13 September 2008

Thoughts on how to Make Meeting Events Interesting, Engaging and Productive

Most of us enjoy the opportunity to go to meetings and conferences where we can meet up with peers, develop our professional network, and exchange ideas. But how often does all the "good stuff" occur in the hallways outside the meeting rooms, at coffee break or a conference dinner - instead of in the actual meeting event itself?!

Reading this week's comments of my colleagues in the KS2 workshop I know this is a shared frustration. So I would like to share one concept for addressing this problem and would be very interested in learning more about the experience of others. The idea itself is not our own, but it seems to be novel in the settings we are working in (given the feedback I've gotten). While it's focused on face-to-face events, the particular example I will give also has virtual elements.

Charlotte Masiello, the dynamo behind the e-Agriculture initiative, and I started working with a new strategy in preparation for last year's e-Agricutlure panel "Continuing Dialogue to Action" at GK3 that we call the "talk show format". The key elements are as follows:
  • There is a panel of distinguished experts (4 or 5 seems ideal, more is unwieldy, less is not as dynamic).
  • No presentations are allowed! this is made very clear to the panel in advance (and it does take some convincing with some individuals).
  • There is a host/facilitator who has the personality to keep the event lively and can be pleasant but firm in keeping the conversation on track, which may involve dealing with an expert panelist who wants to monologue through the whole event (think Oprah here).
  • Before the event the panelists and host informally prepare two points:
  1. very short introductions, just sufficient to link expertise to topic at hand (it helps to reassure the panelists that their expertise is such that they are already well known and it is not necessary to present their entire CV);
  2. the host discusses with each panelist an initial question they will receive to pique the audience's interest, demonstrate some of the panelist's expertise, and get the ball rolling...
  • Concise, brief background information of some sort (e.g. a flyer) is distributed to audience as they come in to the event with information about the subject.
  • Then the host (or better yet an assistant) takes a mic out to the audience and asks not only for questions but their own thoughts/ideas ... again the key is to let the audience know that long monologs are not allowed.
  • It's the host's job then to "repackage" a set of audience interventions and direct them back to the panel, either as answers to questions or to expound upon an insightful audience comment.
We had a very good experience at GK3, with a lot of positive feedback after the event from people in the audience, some even telling us it was the best single event they attended (in what was otherwise a really excellent 4 day event).

So we have continued this tactic, most recently through my involvement in two events at eIndia 2008 and last month at IAALD-WCCA-AFITA World Congress. Each event has been an experience, and the dynamics have changed depending on the audience size and cultural make up, but each has been a success by following the steps above.

Not only do we continue to get good feedback from both the audience and panelists, but we are getting useful and actionable outputs to work on after the event.

As an example of this, there is an important issue in Asia about the role of public-private partnerships in e-Agriculture, which was identified at GK3. We decided to attack this topic though an online forum hosted on the e-Agriculture.org platform. The outcomes of that were summarized in a 2 page brief, which provided the background document for a face-to-face event, a panel discussion on the same topic at eIndia. The outputs of the eIndia panel were summarized and disseminated by e-Agrigulture and GKP. This was then briefly reviewed by one expert as one part of a larger e-Agriculture panel event at IAALD-AFITA-WCCA, and through the audience discussion that followed we have extended the key issues further. At the moment I've just revising the policy brief to improve it based on all the interventions (it's not posted yet, but I'll link it here as soon as it is).


Jeremy said...

A colleague flagged this post on Google Reader. I think you have presented a fine idea, but there is one problem, whcih you recognize.

It takes a "host" of skill, experience, and personality. Maybe you have such a person in your organization, but if not, such people do not come cheap. And unfortunately, professional hosts often do not have the background to know which are good and useful interventions and which are "newsworthy' but actually irrelevant.

Do you budget for this sort of thing? How do you get a host who knows the subject, and has the other skills, and commands the respect of the panellists?

Nancy White said...

