Planner Tina Squillante took a standard classroom-style medical meeting and, by applying lessons she learned at PCMA Convening Leaders, blew it out of the water. This is how she did it.
It's not easy to change a meeting that's been done the same way for many years — much less a learning paradigm that's been in place since the 13th century. That's how long we've been putting learners in rooms, seated in rows and columns, with the expert up at the front, bestowing knowledge, Lennie Scott-Webber, director of education environments at Steelcase Inc., said during a breakout session at PCMA Convening Leaders 2013 in Orlando last January. We're so conditioned to expect the traditional kind of learning environment, Scott-Webber said, that it's hard to break the mold — even though research shows that we retain only 5 percent of information presented in that setting. In comparison, we retain approximately 85 percent of the information we encounter when we learn interactively.
As Scott-Webber shared research about adult learning and the impact of the meeting environment on education, Tina Squillante, CMP, sat in the audience, scribbling notes and making connections between what she was hearing and the programs that she plans as director of meetings, exhibits, and special events at Association Headquarters, based outside Philadelphia, in Mt. Laurel, N.J. “More and more, studies about the way that people learn show that it's not just about being a passive learner,” Squillante said in a recent interview with Convene. “If learners learn more by interacting, rather than by just reading information, and [if they learn more] by having more engagement and conversation, either with a co-attendee or by being able to speak with the speaker more freely, then I want to give them that opportunity.”
Those two themes — how interactivity improves learning, and the impact that environment has on learning behavior — kept repeating themselves during Convening Leaders 2013. And as ideas accumulated, a vision for radically changing an upcoming meeting took shape in Squillante's mind.
At the time, the 2013 winter meeting of the American Society of Transplantation (AST), a longtime Association Headquarters client whose members include transplant physicians, surgeons, and scientists, was almost exactly one month away. Over the years, Squillante had tried to change up the programming for the 325-attendee event, she said, by introducing “new ways of interacting and learning.” But still, it was “kind of a boring and dying meeting,” she said. “It needed an overhaul.”
“When I started listening to the sessions [at Convening Leaders],” Squillante said, “I pulled my meetings manager [Kristin Brammell Burke] over, along with my PSAV rep [Roy Golden].” Squillante pointed out that AST recently had changed the winter meeting's name to CEOT, for Cutting Edge of Transplantation. “This just opened up the door for me to say, ‘We can do this differently — and we should,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Okay, you guys, this is what I want to do. I drew them a picture. We are going to make this a cutting-edge meeting.’”
SETTING THE STAGE
Squillante eventually would identify 10 key elements in her plan to reinvent AST's meeting. But one of the most basic challenges was to remove, as much as possible, the barriers between presenters and the audience — to get rid, she said, of the “talking head.”
In a Convening Leaders 2013 session called “Improve Your Learning Environments Today,” Kimberly Lewis, vice president of community advancement and conferences and events for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), had demonstrated one interesting way to shift that dynamic. At a recent Greenbuild program, USGBC's annual meeting, speakers were placed in the middle of a room, on a round stage flanked by large screens, surrounded on all sides by attendees. But as much as Squillante liked the idea of 360-degree seating, “I knew my guys couldn't do that,” she said. “They wouldn't feel comfortable.” She instead proposed a modified plan for CEOT: putting attendees on three sides of the stage, with the speaker in the center.
And although she wanted to use a round stage like the one at Greenbuild, a custom stage wasn't in her budget. In fact, her budget pretty much limited her to using the existing rectangular risers at the meeting hotel, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, in Chandler, Ariz.
It was a challenge that Squillante solved — ingeniously — by using the risers to create a diamond-shaped stage, which was pushed away from the back wall and extended out into the audience. Configuring the stage on a diagonal “allowed me to put seating on two sides as well as the front,” Squillante said. And “I kept [the stage] as low as it could go,” further reducing the space between audience and speaker. She took away the lectern, but eased the transition for CEOT's speakers by adding a small cocktail round on stage.
Squillante also placed three large video screens in the room — up front and in two corners — so attendees could be relieved of the need to keep their eyes trained on the presenter on stage. (“If you can move,” Scott-Webber had said, “you can learn.”) She added two smaller screens at the sides of the stage. “That's for the person who needs to shift in their seat and needs to wander — who is listening with one ear, but not necessarily staring at the presenter,” she said. “They can still see a screen somewhere else.”
ROUNDS, PODS, AND ROWS
Choice also was a key factor as Squillante planned what she called “personalized” seating at CEOT 2013. “A lot of the sessions [at Convening Leaders] talked about giving people seating options,” she said. “I wanted to give people a choice of where they sat, how that sat, who they sat with, or to sit alone.”
Squillante also wanted to encourage networking between attendees as much as possible. “I wanted to give people the option to sit with a small group of friends, or with people they didn't know, to perhaps meet new people in the field,” she said. “[When attendees] are just chitchatting, sometimes they start talking about the research they're doing. They might be working on very similar projects.... You never know when collaboration might happen.”
Her plan included small cocktail rounds in the meeting room, “for people who might be coming with their colleagues,” she said. She added rectangular tables seating six to eight, for bigger groups and as places where people who didn't know one another could sit comfortably but still easily converse. “A crescent round, to me, has too much space,” she said. “You could sit there and still not talk to other people.”
Squillante also knew from experience that a certain number of attendees like to stand in the back of the room. “They fidget or they want to get up and down,” she said. “They just want to be able to get in and out of the room easily.” For them, she added rows of theater seating. “I know they're going to [want to be in the back],” she said. “So let's accommodate them.”
Squillante initially had planned to add couches in front of the stage, but thought better of it. CEOT is highly technical, and speakers sometimes might be talking about something that attendees aren't 100-percent interested in. “I don't want to see anyone dozing off,” Squillante said. “I don't want them that comfortable — I drew the line there.”
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
At CEOT 2013, which was held on Feb. 13-16, the changes in the room setup helped speakers break out of their