by Shawna Suckow, CMP
• The future of our industry
• A new era where experimentation is acceptable
• Diverse formats to fit attendees' engagement needs
Are your meetings stuck in a rut? Did 1995 call and want their lecture format back? Are you struggling to update a tired meeting, but you’re getting pushback?
Our audiences have evolved, there’s no question. Our meetings largely have not. Our culture has changed more dramatically in the past 10 years than in the 40 years prior, thanks to technology. Audiences demand a better overall meeting experience, rich with interaction, fresh ideas, unique sessions, and more. There’s a reason why shows like SXSW® (The South by Southwest®) are hugely successful!
Follow me on this stroll down the evolutionary lane of meetings…
This was your grandpa’s meeting format. The oldest meeting format known to mankind (aside from campfire seating!) is theater-style seating, and someone on stage lecturing. It’s tried-and-true, and still used everywhere today. For multi-day conferences, this format is still found in opening and closing general sessions. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in a keynote speaker, or having the CEO present to the company to get everyone on the same page. Where this format fails is threefold:
1. Lack of interaction among audience members (incidentally the format with the lowest learner retention)
2. Uninspired seating format
3. Prevalent use in breakout sessions which beg for something different
Audiences demanded more, and in the 1990s the first signs of discontent with boring meetings rose through the company ranks. Meeting organizers recognized along the way that the old way of doing things was also the least engaging for the audience. “We’ve always done it that way” was no longer good enough. Planners recognized that meetings didn’t have to be boring and solely-focused on the efficient dissemination of content! Thankfully, in the 1990s along came some audience interaction to spice things up, including clunky audience response systems that encouraged participants to engage with the content. Speakers began (gulp) actually encouraging audiences to participate along with them. Meeting organizers began experimenting with different seating formats, recognizing that audiences reacted positively to being able to see one another and not just sit in tight rows of chairs. In summary, we realized that meetings weren’t just about content.
The future of meetings is here! Planners are experimenting with all kinds of session lengths, formats, and styles.
Session Lengths: Ted Talks proved that excellence can be found in short-form delivery, and we’ve never looked back! Mixing different session lengths concurrently pays off, giving 90-minute deeper dives to those who want it, and the ability to cram in several 30-minute sessions to those who want variety in the same time frame. “Ignite” sessions provide an hour of 5 or 10-minute topics, back-to-back and rapid fire so nobody has a chance to get bored.
Agenda Formats: Early riser sessions and night owl sessions have joined the mix – not everyone learns best from 9am to 5pm! Savvy planners are adding table topics at breakfast for those who want to engage over coffee, and wine circles for those who want to continue the conversation over an adult beverage in the evening. Healthy activities are becoming the norm to start the day, such as a 5K, meditation circle, or yoga. Longer breaks are becoming more prevalent as planners recognize the value of letting participants engage outside the classroom. Strategic Networking is in its early stages, as planners realize that several participant types (namely first-time attendees, introverts, and industry newcomers) often struggle during unstructured networking time. Experts are adding value by providing guided networking (more strategic than ice breakers) during breaks, meals, and within longer sessions, to give participants the thing they want most: new connections.
Room Styles: Have you seen a cross-shaped stage in the middle of the room? It provides four quadrants of seating, and the speaker can stroll to face every part of the room. I personally love a catwalk setup: a main stage with a walkway, for the speaker, out to the middle of the room. It makes the speaker more accessible, and even a huge room feels more intimate. Then there’s the egg shape set-up, which is just like it sounds, with rows of chairs set up in an oval configuration, but with open aisles on all four sides for accessibility. The screen goes at the top of the egg, and everyone has great sightlines. Boxing ring seating changes things up by putting a square, tall riser in the middle of the room, with four quadrants of seating all around. Stadium style seating does something similar, but puts the audience on risers, and the speakers in the center at floor-level, so everyone can look down and see nicely (this is better for a smaller meeting, under 100). If you have a small meeting in a large space, why not put the entire audience and the speakers up on risers in the center of the room? If you must use theater style, consider putting those rows into chevron shape, or curve them into arcs for a great, modern feel.
The point is that we’ve entered a new era where experimentation is acceptable in many meetings. Audiences appreciate business not as usual! The brain is a crazy thing – it needs constant stimulation to learn and thrive, especially in the media age where constant brain stimulation is the norm. The worst thing we can do is ignore meeting evolution, and treat participants the same way we did 10 or more years ago. They’ve changed…shouldn’t we?
Shawna Suckow, CMP, founded SPIN, the Senior Planners Industry Network, in 2008. Today, she is a global speaker on industry trends, and a sought-after sales trainer for industry suppliers.