The architecture of assembly

“Architecture sets the stage for our lives; it creates the world we inhabit and shapes how we relate to one another. In a time in which democracy is under increasing pressure in different parts of the world, it is time to rethink the architecture of assembly.”
Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world — and tell you how each governs, The Washington Post, March 4, 2017

How do room sets imply and influence what happens at meetings? Can room sets affect the quality of democracy, sharing, and equality experienced by participants?

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Should presenter contracts include a no brown M&Ms rider?

vanhalenriderVan Halen‘s 1982 World Tour performance contract contained a provision calling for them to be provided backstage with a bowl of M&Ms from which all the brown candies had been removed. Although this sounds like a self-indulgent rock-group’s outrageous whim, there was a sound business reason for inserting this peculiar request in the depths of a 53-page contract:

“The M&Ms provision was included in Van Halen’s contracts not as an act of caprice, but because it served a practical purpose: to provide a simple way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and complied with.”
Brown Out,

If the group arrived at a venue and discovered brown M&Ms present, they knew they needed to immediately check all contract stipulations — including important matters like whether the stage could actually handle the massive weight of the band’s equipment. Apparently, David Lee Roth would also trash the band’s dressing room to drive home the point.

Over the years I’ve contracted with hundreds of organizations for meeting facilitation and design consulting, and I’m starting to wonder if I need to adopt Van Halen’s approach.

For example, I have arrived at presentation venues to find, despite a written contract agreement to the contrary:

  • The room is full of furniture that prevents participants from moving around. “We didn’t realize it was important, and we need this room set for the session after yours.”
  • I can’t post materials on the walls. “Can’t you use some tables instead?”
  • Requested audio equipment isn’t available. “We couldn’t get you a Countryman/lav, but here’s a hand mike.”
  • The unobstructed free space is far smaller than what I requested or was told. “We needed a stage for the afternoon keynote.“/ “We decided to hold the buffet in the room.”
  • Fine-point Sharpies have been replaced by ballpoint pens. “Oh I see, yes, I guess no one will be able to read all the participant Post-Its at a distance. We’ll just have to make do.”
  • Projector resolution is not what I was told or requested. “Your slides will be a bit distorted, but I’m sure people will still be able to read them.”
  • Tables that were supposed to be covered with taped down white paper for participant drawings are still bare. “Kevin said he’d cover them, but we don’t know where he is. Surely it won’t take long; can you help us?”
  • Carefully diagrammed room sets have been replaced with something different. “Well, our staff have never set up curved theater seating before — it’s not on their standard charts — so they set the rows straight.”

It’s true that I’m not the standard-presenter-talking-from-a-podium-at-the-front-of-the-room — i.e. “Give me a room full of chairs and my PowerPoint and I’m all set!” Yet there are sound reasons for my, apparently to some, strange-seeming requests. Those contract provisions are not about making my life easier or more luxurious — they are needed to provide participants with the best possible learning, connection, and overall experience during my time with them.

I am well aware of the incredible demands made on meeting planners before and during events. I’ve had that role for hundreds of events, and know what it’s like. Things rarely go according to plan, and creative solutions need to be invented on the spot. No matter what happens, I always work with planners to the best of my ability to ensure that the show goes on and it’s the best that it can be under the circumstances.

What’s frustrating is that complications like the examples above can almost always be avoided with a modicum of planning — if meeting planners read and take seriously the contract terms to which they’ve agreed. I will bend over backwards to resolve pre-event concerns, but being hit with last-minute surprises is, at best, annoying, and, at worst, can significantly reduce the effectiveness of what I have been paid and contracted to do.

No, I’m not going to start trashing dressing rooms like David Lee Roth. (Full disclosure: nobody’s ever even offered me a dressing room.) But, folks, if you hire me, don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. Please read the contract before signing it, ask me about anything you don’t understand or are concerned about so we’re clear about my needs and your ability to fulfill them, take my requests seriously, and, as the event approaches, keep in mind your commitments so they don’t get overlooked. I will appreciate your professionalism, and everyone — your attendees, you, and I — will reap the benefits.

