How to stay on time at online meetings

stay on time at online meetings Tired of meetings that don’t end on time? Who isn’t? Things were bad enough when we held our meetings in person. Now so many meetings are online, it’s easy to saddle remote workers with back-to-back meetings. When one overruns, you’re late to the next one. Hey presto, your tardiness snowballs! (And, no, you can’t be on two Zooms at once without going through tortuous hacks.) Sure, sometimes you’re at the mercy of others. But you can stay on time at online meetings when they’re your meetings — if you follow the guidance below!

NOTE: Many of these suggestions are good practice for any meeting!

Before the online meeting starts

Set expectations

Apart from those rare meetings that are ritual courtly dances with every step minutely choreographed, what happens at a meeting is unpredictable to some degree.

Ideally, the only unpredictable parts should be when you’re doing useful work, like sharing ideas, discussing options, making decisions, etc. And setting expectations for the meeting before it starts is key to minimizing the time-wasting behavior that we’ve all experienced during meetings.

You have two tools to set meeting expectations: creating agreements and the meeting agenda.

Creating agreements

I’ve facilitated meetings for decades. In my experience, the best way to reliably improve a meeting is to create and (gently) enforce agreements about how participants act there. Consensual group norms generate powerful motivation to keep meetings running smoothly and productively while discouraging unruly behavior. I’ve found that having an appropriate set of agreements eliminates the vast majority of common problems. And if someone still goes down an irrelevant conversational rabbit hole, interrupts others, or talks too much, it’s much easier to lightly redirect them.

Agreements can either be communicated before the meeting or at the start. While there’s no single set of agreements that’s optimum for every meeting, some base agreements should be familiar to anyone who regularly meets online. For example:

  • Join the meeting on time, ready to participate. (Tip: Here’s how to start online meetings on time.)
  • Mute your microphone unless you wish to speak.
  • Signal via a pre-agreed protocol when you want to say something, e.g., by raising your hand (literally or via a platform mechanism like Zoom’s “Raise Hand”), or via text chat.
  • If you’ve joined by phone, say your name before speaking.
Additional agreements

Additional agreements that are generally helpful include:

  • Commit to being present at the meeting unless an emergency occurs.
  • Don’t interrupt. Instead, use an agreed process to indicate you want to speak.
  • Follow the group’s discussion and decision processes.
  • Respect agreed time limits on speaking.
  • Support the meeting’s scheduled ending time.

Besides meeting-wide agreements, agreements about processes you will use during the meeting are very important. Create agreement and a clear understanding about how participants will:

  • take turns to speak;
  • discuss issues; and
  • make decisions.

The processes to use depend on the meeting’s goals (see agenda) and implicit or explicit power differentials between attendees. For example, you’ll use different procedures if a decision is going to be made by consensus, majority vote, or the presiding CEO. I’ve included some examples below.

Whatever processes you chose, be sure to explain how they work either before or at the start of the meeting. Make sure that all supporting technology, such as an on-screen timer, is available and there’s someone responsible for running it.

Providing an agenda in advance

An agenda is a vital tool for staying on time at online meetings, in fact at any meeting. Providing participants with a clear, detailed agenda in advance is respectful and smart. “In advance” doesn’t mean five minutes before the meeting. It means giving attendees enough time to read and review beforehand. This allows people to formulate questions, ideas, and positions on agenda items beforehand, saving time during the meeting. Whenever possible, include participants’ input into the agenda by distributing a draft with a deadline for questions, corrections, and additions for a final agenda before the meeting.

Timed agendas are very helpful for staying on time. Even if it turns out the written times can’t be fully adhered to, they give attendees an idea of what’s expected and make it easier to reschedule upcoming agenda items on the fly.

Be clear who is running the meeting. Online meetings often need various kinds of support. Be sure everyone knows their responsibilities for note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc.

Occasionally, an itemized agenda is impracticable because the meeting is preliminary and exploratory: for example, a group meeting for the first time to discuss a possible collaboration. Even under these circumstances, be sure you circulate a brief description of the meeting goals and a start and end time.

