How to help meeting design clients figure out what they really want and need

Here’s a powerful way to help meeting design clients figure out what they really want and need.

Great — a client who doesn’t know what they want!

Recently, a client asked for help designing a new conference. Thirty minutes of discussion with three stakeholders revealed they hadn’t yet settled on the event’s specific purpose, scope, and format.

From my perspective this is actually a great problem to have.

Why? Because most clients engage me after they are committed to programs and logistics that are not optimum for what they’re trying to accomplish!

The needs assessment trap

Conference design clients who “know what they want” have already decided on their “why?” and “who?“, have often fixed their “when?” and “where?“, and typically bring me in to consult at the “how?” stage. I understand their perspective, because I also feel the temptation to pin down specifics — number of participants, duration, venue, budget, etc. I hope that in the process the event’s purpose and desired outcomes will become clearer.

It’s true that focusing on these details can help uncover what the client wants, and whether it’s realistic. {“Hmm, I think we’d need a lot more than $10K to bring together 200 scientists to plan how to eradicate malaria in Southern Africa.“} But this is a roundabout way of avoiding the all-important question that is rarely fully and productively explored:

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Buy my new book—The Power of Participation—before July 1 at never-to-be-repeated prices

I’m happy to announce that my new book—The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action—will be available for purchase in all formats and outlets on June 30. But you can save money by purchasing directly from me before July 1 at never-to-be-repeated prices.


The Power of Participation front cover square“This is a book that should be OPEN on every meeting planner’s or event marketer’s desk, and used every day.”
—Paul Salinger, VP of Marketing, Oracle (many more embarrassingly good reviews below)

Smart presenters and meeting organizers are integrating experiential learning and peer connection into their events. This book tells you how to do it. Buy The Power of Participation to learn why it’s so important to incorporate participant action into every aspect of your event, what you need to know to create a meeting environment that supports and encourages participation, and when and how to use this extensive compendium of specific, detailed techniques to radically improve your sessions and meetings.

The following prices for The Power of Participation are only available before July 1. On that date, this page will vanish like a dream.

Thirty minutes free consulting will be provided for any first-time purchase directly from this site.

Shipping paperbacks to U.S. addresses is included in these prices. Shipping paperbacks to addresses outside the United States will incur an additional cost, viewable for single copies once you have added items to your cart.

Table of Contents

Read five free chapters

Combo (Best Deal!)
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OR you can pre-order paperback copies (unsigned) online from Amazon’s U.S. store for $27.95 plus shipping (will ship July 1).

Praise for The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.

“It may be a radical idea to turn attendees into participants, but in an environment of information overload and disconnection, we need it more than ever. The Power of Participation can transform how we act as workers, learners, citizens and ‘participants’ in our globalized world. This is a book that should be OPEN on every meeting planners or event marketers desk, and used every day.”
—Paul Salinger, VP of Marketing, Oracle

“This book is a must for anyone who needs guidance in modernizing meetings. Finally we are moving into a new stage of post industrial meetings where all participants are valued, not only those behind the microphone. Well designed participation is key, and Adrian shows us the way. Buy it, read it and do it!”
—Eric de Groot, Meeting Designer and co-author of Into the Heart of Meetings

“No one should plan a conference without this book!”
—Naomi Karten, Author of Managing Expectations

“We have to start meeting like this! A treasury of proven techniques, clearly written, based on first-person experience and deep insights.”
—Bernie DeKoven, Author of The Well Played Game, game designer, and fun theorist at

“Too many conferences are top-down, over-caffeinated, information dumps. Adrian Segar has figured out a different model: a participatory, community-driven event that yields benefits that last far beyond the conference itself. If you want to make a lasting difference with your group today, you owe it to yourself to read this book.”
—Dr. Nick Morgan, President of Public Words and author of Power Cues

“Love The Power of Participation! It’s a fabulous compilation of techniques to bring more interaction to your conferences. I’ll be keeping this reference book handy whenever I design a meeting for a client.”
—Kristin J. Arnold, CPF, CSP, founder of Quality Process Consultants, and past president of the National Speakers Association

