Here’s why I think Ask Me Anything is almost always a better session format than a lecture.
I’ve written extensively on this blog (1, 2, 3) and in my books about why the meeting lecture is a terrible way to learn. (A one-sentence distillation: learning is a process not an event.)
But suppose a group gets the opportunity to spend time with a content expert who knows a lot more about their field than anyone else present? Isn’t a lecture the best format to use in these circumstances?
Well…sometimes. First, let’s explore the circumstances when a lecture may be the way to go. Then I’ll make a case for why an Ask Me Anything format is usually a better choice.
One of the best and simplest ways to build active learning and connection into any meeting is to regularly use pair share. (See Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation, or Chapter 27 of Event Crowdsourcing for full details.) I’ve recently noticed that in some circumstances, trio share — pair share but with three participants — works better.
Advantages of pair share
Pair share has a lot going for it. It’s the most efficient way to ensure that every participant periodically switches into activelearning, which, as explained in The Power of Participation, provides:
Pair share duration is minimal. I commonly allow each partner a minute to share their response. Including instructions, a typical pair share might take around three minutes. Getting every participant to actively think and respond to a question or issue in this time pays rich dividends.
Comparing trio share with pair share
A trio share obviously takes longer than a pair share, given the same sharing time per participant. The example above would require at least an extra minute. I say “‘at least” because it generally takes longer (at least at in-person meetings) to create trios than pairs.
In addition, the conversational directness and intensity may be less in a trio share, since each participant is talking to two people instead of one.
On the other hand, each participant is connecting with two other people, rather than one.
None of these differences is a deal breaker. In the past, I have tended to use pair share, simply because my time with participants is limited and pair shares are quicker.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, however, I’ve noticed something new.
When trio share works better than pair share
Ultimately, you can’t force adult attendee participation. Nevertheless, at in-person meetings it’s rare to have people sit out pair sharing. The reason, of course, is unspoken social pressure. Anyone choosing not to participate is obvious to the people around them.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced meetings online, I began to see more people avoiding session pair shares. I’d allocate pairs into Zoom breakout rooms, and, quite often, one or two people didn’t join their allocated room but stayed in the Zoom lobby.
As the host, I’d gently check in with those remaining behind. Sometimes they hadn’t accepted the breakout room assignment and would do so. But more often than not, it turned out they were absent (it’s hard to tell when their camera’s off).
Their unfortunate partners who went into the breakout room had no one to talk to!
At in-person meetings, this is easy to handle. I ask anyone without a partner to raise their hand, and then pair up isolated people.
Online, this takes too much time, and those without a partner suffer.
Using trio share instead of pair share online
So I’ve started using trio share for online meetings. There are two reasons.
First, trio share reduces the impact on “orphaned” participants. If one person in a trio doesn’t join, the remaining pair can still reap the benefits of pair share.
And second, trio share gently increases social pressure for attendees to participate. Bowing out of pair share affects one other person. Avoiding a trio share affects two.
Whatever you do, some people will opt out of small group work. Their reasons are — their reasons. We need to accept that. Switching to trio share for online work is a small tweak that seems to improve participation. And creating a meeting environment where small group work is more likely to occur is always worthwhile.
What’s your experience of using pair share and/or trio share at in-person and online meetings? Please share in the comments!
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.
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.
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!
When everyone shares at a meeting, someone has to start! There are two scenarios to consider: facilitating a discussion for a single group, and providing directions for choosing who goes first when simultaneous small group discussions are needed or desired.
Face-to-face and online meetings have different signaling options, which I described in detail last week. So for this post, I’ll chronicle “who goes first” options for single and multiple group scenarios.
Options for choosing who goes first with a single group
• Ask for a volunteer
Probably the most common protocol for determining who goes first is to ask “who wants to start?” and provide a signaling method: e.g., raise your hand, or use an online signaling option.
This is generally a perfectly acceptable method, though, as you’ll see the next two options may be preferable under some circumstances.
• Facilitator/leader goes first
Sometimes a topic under discussion is tough to talk about. I’ve been in many meetings where the first contribution avoided addressing what was asked, or was meagre or superficial. This gives later sharers a license to follow suit. For example, a question about how a person is feeling about an issue may be answered by what they are thinking about it.
When a meeting facilitator or leader starts the sharing and models the kind of response that’s wanted, it’s much more likely that others will respond in a similar way.
• A plant goes first
No, not that underwatered yet surprisingly intelligent potted hibiscus that’s sitting next to the speakerphone. Or Groot. Rather, the facilitator asks a reliable participant, perhaps warned beforehand, to provide a great response to the posed question/issue/challenge.
Ways for small groups to independently determine who goes first
When you’re facilitating multiple small group sharing, either in person or online, you need to provide each group with guidance on how to choose who goes first. In person, you can provide this guidance once everyone is in their small group. Online, typically, you will need to supply “who goes first” instructions before people are whisked into their virtual breakout rooms.
