Easy ways to make meetings work
Your group meeting is a rare occasion in which the experiences and expectations of every person come together in one room. It offers you the opportunity to “walk your talk.” It can be enlightening, perhaps a transformative group experience, and can even modify your corporate or association culture. And it could be a rare or unique opportunity to communicate freely, if you could eliminate the politics, and if thoughts and opinions could be expressed anonymously.
The internet is overflowing with repetitive advice and rules on conducting and organizing more productive, meaningful and engaging meetings. There are common-sense rules that I like such as make more frequent meetings shorter and less frequent meetings longer; templates for creating agendas and presentations, using whiteboards, voting with Post-its and one site that advocates “throwing balloons”. There is also a discussion about how employees use meetings as a way to avoid actual work.
The common thread is that meetings are generally boring because the organizers are stuck in the monotonous meetings rut. They don’t really involve the participants on a personal level. No one on the internet or in print is discussing the important simple rethinking of meetings as theatre.
The challenge is to have meetings that empower the expression of true anonymous opinions; learn and retain the content of the meeting; discover new information about both themselves and the group and not be put to sleep. Impossible? Not at all!
In the next five minutes, discover how meetings are theatre and learn the simple steps to great interactive entertaining events. It’s just about rethinking the basics tenants and presentation of meetings. It’s really that simple.
A client of mine was having an all-hands corporate meeting (conference). As a 32-year veteran of thousands of corporate and association interactive events, I was consulting on the client’s event. During the conversation, I called her the “producer” she became offended: Are you calling me the producer? Well, yes, I was. That’s when I had an epiphany and realized that my client(s) didn’t understand that they were producing theatrical events; maybe that is why her conferences and yours were/are so dull and lifeless.
My client never put the show/meeting dots together and wondered why she had hired a venue with stage lighting, sound, scenery (even if it’s just drape), entry and exit music, and a crew including a director to call the show unless it was a show. In her mind, her only consideration was having several completely independent dull presentations have their microphone and PowerPoint slides work.
Meetings and audience response interactive sessions don’t work well because of staging. Questions are often invited, and opinions solicited; however, the message delivered by the physical formality positioning, the lighting, the dress, etc.is clear: the true job of the audience is to stay awake listen. That’s the message sent by one type of theatrical setting (think of a stage play). It is specifically designed for a passive audience (viewer).
Most meetings are set up as talking heads, lit by stage lights with someone behind an elevated podium, lecturing to a hushed audience sitting in the dark. That’s a bad idea if you plan to involve the attendees be interactive, so do the opposite: be inclusive; bring the audience into the light so that you can see them, and they can see each other. If you can’t see them, realize that you’ve created a barrier and effectively cut yourself off from them–and they’re cut off from each other. I’ve been at medical meetings where rooms were so dark that the attendees were snoring.
Whether you realize it or not, in interactive meetings, it’s showtime!
The Unspoken Partnership
From early Greek times, there has been an unspoken partnership between the audience and the people on stage. That deal made centuries ago is the underpinning of our events today. Each group plays their respective parts for it to work. They’re divided into entertainer (speaker) and audience (listener). At a play or at your meeting, the audience is traditionally there to listen (be entertained) or be taught—not to participate. This unspoken recognition of the traditional meeting partnership; that the audience isn’t an active participant in the barrier to having a successful interactive meeting.
Many speakers/lecturers/presenters think of “their session” as a standalone event. That’s the way meting work—or don’t work. Those who think that it is “their session” and not a cooperative partnership with the audience and part of an overall interaction with the other “acts” have already failed. It isn’t their session! The sessions are the same as an act at a show (meeting) that needs to hold attention and relate to the other acts, and they all need to work together. Where an act is placed in the show is an important consideration for the act itself and for the pacing of the show. The same tools used in theatre should become part of your toolbox for your event.
