Rethinking event formats

The other day I attended my lovely nephew Julian’s high school graduation.

Ah, the joys of graduation! Where graduates wait in long lines, sit for hours on uncomfortable chairs, get sunburn, and listen to (mostly) boring speakers someone else chose. All to hear their name read amid hundreds of others, walk across a stage, and get a blank diploma (the real one is mailed later).

And there’s more — your loved ones enjoy the same multi-hour experience, except they get to watch your fleeting stage walk from uncomfortable chairs a long way away!

A graduation is an Elementary Meeting: a social event that consists of obligatory, tacitly agreed series of actions performed by those taking part. I’ve written about the power of Elementary Meetings to create original event designs — but some Elementary Meetings are poorly designed by today’s standards. Because they are a historic piece of our culture, we tend not to critically evaluate or rethink them. Instead we take for granted and put up with the ritual one more time.

Which is why it’s refreshing that Seth Godin applied design thinking to graduations and suggested some improvements:

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Event design is not just visuals and logistics

Event design is not just visuals and logistics.

I love David Adler‘s creativity, support, drive, ingenuity, and enthusiasm. The first time I met him—at the premier EventCamp in 2010—he immediately purchased my just-published book, sight unseen. The following year, David was kind enough to honor me in his flagship publication BizBash as one of the most innovative event professionals. Whenever I’ve had the pleasure of meeting David (not often enough!) he has proved to be a continual source of great ideas and encouragement, as well as a masterful conversationalist.

However, one recurring theme in David’s magazine irritates me, because it perpetuates a common misconception in the events industry.

BizBash consistently uses the term “event design” to mean “visual design”

As an example, consider the 2016 Design Issue. The cover proclaims “What’s Next in Event Design?”

Event design is not just visuals and logistics

The sixty pages of this issue concentrate exclusively on visual and F&B ideas and treatments. While its article “8 Fresh Faces of Event Design 2016” says it is about “industry newbies who dream up and create an event’s visuals as opposed to those that handle the logistics like a planner”, this really misses the point.

Event process design determines the logistics and visuals we use. Logistics and visuals are secondary issues that support the primary design choices we make.

First decide what your event is designed to dowhat you want to happen during it. Then determine appropriate logistics and visuals that support and enhance the process design.

There is nothing in the 2016 BizBash Design Issue that explores the heart of event design. Namely, what will happen at the event? As I’ve written elsewhere, we are so steeped in traditional process rituals that society has used for hundreds of years—lectures, weddings, business meetings, galas, shows, etc.—that we don’t question their continued use. These forms are essentially invisible to us and previous generations because they have been at the heart of social and professional culture for so long.

But when someone takes time to reexamine these unquestioned forms, startling change becomes possible. Here are three examples:

1 — The world of weddings

In 2009, Jill and Kevin created the JKWeddingDance for their Big Day, and the traditional Western wedding was enriched forever.

2 — Elementary Meetings

Eric de Groot and Mike van der Vijver’s book “Into the Heart of Meetings” contains numerous examples of using Elementary Meeting metaphors to discover new congruent meeting forms.

3 — Conferences That Work

Finally, my own contribution. Re-imagining a conference as a participant-driven and participation-rich event, rather than a set of lectures, increases effective learning, participant connection, and individual and organizational change outcomes far above what’s possible at traditional passive broadcast-style meetings.

Prolonging the misconception, as BizBash implicitly does, that meeting design is principally about sensory design is slowing the adoption of fundamental and innovative process design improvements that can significantly improve our meetings. Instead, let’s broaden our conceptions of what meeting design is. Our work and industry will be the better for it—and our clients will appreciate the results!

Nine learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum

learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum I’ve just returned from a wonderful 48-hour whirlwind of experiments and play with 30 meeting designers in Utrecht, The Netherlands. We came from Europe, South America, Slovakia, and the U.S. (me) to learn, share, and connect at the first Meeting Design Practicum, hosted by Eric de Groot and his merry gang. Here are nine learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum.

Similar in spirit to the many EventCamps held around the world since 2010, the Practicum was a safe place for event professionals to experiment with techniques, approaches, ideas, and formats without the obligation and pressure of a “successful” outcome for a paying client. We met informally at an ancient Dutch fort, cooked meals together, did our own housekeeping, and quickly built an intimate community with connections that will continue to reverberate into the future.

learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum I can’t give a complete survey of everything that happened at the Practicum. For one thing, I couldn’t attend every Practicum session because we often had to choose between simultaneous sessions. In addition, some of the important take-aways were already familiar to me, so I don’t include them here. Rather, I’ll share new insights that I made an impression on me during our three days together. I apologize for not attributing them to specific people; suffice it to say that every single participant brought important insights and contributions to our gathering.

