This article describes what Meeting Design is and how it can help to achieve better programmes for meetings – any meeting!
By Mike van der Vijver
Let’s suppose the fictitious Acme Corporation organises an internal Convention on how to use social media because management wants to strengthen the relationships within the company’s workforce. The theme is “Linking People”, in other words: connect staff members and foster the feeling of being a community.
So, what in the meeting programme builds more of community? Listening to an external speaker who is an expert on social media? Or having the meeting participants decorating the meeting room for the Convention themselves (with balloons, festoons, etc.)? And setting up a Facebook page before the meeting where the same participants can agree on who brings what? What criteria should the meeting organiser apply to choose between these two alternatives? Provided anybody proposes the second solution to him - which is unlikely.
Meetings are a specific form of communications between human beings. The task of a Meeting Designer - in close cooperation with the meeting organiser - is to come up with the best possible programme for a meeting in order to achieve the desired outcomes. Many forms of communications have their specialised designers: graphics designers, for instance, or web designers. As a profession, Meeting Design began to develop just over a decade ago. The services of Meeting Designers are useful for any type of organisation that uses meetings to communicate: corporations, public bodies, NGOs and associations. Proper Meeting Design is based on a methodology consisting of analyses, techniques and applications that optimise the communications between “content providers” (such as speakers) and participants.
Designing the best possible programme to achieve the meeting’s objectives sounds like common sense. However, when working on this in practice, a number of basic issues rapidly emerge. The first one is: what exactly are the meeting’s objectives and how can we know that we have actually achieved these? Experience teaches
that few meeting organisers (we prefer to refer to them as “Meeting Owners”) clarify their ideas on objectives in-depth, before diving into the practical organisation of their conference, seminar or other meeting. In addition, precious few of them go beyond generic observations about the meeting’s outcomes (“That was a really interesting programme,” or: “I think people were very satisfied with that!”), or gather only participants’ satisfaction data. All of this is meaningless with respect to change in behaviour of participants after the meeting, which is the one thing a meeting can produce. The Meeting Designer extensively explores the overt and covert objectives Meeting Owners mention and together they decide what the meeting needs to produce. A specific number of new contacts for each participant? A new and aligned perspective on a specific are of content? A decision on a moot issue? If the meeting limits itself to a series of speakers reading out their contributions, how can you tell that anything is going to happen with the knowledge distributed? That might be a very costly way of distributing information in comparison to the investment.Once the objectives have been clearly established, the Meeting Designer analyses the triangle objectives - participants (and their expectations) – content. As a perspective, he chooses that of the person present in the meeting room. What needs to happen there? How must the content develop, change, or – in other words – flow? In this respect, the Meeting Designer assumes a radically different position in comparison with the traditional Meeting Planner, who is essentially involved in the logistical-organisational process and stays away from content. Naturally, the Meeting Owner tends to be deeply involved in the content. The point is that she is not necessarily a specialist in the communicative dynamics in large groups of people that will ensure something happens with the content; something that makes the content move through a productive exchange of ideas, a mobilisation of the wisdom of crowds, the alignment of positions, decision-making, networking – whatever is required to eventually produce the desired behaviour change in the participants.From that analysis arise ideas for the next fundamental issue: what experience will the meeting offer to participants? It is going to produce an experience anyway. Inevitably. A physical and didactical experience for participants, whatever you do. Each Meeting Owner aspires for his meeting to provide a useful, a powerful, yes preferably even an unforgettable experience. In practice, however, few meetings are a distinctive source of inspiration. In most cases, the enormous potential of having a large group of people physically present in a venue is used to a very limited extent. Often people talk too much; often it is only a few people who do most of the talking; often the emotions generated by the programme have little
to do with the desired change in content, and they become a feature in their own right. The empty “wow-effect” of the motivational speaker. The “eventification” of meetings, which are increasingly detached from objectives and content, is not an expression of intelligent and productive Meeting Design.
In short, designing a good programme for a meeting means that at the outset, the Meeting Owner should know exactly what each participant x at any point in time y is doing with content z, in order to achieve the meeting’s objectives for the organisers and to satisfy (or exceed!) the expectations of participants. That is Meeting Design.
Bio: Mike van der Vijver is the co-founder of MindMeeting, “Designers of successful international meetings”. MindMeeting has a international client base, comprising a wide variety of organisations and industries. Mike divides his time between living in Naples (Italy), Zeist (the Netherlands) and the venues his clients invite him to. He is a national of the Netherlands.
© MindMeeting, 2014