“A must read handbook of the what, why and how to move passive conference consumer-based attendees to active engaged participants.”
—Jeff Hurt, Executive Vice President, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

“Adrian Segar’s work is crucial for the evolution of the event industry. This book is a mandatory read for the modern event professional. Adrian shares a logical approach to changing our outdated event designs, and guides you with practical techniques towards a value centered model, where the clear winners are both the conference organizer and the attendee. It’s time to shake up our conferences and make them more relevant and attractive. The Power of Participation provides the first step towards achieving conference success.”
—Julius Solaris, editor and author of The Event App Bible, Social Media for Events and The Good Event Registration Guide

“Adrian wants to transform attendees into participants. And in this book, he shows you how to do it. As an organizer of professional conferences for the past decade, I wish I had come across Adrian’s books earlier in my life. It would have made me more confident and competent.”
—Sivasailam (Thiagi) Thiagarajan, Founder and Resident Mad Scientist, the Thiagi Group

“Adrian Segar’s The Power of Participation is a catalog of tools for designing meetings. If you want to improve your meetings, keep a copy right there on your desk, always ready for instant access. Better yet, study the tools in his catalog so they’re right there in your brain, always ready to build first-class meetings that everyone loves.”
—Gerald M. Weinberg, The Consultants’ Consultant, author of over 40 books, including classics The Psychology of Computer Programming and An Introduction to General Systems Thinking

The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action
Publisher: Segar Consulting
Release date: ebook: June 2015 | paper book: June 2015
Page count: 322
Size: 8½ x 11
List Price: $27.95 (Paperback book) | $13.95 (PDF ebook) | $33.95 (Paperback book and PDF ebook combo)
The ebook and paperback/ebook combo are available only directly from the author.

Mom killed that idea: One way that kids are smarter than adults—and the implications for events

lemonade stand — 516578887_edf3a51ccf_oIn his fascinating and thought-provoking book The Educated Mind, professor of education Kieran Egan tells the story of kids at a lemonade stand where a customer jokingly asked if they had any beer or scotch. The five-year-old proprietor went into the house and asked Mom “whether he could could have some beer and scotch for the stand. He emerged a minute of so later, shrugged, and told his siblings, ‘Mom killed that idea.'” His three and four-year-old siblings had no difficulty interpreting this sentence.

Egan emphasizes the important role of metaphor in learning. Studies have shown that very young children are capable of “prodigal production” of metaphors, that such metaphorical capacity declines as children become older, and “younger children’s production and grasp of metaphor are commonly superior to that of older children and adults.” We are amused by young childrens’ effortless invention of wonderful words to describe objects in their lives. My grandchildrens’ lovely constructions passerports (passports) and glovins (gloves) come to mind—these are delightful reflections of their minds’ ability to conjure up melanges of ideas and words that express their reality.

We often assume that we get smarter as we get older. By “smarter” I mean our abilities are superior and the likelihood we’ll use them higher. While this is true in many respects, our demonstrated decline in metaphorical capacity means that we are less likely and less able to use metaphors as adults.

This is a loss for event education, as metaphor is one of the most powerful methods for extending learning. The philosopher Max Black said “it would be more illuminating…to say that metaphor creates the similarity than to say it formulates some similarity antecedently existing.” Metaphor then, Egan says, “becomes a key tool in aiding flexible, productive learning.”  It “helps us to acquire knowledge about new domains, and also has the effect of restructuring our organization of knowledge.”

When I describe my recent experience of trying to get internet service restored at my home by comparing it to being stuck on an airplane for days waiting for it to take off without any announcements about what’s going on or when we might leave (if ever), or when my mentor Jerry Weinberg publishes a book about writing employing a single metaphor—building a fieldstone wall—to illustrate every stage of the process, we are harnessing a metaphoric plow to prepare the ground for seeds of learning [oops, I did it again.]

