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.
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.]
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.
Interested in an innovative participatory conference session alternative to talk-at-the-audience formats? Then you’ll want to learn about a brilliant session format we used at the edACCESS 2010 Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop.
I’ve been running peer conferences for edACCESS, an association of information technology staff at small independent schools, since 1992, and just wrapped up our 19th annual conference, held this year at Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The four-day conference did not include a single traditional didactic session. Only two sessions were scheduled in advance: a Demo Session in which attendees, scattered around the exhibit area, gave short presentations on cool technology and applications used at their school, and the case study described below. All other topics and formats (33 in all!) were crowd sourced, using the Conferences That Work methodology, during the first few hours of the conference.
Before the conference
Joel Backon of Choate Rosemary School designed and facilitated the Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop session, with input from Bill Campbell and a dose of “inspiration from reading Adrian’s book“. Before the conference, Joel described some of his thoughts in an email to me:
“I will provide structure, but I don’t want to be too prescriptive or we won’t learn anything. For example, if there is disagreement about which tools will be best to use for the project, that is a message everybody should know about Web 2.0 tools. There are so many, it is difficult to obtain agreement regarding which to use, and that impacts the productivity of organizations. At this point, I’m looking for feedback because I am clearly taking a risk.”
I told Joel that I loved the idea of using a case study format for the session, and suggested he add a little more detail (about the IT operations at the school) to his case study. Here are the final case study materials that attendees received. They were posted on the conference wiki several days before the session took place. You may want to check out the link before reading further.
Setting the stage
As we listened in the school theater, Joel spent ten minutes introducing the case study materials. He gave us a list of tools, including a blog already set up on Cover It Live—projected on a large screen in front of us—and told us we had to collaboratively create a one page report of recommendations on how to cut a (fictitious) $1,000,000 school information technology annual budget by 50%.
Oh, and we couldn’t talk to each other face to face! All communication had to be done online.
Normally, a project of this type would take an experienced IT staff days to complete, requiring extensive discussion of every facet of the organization’s infrastructure, personnel, services, and budget.
Oh, and we had ninety minutes! In that time, we had to choose appropriate collaborative online tools, divide up the work, discuss options, make decisions and recommendations, and write the report.
Finally, Joel explained, after the exercise was complete, we’d have half an hour to debrief using good old-fashioned talking to one another, face to face.
Some participants had traveled thousands of miles to edACCESS 2010, and now here we were, sitting in a theater auditorium, silently working at our computers.
During the first twenty minutes of the session, I was highly skeptical that we would be able to accomplish anything meaningful. (In the debrief, it turned out that most people had had the same expectation.) To see what transpired you may want to check out the complete blog conversation transcript, which provides moment-by-moment documentation of our online conversation. Notice that tweets that included the conference hashtag, #edaccess10, were merged in real time into the transcript.
At around 8:50 a.m., the group started to get organized. Communicating through the blog, people started to suggest online tools to work on specific projects. The tools mentioned were Google products: Wave, and Docs. Our sophisticated attendees were aware that Docs had been upgraded in April to support simultaneous editing by multiple (up to 50) users and they even knew that you had to choose the “new version” on the Editing Settings tab.
Up to this point I had not been working on the project, but was monitoring the blog conversation as a process observer. I asked to receive an invitation to the Google Wave, but a link never came. Eventually I found out that the Wave had only been adopted by a few attendees.
But when I clicked on the link for a Google Docs spreadsheet that had been set up I was astounded. (Check it out!) Attendees had created a multitab spreadsheet with a summary page that showed the current savings in different budget areas that people were working on linked to separate detailed tabs for each area. I was amazed at the work that had been done, and immediately added a small contribution of my own—a column showing the percentage budget savings so we could tell when we’d reached our 50% goal. People used free cells to annotate their suggestions and decisions.
Bill Campbell, who was moderating the blog, used Cover It Live’s instant poll so we could discover the tools we were using. The poll showed that most of us were working on the spreadsheet.
Thirty minutes before the end of the exercise, I suggested someone set up a Google Doc for the report (I didn’t know how to do this myself.) Within a few minutes the report was created and people started writing. I added a starting introductory paragraph and corrected a few typos. It was truly remarkable to see the report evolve keystroke by keystroke in real time, being written by a ghostly crew of 30-40 people.
With fifteen minutes to go, it became clear we could reach the 50% reduction goal, and that the report would be ready on time. The release of tension led to an outbreak of silliness (starting around 10:00 a.m. in the blog transcript) to which I must confess I contributed.
So what did we learn? Here are some of my thoughts, feel free to add your own as a comment at the end of this post.
First of all, everyone was surprised by how successful our effort had been. I think all of us underestimated the advantages of working together online, where multiple channels of communication and collaboration can coexist simultaneously. This is so different from meeting face to face, where, in general, at any moment one person is monopolizing the conversation. I am pretty sure that if we had done the same exercise face to face, we would not have come up with such a high-quality solution!
I think the case study worked well because we trusted each other. The group members knew each other to varying degrees, and we were prepared to accept individual judgments about self-selected areas where each of us chose to work. The exercise would not have gone well if we had been concerned about the abilities of some of the participants.
One interesting observation is that we were working collaboratively on publicly accessible documents. As a result, we don’t actually know how many people contributed to our work, or even if they were all at edACCESS 2010! This made it very easy to add new workers; anyone who was given the link to a document could start editing it right away. A private workspace would have required some kind of registration process, which would have encumbered our ad hoc efforts.
One weakness in our approach is the lack of any formal checking mechanism for the report we generated. A few people went over the report during the last ten minutes and commented that it “looked good” but if one of us had made a serious mistake there’s a good chance it would have been missed. This exercise was akin to what happens when a group of people responds to an emergency—everyone does the best they can and is grateful for the contributions of others.
It surprised me that no obvious leaders emerged, although several people (including me) made group-directed suggestions that seem to have been accepted and acted on.
A number of people commented early on that they couldn’t use their iPads effectively for the exercise. We needed multiple windows open to be able to work efficiently, and the Cover It Live transcript wouldn’t scroll in Safari on the iPad (though there appears to be a work-around).
It’s hard for me to think of a more innovative participatory conference session format. For two hours we were spellbound, working and playing hard on our laptops, and then excitedly discussing and debriefing. I wager that all the participants at the edACCESS 2010 Web 2.0 Collaborative Tools Workshop will remember this experience and their associated learning for a long time.
What other lessons can we learn from this experiment? Are there ways this collaborative process might be improved?