During the online meeting

First, start on time! Here’s how to do this.

Check that everyone involved with meeting tasks and support — facilitation, note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc. — is present and ready to do their work. If the meeting is large, a backchannel for these folks to communicate, like Slack, can be very helpful.

Online discussions can often become messy, with people interrupting, taking up too much time, or going off-topic. To avoid this:

  • use one of these procedures to determine who speaks next.
  • gently enforce time limits for speakers. I use an on-screen timer program, ManyCam, but low-tech solutions such as a timekeeper displaying their phone’s countdown timer work too.
  • use an online fishbowl or fishbowl sandwich to control the discussion. (If your meeting is purely discussion, you can employ a dedicated fishbowl platform like Stooa).

Expect to readjust your schedule during the meeting

If you haven’t supplied a timed agenda, it’s important for the meeting leader to share their thoughts on how the group will use the time available. Since it’s rare to precisely follow such plans, regularly recalculate the time allotments as the meeting proceeds, and update/consult with participants on any changes you think you’ll need to make.

If you complete the meeting agenda ahead of schedule, end it early! No one will complain. 😀

Finally, end on time! It sometimes becomes clear during a meeting that the agenda scope was unrealistic. More time is needed to satisfy the meeting’s goals. Asking to extend the meeting duration may be an option, but don’t just keep going. Instead, before the meeting is scheduled to end, estimate how much longer is needed and poll attendees to see if they can stay. Respect their responses and proceed appropriately. Options include:

  • Continue for an additional agreed-upon time (which you may need to negotiate).
  • Continue without one or more participants if you can still achieve your meeting goals despite their absence.
  • Schedule another meeting to finish what’s been started.

Conclusion

It’s important to stay on time at online meetings. Yes, running late inconveniences everyone attending, and some people may have to leave on time, with the consequent loss of their contributions and involvement. In addition, every corporate or community meeting that runs late reinforces the all-too-common dysfunctional cultural norm that all meetings will overrun. The resulting psychological, and emotional burden imposed on attendees who routinely experience losing control of their time is high.

Hopefully, these ideas will help you and your colleagues stay on time at online meetings. Do you have further suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

 

Stooa review — a free online fishbowl tool

stooa review I’m a big proponent of fishbowls as a tool to manage wide-ranging group discussions. (To learn in detail about the use and implementation of fishbowls and fishbowl sandwiches, see Chapters 29 and 30 of my book Event Crowdsourcing.) So when I heard about a free tool for online fishbowls — Stooa — I thought I’d take a look. Here’s my initial Stooa review.

How to start with Stooa

It’s easy to start working with Stooa. Registering a (free) account requires the usual information: name, email, and password. You can also add your Twitter and/or LinkedIn profiles if desired.

Once you’ve registered your account, you’re ready to create a new fishbowl.

As you can see, you can specify a discussion topic, add a description, and schedule the fishbowl start and duration (up to four hours; though that would be cruel and unusual punishment). You can also choose a language to use. Currently the choices are English, Spanish, French, and Catalan. On clicking Create fishbowl you’ll see a summary of your new fishbowl, together with a link to distribute to others so they can join it. You’ll also receive an email with the same information — a nice touch.

Starting your fishbowl

When you click on Go to the fishbowl, Stooa will ask for permission to use your camera(s) and microphone(s). (Once you’ve joined a fishbowl, you can choose which ones to use.) Enter how you’d like to display your name, and you’ll see this screen:

When you’re ready to begin, click Start the fishbowl. At this point the camera and microphone will be active just for you. Share a short introduction with the waiting attendees. When done, you’ll appear in one of the five fishbowl “seats”. Click Allow attendees to join the conversation to begin discussion.

Running your fishbowl

At the top of the screen you’ll see the remaining time for the fishbowl, a button to end it, and the number of attendees present. Clicking on the latter displays a list of people currently in the seats, followed by the remaining attendees. The list includes links to the Twitter and LinkedIn profiles of each attendee if they entered them.

