We’ve all experienced the meeting question that isn’t. A session presenter or moderator asks for questions and someone stands up and starts spouting their own opinions. A concluding question (if they even have one) is little more than an excuse for their own speech.
Are you tired of attendees making statements during question time? Here are ways to deal with audience questions that aren’t actually questions.
I was facilitating a one-day workshop for 24 college presidents. At the start, we agreed to follow six covenants, including the freedom to ask questions at any time, and a commitment to stay on schedule. Our program was tight and college presidents are not known for their brevity, and I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the group’s ability to honor the latter covenant.
During our opening roundtable sharing, everybody heroically tried to stop when their time was up, but we were still running late when, at the end of one participant’s contribution, someone I’ll call Q said, “Can I ask a question?”
All eyes turned in my direction. Conflicted and flustered, I blurted out: “No.”
Everyone laughed. My self-contradiction was funny—in the same way that seeing someone slipping on a banana peel is funny.
Q then asked his question anyway, which was the right thing to do. Why? Because both the question and the answer that followed were brief, and then we were on our way again. It was a challenge, but with the participants’ help we stayed on schedule for the rest of the day.
What I learned from this collision of agreements
This was an interesting learning experience for me for three reasons. I learned that:
A preoccupation with a long-term process goal (keeping a program on schedule) can lead me to try to block a short-term need (getting a question answered).
I can trust participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) to do the right thing.
I am far more capable of dealing with potentially embarrassing situations than I used to be. (The moment I realized that my aim to keep the event on track wasn’t threatened, the experience became funny to me too. In the past, I would have remained feeling uncomfortable for a while about “losing control”.)
I suspect it’s impossible to have a set of covenants that won’t occasionally clash—and I think that’s actually a good thing.
A Taoist might say that tension between opposites illuminates the underlying core. In this example, I was attempting to balance the success of the overall experience with the needs of the moment. There’s no “right” answer. After all, too many delaying questions could have disrupted the workshop flow and reduced the value of our time together. Awareness of the potential contradictions helped me to focus on a key aspect of the day’s work.
Noticing and responding as best one can to such tensions is necessary and valuable in the moment of facilitation. And, as a bonus, sometimes the outcome of a collision of agreements is amusing too.
A fundamental question frequently arises when I receive initial requests for conference or meeting designs, because it’s often not clear whom the event is expected to benefit:
Whom is your event for?
A powerful way of thinking about events emerges from answering this question.
Here are three constituencies that could be components of your answer:
(The third, Culture, is the best word I can think of to represent societal patterns and beliefs: i.e. forms to follow. Not strictly a “whom”, but still a powerful force to include.)
A Venn diagram
Looking through this lens leads me to the Venn diagram above, which I think is an interesting way to view different kinds of meetings. You may quibble about the definitions and boundaries of the event types plotted—feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
Four quick observations:
It’s surprising how nicely most common event types fall into one of the seven combinations of the three constituencies. One exception is what I call “client conferences” which can be predominantly for an organization’s benefit (e.g. “in order to qualify to sell our products you must attend this conference”) or for both the organization’s and clients’ benefit (e.g. “learn how to sell our products better and let’s all make more money”).
In my work, I sometimes see tension between the needs of the organization and those of the participants. Part of my approach to event design is to make events win-win for both.
I can’t think of any events that are purely “for” culture. People or organizations always seem to have to be involved. (Though perhaps The Long Now or a burial of time capsules are rare exceptions?)
Feel free to add religious events wherever you think appropriate. I’m not going there.
I see this formulation as a work in progress, so your comments, additions, and corrections are especially welcome!
Curtiss Reed and I enjoyed presenting our thirty-minute MeetingsNet webinar Participant-Led Meetings: A Case Study on February 4, 2014, and I’m happy to announce that the webinar is now available free on demand (until February 4, 2015). Just go to the registration link and complete the short sign-up to receive a link to the webinar. We received many good participant-led event questions, and were not able to answer them all in the time available. So I’ve listed them here, together with my answers. I hope you find them useful!
Run Post It! at the opening of an event, breakout group, or a single session.
It is surely no surprise that you’ll need one or more sticky notes (e.g. Post-it® brand) for each participant. If you’re using Post It! for a presenter tool at a single session, supply a single 2” x 3” note to each attendee. For a group display of topics, supply one to four 6” x 8” (preferred size) notes, or 3” x 5” notes if posting space is limited.
