Meetings No 14
Under the Radar
Atti Soenarso on business travel agencies’ inaccessiblity.
Cover Story
The Sound of Minds Opening
Magnus Lindkvist on provoking other ways of thinking.
Psychological Meetings
Under the Surface – In Depth
Hans Gordon: something else is simmering under the surface.
The Creative Era
Unleashing Innovation
Creativity – does it die from structure?
So often discussed, so little understood.
Meetings Live
A Meeting is Born
Essential extracts and summaries from Into the Heart of Meetings.
The Beauty of Waiting
K-Food: en del av ”The Korean Wave”.
For Full Potential
Maxi Tropé and Janne Carlsson: Are you able to handle reality?
The Last Days of Average
Robin Sharma: You’ve been designed to wow.
Brain Check
Surrounded by Idiots
Thomas Erikson on red, yellow, green or blue people.
Business Intelligence Opens a Gateway to Tomorrow
Roger Kellerman on our contemporary information flow.
New knowledge
Brain research
shows added value live events.
BTM World 2020
transitions to virtual.
post-pandemic momentum
Dubai Tourism forms Business Events Stakeholders committee,
host first meeting as industry resumes activity.
hotel news
Scandic expects
occupancy of 30-35 percent for September.
Covid developer
Scandic Hotels
launches the largest network of coworking spaces in the Nordic countries.
planned for 16-17 Sep
Update on GIAF
- New dates set for 5-6 November 2020.
Sands Expo and Convention Centre
is now a carbon neutral venue.
positive impact
The Hague webinar
celebrates partnerships and first anniversary of Ottawa MOU.
expanding network
ICCA Partners up
with Geneva International Associations Forum (GIAF).
Sponsored Content
Taiwan Ready to Reopen to the World
Over 80 events taking place in Taipei now.
Sponsor Logo
Sponsor Logo
Sponsor Logo
Sponsor Logo
Sponsor Logo
Sponsor Logo
Sponsor Logo
Sponsor Logo
Meeting Design II
Into the Heart of Meetings – Basic Principles of Meeting Design by Eric de Groot and Mike van der Vijver is the first book on Meeting Design and is about the art of matching a meeting’s form and format to its content and aims. Under the heading, Meetings Live, and over four issues, we are publishing a summary of the book’s main content along with some essential excepts, and we are doing so in collaboration with Eric de Groot and Mike van der Vijver.

They have run Mind Meeting for the past twelve years and are specialists in designing fruitful programmes for international conferences, congresses, seminars and workshops. Their innovative design format has received a good deal of global attention due to the format also taking up strategy issues in organisational development.

Naturally, this summary and the excerpts cannot do real justice to the complexity of the topic or to the wealth of examples in the book itself. It will, however, give you a good idea of the authors’ main lines of thought.

The first article in this series of four focused on the characteristics of meetings as a form of communication. It recognised seven features that make of meetings that peculiar kind of human encounter. The seven features provide a close look at meetings from the participant perspective; in this second article, the angle shifts to the person or party who takes the initiative to hold the meeting: the meeting owner.

A meeting is born

Every meeting starts in the head of somebody. For one reason or another, this person is convinced that she should convince a bunch of people to pack themselves into cars, coaches, trains and planes and meet up in some place. Mostly (but not always), this initiator is also the person who takes the main decisions about the meeting (and its budget). This person is the meeting owner.

In the meeting owner’s head, a meeting invariably starts with one thing: content! To put it simply: No Content, No Meeting. All meetings are about something. We can easily conceive of meetings without many of the features that are traditionally associated with them: meeting rooms, transportation, food, speakers, etc. It is not that these things are irrelevant – by no means, but it is possible to think of meetings that can do without them. It is not possible, however, to think about a meeting with no content.

Right next to the first ideas about the content, the meeting owner’s head spins around ideas about what he would like the meeting to achieve. In one way or another, the meeting’s objectives need to add value to something which is important to the meeting owner: his organisation, a project, a community, a body of knowledge, or himself.

Meeting Owner and Meeting Designer

Generally speaking, the meeting owner is ‘in it’ for the content; he is a content specialist: a rocket scientist, for instance, a politician or a change manager. And so, the importance of the meeting designer becomes immediately evident, because the meeting designer is the meeting specialist. He knows about formats and dynamics, about ways to translate abstract objectives into engaging activities for participants, about sparking the participant behaviour that will generate the desired outcomes.

Meeting owner and meeting designer, therefore, work in tandem, both viewing the meeting from their respective vantage points and offering the necessary input to make the meeting memorable and useful. They are two sides of the same coin.

Getting the Objectives

An unexpected difficulty right at the start for many meeting owners is to get their objectives and desired outcomes right. Often, these are expressed in relatively vague process terms, such as: “We want the meeting to be a good place for networking,” or: “The meeting is the place for a high-level exchange of expert opinions.” Unfortunately, these are not objectives, they are descriptions of processes. What does “a good place for networking” mean? That all 500 participants exchange at least one sentence with all the others? Or that each participant should have at least ten conversations that could possibly lead to a profitable follow-up after the meeting? Both are perfectly legitimate objectives, but it is easy to see that achieving them requires a totally different type of interaction between participants and thus a totally different programme.

One of the main tasks of the meeting designer is to help the meeting owner to formulate the objectives for the meeting and the desired outcomes in clear terms. Often that help consists in making a distinction between qualitative and quantitative outcomes. The quantitative ones can be measured after the meeting (and possibly used in determining the meeting’s Return On Investment); the qualitative ones require an evaluation based on subjective criteria.

Connecting Objectives and Programme

One of the novelties of Into the Heart of Meetings is a methodology that allows the meeting designer to extract specific but indirect input from the meeting owner on the programme. The first part of this method is called Content Flow. Basically, the idea is that in the course of the meeting, the meeting owner wants something to happen with his content: it should move, develop, change. The snag is that it is almost impossible for the meeting owner to describe the desired change: most of the time he ends up in a knot that contains thoughts about the content itself and thoughts about the change in the content. At some point, the conversation becomes inextricably abstract.

However, asking the meeting owner to make a drawing of the desired movement of his content works astonishingly well. Thinking about the content as something material forces him to make the desired changes concrete. In the process, the meeting designer obtains all kinds of valuable indications on how the programme should roll out. An example is the meeting owner who draws his Content Flow as a boomerang, which he wants the audience to throw a couple of times to see what it brings back. That is information a meeting designer can use!

The Experience

A second new notion the authors propose is called the Experience Concept. It draws heavily on several characteristics introduced in Part 1 of the book, but this time approached from the other side: if meetings inevitably are an experience, a physical experience as the authors believe them to be, then what should that experience be for the participants? What should it feel like for them to go through the meeting together with the other meeting participants? Should it feel like the usual classroom lecture? Or preferably like something else?

Once again, it is impossible for the meeting owner to describe this in direct terms. Such a description persistently ends up in predictable platitudes, such as: “The meeting should end on a high,” or: “We want it to be exciting and engaging!” Well meant, but more precise imagery is necessary to design a good programme that fits the content!

The authors propose a shrewd technique, once again involving an indirect approach that lures the meeting owner into a clear statement of the experience he is looking for. That statement takes the form of some recognisable human interaction or activity. Once the meeting owners feels that he has found that image and shares it with the designer, the latter can give shape to the desired experience.

More on Content

The book has more to say about content than just how it moves in the course of the programme. In order to engage the audience, content must be ‘hot.’ Hot means that content behaves like a pitbull terrier: it grabs the participants by the throat and doesn’t let go.

Are there specific ways to increase the temperature of any content? Definitely!

Here are four possibilities that have proven to work in practice:

  1. Make the content ‘sticky.’ This mean establishing a connection with very basic human instincts and emotions, such as fear, pleasure, lust or love.
  2. Ensure that the content relates directly to the participants’ personal lives. Such connections are easy to establish as a result of participants interviews.
  3. Create a conflict. Not necessarily literally as a quarrel, but content is more engaging if it presents some kind of complicated moral choice.
  4. Turn it into a story. Our brains are wired to engage with stories. We just can’t help ourselves: we want to know how the story continues and especially how it ends.

Meetings and Organisational Culture

Most of the time, meeting owners are not on their own: they work for organisations. Meetings are not organised by lone loonies, they represent important moments in the life of associations or companies. Consequently, meetings carry a host of messages about their organisers – sometimes on purpose, sometimes unintended. These messages convey information to participants (and to the world beyond the meeting) of the image the organisation wishes to convey of itself and of its culture.

It is easy to distinguish a gliding scale from meetings that tend to simply confirm the culture of the meeting owner’s organisation, to meetings that try to stretch it, and on to meetings that have the purpose of changing that identity and culture. (Although tempting, this is not the place to dive into the exact definition of such terms as the identity or culture of organisations.) What is important to say here is that it is vital to have full clarity about the meeting owner’s goals and margins in this respect. For two risks are lurking just around the corner of the first design presentation. One is that the meeting owner and his team say they like the design but that it is “not really a good fit with who we are.” The second is that the programme actually fits the brief and the objectives, but ultimately, the meeting owner is not ready to accept the consequences of the stretch she is looking for. This ends up weakening the entire design.

Dig for Input!

A last point stressed repeatedly by the authors is that good meeting design requires a great effort in the initial stages of gathering information. Long before you actually start thinking about any programme you need to go out there and talk to people. Get knowledge on the organisation, its past, its stories and traumas, about the meeting owner herself, about the participants, their expectations and sensitivities – in this stage, it is almost impossible to overdo it.

To underline the importance of this effort in more detail, here are a couple of paragraphs from the original:

Excerpt, “Into the Heart of Meetings,” page 173:

“A series of participant interviews is not statistically valid market research. What you are looking for in these conversations are shared motives, convictions, statements that help you understand what the meeting means to future participants. It is not about understanding what thousands of breakfast eaters feel when they behold the packaging of a new granola bar wrapper; it is a qualitative investigation in which you look for other perspectives on the meeting’s content. Usually, an in-depth talk with 6-10 possible participants is sufficient. It is important that these people have ideas about the overall topic and are ‘typical’ representatives of the organisation. We ask the meeting owner to give us a shortlist, and we refer to them as people who ‘carry the DNA’ of the meeting’s target group.

These conversations need to be in-depth interviews, starting from sincere, human curiosity and pursuing topics as doggedly as a journalist would. He has to establish confidence, get an overview of the interviewees’ general opinions of the content, pursue promising lines of thought, touch on sensitive issues, test ideas on desired outcomes, possible formats, etc.

The insights obtained in this way allow the Meeting Designer to produce an effective perspective of the content.”

Tell us what you think!

As in the previous article, we hope that as a meeting professional, you will have recognised many of your own experiences and ideas in the issues raised above. And as in the previous case, we would like to provoke you into openly agreeing or disagreeing with us!

Send us your opinions on this content, preferably with your arguments: Opinions alone rarely lead to better insights – motivations do. The “hottest” comments will be the basis for the fourth article in this series and the most insightful reaction wins a free copy of Into the Heart of Meetings.

© 2013–2014 MindMeeting, Mike van der Vijver and Meetings International Publishing.

You can follow Eric de Groot and Mike van der Vijver on Twitter: @mindmeeting and @mikevijv.