At this point, attendees can enter/leave one of the fishbowl seats by clicking on the Join/Leave the conversation button at the bottom of the screen. The other buttons allow participants to choose and control their camera and microphone.

Five participants is a good maximum for a controlled and useful discussion. Stooa smoothly implements entry and departure of fishbowl participants.

When your discussion is over, use the End fishbowl button to close the session.

Stooa review — what do I think?

Here are my initial impressions from a brief look. First, I want to acknowledge Stooa’s creator, Runroom, for developing this tool and making it Open Source: software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify and enhance. Hosting the software so that anyone can use it is another Runroom gift. They explain why they did so here. Thank you Runroom!

Stooa was easy to register and use on Chrome or Safari. First time users should have little difficulty, as the entire onboarding process is designed very well. I haven’t used the tool with a large number of attendees, so I can’t say how it holds up under load. Given that the number of folks simultaneously on video chat is limited to five, I expect it will work fine.

Stooa succeeds admirably in its purpose as a single process tool that facilitates effective group discussion.

Limitations

Currently, you can’t remove a fishbowl participant. This could be a problem if you used Stooa for a public fishbowl discussion, publicized via a link on social media.

In addition, with all seats filled, there’s no way for waiting attendees to indicate that they’d like to join the discussion, so a fishbowl host doesn’t know how many others are waiting to speak. To deal with this, attendees could use a backchannel tool like Slack to message the host that they’d like to join in. Alternatively, adding a hand raise option to the attendee list would help to solve this problem. And incorporating a simple text chat for all attendees into Stooa would provide even greater flexibility.

Stooa is not the only tool for running online fishbowls. In July 2020, I shared how to use Zoom to run fishbowls online. Zoom is, of course, a fee-based platform, but many organizations own a license and Zoom does many other things as well. In this situation, Zoom includes attendee text chat and hand raising. And its breakout rooms allow you to create, inside a single tool, the fishbowl sandwiches I use to facilitate group problem solving.

In an ideal world, the tools we use would include only the features we need. We don’t live in such a world, and Stooa is a well-crafted platform that allows groups to meet and discuss online. Whether it includes everything you need to make such discussions effective and fruitful is ultimately up to you to decide.

More about Stooa

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Stooa review and found it useful. Here are some additional resources for exploring Stooa. Feel free to add your experiences and thoughts in the comments below!

Powerful Panels interview with Adrian Segar

Powerful Panels interview Here’s my Powerful Panels interview with good friend and meeting panel doyen Kristin Arnold. During our 25 minutes together, we discussed various panel formats, their value, and how to structure and design powerful panel discussions into the larger context of meetings, conferences, and events.

Annotated timeline of the video

0:00 Introduction.

2:30 A brief history of meetings; why lecture formats are still so popular; how panels fit into the larger context of meetings.

5:30 When and how to use panels, and why.

8:00 Different panel formats.

9:00 The fishbowl—Adrian’s favorite discussion format (which includes panels as a special case).

10:15 Adrian describes the fishbowl sandwich format, and how he used it to find solutions for an industry-wide problem with a group of several hundred people. Includes a description of pair share. How to know when a session is a smash hit.

14:00 Comparing the fishbowl to Clubhouse. How to run fishbowl in-person and on Zoom.

18:00 Kristin describes her version: empty chair.

18:30 Alternative seating arrangements for fishbowl.

19:00 Why you should use curved theatre seating.

21:00 How these formats satisfy the core purpose of meeting formats: creating great conversation with smart people that delivers valuable takeaways.

22:45 Using the Post It! technique to determine what should be covered during a meeting or session, and at what level.

24:45 Most important takeaway: Be curious about doing meetings differently. Now, there are better formats available for meetings than those we’ve always used. Don’t just read about these formats, but experience them at a well-designed, well-facilitated/moderated event to truly learn how great a meeting can be.


We covered a lot in a short time, but there’s much more to learn about Powerful panels and good meeting design!

If you liked this Powerful Panels interview, check out Kristin’s other Powerful Panels Podcast interviews!