A word about pair share
One of the best ways to improve any meeting session is to regularly include pair share (where paired participants each take time in turn to share their thoughts with their partner). Online, rather than splitting everyone into pairs, I recommend you create groups of four. Instruct each group to form two pairs, perhaps using one of the methods described below. Have one pair run pair share while the other pair listens, and then switch. This makes it more likely that each pair will actually follow instructions, and gives the group of four people a taste of three perspectives rather than one.
Methods for small groups to choose who goes first
You can use a couple of strategies: either leave it up to the groups to decide, or provide a method for them.
Letting each group decide who goes first is always an option, but it can also be fun to have groups compare or discover something about each other. Here are some simple ideas; feel free to add your own, especially if you can identify something that relates to the topic groups or pairs are going to discuss:
First name closest to start of alphabet
Longest first name
Nearest to birthday
Earliest up in the morning
Lowest street address number
Closest to a point in the room
Lives nearest to water
Most recently worked in the garden
Last purchased something
Most colorful clothing
Feeling whimsical? For a pair share, pick neutral substitutes for partners A and B. For example: “One of you is cup, one of you is saucer.” “One of you is coffee, the other tea.” “One of you is sun, one is moon.” There are plenty of other pairs you can use (rock and roll, knife and fork, bread and butter) but avoid those that could have a negative connotation (e.g., life and death, right and wrong). And if you’re running multiple pair shares in a session, have Partner B start first sometimes, and change partners and who-goes-first strategies as well.
Are there other ways to decide who goes first?
I hope these ideas will prove helpful. I bet there are more I haven’t thought of. If you have additions and improvements, please share them in the comments!
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
After a one-day Participate! Lab for Dutch professional moderators, Otto Wijnen interviewed me about presentation and speaker tips for making presentations more effective by incorporating active learning. Apart from a brief introduction and closing in Dutch, the 13-minute interview is in English.
In less than three minutes, you can improve almost any conference sessions with pair share (aka think-pair-share). The technique is simple: after pairing up participants and providing a short period for individual thinking about an appropriate topic, each pair member takes a minute in turn to share their thoughts with their partner. (More details can be found in Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation.)
Pair share is not the same as conversation, because pair share gives each person an exclusive minute of active sharing and a minute of pure listening. This balance rarely occurs during conversation, because typically:
One party speaks more than another, and;
Whoever isn’t speaking is often not fully listening to what is being said because they’re thinking about something they want to say themselves.
Improve conference sessions
Pair share improves conference sessions by:
Resetting every participant’s brain to a state of active engagement;
Providing structured opportunities for participants to share expertise and experience with their partner, and (if built into the subsequent session design) with others in the room; and
Each assigned topic must be central to the session’s purpose;
If the session is presenter-content heavy, hold a pair share roughly every ten minutes to explore and consolidate participant learning; and
Design the session to build on relevant expertise and experience uncovered by each pair-share.
I also like to incorporate a closing pair-share where partners each share three takeaways they’ve acquired during the session. I’ve found that when I use this in a session design like the fishbowl sandwich, participants inevitably stay around deep in conversation after the session is officially over. (That always looks and feels good!)
Finally, you can use pair share as a tool for introductions. Invite everyone to pair up with someone they don’t know and have each person take a minute to introduce themselves to their partner.
Improve conference sessions with pair share: it’s quick, simple, versatile, and effective. Use it!
How do you use pair share? Share with everyone in the comments below!
I’ve just returned from a wonderful 48-hour whirlwind of experiments and play with 30 meeting designers in Utrecht, The Netherlands. We came from Europe, South America, Slovakia, and the U.S. (me) to learn, share, and connect at the first Meeting Design Practicum, hosted by Eric de Groot and his merry gang. Here are nine learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum.
Similar in spirit to the many EventCamps held around the world since 2010, the Practicum was a safe place for event professionals to experiment with techniques, approaches, ideas, and formats without the obligation and pressure of a “successful” outcome for a paying client. We met informally at an ancient Dutch fort, cooked meals together, did our own housekeeping, and quickly built an intimate community with connections that will continue to reverberate into the future.
I can’t give a complete survey of everything that happened at the Practicum. For one thing, I couldn’t attend every Practicum session because we often had to choose between simultaneous sessions. In addition, some of the important take-aways were already familiar to me, so I don’t include them here. Rather, I’ll share new insights that I made an impression on me during our three days together. I apologize for not attributing them to specific people; suffice it to say that every single participant brought important insights and contributions to our gathering.
One of the great concepts Eric & Mike van der Vijver introduced in Into The Heart of Meetings was that of modeling portions or an entire event on the familiar format of what they call Elementary Meetings—such as weddings, legal trials, birth celebrations, etc. The Practicum provided several examples of this.
