What is the mix of presentation versus interaction at your meetings? What should it be?
Traditional meetings focus heavily on presentation. Interaction is limited to a few questions at the end of sessions, plus conversations “outside” the formal sessions. And this has been the norm for hundreds of years.
The written word
Let’s explore the popularity of the written words presentation versus interaction over time. If you do this, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, you’ll notice a curious thing.
In 1804, the earliest year included in the Google Books database, the word interaction barely appears. The word presentation is a hundred times more frequent. Both words slowly become more common over time, but presentation stays predominant. But, in the 1950s, something strange happens. The popularity of interaction abruptly rises. In 1964, interaction becomes more frequently used. It has remained in first place ever since.
Presentation versus interaction at meetings
Society, as reflected by books in English, now talks about interaction about twice as often as presentation. But our meeting designs, in large part, haven’t changed to reflect this shift in cultural awareness. Presenters still rarely incorporate interaction into their sessions, even though there are ample reasons why they should.
Last month, I staffed an online memorial service for E, a friend who died tragically, at age 42, of breast cancer. With over a hundred attendees, most listened as friends and family spoke. When the main service ended, I hosted one of several breakout rooms for those who wanted to stay and talk.
People were allocated to the breakout rooms randomly. A woman in my room looked quite upset, and I asked her how she knew E. She shared that they met each other in high school, and were friends for many years. They eventually drifted apart, and only reconnected when she heard about E’s cancer.
The woman looked really upset. So I asked her if she wanted to tell us more. She burst into tears. “We found out we had breast cancer at the same time, and both went into treatment.” She sobbed harder. And then she cried out, “But I survived. I’m OK.”
We gave the woman an opening to share her feelings of guilt. She gained a new experience, one that I think was significant to her.
It was also a significant new experience for me. At the start of the breakout, I had no idea what would happen. I felt happy to be able to give this woman a place to voice her feelings. It’s the kind of work I love to do, my ikigai.
Providing new experiences at meetings can be as simple as this.
Creating environments and opportunities for new experiences to happen.
Fear of new experiences
To an infant, all experiences are new. Rapidly though, as we grow older, experiences repeat and they become comfortable and familiar. It’s tempting to desire to try and relive old, pleasant experiences, rather than seek out new ones. That’s understandable. New experiences can be scary. Not only for the person experiencing them, but also for society. As D.H. Lawrence said a hundred years ago:
“The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences…The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can’t pigeon-hole a real new experience.” —D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
And another opportunity for providing meaningful new experiences at an event is missed.
The alternative? Be brave, and explore and implement the practical suggestions below!
How to provide valuable new experiences at meetings
There’s a simple answer to the question: “How can we provide valuable new experiences at meetings?”
It requires a shift of perspective. At traditional meetings, it’s assumed that the meeting conveners are responsible for specific new experiences. This implies that the attendees are passive receivers of the program. They have no role in its creation. At traditional meeting after meeting, the onus is solely on the conveners to provide valuable new experiences. The temptation is to come up with cosmetic changes that, while possibly entertaining to some degree, do not fundamentally change what happens at the event.
Here’s what to do instead.
Instead of dreaming up changes to the physical environment of the meeting — the F&B, decor, etc. — provide a process environment that supports and encourages appropriate new interpersonal experiences around the content they want and need.
Doing this makes the participants co-creators of experiences that matter to them.
I’ve noticed over the years that every meeting has a budget for F&B. There’s usually a budget for decor and production—sometimes a big budget. There’s often a budget for a dramatic big-name speaker or two. If you ask about a budget for event design, stakeholders think you’re talking about decor and drama. But “there’s no budget” for core event design, which is actually about designing great meeting process. Meeting conveners have a blind spot about the importance of meeting process design: what happens for stakeholders at their meeting.
It turns out that designing good process into your meeting is cheaper than paying for special effects. For the price of a coffee break, you can make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose and its impact on participants. Learn how to do this from my books, from the hundreds of articles on this blog, or get in touch!
[P.S. In case you’re wondering, I fed the two words “meeting design” to an AI program, which generated the animated image accompanying this post.]
Ever since my first encounter with the hybrid hub and spoke meeting topology at Event Camp Twin Cities in 2011, I’ve been a big fan of the format. Yesterday [see below], I realized that hub and spoke is a great format for purely online meetings too. But first…
…What’s a hub and spoke meeting?
