Five Innovative Meeting Formats

Author: Nichole Bernier       

June Forum Formats

Experiential learning involves hand-on activities to get your attendees moving — and engaged.

Attendees who want more from their meetings don’t want to sit and listen passively to a formal presentation. They have expectations of involvement. They don’t want to hear canned answers to prepared questions, and they have a radar for inauthentic content and rigid control. They are accustomed to having input on all kinds of institutional reform, and aren’t averse to disrupting the model if the model doesn’t work for them.

Welcome to the era of disrupted meetings, in good company with other industries and institutions whose established norms are being taken down to the studs. Where past generations of meeting-goers might have been content as spectators, attendees today are looking for more active participation and experiential learning — starting with the fact that much of what they used to travel for is now available digitally.

“The higher-level reality is that so many of the meetings we attend and plan these days look and feel exactly the same as meetings designed prior to the internet,” said Marc Pomerleau, vice president of global strategy for FreemanXP. “Back then you had to go to events to meet the experts in real life, and sit at their feet while the pearls of wisdom dropped. That’s the old model. People now are not only comfortable downloading information, but are engaged in autodidactic self-learning. Attendees are arriving at events already informed, and if not already informed, at least with a point of view.”

A meeting designed to convey information passively can be particularly frustrating for Millennials, who show up because they have some-thing to contribute and want to affect the outcome of the conversation. “Baby Boomers might say, ‘I don’t love it, but this is the way it’s always been done,’” Pomerleau said. “If you don’t let the Millennials have input, they’ll opt out.”

Here are five trends and developments in meeting and conference formats that are aimed at letting attendees opt in:

The Upside-Down Classroom

Common in the world of education, where instructors and learners alike appreciate how it uses technology to increase the productivity of face-to-face time, flipped learning is now gaining popularity in the business sector. The idea is to make learning materials available to participants before they arrive on site — say, through online videos. In this way, they come to the meeting briefed on the details and ready to explore how to use them. The session becomes about the application of the material, putting attendees one step ahead.

“It’s a great tool when you have a captive audience, or a truly motivated or engaged audience that wants to know the information,” said Sharon Fisher, CEO and “idea sparker” of Orlando-based Play With a Purpose, which applies experiential learning and other innovative models to meetings. “I did a new product launch for a medical-device business, and they didn’t want to get to the meeting and spend the whole time downloading texts about the device. So when we got together we had hour-long sessions for the tech piece, the selling piece, and the strategy piece.”

It’s a format that works best under certain circumstances — for example, in a situation in which you exercise some influence over what people do (say, as an employer), or when a voluntary group (such as an association whose members are dedicated professionals) is highly motivated to do the learning beforehand because the topic is particularly interesting, important, or controversial. The challenge is getting attendees to do their homework in advance. “Some have really engaged and dug in and done extra research, some have merely watched, and some didn’t watch at all,” Fisher said. “For a facilitator, it becomes more challenging to speak to people at different places on the learning spectrum when they come into the room.”

You also need to consider why you’re using the flipped-learning technique. “I think it works best if the pre-work is a precursor to joining a vibrant discussion,” said Howard Givner, managing director and head of Americas for Grass Roots Meetings & Events. “If you’re giving the material beforehand simply because you want to cover two hours’ worth of material but only have 90 minutes of program time, compression itself is not a good reason.”

Marc Pomerleau

Marc Pomerleau (second from right) uses the long-table format at Convening Leaders 2017.

Pull Up a Chair

The long-table format is part dinner party, part public discourse, and part unscripted theater, with the lines blurred between audience and speaker. The room is staged with a long table, of course, set with many seats and microphones, as if a panel is going to address the audience — except the panel is made up of only a few official speakers; members of the audience who have something to contribute may simply rise from their seats and join the table. If there isn’t an empty seat, the new guest simply taps an existing guest on the shoulder, asking to take their seat.

If this sounds vague, it is — because it’s never the same session twice. If it sounds unruly and undisciplined, it’s possibly that, too, although dinner guests and professional colleagues typically are not. “Imagine the very best dinner party you’ve ever been to,” said Pomerleau, who uses the format for topics that lend themselves to a vibrant exchange of wide-ranging opinion. “You have the lighting, the wine, the conversation, the energy of people coming and going in free-flowing discussion.”

Some speakers might be concerned about giving up the ability to manage the material. “If I as the speaker relinquish control, I’m showing respect that there are a lot of smart people in the audience who have something to say, and I might not like all of it, but I’m okay with that,” Pomerleau said.

“If you’ve created the goal and inspirational value of the event properly, everyone’s minds will be pointed in the same direction and you have trust, and a space opens up where magical things can happen.” But it won’t if the event is overly scripted and controlled. “Millennial audiences can smell a lack of authenticity a million miles away,” Pomerleau said, “and will avoid it like the plague.”

Pomerleau points to cutting-edge events like the Collision tech conference and The Culture Conference that model that kind of honesty and respect for shared discourse. “It’s all about this feeling, this attitude there is an abundance of value in the room,” he said. “You have to trust the power of the crowd, that unleashing this transparent conversation is going to benefit more than it will harm.”

The long-table format comes with a few caveats. If you have a large group, you’ll want to break into several sections. The topic should be something the audience has a vested interest in. And the makeup of the group should be such that no one is intimidated to speak. “If you have people who are going to be shy or reserved or worried about getting up and saying something they shouldn’t in front of their boss, that model wouldn’t work,” Pomerleau said. “When we talk to a lot of groups, there’s so much paranoia and fear about being wrong. But when you move to the Millennial side, there is less of that self-censorship than you see in older generations.”

