remained solicitous and supportive, reducing my grouchiness. Once we were off the plane my spirits lightened further.

Unfortunately, I tend to be oblivious for a while of the effects of physical discomfort on my feelings. Until I notice what’s really upsetting me, I typically and unfairly blame my irritability on innocent culprits, for example:

  • The tediousness of gardening because insects are swarming around my head.
  • The delay in waiting for my food to arrive in a noisy restaurant.
  • A presenter’s inability to capture my full attention while I’m sitting with my neck twisted permanently towards them in an auditorium.

I suspect I’m not alone in these errors of judgment. Pivoting to the world of events, this means if we want to give attendees the best possible experience, we need to minimize the quantity and severity of physical comfort issues that are under our control.

Here are six common mistakes you’ve probably experienced, together with suggestions for mitigating their impact. (Feel free to add more in the comments below!)

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Becoming comfortable with silence at meetings

comfortable with silence 21686590_a821f3c026_oSilence during a meeting is often seen as something awkward and uncomfortable, something to be avoided. We may feel embarrassed and think “somebody say something!” Yet silence is often an essential tool for effective sessions at meetings. Why. It allows participants to think before speaking, to notice feelings, and to rest and recharge. Facilitators need to be comfortable with silence, as it usually signals something important.

For example, when I run plus/delta—a technique for quickly evaluating a session or conference—I have to consciously remain quiet once participants’ initial responses die down. A long pause, followed by a neutral request for more suggestions elicits more contributions. I find sharing typically continues for two to three times longer than the time elapsed when the first pause occurred.

Traditionally, silence is generally only acceptable in certain specific group situations (groups of strangers, prayer, performances, etc.) So when we want to employ it during a meetings we need to facilitate its use. For example, sometimes we need it so that people have quiet time to think while writing down answers to questions. If we don’t explicitly request silence beforehand, those who finish first tend to start talking to each other. This disturbs those who need more time to reflect.

Functions of silence

What are the functions of silence when we’re together with others?

  1. The first function is linking in which silence binds people together such as a “moment of silence,” a silence during prayer, or a silence after someone makes an inappropriate remark.
  2. The second function is an affecting function in which the silence has an effect on the others in the room that might communicate indifference, dislike, or coldness.
  3. A third type of silence is the revelational function of silence by which people show they don’t know what to say or cannot provide an appropriate response.
  4. A fourth function of silence is judgmental, which may indicate approval or disapproval to what has been said. In group settings, this can be seen as ‘‘silence as admission’’ by not responding to an individual or a type of silent protests.
  5. The last function of silence is activation in which a group member may be silent while choosing words before speaking. The impression might be that a group member is quiet and doing nothing, but in reality the group member is pondering what to say and how to respond.

Learning Group Leadership: An Experiential Approach, Jeffrey A. Kottler & Matt Englar-Carlson’s summary from Dennis Kurzon’s paper Towards a typology of silence

Silence at meetings

Any of these five functions could be relevant when we observe silence at a meeting. When we have not requested silence, it’s important to notice when it happens, figure out what might be going on, and respond appropriately. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced when working with groups have been when silence erupts unexpectedly. When this happens, it’s often good to ask the group what they think is going on, rather than papering over the silence with words.

Sometimes, letting silence grow for a while is the right thing to do. Not only does this emphasize that something significant may be going on, but it also gives us more time to think about how we want to respond to it. That’s why we need to become comfortable with silence at meetings.

Hat tip to Adriano Pianesi‘s blog post “The silence of the staff. Kiss of death of group dynamics roles or not?” {October, 2017: no longer available} which inspired this post.

Photo attribution: Flickr user ko_an

Comfort, cost, and…casters? Better chairs for your conference

Better conference chairs Node chair by Steelcase
Steelcase’s node chair, photographed at edACCESS 2013

Can we make better conference chairs?

Ask meeting attendees what’s most important about the chairs they sit in at an event and they’ll inevitably say they should be comfortable.

Ask meeting venues what’s most important about the seating they choose and they’ll probably say cost (though stackable and lightweight will be mentioned too).

If you ask meeting designers like me…what would we say?

A head-turning moment

This week I facilitated the world’s oldest peer conference: the four-day edACCESS annual conference that’s been running since 1992. The conference always includes a small tradeshow, and this year Steelcase was there.

Steelcase is an interesting and unusual company. After a hundred years in business, it’s the world’s largest manufacturer of office furniture. Rather than resting on their laurels, the company’s management is continually looking for genuinely useful and innovative ways to improve business environments. As an illustration, take a look at the Steelcase blog which is written by top management rather than junior PR staff.

Steelcase wanted to show several lines of products designed for educational environments at edACCESS 2013. That’s where I discovered their Node chair, designed by IDEO and pictured above. I first noticed and liked the tripod storage platform under the chair—a great place to store bags and backpacks off the floor. But then I saw the chair had casters. And when I sat in it, I found out that the seat swiveled. “So what?” you may ask. Read on!

Moveable chairs

Adjustable office chairs were invented in the 1850’s and became common in offices during the 1940’s. While office workers have long enjoyed the benefits of these chairs they are rarely seen in conference settings. A quick web search for meeting chairs turns up hundreds of images of rigid plastic stackable chairs that attendees have uncomfortably endured for years.

Why are chairs like the Node important? Because effective meetings require, encourage, and support participation. Participative formats require attendees to:

  • Follow activities occurring around the room; and
  • Move between alternative seating formats.

When you’re sitting in a traditional conference chair you face the front of the room and can only look elsewhere by turning your head and body as much as your chair allows. Looking anywhere but straight ahead becomes uncomfortable after a few minutes (see Paul Radde’s Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements for more information on this). A swiveling chair like the Node makes such shifts of attention easy.

Swiveling makes conference chairs better.

A chair with casters allows participants to quickly move between seating sets. For example, a session might start with a ten-minute presentation, with chairs facing the presenter and then require small group discussions. Attendees can scoot their chairs into the right formation; no standing and lifting required. The Node makes this safe by having a tripod construction with a wide base of support, unlike standard office chairs that can tip fairly easily if moved too quickly.

Room to move

“You gotta give me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move”
—John Mayall

While the Node chair gives participants “room to move” it’s not perfect from a venue’s standpoint. There’s no way to stack Nodes, and their unit cost of $600+ will make most venues’ financial managers blanch. But this kind of seating is what we need if we’re going to transition at our events from the outdated lecture formats of the past to the interactive, engaging, connection-making, community building conferences of the future, and I salute Steelcase for having the vision and the commitment to improve seating options for the education and meetings markets.

[Disclosure: I contributed research, together with Steelcase, to a 2011 White Paper published by the National Conference Center: The Future of The Meetings Industry: Why Certain Conference Innovators Are Winning. I did not receive any remuneration for this work and have no other connection with Steelcase.]