A hub and spoke meeting is one where there’s a central hub meeting or event that additional groups (aka “pods”) of people join remotely.Hub and spoke is an event network topology. The hub event and each pod may be either in-person or online.
A terminology reminder In-person meeting: participants are physically together. Online meeting: participants are connected to each other via an internet platform like Zoom or Teams. Hybrid meeting: A meeting with in-person and online components as defined above, plus additional forms explored below.
The benefits of hub and spoke
Increased learning, interaction, and connection
If you want maximum learning, interaction, and connection at a meeting, small meetings are better than large meetings. Using good meeting design, simply splitting a single large group of participants into multiple small groups in an intelligent way provides increased opportunities for each group’s members to connect and interact around relevant content.
Hub and spoke topology allows tremendous design flexibility for a meeting.
In-person pods can be set up at any convenient geographical location, reducing travel time and costs for pod participants while still providing the benefits of in-person interaction.
You can segment online pods to reflect specific “tribes”: groups of people with something in common. For example, think about a conference to explore the implications of a medical breakthrough. One pod could be for patient groups that the discovery will affect. Another might include medical personnel able to deliver the new technology or procedure. Yet another group could contain scientists working on next iterations. [A hat tip to Martin Sirk for suggesting this example!]
Creating pods that reflect event participant segments allow different communities’ goals and objectives to be optimally met while sharing with all participants a common body of learning and experiences via the hub.
As noted above, using in-person pods can dramatically reduce the travel time and cost for event participants without sacrificing the benefits of meeting in-person. This allows more people to attend the hub and spoke meeting, and makes it easier for them to do so.
Hub and spoke variants
Depending on the choices made, a hub and spoke event will take one of the following forms:
Here’s a little information about the groundbreaking ECTC. Besides the attendees at the in-person hub event in Minneapolis, seven remote pods in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Silicon Valley and two corporate headquarters were tied in to a hub feed that—due to the technology available at the time—was delayed approximately twenty seconds. As you might expect, this delay led to a number of communication issues between the hub and pods. I wrote about ECTC in more detail here.
There will always be some communications delay between the hub and pods, though these days it can be reduced to a fraction of the delay at ECTC. Such delays should be taken into account when designing hub and spoke events.
My recent experience of being in an online pod viewing an online hub event made me realize that online pods can be used to great effect with either in-person or online hub events.
Since February, 2021, my friend, tech producer, and meeting industry educator Brandt Krueger has been hosting weekly EventTech Chats on Zoom, together with another friend, his talented co-host, “The Voice of Events”, Glenn Thayer. Yesterday, Brandt was presenting at an MPI event on hybrid meetings, so Glenn shared the event so we could kibitz. Seven of us were in a Zoom, watching a Zoom…
I commented about the recursive nature of this…
On a small group Zoom, watching a meeting industry Zoom panel. (Kinda nice, as our group can comment in our Zoom on what we’re watching.) This could be extended.
…and Anh Nguyen replied that the experience was like Inception. She also mentioned Giggl, which, in similar fashion, allows a group to interact (text and voice) on a shared internet portal. This could be useful if you don’t have a Zoom license.
Our pod experience
The MPI meeting had over 150 viewers. We noticed that there was little interaction on the MPI Zoom chat. Our little group was much more active on chat. We were a small group with a common set of interests, and we all knew each other to some extent.
It’s clear to me that we had a much more interactive, useful, and intimate discussion than the hub event group.
Yes, this is one anecdotal example. But I hope you can see how being in a small pod of connected folks can lead to a better experience than being one of many attending the same event at a hub.
The ease, with today’s technology, of creating an online pod with whomever you please to watch and comment on a hub event, makes this an attractive option to attending the hub event directly online. (If you wanted to, of course, you could do both—as Glenn Thayer did for our pod.)
In-person and online pods
Finally, there’s no reason why a hub event can’t support a mixture of in-person and online pods. (In fact, ECTC had a small number of individual remote viewers as well, though I suspect they could only watch the hub stream.) Once the hub stream is available, one can share it with an online pod, or on a large screen with an in-person pod. Mix and match to satisfy event stakeholders’ and participants’ wants and needs!