And check out the links in this post to learn more about the topics mentioned.

Bonus: More ways to create panels designed as if the audience matters.

The best way to hold a discussion online

best way to hold a discussion online

What’s the best way to hold a discussion online?

For years I’ve been successfully facilitating in-person group discussions at meetings, using the simple fishbowl and fishbowl sandwich processes. These techniques work because at any moment, only a small, clearly defined, (but constantly changing) group of people are involved in the discussion. As a result you can moderate an interesting, orderly discussion with hundreds of people, any of who have an equal opportunity to speak.

Online group discussions bring a new set of challenges.

We have all experienced poorly facilitated online meetings, where people unilaterally turn on their microphones and speak away, colliding aurally with others and monopolizing the conversation. An experienced moderator can minimize this behavior with a starting set of clear agreements that participants will follow during the discussion.

But however good the facilitation, there is far less environmental and body language information available online than in-person. The subtle cues we’ve all learned for moving between listening and speaking in a conversation are largely absent. (Stephen Mugford and Pamela Kinnear go into more detail here.) This makes creating a useful, flowing discussion harder.

Existing solutions and their limitations

Some of the fancier online meeting platforms provide functionality that can support simple fishbowl process quite well. Typically they use the “panel on a stage” model. A moderator moves audience members who raise their hand in some fashion into a panel (speaking) seat. When people have finished speaking, they leave the stage and the moderator can fill their seat with someone else.

Currently, though, such platforms don’t make it easy to move people in and out of pair or trio share groups: a requirement for the “bread” portions of the fishbowl sandwich.

One of the reasons I like to use Zoom for online meetings is its reliable and easy ability to quickly move people into breakout room groups for sharing. Zoom is a great tool for a discussion session’s opening and closing small-group fishbowl sandwich sharing. But how can we moderate discussion amongst a sea of faces during the fishbowl itself?

How to effectively hold a discussion online in Zoom

I’m indebted to Stephen Mugford for suggesting a simple and effective way of moderating fishbowl in Zoom.

In-person fishbowls use “people sitting in the 3 – 5 chairs up front, facing the group” to indicate who can speak at any moment. For a Zoom discussion, the same delineation can be made. Simply ask everyone except the facilitator/moderator to turn off their camera and microphone at the start.

When someone wants to speak, they turn on their camera and microphone. A nice feature of Zoom is that their picture will then jump to the top of Zoom’s speaker or gallery view. This makes them easy to spot.

The moderator guides the order of speaking and discussion with those who are “live” in the usual way. When people have finished sharing for the moment, they turn off their video/microphone and return to listening.

A variation

Sometimes when I run a fishbowl in person there are many who want to speak. I have them queue up in a short line at the side of the chairs. That provides feedback to the folks in the chairs that maybe it’s time to give someone else a turn!

Similarly, you can use Zoom’s text chat to queue up people who wish to enter the fishbowl. This allows:

  • those who are calling in by phone to signal they want to speak; and
  • the facilitator and group to see how many people are waiting to speak.

In practice, I’ve found the suggested live/listening camera/microphone protocol works very well. I only add using text chat as a signaling channel when there are participants who are calling in by phone.

Simple!

This is a simple and successful way to implement fishbowl and fishbowl sandwich discussion process in Zoom. I recommend you try it! And if you have used other platforms to run these processes successfully, please share in the comments below!

How to facilitate a community discussion using fishbowl

What’s the best way to facilitate a community discussion? Recently, I had to answer that question at short notice. My task: design and facilitate a two-hour community discussion in response to a bombshell announcement made by the largest employer in my tiny rural hometown of Marlboro, Vermont.

[Update: Want to know how to do this online? See this post!]

The community was in shock. Consequently, I felt it was important to use a discussion format that:

  • Supported respectful dialog from a variety of constituencies;
  • Created an environment that was as safe as possible for people to share;
  • Minimized the likelihood that people would monopolize the meeting;
  • Allowed both short statements and controlled impromptu conversations; and
  • Was efficient.