The Fourth Wall
A Broadway stage has three walls. The missing (invisible) wall through which a stage play audience sees the show is famously called the fourth wall. The frame that we look through on a stage is called a proscenium. It is the metaphorical vertical plane of space in a theatre, surrounded by an arch (proscenium) or frame into which the audience observes a theatrical performance. The audience recognizes that they’re supposed to see through a missing or transparent fourth wall into a different reality. The actors for their part of the bargain pretend there is no audience. The reward for the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” in stagecraft is to be entertained.
Interactive TV Lessons for your Meeting
All TV shows have a hook. Almost no meetings have a hook—unless there is an election. What’s the hook at your event: conflict resolution, decision making, election results, or pretty much nothing? Is it just a thinly disguised social event or lecture? It is easy to make it much more. The easiest way is to find and ask the most basic and meaningful questions about the topic and ask it at both the start and conclusion. Finding the movement of opinions is just as crucial as finding none.
- The home purchase and improvement shows are simple and formulaic: A couple wants to buy a home, and they do. My wife loves these shows. My explaining that the show must be shot in reverse order; cheating by selecting the house first–while it is on the market, doesn’t change the viewer’s interest because it is still a conflict with a resolution. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of our conflicts were resolved in 30-minutes? Interestingly, as the pace of TV shows increases, so does the public’s expectation that there should be speedy conflict resolution in their own lives. What resolution does your audience look forward to at the end of a session? Ask your audience the same basic question at both the beginning and conclusion of a session, or event.
- Game Show hosts hook the attention of the audience by asking: Do you want to take the $500.00 or trade it for what’s behind curtain number one? The common element is conflict. Psychologists call it “mining” or “data fishing.” The entertainment business calls it drama. That’s the reason for the “reveal”; the long pause in mid-sentence before announcing the winner.
- On Masked Singer, for which Quick Tally does the studio audience voting, the disclosure of the contestant’s identity is held up by a really long struggle to take off the mask. The audience chants, “Take it off! Take it off!” Conflict and curiosity about
the resolution, in this case, the identity of the contestant, creates audience interest and involvement. Once presented with unresolved choices, the audience becomes interested or hooked on finding a resolution or making the discovery. Is there anything that your audience might be interested in learning about themselves?
- Episodic shows that determine a winner over several episodes maintain interest because they create an investment on the part of the viewer. They invested their time in watching the shows, or even because they voted online. Are your attendees invested in any way in resolving an issue or finding an outcome? If so, present it in that way.
Interactive meetings, unlike theatre, have to eliminate the proscenium arch and make every effort to be inclusive; the anonymous audience response technology process provides an opportunity to express honest, truthful opinions, create interest, and expose differences, show movement, or the lack of movement. Topics are more interesting when presented with a little drama. Create a challenge with solutions to be reached. Topics should involve thought and action, promote active discussion and disagreement, and hopefully lead to a consensus.
Lighting at Interactive Meetings
If you keep your audience in the dark they’ll return
- Take a lesson from TV shows. The more that a TV show – and your event – depends upon audience interaction, the less separation–of all kinds there should be between the performers and the audience.
- The unspoken signal of inclusion is in the physical setup. Dr. Phil, The Ellen Show, and most talk show hosts work from a low accessible stage. In many cases, it’s not a stage at all, just a flat surface with the audience placed on a gentle slope for the seats.
- Daytime game shows use “daytime” bright colors and have brighter lighting. Change the look of your meeting to delineate day from night.
- Dr. Phil doesn’t depend on the audience’s voting, which Quick Tally does, as much as the inclusiveness. The staging and lighting signal that to the audience.
- Wayne Brady, host of The Price is Right, and arguably the most underestimated talent on TV is a master at improvisation. His show is a show completely based upon audience interaction. The audience is a character on the show. He works with no separation from the audience both because they’re an element of the show and for the purpose of this discussion–the show depends upon their energy. Use the energy of the audience by making them part of portions of your event.
A Little Trivia
- Just in case you’re interested in trivia, television shows use an invention from about two-thousand years ago: APPLAUSE SIGNS. They signal the appropriate moments for applause now, as they did when started by Emperor Agustustus – first emperor of the Roman world (27 BCE – 14 CE). He actually appointed an official to signal when to
applaud. We do the same thing today – a few thousand years later.