Make sure that you have sufficient pens available. Fine tip marker pens are best.
Finally, you’ll need clear, accessible wall or notice board space where notes can be posted. Walls should be smooth and clean, as sticky notes don’t adhere well to rough or dirty surfaces. If you’re using Post It! as a presenter tool, the posting area should be close to where you are standing in the room so you can easily refer to it.
How a presenter can use Post It! to learn what attendees want to talk about
Before the session begins, give each participant a single sticky note and a pen. Ask the audience to write down the one topic they would like explored or question they would like answered during the session. Give everyone a couple of minutes to write their response and collect the notes as they are completed. As you collect the notes, browse their contents and mentally categorize their contents into broad themes. For example, some attendees ask specific questions, some may want an overview of your topic, and some may want you to cover one particular aspect. Once all the notes have been collected, briefly read each note out loud and add it to a cluster of similar notes on the wall next to you. You may find a note that is unique and needs to be placed by itself.
Once all the notes have been stuck on the wall, it should be clear to both you and your audience what the group is interested in. Don’t feel obliged to cover everything mentioned. Instead, use the notes to make a plan of how you will spend your time with the group. Describe your plan briefly, and apologize for topics that you’re not able to cover in the time available. Even if you don’t cover everything requested, your audience will have the information to understand why you made the choices you did. If you’re going to be available after the session is over, you can invite attendees to meet with you to talk more.
As you continue with your audience-customized session, you can refer to the note clusters to confirm that you’re covering your plan.
How you can use Post It! to make public the interests and questions of a group
Before the session begins, decide on the number of sticky notes to give to each participant. The number will depend on the size of the group and the length of time available for any resulting sessions. Suggestions for the number of notes are in the table below.
Size of group
Suggested number of notes for each attendee
20 − 30
2 − 4
30 − 50
2 − 3
50 − 100
1 − 2
Hand out this number of sticky notes and a pen to each attendee. Ask the audience to write down one or more topics they would like explored or questions they would like answered during the session, one per note. Tell them they do not need to use all their notes. Indicate the wall area where notes can be posted, and ask them, once they have finished, to post their notes on the wall. Give participants a few minutes to write their responses. During the note posting, it’s natural for people to hang around the wall and read what others have written. Let them do this, but ask people to allow late posters to get to the wall.
Once you’ve posted all the notes, provide some time for everyone to take in the topics and questions displayed. You can then use this group sharing as a starting point for Open Space, Fishbowls, Plus/Delta, and other group discussion techniques discussed in my upcoming book.
There’s no excuse for not knowing what attendees want to talk about any more!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could know whether a great idea would lead to successfully creating a new conference?
Creating a new conference is a chancy business that requires a certain amount of guts. I have worked on several conference projects that haven’t panned out. There’s no question that failing to engage a critical mass of registrants for an event that you thought would be popular is a disheartening experience.
Despite success in creating many successful new conferences over the last thirty years, I still don’t know how to predict whether an event will be viable. But I have learned one thing.
One requirement for success is being able to easily find others—my rule of thumb is at least four people—who share your vision for the conference and are willing to help make the event a reality. In the past, I’ve tried to gauge commitment intuitively. Recently, while rereading Peter Block’s wonderful book Community: The Structure of Belonging with my Consultants and Trainers monthly network group (now in its 16th year!) I came across his Four Early Questions, which he uses to negotiate the social contract between group members to “shift the ownership of the room”. Peter suggests asking people to rate on a seven-point scale, from low to high, their responses to these four questions:
How valuable an experience (or project, or community) do you plan for this to be?
How much risk are you willing to take?
To what extent are you invested in the well-being of the whole?
How participative do you plan to be?
When building any kind of new endeavor, I think these questions provide a useful way to learn more about the people you may be working with. So I’m sharing them with you here.
Of course, each of us has slightly different interpretations or internal beliefs about implicit ground rules like these, and that’s what causes problems.
When we don’t agree to explicit ground rules at the start of an event, no one knows exactly what’s acceptable behavior. (Think about what it’s like when you have to go to a conference and don’t know the dress code.) The result is stress when we’d like to do something that might not be OK, like ask a question, let a presenter know we can’t hear properly, or share a personal story. We’re social animals, and most of us don’t want to rock the boat too much. The end result: we play it safe; we’ll probably remain silent. And we lose an opportunity to make our experience better and more meaningful.