I ended up designing (and moderating the first half of) a fishbowl format. To be more precise, I used what I’d call “half a fishbowl sandwich“: an opening pair share plus a standard fishbowl. (All three of these techniques are covered in detail in my latest book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)

The pair share

I ran a one-minute-per-partner pair share with this question. “What do you think about the proposed Marlboro College plan to close down the school and transfer the endowment and campus to Emerson?

The fishbowl format

Now, watch this three-minute meeting video clip in which I explain how fishbowl works.

Read the rest of this entry »

Any questions? Rethinking traditional Q&A

Any questions? Rethinking traditional Q&A How often have you heard “Any questions?” at the end of a conference session?

Hands rise, and the presenter picks an audience member who asks a question. The presenter answers the question and picks another questioner. The process continues for a few minutes.

Simple enough. We’ve been using this Q&A format for centuries.

But can we improve it?

Yes!

Read the rest of this entry »

The Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

Secrets Behind Conference Engagement

So you’re holding a conference. How are you going to get your audience tuned in and engaged?

Read the rest of this entry »

Panels as if the audience mattered

 

create amazing panels Yes, it’s possible to create amazing panels!

I’m in San Antonio, Texas, having just run two 90-minute “panels” at a national association leadership conference. I say “panels” because at both sessions, the three “panelists” presented for less than five minutes. Yet after both sessions, participants stayed in the room talking in small groups for a long time. That’s one of my favorite signs that a session has successfully built and supported learning, connection, and engagement.

You may be wondering how to effectively structure a panel where the panelists don’t necessarily dominate the proceedings. How can we let attendees contribute and steer content and discussion in the ways they want and need? There’s no one “best” way to do this of course, but here’s the format I used for these two particular sessions.

Session goals

Each session was designed to discover and meet wants and needs of the executive officers and volunteers of the association’s regional chapters’ members in an area of special interest. The first session focused on a key fund-raising event used by all of the participants. The second covered the more general topic of chapter fundraising and sponsorship.

Room set

Room set has a huge effect on the dynamics of a session. Previous sessions in our room had used head tables with table mikes and straight row theater seating (ugh; well, at least it was set to the long edge of the thin room.) I had the tables removed, the mikes replaced with hand mikes, and the chairs set to curved rows. We included plenty of aisles so that anyone could easily get to the front to speak (see below).

Welcome and a fishbowl sandwich

After a brief welcome and overview, I began a four-chair fishbowl sandwich format, which turns every attendee into a participant right at the start, and ensures that they end participating too. This format is my favorite way to create amazing panels. Fishbowl allows control over who is speaking by having them move to a chair at the front of the room. Check the link for a description of this simple but effective way to bring participation into a “panel”.

Body voting

Next, I used body voting, to give participants relevant information about who else was in the room. For example, I had everyone line up in order of chapter size, so people could:

  • discover where they fit in the range of chapters present (from 80 to 2,600 members);
  • meet participants whose chapters were similar in size to their own; and
  • give everyone a sense of the distribution of chapter sizes represented.

Additional body votes uncovered information about:

  • revenue contributions from dues, events, and sponsorship;
  • promotional modalities used;
  • member fees; and
  • other issues related to the session topic.

I also gave participants the opportunity to ask for additional information about their peers in the room. This is another powerful way for participants to discover early on that they can determine what happens during their time together. I used appropriate participatory voting techniques (see also here, and here) to get answers to the multiple requests that were made.

Panelist time!

Several weeks before the conference, I scheduled separate 30-minute interviews with the six panelists to educate myself about the issues surrounding the session topics and to discover what they could bring to the sessions that would likely be interesting and useful for their audience. After the interviews were complete, I reviewed our conversations and determined that each panelist could share the core of their contributions in five minutes. So I asked each panelist to prepare a five-minute (maximum!) talk that covered the main points they wanted to make.