Our journey through the event was mapped onto a large wall “tree”, with our influences mapped onto the roots at the start. We added our learnings from the Meeting Design Practicum as leaves to the branches as the Practicum progressed.
Participants had the opportunity to share a single short meeting design tip/trick. This was mapped onto the magic competitions of Asterix and Obelix where druids demonstrated their magic to the tribes. On several occasions, those of us offering magic disappeared into a small room, only to reappear wearing impressive druid beards. One at a time, introduced by a flourish played on a trumpet we shared our tips. At the end of the Practicum we chose the most useful tip. The winner, Victor Neyndorff, took home the golden snouieknife (sp?).
Metaphors provide powerful ways to communicate, and I find them surprisingly difficult to discover. A delightful and effective metaphor for meeting design was shared early in the Practicum. Seeing the meeting designer as a gardener maps so many aspects of meeting design process onto the familiar act of gardening that enumerating the parallels is left as an exercise for the reader.
In 2007 – 8 I was a participant in a year-long leadership workshop held over a dozen weekends. For our last meeting we were asked to bring a personal object and share its meaning and relevance to what we had learned and our experience. I found this a moving and bonding experience, as we told our stories, each linked to an object that we held in our hands or placed at the center of our group.
The Practicum reminded me of this format, thanks to a session on using objects at events. We concentrated on using individual objects with attributes that evoked a desired event theme, message, or mindset. One interesting aspect of this approach is that you could use it to replace the common practice of saturating the event environment with theme/message decor. Imagine—no more branded cocktail napkins needed! Another interesting suggestion was the use of two or more interacting objects. (For example, a mirror ball together with lights held by participants.)
Improving a traditional presentation with closing Q&A
Instead of moving straight into Q&A after a presentation, provide a short time for participants to share possible questions in small groups. This helps introverts get their just-as-good-as-anyone-else questions out. It also provides a check for those wondering whether their question is a good one, or optimally phrased.
“Never trust a leader who doesn’t dance at the event party”
I’ll let this stand without comment, except to say my experience bears this out.
A good question for pair-share
“What motivates you the most?” An excellent question for energizing participants by reconnecting them with their personal passion.
Working with status-conscious leaders at events
Some leaders are heavily invested in their personal status. At events, they may insist on speaking at length to everyone, even though the audience may widely consider their talk is a waste of time. We discussed this issue at one of the four Practicum “challenge sessions”. One possible solution suggested was to elevate the leader’s status, for example, by adding a short well-produced video showing the leader to best advantage. Then the leader may accept more interactive and interesting formats, such as an interview by key participants with preplanned questions.
Relief from discomfort
My philosophy when facilitating is to bring participants as gently as possible into situations or experiences that may be uncomfortable, but are needed to satisfy desired outcomes. During the Practicum we went through “a Maori discussion format”. We found an issue on which our group was roughly equally divided and, with the two groups standing facing each other, took turns arguing for our point of view using the format “YOU think that… WE think that…”
I found the format artificial and uncomfortable (not least because none of us had any idea of what the other members in our group actually thought). What was interesting to me was the next step. We all came together, sharing hugs and reconnecting across the groups, followed by a debrief where we all lay down and spoke about the experience when we felt we had something to say (rather like a Quaker Meeting). The relief felt after the “confrontation” was much stronger than if we had used a less confrontational discussion format. The experience made me think that there may be times when it’s worth increasing the discomfort at some points of event process to improve post-discomfort bonding.
On the last evening of the Practicum, we piled into cars for a mystery outing. Our destination was revealed to be an Escape Room, or rather three Escape Rooms.
We had an opportunity to cooperatively solve (or watch others solve) a myriad of physical and mental problems in order to either escape from a room or, in my case, to compete against another team in an identical room. I had heard about these rooms but never experienced one before. For a group to solve the puzzles, members had to communicate effectively with each other. Our group worked fairly independently, calling out or showing findings to the other members as we found clues and objects needed to increase our score or unlock further puzzles. I heard afterwards that our competitors were less effective at listening to each other, which is why we ended up “winning”. Video cameras watched us as we worked, though the staff told us that the video would stay private.
I had fun working with my six first-time teammates!
The Escape Room experience is an effective way to expose existing or potential communication problems in a group. It could be debriefed afterwards using video of the session. However, it might be a rather negative experience, as there’s certainly potential for intra-team conflict. So I’m not sure if it’s an optimum environment for team building.
Learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum
I’ve shared nine learnings from the first Meeting Design Practicum that this unique event uncovered. As always, reading about an experience is a pale ghost of the experience itself. Just as important was the opportunity to reconnect and deepen relationships with old friends, and make some wonderful new connections. I hope that Eric and Co will do this again; I will be among the first to sign up!
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 beside 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.