- TV shows also employ a warm-up person to rev-up and entertain the audience during breaks in taping. Their job is to get the audience excited and keep the energy level up. Do you have your meetings attendees just sit? Do you pay attention to the entry and exit music, create changes in lighting, the colors in the room matching the time of day, think about pacing, or just have people sit in front of black pipe and drape. Don’t make it an afterthought. If you have a projection, use it to enliven things with colors, lights, and sound; different projected backgrounds; vote on whose baby picture is on screen. The specifics don’t matter. Remember: It’s a show!
Back to the Point
Aside from free coffee, what’s so exciting about your meeting? Is it entertaining? What’s the hook; do the attendees get to participate, share, contribute, and learn from each other, truly voice their opinions, have fun, are there any surprises? A Silicon Valley tech company uses us for Jeopardy-style games (for retention and fun) using product knowledge–and they give away meaningful prizes. Other companies have no prizes and get the same enthusiasm just by creating competitive teams.
Motivational Speakers recognize that your meeting is set up intentionally, or unintentionally to thwart interaction. There is a good reason why they immediately break the barriers, working with the lights up and from “the floor.” If they do it to connect with your audience, why are you always behind a podium?
When a speaker didn’t show up at Cisco systems Customer Forum at Harvard, I was asked to fill in and run the session. I asked how they expected me to do it without knowing much about their products. The session wasn’t about specific products, it was a forum for their clients to discuss the products. Oh, that’s different! At that point, the moderator (me) simply had to stay off the stage, work the room, and empower the audience to discuss commonly shared views and discover solutions to problems. Anyone familiar with the dynamics of meetings could moderate an event about any product. The really important information is on the audience’s side of the podium.
Your show follows the same process that makes theatre work. A good film brings the viewer into its reality because there is an unspoken agreement with the audience regarding the “suspension of disbelief.” We all know it’s not real, yet when it really works, we forget about it. In Army basic training in South Carolina – by the way, the Carolina’s were never invaded while I was there – we got to see movies on the base (Yes, John Wayne). I recall vividly that during the movie, I’d forgotten where I was–until the lights went on. I wasn’t seeing a movie; I was escaping and immersed in its reality.
In my opinion, the individual production elements shouldn’t be identifiable in theatrics because the experience is an illusion, momentarily real. Similarly, your interactive audience shouldn’t be aware of the elements or processes; you’re using to lead them to their individual and group discovery process. They should only be aware of their own discoveries.
How professionals use Silence
What if you got up in front of an audience and didn’t say anything? You would think the audience would lose attention. No, it’s just the opposite. This is true just as most of what I’m sharing with you is both simple and counterintuitive. Silence is actually a trick used by professionals to rivet an audience. Suppose you had something really important to say and wanted to force attention. The simplest and best solution is to make them wait. Make them wonder why you are silent. Do you have stage fright? Forget your notes? Everything will stop in anticipation and curiosity about what’s happening or not happening. The longer the pause, the more attentive they will be.
By not saying anything, you will command attention. Then when you do speak, the first line should be really well thought out. If Donald Trump was speaking at a meeting of Democrats, he might begin with – “Why did you invite me here?” Then there might be a second “pregnant pause.” It should be just long enough for the audience to have an internal dialogue and answer the question themselves. Finally, with the audience at the edge of their seats, state a clear topic point.
Pausing appropriately is what’s meant in theatrics when they say: “Make ’em wait for it.” Sinatra sings a slightly offbeat, making you wait a split second for him. Professional speakers pause regularly from their prepared speech, take a moment to look up at the audience to connect and create the appearance of thoughtfulness.
This works so well comics (Andy Kaufman) has opened by saying/doing nothing for so long that the audience began to laugh to release nervous energy. I remember seeing Dick Shawn’s show, “The Second Greatest Entertainer in the World.” Shawn opened with nothing happen on stage, except for a toy airplane running overhead for several minutes and a pile of paper and leaves on the floor. The audience just sat there, waiting for the start of the show. Of course, the show had already started, and they were riveted.