Something to Talk About

Engaging diverse voices was the goal of the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) at this year’s Annual Meeting & General Assembly, held in Dubai in February. “The debate format seemed like a great way to get new members involved and get fresh voices on the stage, without putting the pressure on them for an individual speaking slot,” said Sarah Storie-Pugh, IAPCO’s executive director. “As an association that represents best practice in meeting design, we always feel it is important to shake up the regular format. It would involve our members more in the proceedings and ensure that presentations were not all top-down lectures, injecting fresh energy in the room.”

There was some risk that the debate topic could fall flat, so IAPCO went with something that would provide good arguments on both sides: Should professional congress organizers (PCOs) collaborate or compete in order to best serve clients, DMOs, and themselves? IAPCO chose six participants representing a range of geographic regions and company sizes, and asked each one to pick a point of view. The catch: Midway through the program, debaters were asked to switch sides and make the opposite case.

The greatest challenge wasn’t the mechanics of the format or the involvement of the audience. It was persuading a debater with a fixed point of view to argue from the other side. Still, the program was such a success that the session ranked in the top three in meet-ing evaluations. “We will definitely be doing this again,” Storie-Pugh said. “It injected great energy in the room, and the audience really got involved, too.”


Games work because “people think it’s fun to do creative problem-solving, puzzles, cooperation, and collecting things.”

The Play’s the Thing

It’s almost inevitable that a conversation about disrupting the status quo and accommodating Millennials will touch on games. And while incorporating levity and competition in meetings doesn’t have to include games in a literal sense, it’s one aspect of experiential learning. “People define gamification differently; some define it as taking everyday objects or goals and finding a way to score it and win prizes,” said Play With a Purpose’s Fisher. “It’s also taking content and turning it into games, and teaching through using a game.”

Fisher’s company customizes games for clients for a variety of industries and subject-matter areas, including fraud and honesty (how to detect when people are lying, and applying it to a game of people try-ing to sneak things through customs), and establishing online communities by playing them out in real life (setting up super-user groups, and having them act out their functions). “We see real life put online with a game made out of it,” Fisher said, “so we make it happen the other way, too — taking something that works online and putting it into real life in the form of a game.”

Bo Kruger

Bo Kruger

With games, it’s important that function shapes form. “I always look at the objective of the meeting and what people want to achieve,” said Bo Kruger, founder of Moving Minds, based in Copenhagen. Kruger has created board games to push out content, networking apps to help people learn the names of colleagues they want to meet at a conference, and card games to help groups identify the core values of a company. “The trick is to make it fun. And people usually think it’s fun to do creative problem-solving, puzzles, cooperation, and collecting things.”

While competition and rewards are often included in games applied to the meeting space, Kruger thinks they aren’t necessarily a positive thing. “A lot of motivational research tells us that almost any kind of reward is actually demotivating,” he said, “because it moves people from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation. A lot of people think leaderboards are a good way to foster com-petition. But every time you produce a winner, you produce a lot of losers.”

Digital gamification is an emerging area whose potential is just beginning to be recognized. Kruger has been working on something along the lines of Pokémon Go; attendees would have to collect things during a meeting as a way to get to know about content and people. “It’s an example of taking something already popular and proven to work, and changing it into something else,” Kruger said. “Pokémon Go has shown that augmented reality is becoming mainstream, and I think we will see a lot of that in the future, combining information with a way to make people move around a convention area or meeting space.”

forum format

Experiential learning involves realizing that “anything that has workshop potential has the opportunity to get people engaged.”

All Hands On

Like flipped learning, experiential learning is a buzzed-about model in education that’s been steadily making its way into organizational settings. And with good reason: Hands-on activities create interaction, and make learning memorable.

“Anything that has workshop potential has the opportunity to get people engaged,” Givner said. “As the facilitator, do I really need to be in front of a room vomiting facts, or are there other ways to engage? Find ways to leverage material for a new way of thinking.” He suggests launching breakouts with a shared piece of controversial contemporary media — say, kicking off a session on customer service with the infamous smartphone video of the United Air-lines passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight.

So is something as basic as changing a room’s energy. When Kruger designed MPI’s European Meetings & Events Conference in Copenhagen last year, he created a “snowball fight.” For this exercise, he provides stacks of paper and pens, and asks people to reflect on a certain topic — say, What did you find inspiring at this meeting that you can apply to your work? They write it on the page, and ball it up. “Then I ask everyone to get on the floor and have a snowball fight,” Kruger said. “You should see the room with 500 people throwing balls for one to two minutes. It was hilarious. Then I ask them to pick up a piece of paper and find a new per-son to pair up with, and discuss what’s on the paper they found.”

With many “disruptive” innovations available to meeting planners, a critical first step is deciding what does, and doesn’t, need to be innovated. If an old element or format of your meeting still works, experts say, don’t dump the bathwater. Too often, consultants use the term disrupt loosely, to “invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do,” Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen — who introduced the theory of disruptive innovation in 1995 — wrote in the Harvard Business Review 20 years later. “The lessons we’ve learned about succeeding as a disruptive innovator (or defending against a disruptive challenger) will not apply to every company in a shifting market.”

This story was originally published June 1, 2017, and appeared in the June 2017 issue of Convene.

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