Which meeting design books should I buy?

Here are five meeting design books I especially recommend. Each gets a short overview, so you can figure out which one(s) will satisfy your wants and needs. In an outrageous display of chutzpah, I wrote three of these books. [If you decide to buy one of mine, read the conclusion of this post for ways to pay less!]

Into the Heart of Meetings: Basic Principles of Meeting Design (ebook or paperback)

meeting design booksIn 2013, Eric de Groot and Mike van de Vijver published this unique, extraordinary, and important book on meeting design. Into the Heart of Meetings takes the reader on a deep exploration of “the essential processes that take place during meetings and how to influence these processes through Meeting Design in order to obtain the best outcomes.”

Rather than the usual “how to create great meetings book” approach of tying meeting design to the logistical challenges of the kinds of meetings we have all experienced, Eric & Mike correctly concentrate on the process of (non-routine) meetings: how to design in interactive meeting experiences and behaviors that create the meeting’s desired and needed outcomes.

There are methods of meeting process design in this book I’ve seen nowhere else. (To get a taste, check out blog posts I wrote about three of them: 1, 2, & 3). Whether you’re a meeting design novice or seasoned pro, you will learn really important things from this book. Buy it!

Intentional Event Design (ebook or paperback)

meeting design books

Amidst the myriad books on creating and running events, Intentional Event Design, by Tahira Endean and published in 2017, stands out. (And I’m not saying that because she’s kind enough to mention two of my books and an event I designed and facilitated.)

This book is a modern, comprehensive, and eminently readable introduction to what Tahira calls people-centric, purpose-driven meeting design. Unlike older books, it covers the impact of digital technology (apps, online meetings, and social media marketing) on the meetings world, includes a healthy dollop of the relevance of learning theory to meeting design, and manages to squeeze in trade shows, accessibility, and wellness in a fairly short book.

Yes, other meeting industry books contain more detailed information about event logistics. Things like working with DMCs and writing RFPs. Tahira focuses on the important big picture issues, with a well chosen mix of detailed contributions from trusted industry sources. Intentional Event Design doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to design an effective event. But I think it’s a solid and accessible introduction to meeting design that’s well worth reading.

Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design books

I wrote Conferences That Work, published in 2009, because in 1992, after decades of convening and running traditional conferences, circumstances forced me to invent a new kind of meeting. (The story is told in the book’s preface.) During the next dozen years, I adopted the design for other events. Eventually, I realized that people loved the meetings it created.

In Conferences That Work I lay out four key assumptions that lurk behind the traditional meeting format. I show how they perpetuate a conference model that no longer well serves meeting stakeholders, especially attendees. The first third of the book is a powerful manifesto for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, just as relevant today as it was 13 years ago.

Once the case for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings is made, the book goes on to provide a complete practical guide to preparing and running a peer conference. It has been praised as an exemplary guide to creating a small conference of any kind from scratch.

I’ve updated the book (twice) via a free supplement that can be downloaded here.

Buy this book if you want to:

  • understand why traditional broadcast-style meeting formats are obsolete;
  • learn the why and how of creating meeting process that truly engages and satisfies participants; and
  • possess a complete detailed guide to creating peer conferences.

The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design booksWhile Conferences That Work teaches how to design and execute remarkable conferences, The Power of Participation shows how to improve your meetings at a finer level — individual meeting sessions.

Today, making valuable connections is for many the compelling reason for attending meetings. Yet, time and time again, meetings relegate “networking” to meals and socials outside the sessions, filling events with lectures followed by a few minutes of audience questions.

The Power of Participation supplies conference presenters, organizers, and marketers with a comprehensive toolkit of simple techniques for creating participative sessions that involve the audience in their learning while simultaneously fostering meaningful peer connections.

Smart presenters and meeting organizers integrate experiential learning and peer connection into their events. This book tells you how to do it.

Buy this book to learn:

  • why it’s vital to incorporate participation into every aspect of your events.
  • what you need to know to create meeting environments that support and encourage participation.
  • when and how to use an extensive compendium of specific, detailed techniques to radically improve your sessions and meetings.

Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design booksFinally, Event Crowdsourcing, which expands on a key portion of the material covered in The Power of Participation.

The book explains both program and session crowdsourcing: how to routinely create conference programs that reliably include the right sessions and the session content attendees actually want and need. There is some overlap between this book and The Power of Participation. But Event Crowdsourcing includes new techniques, plus significantly more critical details and enhancements. (The enhancements to my core technique The Three Questions, alone, justify getting this book.) If you want to create events that are far more responsive to participant wants and needs than the dominant unconference paradigm — Open Space — this is the book for you!


OK, you skipped here to see if you could save money. Fair enough. Here’s the simple deal — the more of my books you buy, the more you save.

The best and most popular SKU is a set of all three books in both paperback and ebook formats, at a price that’s less than buying the three paperbacks separately.

Prefer ebooks? Buy a set of all three at a good discount.

Finally, don’t forget that first-time buyers of any book from my online store (even a single $11 ebook!) get thirty minutes of free consulting from yours truly at a mutually convenient time.

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

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

mom killed that idea

Mom killed that idea

In 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.

The importance of metaphor in learning

Egan emphasizes the important role of metaphor in learning. Studies have shown that very young children are capable of “prodigal production” of metaphors. Such metaphorical capacity declines as children become older. “Younger children’s production and grasp of metaphor are commonly superior to that of older children and adults.”

Young childrens’ effortless invention of wonderful words to describe objects in their lives amuses us. 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.

The lack of metaphor in education

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.”

So, how do 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). Similarly, my mentor Jerry Weinberg published a book about writing employing a single metaphor—building a fieldstone wall—to illustrate every stage of the process. Both examples illustrate our harnessing a metaphoric plow to prepare the ground for seeds of learning [oops, I did it again.]

Further, I wish more attention had been paid to metaphoric fluency in my early education. As a result, 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. 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 great power from metaphor.

Metaphor and event design

How does all this this relate to event design? For example. 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 second, good production designers know the importance of choosing event themes that connect at a metaphorical level with underlying goals for the associated meeting.

In conclusion, I believe it’s worth cultivating our skill at employing metaphor, or seeking out those who are good at it. So let’s not have to say “Mom killed that idea!” 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_bIf your event had a mouth what would it say? In the brilliant book Into The Heart Of Meetings, Eric 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.

If your venue had a mouth what would it say?

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 the image Thomas conjured up in response to Eric’s question surprised him. 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.

The power of visualization techniques

As this example illustrates, visualization techniques provide extremely powerful methods for excavating key meeting objectives and underlying client desires. Vital information, of which the client may not even be consciously aware, arrives into the light of day.

There’s another big benefit. Such approaches supply valuable buy-in by the client to the final meeting design. 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

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