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 spent the summer of 1973 working for the Long-Range Studies Department of the British Post Office, a long-defunct group that attempted to predict the exciting future that new technologies would surely bring about. The Post Office had just built a few hideously expensive teleconferencing studios, connected by outrageously expensive telephone trunk lines. One of our jobs was to find out how to best use them. Could we persuade businesspeople to stop traveling to meetings, to sit instead in comfortable local studios hundreds of miles apart, handsomely equipped with cameras, microphones, screens, and speakers that magically allowed them to meet as well as if they were all in the same room? Why yes, we concluded brightly in our final report:
“A substantial number of business meetings which now occur face-to-face could be conducted effectively by some kind of group telemedia.”
Online meetings today
Forty years later, “group telemedia”, now known as online or virtual meetings, are common and increasingly popular. Solomon’s New York Times article quoted above explores how some corporate shareholder meetings are now held online. The biggest advantages of online meetings are clearly convenience and much lower costs: no travel, venue, or F&B expenditures.
There are, however, some downsides.
Solomon points out that virtual shareholder meetings typically pre-empt meaningful shareholder interaction; convenient if management is facing awkward questions.
“It was no coincidence that the CSX Corporation held its 2008 meeting at a remote rail yard in New Orleans, the same year it was the focus of a shareholder activist putting up a proxy fight. In previous years, it had held those meetings at the luxurious Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, which the railroad owned at the time. A virtual meeting eliminates the potential for a public relations disaster.”
He contrasts such approaches with what some companies do:
“Think about the extravaganza that is the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. Days of talking and showing off the company’s products, including copious amounts of treats from Dairy Queen, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary. The Walt Disney Company’s meeting is also known for highlighting the company’s latest movie or ride. Even children can ask questions; one recent interaction led Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, to give a private tour of Pixar to a child. Some companies are local legends where the entire town will gather. It is at these meetings that connections are made between the company and its shareholders.“
“By forcing everything onto the web, we lose the personal interaction. Everyone logs in and watches a preprogrammed set of questions and answers. And then everyone goes away. Management’s worldview is reaffirmed in the 10 or so minutes it allows for questioning, and there is no engagement except with those investors who own a portion of shares large enough to personally meet with management. It’s a modern world that is frightening in its disengagement.”
Online versus face-to-face
Virtual meetings lower costs, offer a convenient way to receive content, and they can provide limited interactivity. Yet you can also abandon one with the click of a mouse. Such meetings require little commitment, so it is harder to successfully engage participants when the cost of leaving is so low.
If you think of a meeting primarily as a way of transferring content, then online meetings seem attractive, inexpensive alternatives to face-to-face events. If, however, you value meetings as opportunities to make meaningful connections with others, face-to-face meetings offer significant advantages.
Yes, virtual meetings lower costs. Yet I believe that the unique benefits of face-to-face meetings are still valuable. Think of the advantages of being physically present with other people: dining and socializing together, the serendipity of human contact, the opportunity to meet new people in person rather than hear a voice on the phone or see an image on a screen, the magic that can occur when a group of people coalesces. All these combine into more than the sum of their parts, building the potential to gain and grow long-term relationships and friendships. Anyone who has been to a good face-to-face conference knows that these things can happen. Either in the moment or in retrospect, participants may see them as pivotal times in their lives.
Why? Well, you’d be horrified if loud construction noise invaded the ballroom at the beginning of your elegant pre-dinner mixer. Any kind of competing sound makes it harder for people to hear each other, reducing the quantity and quality of interaction. Yet plenty of meeting planners seem to believe that music acts as a kind of obligatory social lubricant when people get together. Jackhammers are not OK, but “background” music is, somehow, mysteriously exempt.
Why is music often inflicted on us during socials? While I don’t know for sure, here are a couple of misconceptions that may be to blame.
Music can improve creativity and enjoyment, so doesn’t it improve social situations?
Bars and restaurants play music while we drink and eat, so shouldn’t we have music during our event socials too?
Have you ever been to a bar where there wasn’t music playing or a TV on? Me neither. In my experience, the majority of restaurants play background music. Bars and restaurants are in business for people to meet socially, so surely they must have found that playing music improves customers’ social experience, or they wouldn’t do it!
Well, actually, no. Bars and restaurants play music, not for their patrons’ benefit but for their own! Background music that’s loud enough to interfere with talking to a friend but not loud enough to drive you out of the establishment increases sales. From a 2008 French study: “high level [sound] volume led to increase alcohol consumption and reduced the average amount of time spent by the patrons to drink their glass”. And 2008 British research concludes that “people do, at least partly, drink because they can’t talk to each other”. So the reason music surrounds us in commercial social spaces is not to increase social interaction, it’s to decrease it and have consumers buy more!
We also need to bear in mind people—typically older folks like me—who have hearing loss that impedes their comprehension of conversations. Anything we can do to provide a better acoustical environment at our events will help the auditory challenged to have a better experience.
When is it OK to play music at events?
Are there times when it’s appropriate to use music during conferences? Sure. Here are some examples, feel free to add more in the comments:
Sessions where music is as an important sensory, emotional, or learning component.
Parties! (Be sure to provide quiet spaces for folks who don’t like the loud music and/or just want to talk.)
Corporate social responsibility and sustainability activities, especially if they involve repetitive activities—e.g. packing toys for needy kids.
In conclusion, avoid reflexively ordering music background for your events. It’s a fundamental distraction that, apart from a few specific situations, reduces communication, connection, and engagement. And, if you cut out the house music during the mixer, you may reduce your food and beverage bill too!