During the first session I brought up the panelists to the front of the room individually. As each panelist gave their talk, I allowed questions from the audience, and, as I should have expected, each panelist’s five minutes expanded (by a few minutes) as they responded to the questions. So for the second session, I tried something different. All three panelists sat together with me, and I asked the audience to hold questions until all three had finished. Each panelist gave a five-minute presentation, and then I facilitated the questions that followed.

In my opinion, having only one panelist at the front of the room at a time creates a more dynamic experience. But on balance, I think the second approach worked better as there was some overlap between what the panelists shared, and when questions ended there was a more natural segue to the next segment of the session.

Fishbowl

At this point we switched to a fishbowl format. I had the panelists return to front row audience chairs, from where they could easily return to the “speaking” chairs. (They were frequent contributors to the discussions that followed.) I identified some hot issues, and listed them for participants. I then invited anyone to sit in one of the three empty front-of-the-room chairs next to me to share their innovations, solutions, thoughts, questions, and concerns. Anyone wishing to respond or discuss joined our set of chairs and I facilitated the resulting flow of conversation. Some of the themes I suggested were discussed. But a significant portion of the discussion in both sessions concentrated on areas that none of my panelists had predicted.

The capability of fishbowl process to adapt to whatever participants actually want to talk about is one of its most attractive and powerful features. If I had used a conventional panel for either session, much more time would have been spent on topics that were not what the audience most wanted to learn about, and unexpected interests would have been relegated to closing Q&A.

Consulting

During my opening overview of the format, I explained that we might have time for some consulting on a participant’s problem towards the end of the session. We didn’t have time for this during the first session — given a break, we could have probably taken another hour exploring issues that had been raised — but we had a nice opportunity during the second session to consult on an issue for a relatively new executive officer.

Another option that I offered, which we didn’t end up exploring in either session, was to share lessons learned (aka “don’t do this!”) — a useful way to help peers avoid common mistakes.

Closing

With a few minutes remaining, I closed the fishbowl and asked participants to once again form pairs and share their takeaways from the session. The resulting hubbub continued long after the sessions were formally over, and I had to raise my voice to thank everyone for their contributions and declare the sessions complete.

When an audience collectively has significantly more experience and expertise than a few panelists — as was the case for these sessions (and a majority of the sessions I’ve attended during forty years of conferences) — well-facilitated formats like the one I’ve just described are far more valuable to participants than the conventional presentations and panels we’ve all suffered through over the years. Use them to create amazing panels, and your attendees will thank you!

Create amazing panels!

At the conference sessions I design and facilitate, everyone is “up there” instead of “down here.” Yours can be too! To learn how to build sessions that build and support learning, connection, and engagement, sign up for one of my North American or European workshops.

Bruce Eric Kaplan cartoon displayed under license from The Cartoon Bank

How a fishbowl sandwich can really get your attendees talking

fishbowl_sandwich Ten minutes after I’d finished facilitating a large national association meeting hour-long fishbowl sandwich discussion on solutions for a persistent industry problem, the conference education director walked in. His jaw dropped. “The attendees are still here talking to each other! That never happens!” he exclaimed.

Well it happened this time. Many small groups had formed and people were chatting energetically. Business cards were being swapped. When I left to catch my flight home twenty minutes later, conversations were still going on all around the room.

How did I build and support this level of interaction and engagement?

I used a fishbowl sandwich. What’s that? Read on!

The components of a fishbowl sandwich

A fishbowl sandwich, like any good sandwich, has a filling surrounded by bread and spread (or accompaniment). The filling is the fishbowl technique, the surrounding bread is comprised of pair-shares at the start and end, and the accompaniment is the facilitative language that segues between the bread and the filling.

How I began the fishbowl sandwich

As people trickled into the room I asked them to pair up by sitting next to someone, preferably someone they didn’t know. I lightly repeated the request several times before the session started.

For the first piece of sandwich “bread” I asked everyone to think of something they had done, small or large, which was a (probably partial) solution to the challenges the industry faced. After about 30 seconds I asked one of each pair’s members to spend 30 seconds sharing what they had done with their partner. A final 30-second share from the second partner to the first wrapped up the opening pair-share.