Ask Me Anything About Conference Panels—Annotated Video

I guarantee you will learn many new great ideas about conference panels from this Blab of my Thursday chat with the wonderful Kristin Arnold. I’ve annotated it so you can jump to the good bits . (But it’s pretty much all good bits, so you may find yourself watching the whole thing. Scroll down the whole list; there are many advice gems, excellent stories and parables, folks show up at our homes, Kristin sings, etc.!) With many thanks to Kristin and our viewers (especially Kiki L’Italien who contributed mightily) I now offer you the AMA About Conference Panels annotated time-line.

[Before I turned on recording] We talked about: what panels are and aren’t; the jobs of a moderator; panel design issues; some panel formats; and our favorite panel size (Kristin and I agree on 3).

[0:00] Types of moderator questions.

[1:30] Using to crowdsource audience questions.

[2:40] Panel moderator toolboxes. One of Kristin’s favorite tools: The Newlywed Game. “What word pops into your mind when you think of [panel topic]?”

[4:30] Audience interaction, bringing audience members up to have a conversation; The Empty Chair.

[6:00] Preparing panelists for the panel.

[9:10] Other kinds of panel formats: Hot Seat, controversial topics.

[12:00] Continuum/human spectrograms/body voting and how to incorporate into panels.

[13:50] Panelist selection.

[14:40] Asking panelists for three messages.

[16:30] How the quality of a moderator affects the entire panel.

[17:30] More on choosing panelists.

[18:30] How to provoke memorable moments during panels; Kristin gives two examples involving “bacon” and “flaw-some“.

[20:30] Panelist homework. Memorable phrases: “The phrase that pays“; Sally Hogshead example.

[23:00] Panelists asking for help. Making them look good.

[24:10] Warming up the audience. The fishbowl sandwich: using pair-share as a fishbowl opener.

[25:30] Other ways to warm up an audience: pre-panel mingling, questions on the wall, striking room sets.

[26:30] Meetings in the round.

[28:00] Kristin’s book “Powerful Panels“, plus a new book she’s writing.

[29:00] Pre-panel preparation—things to do when you arrive at the venue.

[30:00] Considerations when the moderator is in the audience.

[31:00] Panelist chairs: favorite types and a clever thing to do to make panelists feel really special.

[32:50] Where should the moderator be during the panel? Lots of options and details.

[36:20] A story about seating dynamics from the late, great moderator Warren Evans.

[37:50] The moderator as consultant.

[38:40] Goldilocks chairs.

[39:40] Adrian explains the three things you need to know to set chairs optimally.

[41:00] “Stop letting the room set being decided for you,” says Adrian, while Kristin sees herself as more of a suggester.

[44:40] When being prescriptive about what you need is the way to go.

[46:30] Ideas about using screens at panel sessions.

[49:00] The UPS truck arrives at Adrian’s office door!

[50:00] Using talk show formats for panels: e.g. Sellin’ with Ellen (complete with blond wig.)

[52:20] Kristin’s gardener arrives!

[53:40] American Idol panel format.

[55:20] Oprah panel format.

[55:50] Control of panels; using Catchbox.

[56:20] Ground rules for the audience.

[59:10] What to say and do to get concise audience comments.

[1:00:00] A sad but informative story about a panelist who insisted on keeping talking.

[1:03:20] The Lone Ranger Fantasy.

[1:04:00] The moderator’s job, when done well, is pretty thankless.

[1:05:30] How you know if a panel is good. (Features mind meld between Kristin & Adrian!)

[1:06:10] The end of the fishbowl sandwich.

[1:07:40] Room set limitations caused by need to turn the room.

[1:10:00] Language: ground rules vs covenant; “Can we agree on a few things?”; standing to indicate agreement.

[1:13:00] You can’t please everyone.

[1:14:20] Kristin breaks into song!

[1:15:00] Non-obvious benefits obtained when you deal with an audience’s top issues.

[1:15:50] Why you should consider responding to unanswered attendee questions after the panel is over.

[1:16:40] The value (or lack of value) of evaluations.

[1:18:00] Following up on attendee commitments.

[1:20:00] Immediate evaluations don’t tell you anything about long term attendee change.

[1:21:10] “Panels are like a Wizard of Oz moment.”

[1:22:30] “Panels reframe the conversation in your head.

[1:25:00] Kristin’s process that quickly captures her learning and future goals; her continuous improvement binder.

[1:26:40] Closing thoughts on the importance of panels, and goodbye.