How to help meeting design clients figure out what they really want and need

Here’s a powerful way to help meeting design clients figure out what they really want and need.

Great — a client who doesn’t know what they want!

Recently, a client asked for help designing a new conference. Thirty minutes of discussion with three stakeholders revealed they hadn’t yet settled on the event’s specific purpose, scope, and format.

From my perspective this is actually a great problem to have.

Why? Because most clients engage me after they are committed to programs and logistics that are not optimum for what they’re trying to accomplish!

The needs assessment trap

Conference design clients who “know what they want” have already decided on their “why?” and “who?“, have often fixed their “when?” and “where?“, and typically bring me in to consult at the “how?” stage. I understand their perspective, because I also feel the temptation to pin down specifics — number of participants, duration, venue, budget, etc. I hope that in the process the event’s purpose and desired outcomes will become clearer.

It’s true that focusing on these details can help uncover what the client wants, and whether it’s realistic. {“Hmm, I think we’d need a lot more than $10K to bring together 200 scientists to plan how to eradicate malaria in Southern Africa.“} But this is a roundabout way of avoiding the all-important question that is rarely fully and productively explored:

Read the rest of this entry »

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