Originally posted on Meetings Today Blog
With thanks to Anu Garg of A Word A Day for this:
“Most creativity is a transition from one context into another where things are more surprising. There’s an element of surprise, and especially in science, there is often laughter that goes along with the ‘Aha.’ Art also has this element. Our job is to remind us that there are more contexts than the one that we’re in—the one that we think is reality.”
— Alan Kay, computer scientist (born May 17, 1940)
Surprise and joy. These are the emotions I have felt when an educational experience, in particular one in a school or meeting setting, was creative and transitioned from the usual straight rows of chairs to a more audience-centric setting and from a lecture to an engaging, interactive experience.
These same emotions were felt in Stanley Blum’s civics class in my Ohio high school where the (awful!) tablet chairs were set in a circle versus the straight rows in most other classes. Surprise and joy are also what I felt when (the late) Lenore Clippinger allowed us to bring pillows on which to sit on the floor of her English Literature class in the same school. And when Mr. Blum invited us to his home for current events discussions and we sat on comfortable furniture and were served cocoa and cookies.
Come to think of it, it’s similar to what Bill Host, and I created at a PCMA discussion “session” about Dan Pink’s “A Whole New Mind”: some cocktail tables, beanbag chairs, lots of windows, small vases of flowers on the tables, and cocoa, tea, coffee and cookies. [For that, thanks to Kim Peterson at Seattle Sheraton who helped create the setting].
Yes, I’ve written about some of these experiences before (here and here). Additionally, in the sidebar of the June 2017 Friday With Joan newsletter (which also includes this blog post), I interviewed the Blums’ daughter, Sarah Routman, about her work. Clearly she too was influenced by her dad’s examples of good education and learning.
Jeff Hurt, a colleague and friend since his long-ago days working at MPI, and now Executive Vice President, Education & Engagement at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting—who describes himself as “a lifelong learner trying to embrace learning, unlearning and relearning”—reads and writes extensively about learning and the brain.
Janet Sperstad, Ph.D., Program Director of the meeting and event management degree at Madison College in Wisconsin, wrote her dissertation, “Purposeful Meetings: Driving deeper meaning, insights and innovation,” on the topic of better meeting design.
Janet was also recently interviewed in this great article from PCMA about the paper she and Amanda Cecil, Ph.D, CMP, associate professor and chair of Indiana University’s School of Physical Education and Tourism Management, are writing entitled “Purposeful Meetings: How to Plan with Deeper Meaning, Innovation and Insight in Mind.”
(You can learn more here about Janet and Amanda’s work).
For years, in teaching “meeting planning 101” classes for MPI, PCMA, ASAE and others, I’ve conducted an exercise by first saying “Adults learn and participate best in pleasant surroundings” followed by the question “What makes it pleasant for you to learn?”
This is often paired with an exercise of drawing a three-panel cartoon of one’s best learning experience. (Thank you David Johnson from whom I learned, at an International Association of Facilitators (IAF) meeting, this activity that can be adapted to many situations and makes me think of the exercises in the aforementioned Dan Pink book).
>> ACTION: Try this. Identify what makes it pleasant for you to learn, and if you’re willing, add what that is, in the comments section below. <<
Were you able to quickly identify the elements of “pleasant”? Or were you, like most, in need of parameters to identify where the “pleasant experience” and the “best learning experience” occurred (at a conference? in a school setting? in the office? at home?)? Or was it difficult to remember your best learning experiences?
It may be like the (in)famous quote from the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, about pornography: “you know it when you see it”. We know a good meeting or learning experience when we we see it or don’t.
Mine? I’ve cited some from high school. I know I don’t like straight rows of chairs or tables—even crescent rounds in straight rows. The sight lines are always awful and the rigidity of the settings sets a “bad school” atmosphere for me. I love natural light from windows, food and drink available at all times, interaction—natural not forced—with others with whom I’m learning [one day, on a plane or train, I know, after reading a great article, I’ll engage those around me in discussion!], and the ability to do what I need—sit, stand, put my feet up, or leave if it’s not working for me.
If you read the May 2017 Friday With Joan newsletter you learned I was in college full time for only a year where most classes were in auditoriums with seats with tablets. Even without the formal education of the colleagues cited and interviewed I am an avid reader and observer of people interacting and learning in different settings.