Tragically, during a performance of the show in San Diego, he would visibly lie on the stage floor absolutely still. At this show, he suddenly fell forward during one of his spiels about the Holocaust. The audience, of course, laughed, thinking it was just a part of his odd silent shtick. Tragically, no one came to his aid.
The Amazing Power of Converting Verbal language into Visual Language
We all know the value of a picture being worth a thousand words and how the movies can “move” us. The power of converting verbal language to visual language (projection) is often overlooked at events. Projecting the response slides is not just reporting– it’s a key to the strength of the process.
When the results are projected on a large screen in real-time, the visualization creates instant ownership and automatic buy-in. At the end of the day, the best part is that they weren’t told something, they told it to themselves. The power of this cannot be overstated. If there is a better, faster, or simpler way to open the door to ownership, growth, and change, I am unaware of it.
Monty Python’s Lesson for Meetings
“And Now For Something Completely Different”
Create an ongoing joke. Ask an interactive inside joke about some company-related topics (golf, food, etc.). Perhaps ask why the attendees are at the event; include something silly such as free coffee as a choice. Then during the event (especially when things get dull or tense), use it as an unexpected running joke. Go back to it unexpectedly with: Let’s see how the people who are here for the free coffee responded to this question”. As hokey as it sounds, it really works. It works because it is lighthearted and unexpected in the midst of serious business. It is something completely different.
My favorite was a client that built in the line for the speaker: Sure, that’ll happen when it snows here in Las Vegas! That prompted turning on snowmaking machines mounted in the rafters, and it snowed in Las Vegas. You don’t need to make it snow. However, you do need to understand the value of doing the unexpected.
You may not ever consciously use any of the specific methodologies that I’ve shared. However, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the power of the interactive experience as theatre. I encourage you to open your thoughts to possibilities beyond your previously envisioned purely quantitative use of ARS and explore the system’s transformative power. It’s like a great movie or play. We are moved without our being aware that it’s happening.
Thanks for reading this, here’s a short checklist to help you remember the main points discussed here:
- Remember to be entertaining. It’s a show!
- Give me a break! Remember that the mind cannot absorb what the seat cannot endure.
- Keep refreshing and changing the show elements: venues, types, and tempos of music, lighting, seating, pacing, different styles of seating– everything. Small changes keep people interested.
- Have an opening, a second act, and a conclusion. Don’t just lump several similar looking and sounding presentations together.
- If you keep the audience in the dark, they’ll return the favor.
- Have a bright daytime look or a darker nighttime look. This includes colors and lighting. Daytime TV uses much brighter “daytime” lighting and bright colors. So should you.
- Deal with your serious business and also make it interesting and at times, fun/interesting to be there.
- At an open interactive session, with real input from the audience, structure it with the most important issues first to be sure they’re dealt with.
- Launch a discovery process. As long as people are learning about themselves, they’ll be interested.
- Questions ideally should be a catalyst for thought and action.
- Keep the attendees involved. Use your audience response system to determine the audiences’ level of interest and importance to the audience.
- Consider allowing them to submit interesting questions for the overall group. Collect them as index cards and sort them out.
- Have an unexpected quick interactive game with meaningful prizes.
- Determine if there is consensus before going to a breakout that isn’t needed.
- Look for and welcome differences of opinion.
- Find an issue and hook the attendees on creating or learning a solution.
Finally, remember this:
It’s a show
Empower and listen
Follow Monty Python’s advice: “And now for something completely different.”
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.
Alan grew up in Brooklyn. After graduating from New York University with a degree in Communications, he attended the New School for Social Research, Graduate School in Communications at NYU and the Master’s Program in Cinema at UCLA. He has owned and run Quick Tally for over three decades and has pioneered both in the manufacturing of ARS equiment and providing interactive event services. Earl Grey, Alan’s 17 pound Maine Coon Cat, graciously lets Alan and his wife JoAnne live with him in Marina del Rey, California (Los Angeles).