Want to improve learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes at your meetings? Then use a process that requires and supports purposeful participant activity!
When people are actively involved in their learning they learn more, and retain what they learn longer and more accurately.
And when you eliminate attendees by turning them into participants in your meeting sessions, they connect more effectively with their peers, at a much higher rate than at conventional events.
Making this happen at your meetings isn’t rocket science. Here are seven simple and effective ways to increase participation at your events.
1. Badge It!
Who’d have thought that the humble name badge could provide useful information that can spark connections and engagement between attendees who are just walking around? Here’s how to do it.
Use large name badges (I like 4” x 6” vertical badges) and design them so there’s space for attendees to write on them. Then add a “Talk to me about…” space, or an “I’d like to know about…” space, or an “All we need is…” on your badge. Voila! Attendees now have a way to broadcast their interests and expertise and an excuse to peer at each other’s badges.
A slightly different approach is to have people write a specific area of interest on their badge (perhaps on the back if it’s blank) and then walk around and cluster with other attendees who share the same interest.
2. Seat Swap
To increase conversational partners at seated meals, simply announce a seat swap between two courses (typically between the main course and dessert). If the group includes approximately equal numbers of men and women, ask all the men or all the women to stand up and choose a chair at another table.
Alternatively, have everybody move whose last name begins with a letter in the first half of the alphabet. All will double their pool of conversational partners at the cost of perhaps a couple of minutes’ rearrangement. At a seated buffet-style meal you can have more than one seat swap, with a commensurate increase in potential connections.
3. Post It!
At the start of a conference session, hand out several sticky notes and a pen to attendees. Ask them to write down one or more topics they would like explored or questions they would like answered, one per note. Tell them they do not need to use all their notes. Supply a 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. As the notes are posted it is 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.
As the notes are posted, cluster them in groupings of similar topics. Once all the notes are on the wall, provide some time for everyone to take in the topics and questions. This group sharing can then be used as a starting point for discussion techniques like the fishbowls described below.
4. Body voting
Body voting—also called human graphs, human spectrograms, or continuum voting—is one of the most versatile participative techniques. It provides an information-rich public tableau of opinions or personal information by asking participants to move to a place in the room that corresponds to their responses to questions with a range of possible answers. Body voting allows session presenters, the group, and participants to directly experience the range and distribution of responses, and then explore individual responses or group outcomes as appropriate.
Although I can’t do justice to the full range of possibilities of body voting in this article, here are a couple of ways I like to use it.
To demonstrate the collective amount of experience in the room, ask people to think of the number of years of experience they have and then have them line up across the room in order by their number of years of experience. Ask a few of those at the high experience end to say how many years’ experience they have and repeat their answers for the whole group. Then, walk to the middle of the line (i.e., the point where there are approximately equal numbers of participants on either side of you) and ask the people there how many years’ experience they have. Multiply their answer by the number of participants and announce the number of collective person-years of experience in the room, which will invariably be far greater than any one or two people could possess.
To allow participants to quickly meet other attendees who live or work near them, create in advance a map of the geographical region that includes a majority of attendees’ locations, and display it in the room. Stand facing the map and point out the compass directions (e.g. “towards the map is North”.) Ask people to move to the spot in the room that corresponds to where they live/work. Once people are in position, have them introduce themselves to the people nearby, exchange business cards, etc.
Ever been at a “discussion” session that was monopolized by a few talkative individuals, with no one else getting a word in? Me too!
A fishbowl encourages free-wheeling discussion that anyone can join without having to get the attention of a moderator or talk over a noisy interrupter. In one version, participants sit in a horseshoe arrangement of chairs, with a few chairs in the “mouth” of the horseshoe, as shown.
A facilitator sits in one of the mouth’s chairs and explains the fishbowl rules:
- If you want to talk, you must come and sit in one of the small group of chairs.
- If all the small group chairs are full and no one has yet spoken, wait a little—otherwise, when you come up, someone sitting in a mouth chair must go back to a horseshoe chair.
- If you’re sitting in a small group chair and have finished what you have to say, go back to a horseshoe chair.
- When you’re in a small group chair, you can address your comments to someone else in these chairs or to the whole group.
When the facilitator gently enforces these rules, everyone has a chance to speak, discuss, and be heard. Participants appreciate how the small group format focuses the discussion, how the contributors change as needed, how simply the front row shows who may talk, and how it’s clear when the conversation on a topic has run its course.
6. Pair Share
Instead of one person talking and everyone else listening during a meeting session, use a few minutes of pair share to give every participant the opportunity to engage by thinking, talking, and listening. Pose a discussion question, have attendees pair up, and give everyone 30-60 seconds to think about their response. Then ask everyone to spend a couple of minutes discussing their answers with their partners. You may want to have one person in each pair start, and have them swap roles half way through the time you’ve allocated.
7. Pecha Kucha and Ignite
Pecha Kucha and Ignite are dynamic short-form presentations that limit presenters to 20 slides automatically advanced, each shown for 20 seconds (Pecha Kucha) or 15 seconds (Ignite), while the presenter shares his or her passion about a topic. Because each presentation lasts just 6 minutes and 40 seconds (Pecha Kucha) or 5 minutes (Ignite), presenters are challenged to be concise, targeted, and creative—and you can pack four Pecha Kucha or five Ignite presentations into 30 minutes. While these presentation styles are entertaining and a lot of fun, their impact is maximized when they are immediately followed by small breakout discussion sessions with the presenters. The combination reinforces participant learning, as attendees follow up and explore the ideas presented.
There’s no excuse for inflicting lectures on your attendees any more. Incorporating any or all of the above participation techniques into your meeting sessions is a sure fire way to increase learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes at your events![Note: For detailed descriptions of how to prepare and run these and many other participation techniques, see the book referenced in Adrian’s biography.]
Adrian Segar is a meeting architect and event facilitator with over thirty years experience, and an energetic champion for participation-rich and participant-led meetings that uncover and satisfy attendee needs for relevant learning, connection, engagement, and community. He is the author of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love and, just-published, The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action. Adrian writes regularly on event design and related issues at conferencesthatwork.com.