Elementary meetings

One of the great concepts Eric & Mike van der Vijver introduced in Into The Heart of Meetings was that of modeling portions or an entire event on the familiar format of what they call Elementary Meetings—such as weddings, legal trials, birth celebrations, etc. The Practicum provided several examples of this.

Our journey through the event was mapped onto a large wall “tree”, with our influences mapped onto the roots at the start. We added our learnings from the Meeting Design Practicum as leaves to the branches as the Practicum progressed.

Practicum tree

Participants had the opportunity to share a single short meeting design tip/trick. This was mapped onto the magic competitions of Asterix and Obelix where druids demonstrated their magic to the tribes. On several occasions, those of us offering magic disappeared into a small room, only to reappear wearing impressive druid beards. One at a time, introduced by a flourish played on a trumpet we shared our tips. At the end of the Practicum we chose the most useful tip. The winner, Victor Neyndorff, took home the golden snouieknife (sp?).



Metaphors provide powerful ways to communicate, and I find them surprisingly difficult to discover. A delightful and effective metaphor for meeting design was shared early in the Practicum. Seeing the meeting designer as a gardener maps so many aspects of meeting design process onto the familiar act of gardening that enumerating the parallels is left as an exercise for the reader.


In 2007 – 8 I was a participant in a year-long leadership workshop held over a dozen weekends. For our last meeting we were asked to bring a personal object and share its meaning and relevance to what we had learned and our experience. I found this a moving and bonding experience, as we told our stories, each linked to an object that we held in our hands or placed at the center of our group.

The Practicum reminded me of this format, thanks to a session on using objects at events. We concentrated on using individual objects with attributes that evoked a desired event theme, message, or mindset. One interesting aspect of this approach is that you could use it to replace the common practice of saturating the event environment with theme/message decor. Imagine—no more branded cocktail napkins needed! Another interesting suggestion was the use of two or more interacting objects. (For example, a mirror ball together with lights held by participants.)

Improving a traditional presentation with closing Q&A

Instead of moving straight into Q&A after a presentation, provide a short time for participants to share possible questions in small groups. This helps introverts get their just-as-good-as-anyone-else questions out. It also provides a check for those wondering whether their question is a good one, or optimally phrased.

“Never trust a leader who doesn’t dance at the event party”

I’ll let this stand without comment, except to say my experience bears this out.

A good question for pair-share

“What motivates you the most?” An excellent question for energizing participants by reconnecting them with their personal passion.

Working with status-conscious leaders at events

Some leaders are heavily invested in their personal status. At events, they may insist on speaking at length to everyone, even though the audience may widely consider their talk is a waste of time. We discussed this issue at one of the four Practicum “challenge sessions”. One possible solution suggested was to elevate the leader’s status, for example, by adding a short well-produced video showing the leader to best advantage. Then the leader may accept more interactive and interesting formats, such as an interview by key participants with preplanned questions.

Relief from discomfort

My philosophy when facilitating is to bring participants as gently as possible into situations or experiences that may be uncomfortable, but are needed to satisfy desired outcomes. During the Practicum we went through “a Maori discussion format”. We found an issue on which our group was roughly equally divided and, with the two groups standing facing each other, took turns arguing for our point of view using the format “YOU think that… WE think that…”

I found the format artificial and uncomfortable (not least because none of us had any idea of what the other members in our group actually thought). What was interesting to me was the next step. We all came together, sharing hugs and reconnecting across the groups, followed by a debrief where we all lay down and spoke about the experience when we felt we had something to say (rather like a Quaker Meeting). The relief felt after the “confrontation” was much stronger than if we had used a less confrontational discussion format. The experience made me think that there may be times when it’s worth increasing the discomfort at some points of event process to improve post-discomfort bonding.

Escape Rooms

On the last evening of the Practicum, we piled into cars for a mystery outing. Our destination was revealed to be an Escape Room, or rather three Escape Rooms.


We had an opportunity to cooperatively solve (or watch others solve) a myriad of physical and mental problems in order to either escape from a room or, in my case, to compete against another team in an identical room. I had heard about these rooms but never experienced one before. For a group to solve the puzzles, members had to communicate effectively with each other. Our group worked fairly independently, calling out or showing findings to the other members as we found clues and objects needed to increase our score or unlock further puzzles. I heard afterwards that our competitors were less effective at listening to each other, which is why we ended up “winning”. Video cameras watched us as we worked, though the staff told us that the video would stay private.

I had fun working with my six first-time teammates!

The Escape Room experience is an effective way to expose existing or potential communication problems in a group. It could be debriefed afterwards using video of the session. However, it might be a rather negative experience, as there’s certainly potential for intra-team conflict. So I’m not sure if it’s an optimum environment for team building.

Learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum

I’ve shared nine learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum that this unique event uncovered. As always, reading about an experience is a pale ghost of the experience itself. Just as important was the opportunity to reconnect and deepen relationships with old friends, and make some wonderful new connections. I hope that Eric and Co will do this again; I will be among the first to sign up!

How to create breakthrough meeting designs with Elementary Meetings

create breakthrough meeting designs Handshake Line
Would you like to create breakthrough meeting designs? If so, read on!

In their remarkable book Into the Heart of Meetings, Eric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver describe what they call Elementary Meetings:

An Elementary Meeting has a specific name and consists of an obligatory, tacitly agreed series of actions performed by those taking part in the meeting. It usually originates in a specific national culture.

Some examples of Elementary Meetings are weddings, court trials, Christmas dinners, autopsies, parties, and conversations.

You may be thinking: “What on earth have these got to do with creating an environment for participation at meetings?”

Eric & Mike explain that the power of Elementary Meetings is that they include a set of conventions and behaviors familiar to all participants. We’ve all held conversations, been to parties, and eaten holiday meals, and even if we haven’t attended a trial or an autopsy we’ve probably seen them enacted on TV or in the movies. If it’s possible to map the form of a professional meeting onto the form of an Elementary Meeting we can create an event where attendees possess a common underlying knowledge and/or experience of its components and flow.

Here are three examples of the power of this approach.

1) A wedding

Suppose a client asks you to design an event to prepare the workers of two companies that are about to merge. Merging two organizational cultures is generally a difficult task; for examples review the history of the AOL and Time Warner or Chrysler and Daimler-Benz mergers. Most of us do not have direct experience of corporate mergers. But we are familiar with what happens at a wedding—a ceremony about the merging of two people’s lives! Making this connection suggests modeling the corporate merger event on the marriage process. This could include how the couple (of companies) met, “courted”, and got “engaged”. Other marriage components suggest themselves: “stag nights” before the wedding, rehearsal dinners, etc., culminating in the actual “wedding” of the two companies. In their book, Mike & Eric recount how they used this particular Elementary Meeting model for a successful company merger.

Notice how the wedding metaphor brings up all kinds of creative ideas for event process. Not only that, but any of the appropriated matching process will be familiar and relatively comfortable to participants due to their existing knowledge of what the Elementary Meeting routinely entails.

2) A conversation

How would you design an internal corporate event to announce major changes at a company? Change is rarely easy, so you’ll expect a host of questions and potentially some confrontation. The likely first thought of most meeting professionals would be to use a standard presentation set-up: employees sitting in theater seating facing management making presentations on a stage at the front of the room. But here’s how Eric and Mike describe the message such a setup sends:

“Having management on the stage in the floodlight and the employees as spectators sitting in the auditorium in darkness carries a powerful message. The message is this: the employees are a passive audience of what the management wants to put across; there is a gap between management and the rest of the company and the employees are kept in the dark. The participants would feel this in an instant. It is not a message that is transmitted through words; it is transmitted through the experience they have when entering the theatre and the lights go out. They undergo a physical experience that tells them: you are mere onlookers, the important people are up there on stage. In fact, the gap is clearly visible, you can see it because there is an open space between the front row and the stage.”

What Eric & Mike came up with

Instead, what if we used a conversation as the Elementary Meeting starting point for the event design?

“All 450 employees were seated on the stage, in two groups facing each other. This made them actors in their own play. Centre stage stood a small pedestal, with a camera mounted on it. It worked as a whiteboard. Everything that was written on it was projected directly onto big screens, visible for everyone. Those who spoke stood in the middle, between the two stands. Meanwhile, each participant was constantly facing a whole bunch of people, namely their colleagues. This gave an instant feeling of ‘us’; having a conversation amongst ourselves.”

See how the simple metaphor of a conversation changed the dynamic environment for this event?

3) Saying goodbye

You can even use the Elementary Meeting metaphor to design a single session. In this final example, Mike and Eric describe the end of a seminar using a sports-based Elementary Meeting, namely the ritual used at the start of a hockey game:

“…the facilitator instructs participants to arrange themselves in two rows opposite each other, like ice hockey players before a match. They find themselves standing in pairs, one in front of the other. When he signals they shake hands, express a brief wish, and then step sideways to meet the next person. In just a couple of minutes, all of the 64 participants have exchanged a meaningful goodbye.”

Powerful metaphors

As you can see, when designing an event it’s worth investigating whether there’s an Elementary Meeting that will provide a familiar format for the entire meeting or a portion of it. Mike and Eric’s book is well worth reading for more examples of how to create breakthrough meeting designs, as well as a host of other fresh and innovative ideas about meeting design.

Photo attribution: Flickr user clydeorama