A common misconception about explicit ground rules is that they restrict us from doing things. (“Turn off your cell phones”. “No flash photography”.) Actually, good ground rules do the opposite; they increase our freedom of action. That’s because, by making it explicit that certain behaviors, like asking questions, are permitted they remove stressful uncertainty and widen our options.
How can we better support event professionals? was the topic of a fascinating August 5 #eventprofs chat† (archive), moderated by the “Queen of EIR“, Jenise Fryatt. The chat was noteworthy for its energy around two initiatives that emerged during our hour together:
An online resource for answering event industry questions
An online resource for matching volunteer mentors and mentees
Responding to the energy, I registered the domain www.eventprofsanswers.com during the chat and set up a skeleton website. As you can read in the archive, many chat participants were enthusiastic about this action, and asked how they could help move these initiatives forward.
Since the chat, I’ve had offline discussions about developing the website. Most correspondents have been positive, though a minority has expressed some reservations.
So, how can we better support event professionals?
Here are some of my conclusions and questions arising from the discussion so far:
I think it’s important to have the widest possible initial discussion before proceeding further. We need to find out what other #eventprofs think, and hear from professional association members and the associations themselves.
I’m not aware of significant attempts to use online technologies to address the two initiatives, other than the ad hoc use of Tweeted questions using the #eventprofs and allied hashtags. Perhaps there are existing resources we’re not aware of?
There seems to be evidence that some event professionals, especially perhaps those who entered the industry through non-conventional paths (like me), would appreciate a central online location for posting questions and finding appropriate mentors (either online or face to face). How easy has it been for you to get your events-related questions answered? What has your experience been with the availability of and satisfaction with existing industry mentoring programs?
I have already received a number of individual and association chapter offers of support (thank you everyone!) If you would like these initiatives to be implemented in some fashion, what are you willing to contribute to making this happen?
Do you have suggestions for additional online initiatives that would address event professionals’ needs?
I want to make it clear that I am personally completely open to the process and the organizational structure used to implement these initiatives. Perhaps an online resource would be run by a group of volunteers, perhaps it could become part of an existing professional association’s online presence and services, perhaps it would remain an independent presence that is formally supported by an association’s staff. What do you think?
Lots of questions! I, and I believe the professional events community, would like to know your responses. Either comment below or write me privately if you prefer. I look forward to everyone’s input!
†The #eventprofs chat is held on Twitter each week on Tuesdays 9 – 10 p.m. EST and Thursdays 12 – 1 p.m. EST.
Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz in the events industry about what are being called hybrid events where there are two audiences: people physically present, the local audience, and people connected to the event remotely, via Twitter, chat, audio, and video streams, the remote audience. But there’s a potential drawback to hybrid events.
Event planners are excited about this new event model because it has the potential to increase:
interaction between attendees
exposure for the event
exposure for event sponsors and the hosting organization
the value of attendee experience through new virtual tools
the likelihood that a remote attendee will become a face-to-face attendee in the future
Because of these positives, I think it’s likely that events that include local and remote audiences will become more popular over time, as we gain experience about what formats work and become proficient at resolving the technical issues involved in successfully hosting these event environments.
But there’s one thing we may lose if we add a remote audience to our events.
At the face-to-face conferences I run, attendees start by agreeing to a set of ground rules. These ground rules create an environment where participants can speak freely and ask questions without worrying that their individual statements or viewpoints will be revealed outside the event.
It’s hard to convey the difference this assurance makes to the climate at Conferences That Work unless you’ve attended one. The level of intimacy, learning, and community is significantly raised when people feel safe to ask “stupid” questions and share sensitive information with their peers.
I’m not sure that it’s possible to create the same environment of trust when an unseen remote audience joins the local participants. Believing that everyone will adhere to a set of ground rules is risky enough when everyone who agrees is in the same room as you. To sustain the same trust when an invisible remote audience is added is, I think, a significant stretch for many people. If I’m right, the end result of opening up a conference to a remote audience may be a reversion to the more common environment of most conferences today, where asking a question may be more about defining status than a simple request to learn or understand something new.
Do you think that hybrid events can be designed so that they are still safe places for people to ask questions and share around sensitive issues? Or do you think I’m over-blowing the whole issue?