I wish more attention had been paid to metaphoric fluency in my early education, as I find it hard to summon up useful metaphors for ideas I’m trying to get across. For this we can perhaps blame Plato and his successors who insisted that the “poetic” be eliminated from intellectual inquiry. Consequently, literacy education discourages our use of metaphor.

Some people seem to have a natural ability to dream up apt metaphors, and they are usually engaging and memorable presenters (great comedians frequently share this gift too.) Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and Reagan’s “break down this wall” speeches obtain much of their power from metaphor.

How does all this this relate to event design? Eric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver‘s techniques for formulating meeting objectives and their Elementary Meetings model rely on the power of metaphor to create stakeholder buy-in for meeting objectives and design. And good production designers know the importance of choosing event themes that connect at a metaphorical level with underlying goals for the associated meeting.

I believe it’s worth cultivating our skill at employing metaphor, or seeking out those who are good at it. Better events may well be the result.

Photo attribution: Flickr user adwriter

If your event had a mouth what would it say?

mouth 7303556544_01b8cd707b_bIn the brilliant book Into The Heart Of MeetingsEric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver set out their process for formulating meeting objectives—a critical activity that, sadly, is glossed over by most meeting owners and planners. Instead of the usual approach of developing a dry meeting “brief”, Eric & Mike describe how they ask a meeting owner to talk about the “motion” of the meeting content:

“…could you try to visualize the content as some kind of physical substance? Imagine you could turn the content of your meeting into a material such as stone, water, rubber, sand, a bunch of plastic pipes, a fireball — anything…”

Once the meeting owner begins “to see the meeting content as physical matter, we give him a large sheet of paper and a fistful of coloured felt pens, and ask him to make a drawing of this content and the way it has to move”.

The book goes on to give explanations and examples of how this seemingly strange process successfully draws out the meeting owner’s fundamental ideas about what the meeting is to do. It works by providing a creative environment for the client’s underlying culture, assumptions, and desires to be uncovered and expressed.

At the 2014 PCMA Convening Leaders conference I had the opportunity to witness a variant of this approach. Eric and I were talking about meeting design with “Thomas”, the manager of a North American conference center. Thomas was telling us about the challenges of positioning his venue to cater to a rapidly changing meetings market. After a few minutes of listening and discussion, Eric asked him:

“If your venue had a mouth what would it say?”

Thomas thought for a few seconds and said. “When you asked that, the image that came into my mind was that of a fairytale.” He paused. “It’s like there’s a little fairy sitting on your shoulder telling you what you need to hear.”

I’m sure that Thomas was surprised by the image that he conjured up in response to Eric’s question. In a few seconds he discovered and shared a evocative summation of how he saw his venue appearing to the world: a benevolent magical assistant appearing when needed to help achieve his clients’ meeting objectives. This led to a deeper discussion of steps Thomas could take to better align his operations with this vision.

As this example illustrates, visualization techniques provide extremely powerful methods for excavating key meeting objectives and underlying client desires—vital information that a client may not even be consciously aware of until they have been brought into the light of day.

There’s another big benefit. Such approaches supply valuable buy-in by the client to the meeting design that is ultimately adopted. As Eric & Mike explain:

“Conclusions…about what the programme is supposed to do with the content come from meetings’ owners drawings and they accept the consequences because they made the drawings themselves.”

Have you used visualization techniques to develop meeting designs? If so, what was your experience? If not, do you think they could be useful tools for working with your clients?

Photo attribution: Flickr user sloverton

How to create breakthrough meeting designs with Elementary Meetings

Handshake Line

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 supplied by Eric and Mike of the power of this approach.

1) A wedding
Suppose you are asked 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 process that can be used during the event. Not only that, but any of the matching process that is appropriated 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.”

Instead, what if we used a conversation as the Elementary Meeting starting point for the event design? Here’s what Eric & Mike came up with:

“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
The Elementary Meeting metaphor can even be employed 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 this approach, as well as a host of other fresh and innovative ideas about meeting design.

Photo attribution: Flickr user clydeorama