Re Hosting skills -- I agree that a good host is really crucial, so much that I like to run practice groups with potential hosts to give them experience, have the test group offer peer feedback and switch roles (host, panelist, audience) and offer those perspectives.

The key things we have identified around the host role are: (hm, I should blog this)

* Study up on your panelists so you can give a brief introduction that focuses on th relevance of the guest to the topic at hand - not everything they have done.

* Remember, you are there to help everyone learn something and to make the panelists as successful as possible.

* Create a comfortable, welcoming context. I like to sit in chairs without a podium or table and instead have an informal coffee table (with coffee!) in front of the chairs which are arranged in a semi circle so each panelist can see each other and the host. I usually suggest the host sits in the middle to allow good eye contact.

* Think in advance of good questions that aren't yes/no questions, and are specific enough so that the panelists don't have to give long preambles. Questions that go right to the heart of the matter being covered.

* Use follow up questions to elicit details and specifics. Interrupt politely to do this if needed. Don't let people ramble. It does no one any good.

* Face the panelist who is speaking. Turn your body, REALLY face them, and listen very carefully. When you are clearly listening, speakers are more willing to let you interrupt and this can be the moment to help the speaker focus.

* DO NOT promote your ideas or story. You are the INTERVIEWER, not the SUBJECT of the interview.

* Make sure everyone gets fair airtime. This does not mean EQUAL airtime, but that each person's idea or point has been clearly presented.

* Summarize briefly during and more fully at the end.

* Allow speakers one final SHORT comment that you frame by asking a specific "wrap up" question. Don't say "is there anything else you'd like to say." Uh uh.

* Where culturally appropriate, use humor. I recently hosted a chat show with a "bigger than life" chat show personality and we had fun with it. It was a more informal gathering, so it was in the appropriate context.

* Always thank everyone at the end!

Michael said...

Hi Jeremy, you raise a very relevant point. My answer in a nutshell is we are very dependent on an enthusiastic, well cultivated network. The e-Agriculture initiative to date functions totally on in-kind contributions for all its activities. From online forum moderators to expert panelists to the “hosts”, everyone takes on these roles because they believe in the importance of this initiative. Charlotte Masiello and I have put a lot of work into finding and empowering the right people to anchor these panel discussions. We look for someone within the community, because as you note an understanding of the subject is essential, and also it creates a win-win situation where the host gains both personal exposure and learning from the process. We are fortunate that the e-Agriculture community is now around 5,000 individuals strong, and we also draw from the networks of partner organizations such as GKP, as well as our personal professional networks. Ensuring respect amongst all the panelists and the host is created by a developing a degree of familiarity and comfort in the group before the event. Several weeks prior to the event we start an email-based discussion (and occasional phone calls as needed) with the whole group, asking first that everyone introduce themselves, and then moving on to discuss what each person thinks is important about the subject of the event, how they might like to see the discussion evolve and what they hope to get out of it personally. I or someone acting as a facilitator will add in a few points of common interest to bring people closer together, summarize what could happen on the panel, share expectations about behavior (e.g. no PowerPoints!), etc.

Now I'm thinking that I did not given a clear impression of the amount of time needed to prepare for one of these events beforehand. There is a lot of preparation work in identifying and confirming the panelists and host and then establishing a "good group feeling" for the event before the group actually meets in person. This is work that no one at the event is even aware of, but it’s what makes the process succeed (or falter).

Nancy White made some additional points in her comment that are very relevant to our work but that I had not detailed out in my original blog. (Yes Nancy, you should blog it!)

Creating a more relaxed feeling at the event is important. We do our best (within limitations of the venue) to remove things like podiums and rearrange seating so it is not like being in a lecture class. I ask the panelists and host to not wear suit jackets (a bit difficult in this regional context but I still try). Little things like that add up.

I hope this helps. I’d be happy to discuss this with you more at any time, and I would really encourage you to consider trying it out if the opportunity arises. We have been really pleased with the results and I believe others will too.

Michael said...

Well I should have known! Nancy's already blogged on this subject - check out what she wrote at: