The evolution of Meeting Formats, the rebirth of the Campfire Meeting

Long ago we had meetings around a campfire. A small group of people in a circle, listening to stories, debating, conversing, learning from each other.
Much later, in more recent ages, only the rich and powerful could talk to larger groups, armies and other audiences.
And even more recently, thanks to sound equipment, we all can afford to address a public, larger than the campfire crowd.

With this history, it should not surprise us that we don’t have the right approach to large group methods in our genes. It simply never was something we humans did, or could do naturally. So we do it like last year. Or like another meeting we have seen; theatre or classroom style. Additionally, rows of chairs enable us to put more people into a room which seems to make good business sense. Such a lay-out of the meeting room determines the format in a firm and rigid way. It is designed to present to the audience, and the audi-ence (from audio) is listening. Several decades of research however have shown, over and over again, that top down presentations and listening alone, are not as effective as one would expect.

In a decade of ROI and crisis, the meeting industry is slowly starting to realize that the value meetings generate needs to go up. If top down presentations are not generating the best possible value, we must innovate and introduce new formats. Or should we say, old formats, like the campfire format which we all have in our vanes.

The complexity of our world, our meetings, our groups make tinkering with meetings and their formats a scary, and maybe even dangerous venture. So we may need help from a Meeting Architect; a master builder (architect) of meetings. Meeting Architecture is a discipline that is only just starting to develop, so for now we will have to do with the rare breed of meeting designers or take matters into our own hands.

A few tips may help.
Tip one is to bring the camp fire logic back into large meetings, we need to do away with theater style and welcome the round table. Setting 7 or 8 people around a table (even a square table) creates the small cell we all feel comfortable in. This will take a room that is about 50% bigger, but value may increase by 100%. The table allows us to have small conversations, discussions, sharing of stories and learning from each other. People learn more by sharing than by being spoken to. People learn more if they are engaged participants instead of a passive listening audience. This works. People learn more from each other than from the expert on stage, that is a fact.

Now don’t do away with the experts yet! We will need them to start conversations, to stimulate, challenge thinking, to introduce new idea’s. So here comes meeting format tip two: slice presentations. Instead of one long presentation of 90 minutes we can help speakers to increase their value by cutting the presentation into shorter 5 or 10 minute chunks. In between presentations, 3 to 5 minutes is given to the participants to discuss what they jut heard at their table, with their peers. And when allowing for a few minutes of feedback from several tables, we change the 5 minute Q&A, another classic, into a much broader meeting of minds.

If you fear that this could be difficult with some groups and cultures, you may be right, hence tip number three: seek help to manage that process. Like you seek the help of a plumber for the plumbing when building a house, or an electrician for the electricity, here, in building a meeting, we can get help from a facilitator to facilitate this process. Maybe someone form in your own organization, or a specialist facilitator. One to help speakers understand what to do and why and another one to manage the process of discussion and feedback during the meeting.

These three elements; round tables, time for engagement and professional facilitation are the fundamental building blocks for better meeting formats. Like the foundation, the walls and the roof are for a house. Your work as a “Meeting Architect” now starts: hundreds of variations can be made with the use of time, space, tools, techniques and creativity, and like with any business project, we need to make our design based on objectives. First get the meeting objectives written down and only than designing the format. There are a number of popular formats like Open Space, the Fish Bowl, Pech-Kucha, TED and many more un-know formats plus the one you are about to ; they are all much better than theatre style.

You could even imagine a real campfire format with a large circle of LCD screens on the floor. Burning fire on the screens when people walk into the room and slides when an expert speaks. Up to 100 people can sit in a circle, and the 7 that sit in front of one screen can form a small group, a small campfire meeting, for discussion and reflection.

Whatever it is you do, the time to introduce new formats is now. We lost a lot in the past decade, so now is the time to innovate. We can be part of an improving value model for meetings and conferences. And who knows, in decade or so, you and I will be able to take on the CMA exam (Certification in Meeting Architecture) and become the first true Meeting Architects.

  Maarten Vanneste, July 27, 2010 Vancouver, Canada.

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