I believe that hybrid meetings, catapulted into industry awareness by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a permanent fixture of the meeting industry “new normal”. Once we’ve firmly established the design and production expertise needed for hybrid, hub and spoke is a simple addition that promises the many advantages I’ve described in this post.
It may take a while, but I think we are going to see a growing use of this exciting and flexible format.
What do you think about hub and spoke meetings? Have you experienced one, and, if so, what was it like? Do you expect to use this format in future events? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Chapter 44 of my book The Power of Participation explains how facilitators use participatory voting to provide public information about viewpoints in the room, and pave the way for further discussion. In particular, we often use participatory voting to assess consensus.
It’s often unclear whether a group has formed a consensus around a specific viewpoint or proposed action. Consensual participatory voting techniques can quickly show whether a group has reached or is close to consensus, or wants to continue discussion.
However, Roman voting isn’t great for large groups, because participants can’t easily see how others have voted. Card voting (ibid, Chapter 47) works quite well for large groups, but it requires:
procurement and distribution of card sets beforehand; and
training participants on how to use the cards.
A novel way to assess consensus with large groups
I recently came across a novel (to me) way to explore large group consensus. This simple technique requires no training or extra resources. In addition, it’s a fine example of semi-anonymous voting: group voting where it’s difficult to determine how individuals vote without observing them during the process. [Dot voting (ibid, Chapter 49), is another semi-anonymous voting method.]
Here’s a glossary of 38 conference participation techniques.
I can guarantee there will be at least a few unfamiliar terms in this glossary, given that I invented some of them myself. This glossary contains brief definitions; see my new book for more information.
Affinity Grouping: This technique allows a group to discover and share ideas that arise at a session or conference and group them into categories, so they can be organized and discussed. Sometimes called “cards on the wall.”
Anonymous Voting: Any voting method that preserves the anonymity of those voting.
Badge It!: Using participant badges to share useful personal information besides the traditional elements like name, company, etc.
Body Voting: See Human Spectrograms.
Card Voting: Provides each participant with an identical set of colored cards that can be used in flexible ways: typically for voting on multiple-choice questions, consensus voting, and guiding discussion.
Case Studies and Simulations: Ways to create a classroom or conference environment where participants can create and explore in a semi-realistic way alternative roles, points of view, puzzles, and positions. Case studies use a story as a jumping-off place for group analysis and discussion, while simulations immerse participants into an experiential situation.
Conference Arc: An approach to design that concentrates on event chronological parts—openers, middles, and endings—and the consequential progressive experience of participants.
Consensus voting: Voting techniques that gauge the degree of group consensus on a point of view or course of action.
Continuum Voting: See Human Spectrograms.
Dot Voting: A technique for public semi-anonymous voting where participants are given identical sets of one or more colored paper dots which they stick onto paper voting sheets to indicate preferences.
Fishbowls: Group process that facilitates focused discussion, either by assuring that the conversation at any moment is restricted to a few clearly defined people or by allowing representatives of both sides of a point of view time in turn to listen to and question representatives of the opposing viewpoint.
Group Spectives: Closing conference sessions that provide time for attendees to collectively take stock, reflecting on where they started, the path traveled, and the journey yet to come.
Guided Discussions: Guided small discussion groups used regularly during a session to expose different answers, viewpoints, and levels of understanding and create multiple simultaneous rich customized learning environments in the room.
Hand/Stand Voting: In hand voting, participants raise their hands to indicate their answer to a question with two or more possible answers. Stand voting replaces hand raising with standing.
Human Graphs: See Human Spectrograms.
Human Spectrograms: Also known as body voting, continuum voting, and human graphs. A form of public voting that has participants move in the room to a place that represents their answer to a question. Human spectrograms can be categorized as one-dimensional, two-dimensional, or state-change.
One-dimensional Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants position themselves along a line in a room to portray their level of agreement/disagreement with a statement or a numeric response (e.g. the number of years they’ve been in their current profession.)
Open Space: Open Space is a simple method for participants to create their own meetings.
Openers: Participation techniques that are especially useful during the early stages of a group’s time together.
Pair Share: Develops and reinforces learning via discussion of a topic or question with a partner during a session.
Participatory Voting: Any form of voting that provides public information about viewpoints in the room and paves the way for further discussion
Personal Introspectives: Two-part closing conference sessions that guide participants through a review of what they have learned and a determination of what they want to consequently change in their lives.
