Eight pieces of information needed for event design

meetingEvery week I receive requests for advice on improving existing meetings. (Design consultations on new meetings are less frequent, which is unfortunate since it’s much easier to begin with a good design than successfully redesign meetings that attendees have already experienced.)

All event designs require certain basic information. Typically, clients start with an initial consultation where we explore desires, needs, and circumstances, winkling out the basics in the process.

Quite often, however, I’ll receive emails asking for design advice that omit significant information. Here’s an example I received last week, quoted in full:

Dear Adrian,

I am a researcher working on a side-event to [an upcoming international meeting]. I work for [a European foundation] and am looking for innovative ways to engage an audience of up to 300 people in the subject of [my foundation’s mission].

We want to get away from the lecture-style format but we do not have the ability to split the group up (for translation reasons, amongst other things).

If you could offer any advice or links I would be most grateful.

[“Dominique”]

Meeting designers need answers to eight questions before design can commence. The following list includes some commentary on how Dominique’s request complies.

Who is the meeting owner?
Every meeting has an owner. There is invariably a single person who has ultimate authority over the meeting objectives, budget, format, and content. A common problem for meeting designers is that they are approached for assistance by someone other than the meeting owner (who may not even be aware that a meeting designer exists or is needed.) That’s certainly the case here, and when the meeting owner cannot be worked with directly, any design work performed will be wasted if the meeting owner is not convinced of its value by the intermediary with whom you’re working.

Who is the meeting designer working for?
The meeting owner? The meeting participants? One or more intermediaries? Some combination?

Who is attending?
What are the profiles of desired/expected attendees? Is the event invitation-only or is it marketed to specific groups? For Dominique’s event, are the audience members supporters of the foundation’s mission? Skeptics who need to be convinced? What are the translation issues she mentions?

What are the desired objectives/goals/outcomes?
Many clients find it hard to define their goals and outcomes for their event. Dominique wants the audience to be “engaged”. What does this mean? Engaged about what? What is the desired outcome of this engagement?

How many people?
The only meeting designs that scale are those that omit inter-attendee interaction; i.e. broadcast-style events. If you want or need interactive or participative events, the number of attendees is essential information for creating an effective design. (2/8/15/25/60/100/200/450/1000 people? Each level will generally require a somewhat different approach.) Dominique’s “up to 300 people” includes the possibility that some other breakout will be taking place that siphons off all but 30 attendees. We need either tighter bounds on this number or several alternative designs that cover a range of attendee counts.

How much time?
Are people together for an hour? A day? Two days? A week? Most of us have an idea of how much content we can be exposed to via lecture in a given amount of time. An understanding of the time needed for people to productively peer learn, make significant connections, and become a member of a valued community is far less common. The amount of time that people are together puts limits on what can be done and informs design decisions on the most appropriate processes to use during the meeting.

What venue?
Venues often constrain what’s possible at an event. Desired objectives like engagement may be difficult or impossible if attendees are stuck in fixed-seating in an auditorium. Working in small groups can be thwarted if the venue is noisy, or undersized, or adequate breakout space is unavailable.

What resources are available to support work on the event design?
Is the meeting owner willing to work on the event design, or pass full responsibility and authority to a trusted alternative? Can you afford a day of my time to assist with your design? Are you looking for free advice? (Dominique was.)

We need answers to all these questions—and often others—before workable and effective meeting design is even conceivable. (I thought about adding the event budget to the above list, but, though it’s obviously ultimately important, it’s less relevant in my experience than you might think.) I don’t expect clients to spontaneously volunteer all this information before we first talk or meet. But it certainly doesn’t hurt if they do (and I get some reassurance that the client has made an effort to really think through what they want and the steps they might take to get it.)

I’ve probably missed some other pieces of information that are important. What do you think should be added to this list?

If your event had a mouth what would it say?

mouth 7303556544_01b8cd707b_bIn the brilliant book Into The Heart Of MeetingsEric 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.

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 Thomas was surprised by the image that he conjured up in response to Eric’s question. 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.

As this example illustrates, visualization techniques provide extremely powerful methods for excavating key meeting objectives and underlying client desires—vital information that a client may not even be consciously aware of until they have been brought into the light of day.

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