As usual, it was hard to get everyone to turn back to the front of the room for the next bite of the sandwich!

At this point, everyone had switched, at least for a while from “listening” to “participation” brain mode—they were ready to engage.

Time for the fishbowl

I was sitting on a low stage with three empty chairs besides me, wearing a headset mike, with a couple of wireless stick mikes at hand, and took a minute to share the rules of fishbowl:

  • You can only talk if you’re sitting in one of these chairs.
  • If you have something to say, come and sit in an empty chair. You don’t have to wait for someone else to finish talking.
  • When you’ve finished what you have to say (for the moment, you can always return) vacate your chair.
  • If all chairs are full, when someone new walks up, the person who’s been talking longest should leave.

And we were off. For the next fifty minutes a constant stream of people came up and shared their ideas and experiences. Sometimes they shared with the audience; sometimes they spoke with each other while the audience listened. No one “hogged the mike”.

A woman wearing a large backpack shared a novel approach that could be implemented regionally. I ran a hand poll to see how many people had done something similar—only about 20% of the audience. I asked those who hadn’t how many would be willing to do the same. Most hands went up, and people looked thoughtful. An industry leader told the woman he wanted to interview her for the association’s national magazine.

After about 40 minutes I said that we had heard an incredible amount of good ideas and advice and it was clear that there was a tremendous amount of expertise and experience in the room. I asked if anyone wanted help with specific problems. Two brave souls came up and shared their individual frustrations. Sure enough, several folks came up and supplied helpful suggestions.

Finishing the fishbowl sandwich

It was time for the final pair-share slice of bread. To conclude, I asked each pair member to share with their partner their single best takeaway from the session. Once again, a buzz of conversation arose, and after a couple of minutes I announced that the session was over.

[Want to learn more? Find detailed information on fishbowl (there are two kinds) and pair-share in The Power of Participation.]

That’s the fishbowl sandwich. Have you used one, or something similar, at your events? Share in the comments below!

Image adapted from a MacDonalds ad. Hope that’s OK, Giant Corporation.

Dear Adrian—More questions about event process design

Dipesh Modyevent process design , writing from Mumbai, India, asks five great questions about event process design. I’ve interspersed my answers after each question.

Q. Dear Adrian,

I have now read both your books and have truly enjoyed reading them. Your work has been very inspiring to many; and I am certainly one of them.

While your book is very well written and structured, I had a few questions for you and I am hoping that you will find the time to respond.

Question 1

After the peer group session sign-up and once the time and space is allocated, who decides which technique to use? Is it the volunteer facilitator of the peer group? If yes, what if the volunteer is not familiar with these techniques? Will he invariably choose a roundtable technique?

Yes, the volunteer facilitator(s) of a peer session is/are responsible for determining the format used in the session, and, as covered in The Power of Participation, there are a number of basic formats you can use. For many years, I’ve given every attendee a one-page peer session facilitation handout (free download) at the start of the event. This short document explains session facilitation, offers a suggested step-by-step process, and includes some tips for effective facilitation.

Analyzing thousands of evaluations of Conferences That Work format events, it’s very rare to see a complaint about the quality of peer session facilitation. So I believe this simple handout is an effective tool for volunteer facilitators to do a decent-to-good job at facilitating a peer session. While I could include some additional opening techniques such as Post It, described in The Power of Participation, it’s possible that making the handout longer might reduce its overall effectiveness.

In India, and other regions where organizational cultures tend to be more hierarchical than those in North America and Europe, participants may be less comfortable taking responsibility for leading a session. Under such circumstances, taking twenty minutes at the opening of a peer conference to explain basic peer session leadership techniques can be helpful.

Question 2

From what I understand that certain sessions only a trained facilitator can run them such as world café, fishbowl or a human spectrogram? Is my understanding correct? If yes, then such techniques can only be used involving the entire group. For e,g, if the conference size is 50 people then all 50 people need to be in that one session when a human spectrogram technique is being used? Is my understanding correct?

