Want Audiences to Interact? Unleash a Pit Bull


Photo Credit: The FRESH Conference

When FRESH18 — which bills itself as the first annual conference focused exclusively on meeting design — gets underway Feb. 27-28, it will be showcasing its own solution to a common event-design problem: getting the audience to participate. Organizers hope that FRESH18’s approach to interaction at its multi-hub event — groups can participate in the conference in Basel, Switzerland; Copenhagen, Denmark; Johannesburg, South Africa; and London, England; and in an abbreviated program in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The new event format involves taking the responsibility of audience engagement and interaction away from the speaker. “We’re giving up on speakers,” said Maarten Vanneste, president of the Meetings Design Institute, which organizes FRESH. “An expert in his or her field does not necessarily have the communication skills required to get an audience interacting — and why should we expect them to? Improving these skills takes a huge investment in coaching and requires a lot of energy for them, at a time when they need to be focused on delivering a great presentation. That’s their bit, and we can help them with it, but when it comes to interaction, we’ve given the job to a pit bull.”

FRESH organizers are calling their new interactive speaker session format the “Pitbull Session.” Instead of relying on the speaker to conduct an interactive session, Pitbull Sessions have a special facilitator (or pit bull) who performs the role.

While for many the name might be associated with an angry dog, Vanneste has other canine attributes in mind. “A pit bull is known for biting and not letting go,” he said. “That is exactly what we need, to sink our teeth into interaction and not let go until it happens. Our pit bulls don’t have the baggage of having to deliver a presentation that the speaker has, and they don’t have to worry about their perception within their industry. They’re just there to get the audience talking, so they can share their insight and learning from the presentation they have just seen.”

Hour-long Pitbull Sessions are to be split 50/50, with half an hour given to speakers to make their presentations and half an hour for audience interaction led by the facilitator, who encourages the audience to delve deeper into the topic. The speaker is encouraged to remain on hand to join discussions and answer questions.

Typically, the audience is split into groups of six, and given a task that draws out their learnings from the sessions, perhaps focusing each group on a different aspect or topic of the presentation. After a set time period, a representative from the group presents their joint learnings to the entire audience and a wider discussion ensues.

“Pit bull sessions enable you to learn from your peers,” Vanneste said. “You learn by sharing and discussion and get to know people. They are great for networking. It is a chance to meet people from your industry with similar interests. This kind of interaction gives people energy and is a lot of fun. It’s a simple format, but I believe it’s effective.”

It’s Vanneste’s hope that the format catches on in the industry. “We claim no intellectual property on the Pitbull Session concept,” he said. “Indeed, I hope others will use it in their meetings and speaker sessions.”

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