Building participation in your events

I was in San Francisco recently for our US team meeting, and I walked passed a conference room that had been laid for a big event for the pharmaceutical industry, and there were hundreds of chairs laid out in rows.  A big stage at one end, a podium, and very little room to move around inside the room, so everything was packed in.

An impressive amount of effort had been put into branding, into pens, into posters, and the “set dressing”.  I guess about $50,000 had been spent on making the room look good, and I would estimate nothing had been spent on thinking about the “participant experience”.

The whole set up of that room said to participants, “Your job here is to shut up and listen”.  All the focus was on the front, there was no opportunity to talk to your peers, apart from the people to your immediate left and right.

It sounds crazy, but we have all been to those meetings. This is probably the most common layout that you see for corporate meetings, and it carries a very strong hierarchical and passive message to the participants.

Often people are rewarded for sitting through boring PowerPoint presentations all day, by being allowed to go and do something interesting in the evening.

Our challenge is why not build fun, participation and interaction into the day, and make it relevant?  Very often the evening exercise are irrelevant to the learning points of the conference, and added in as an after thought – “let’s do some team building”, without really thinking about what we are trying to achieve.

So why not build participation in right from the start?  Get people interacting and moving?  Something as simple as the room layout sends a power message.  If instead of rows of chairs you have round tables then the message is “Here is an opportunity to interact with your colleagues”.

Build in more group work, people have an inexhaustible interest in discussing work issues with their peers, particularly people they don’t meet very often.  Give them a topic to focus on (better still let them choose one) and let people network, and learn from each other.
Particularly in large multi-site and global organizations, networking is a real challenge, it just doesn’t happen remotely, so concentrate on giving people the opportunity to do talk.

Minimise the amount of presentations.  Presentations tend to be someone telling you what they think is important – and it rarely is.  After a brief introduction, try and get group work going as quickly as possible.  Have break out rooms, white paper sessions where people can create content with experts, trade shows where people can meet in smaller groups with people they really want to talk to.  Let people opt in to topics they enjoy and not be forced to sit through topics that are not relevant to them.  Use lots of post its and networking areas where people can really talk together and get to know their colleagues.

Build in participation right from the start.  Don’t make it a by product of your meetings. Instead of spending your budget on banners and pens spend it on a great participant experience – nobody remembers great meetings for the branding!

If you want further ideas on designing really participative and interactve meetings, have a look at our Podcast on the subject Dismal meetings, surprisingly useful coffee breaks , see more about our consulting and facilitation in this area or or give us a call.


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