I think it depends on what “trained” means. I have not received any “formal” facilitation training, but I experienced World Café, fishbowl, and human spectrogram process run by others before I attempted to facilitate them myself. I think many people who have experienced a human spectrogram once could successfully facilitate it under similar circumstances, and there are plenty of good resources (including The Power of Participation😄) for other group work techniques.

As participative techniques become more frequently used at conferences, attendees are increasingly likely to be capable of facilitating them, and I expect the requirement for a “trained” facilitator will decrease over time.

Question 3

About the beginning and the end sessions, I am quite clear but for the middle sessions is there a particular sequence (s) that works best based on your experience? For e.g. use fishbowl to gain a deeper understanding of top six issues and then follow it up with world café to discuss solutions to these issues (assuming we have 6 tables with five people on each table: Conference size 30 people). Then use a human spectrogram to vote on the proposed solutions and to select the most plausible ones.

Again, the answer to your event process design question depends on the circumstances—in this case a session’s desired outcomes. It sounds like you are asking about process to explore and choose solutions to problems. Because we hold meetings for many different reasons, there’s no single process sequence that’s appropriate for every situation.

The Conferences That Work format, for example, works very well for a group of peers who are meeting to learn and connect for individual reasons, determine common ground, and discover and act on opportunities available to the group.

If, as per your example, the meeting is to learn and discuss six pre-determined important issues, you might well use techniques like fishbowl and World Café as opening and mid-course process. If attendees don’t know each other well, an opening roundtable would be useful. Or if the important issues were unknown or unclear at the start of a meeting, introductory educational sessions plus affinity grouping might be appropriate.

As far as discussing solutions is concerned, while human spectrograms are a useful tool to gauge sentiment, outcomes are more typically determined by process prescribed by the norms of the group, organization, association, or corporation stakeholders.

Question 4

About world café or human spectrogram or voting, while a volunteer team can assist in framing the right questions as pre-work but my experience shows that getting them to contribute on the questions is difficult as they don’t have time to devote on such pre-work activities due to work related and other commitments. Further, on page 222 of Power of Participation, you have identified questions for collective attention, for finding deeper insights, for forward movement etc. In light of this, would it be a good idea for the attendees to frame the questions during the conference beginning? In your experience would this work?

In my experience, if you are going to use World Café at an event, pre-work defining good table questions is essential. While there are frameworks that can be helpful in devising Café question rounds (e.g. those for sense-making by Chris Corrigan and strategic planning by John Inman), I think it’s very hard to build consensually-good questions on the fly at the event unless participants are patient and willing enough to spend a significant amount of time. It’s akin to bringing a large group of people to a building site and asking them to collectively design and erect a building from scratch. Not impossible, but difficult!

Question 5

While your book does provide model conference schedule but it falls a bit short of getting a real sense of what a real schedule looks like. It would be really great if you could add a few real examples of conferences you facilitated. It would indeed be useful to get a sense of how you mixed and matched various techniques (fishbowl, world café, spectrograms etc.) during a lets say three day conference around a particular theme. It would be a great addition to what a truly amazing book it already is.

Dipesh, I think that’s a good idea in principle. However, I’m wary supplying such examples unless they include extensive background on why the specific types and flow of process techniques were used in the event process design. The danger of providing condensed examples is that some readers will be tempted to copy them verbatim for events that involve participants, logistical constraints, and desired outcomes that are significantly different from those that generated the example design. End result—a design that doesn’t satisfy stakeholder needs, leading to poor evaluations and, perhaps, the conclusion that these new-fangled event designs “don’t work.”

There are so many factors involved in creating a good event design that I estimate a useful case study of a single event design that comprehensively covers the reasons for the design choices made might require 10,000+ words and many days of work! A worthy project, but one that may have to wait a while…

Best regards,

Dipesh Mody, India

Thanks for your thoughtful questions about event process design, Dipesh. I hope these answers help a little in your quest to produce fine events in India!

Best wishes,

Adrian Segar


Adrian & Kayla Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).