Plus/Delta: A review tool that enables participants to quickly identify what went well at a session or event and what could be improved.
Post It!: A simple technique that employs participant-written sticky notes to uncover topics and issues that a group wants to discuss.
Pro Action Café: Pro Action Café is a blend of World Café and Open Space that facilitates reflection, discussion and consolidation of ideas, and moving to action.
Public Voting: Voting methods that allow a group to see the individuals who have voted and how they voted.
Roman Voting: Roman Voting is a public voting technique for gauging the strength of consensus.
Roundtables: Structured conference openers that employ The Three Questions to 1) define and model an active, interactive, and safe conference environment; 2) provide a structured forum for attendees to meet and learn about each others’ affiliations, interests, experience, and expertise and 3) uncover the topics that people want to discuss and share.
Seat Swap: Seat Swap increases conversational partners at seated meals through having diners switch seats at appointed times.
Semi-anonymous voting: Voting techniques where others can only determine how individuals vote by watching them closely during the voting process.
Short Form Presentations Pecha Kucha and Ignite: Very short stylized presentations that offer a rapid introduction to a topic, an idea, or an experience and that act as a jumping off place for stimulated viewers to start learning more via engagement afterwards.
Small Group Discussions: Techniques that use small groups to improve learning, connection, interaction, and engagement.
State-change Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants move en masse from one point to another to display a change of some quantity (e.g. opinion, geographical location, etc.) over time.
Table Voting: A technique used for polling attendees on their choice from pre-determined answers to a multiple-choice question, and/or for dividing participants into preference groups for further discussions or activities.
The Solution Room: An opening or closing conference session which engages and connects attendees and provides peer-supported advice on their most pressing problems.
The Three Questions: Supports and encourages a group of people in learning about each other, their wishes for the time they are together, and their relevant experience and expertise.
Two-dimensional Human Spectrograms: Human Spectrograms where participants position themselves in a two-dimensional room space to display relative two-dimensional information (e.g. where they live with reference to a projected map.)
World Café: Provides a format for dialogue in small groups around questions that have been determined in advance.
“Full disclosure: I pretty much stole this one from our June Associations Now cover story about Terry Fong, member concierge for the California Dental Association, who calls 1,000 new members each year to welcome them and ask, “Is there anything we can do for you?”
What if you had a staffer call all new attendees after your meetings and ask them what they liked most and least about the meeting and what else you could be doing to get them to register for the meeting again?
You could also use a similar role onsite and assign new attendees to attendee concierges—in this case, maybe extra staff or member volunteers—and have them check-in with attendees throughout the meeting and then follow-up after.” —Samantha
I think it’s crucial to check in with attendees during an event. This is something that I’ve done for years—and it’s easy to do. I like to concentrate on attendees I don’t know (the one’s I do are probably going to bend my ear anyway) and ask how the event is going for them. And listen. Do this and you’ll get tons of good in-the-moment feedback, build goodwill and relationships with the people you talk to, and get occasional opportunities to answer questions and solve problems they mention while the event’s still going on, rather than having to wait until next year. Don’t just ask new attendees, by the way; returning attendees can have equally valuable feedback for you. And take notes promptly so what you hear doesn’t evaporate from your brain from the conference heat.
At ASAE’s 2013 Great Ideas Conference, Thom Singer, served as “Conference Catalyst.” Over the course of the meeting, he gave attendees networking tips and helped them to engage and connect with one another. And at the California Society of Association Executives’ Annual Conference in April, Jeff Hurt served in a similar role, helping attendees keep the conversation and learning going between sessions and during lunch by having organized chats about what they recently learned.
What if you had a full-time staff person who helped form these small-group discussions to not only help members engage but also to help process and remember what they learned in the larger sessions?” —Samantha
Thom and Jeff are doing great work around this important topic. But rather than simply adding opportunities for connection piecemeal into our events we can make conferences even better. We can build opportunities for meaningful connections right into our entire event design. This means that we need to adopt meeting and session formats throughout our events. Formats that facilitate effective participation, connection, and engagement in the sessions themselves. We’ve known for years that the learning and connections that occur when we do this are far superior to what happens at traditional meetings. This is not rocket science—I’ve been designing and facilitating meetings like this for over twenty years. Participants love them. And more and more of them are taking place, all over the world. Let’s do this!
Photo attribution: Flickr user michigancommunities