Meeting Design: What would make the conversation more compelling?

Whether it be a staff meeting or an annual meeting, you know there will be a whole lot of talking going on.  But quantity does not equal quality and in our time-starved world, ensuring conversation is compelling is critical.  So what makes a conversation one that causes you to sit up, lean forward, eager to participate?

The people

Good perspectives.  Good thinkers.  Good energy.  That's what comes to mind when I think of the people I'd willing converse with on just about any topic.  I know spending time with them, regardless of what we're talking about, will be a worthwhile investment of my time and energy.  When planning meetings we need to convene conversations (and help participants do so) that allow individuals to easily connect with the people they find compelling ... because it will make their conversation more compelling.

For staff or team meetings, this means allowing smaller sets of individuals to convene, connect, and converse and then integrate their thinking with that form other small groups.  For conferences this means making it easy for participants to find their desired conversation partners and then providing ample informal spaces where they can talk.

The topic

Even the most interesting participants can fall into routine thinking, so framing the topic in a compelling way may be required for the conversation itself to be compelling.  This can be accomplished by:

Forcing participants to examine a question through new lenses.  Give them a provocative quote or innovative example from another source and have them discuss its implications and applications for the topic at hand.  TED Talks can be a great source for quick inspiration from big thinkers.

Crafting better questions that will unearth new thinking.  This can be as simple as shifting the orientation of a questions.  Instead of answering "how can we get more people to attend our programs?" spend time exploring "Where are there already a lot of people and how could we bring our programs to them?"  Use language that challenges existing norms or requires looking at an issue from a new angle.

Applying personas to the problem under consideration.  Marketing firms, television execs, and others create personas or detailed profiles representing the different demographics they are trying to reach.  Paula is a 40-year old divorced mother of two living in a New Urban townhouse on the outskirts of a major city. They then examine ideas under consideration from the perspective of this persona:  why would Paula watch this show, buy this product? We can do the same in our own conversations, adopting the persona of a member or stakeholder and exploring how they would respond to the program or service being discussed.

Changing how and where the conversations occur.  If you need fresh thinking, you might need a fresh space or a fresh process for producing it.  Sameness begets sameness.  Have a conversation field trip and go a new site that will cause people to engage differently.  Or make the time a Walk and Talk with small groups of individuals walking and talking about an assigned topic or question and then reporting back to the large group.  Research shows our brain engages differently when our body is involved in nominal activity.

The output

I believe that the process often is the product, but I also appreciate that many people need to feel a sense of accomplishment beyond "just talk."  Creating time for conference participants to reflect on conversations and identify actions they will take and offering a follow-up accountability check-in is one way to meet this need.  If you attended a summer leadership workshop as a student, you may have addressed a letter to yourself that the workshop leaders mailed many months later to refresh the energy and inspiration you had "in the moment."

At conferences some content stays at a somewhat general level because of the diversity of the audience.  As a result the conversation is not going to be completely compelling because it isn't specific enough.  Create opportunities for individuals to gather with like-minded colleagues and discuss the "so what?  now what?" connections of the more general ideas to which they have been exposed: i.e., after a general session offer breakouts where individuals with the same job functions can gather and converse.

Dwelling longer in possibilities, not probabilities.  In his book The Design of Business, author Roger Martin talks about how some innovative ideas can't necessarily be initially supported by data.  Turning our conversation too quickly to what we know will work means we will resort to thinking anchored in the past and present as opposed to what might be possible in the future.  Having facilitation or an agenda that hols people in "What if?" thinking is required for compelling conversation.

Reviewing group decisions and next steps at the end of a team meeting helps fuel a sense of accomplishment as does identifying simple strategies for keeping the conversation alive:  adding a few questions to your team discussion boards, posting them on flipchart paper in the break area where additional ideas can be shared, generating a mantra that can inform your mission and the daily actions in which individual engage, or the formal leadership refreshing the conversations regularly in their interactions with others.