I am curious about those, who like I, abhor straight rows and lectures, find TED and all the spin-offs effective since they are, in essence, well-rehearsed lectures. I watch many “TED talks” and especially like this one of Sunni Brown on doodling. She’s engaging as are many TED-talkers and programs. They are really lectures but they are lectures with personality, right? And they are lectures with opportunities to engage with others.
When I think about what makes it pleasant for me to learn and the experiences I’ve had that were conducive to learning in meetings, I think of these:
1. ODNetwork: in working as the planning consultant with them, they set a standard meeting room as theatre-in-the-round which created a different mindset just by walking into the room. And it was low key and worked—just a short stage in the center of the room and chairs set around the stage, circled, with multiple aisles.
2. ODN and IAF both had areas for creativity where, at any time, one could color, build and use different materials to relax and use one’s right brain. Disney created similar experiences for PCMA and ASAE in rooms that I remember going to often because the spaces themselves were differently set with lots of creative materials. In one, at an ASAE meeting years ago, in a session held in the room, the first instructions were to take our shoes off and put our heads down on our arms on the table and to listen to a (children’s) story. (Yes, this can be adapted for those who are differently abled).
3. ASAE, at a meeting in Boston years ago, set all general sessions in the round. The stage was round with a rotating center on which a lectern stood and behind which a few people delivered their messages. Screens were flown from above and all around the stage, easily visible for each section of seats. More speakers—(it must have been the early ‘90s because James Carville and Mary Matalin were among them)—walked around the stage. Because, if I remember correctly, no one was more than 10 rows back from the stage, seated with lots of aisles down which there was entertainment each morning before the general session started, I looked forward to going to each general session which is not my norm! More it meant that those who like to sit on the aisle could more easily do so and not disrupt those who wanted to leave since the rows were short.
4. ASAE again created a novel setting also in Boston (hmm…was it Boston?) years later where there were different seating configurations in the ballroom foyer and lots of screens on which you could watch the general sessions without being in the large dark room set in rows. I’d started in the ballroom and was driven out by the size, dark, and “usual” set to the foyer.
What didn’t work: the foyer set was conducive to, and I believe intended for, conversation, perfect for Aural learners. (One could even get a shoeshine and still watch the programming in the general session in another area of the convention center).
A colleague and I sat in the foyer and talked about what we were hearing and seeing, and were “shushed” by others. When doing something different, explain the how and why and how to use it to the best advantage. Different for the sake of different doesn’t work unless we educate those in attendance.
5. PCMA, at one meeting, set general sessions and breakouts in theatre-in-the-round. A lawyer colleague and I presented our session in one of those breakout rooms. Outcomes?
- People entered without having been told why the rooms were set differently.
- Most everyone stayed in what would usually be the “back”—that is by the doors—rather than going to the sides or other side of the center of the room’s slightly raised platform.
- PCMA, I was told, didn’t use that set again because a) speakers didn’t know how to use it [see the sidebar interview and in particular what Paul Radde has to say] and b) it wasn’t explained to the meeting participants. They expected a lecture at which they could stare. (Yes, there were screens around the room so any visuals could be seen easily no matter where one sat).
6. When PCMA first experimented with “Learning Lounges”, and other interactive areas for those of us who prefer learning with each other (like the hallway conversations many love and the “peer learning” that MPI’s Foundation discovered years ago was really what most of us call “networking”), it was far more intimate than it has become.
Remembering the first year, a colleague and I sat in the area behind the stage where we could watch and still talk with each other. I tweeted with someone who was in front of the stage wishing she weren’t “stuck” and not permitted to talk during the session and for whom leaving felt awkward and rude to the speaker.
Maybe what we need are more “norms” or ground rules that allow people to move as needed without feeling they can’t leave like what, in Open Space Technology used to be called “The Rule of Two Feet” (“If it’s not working for you, you may leave”) and which has been renamed “The Law of Motion and Responsibility” to be more inclusive of those who may not have or use two feet.
7. MPI has experimented with different designs including using Open Space Technology where the audience, with some subject matter parameters, sets the agenda. Having used Open Space (for which I am eternally grateful to Harrison Owen, initially, and later to Lisa Heft) for a variety of clients, it’s one way to accommodate different types of learners and peer learning. It’s not for every person or meeting. With World Café it’s one more option in one’s toolbox of design.
8. Loretta LaRoche, the capnote (closing) speaker at an IACC meeting years ago, did just what Sarah Routman suggests in the sidebar: her very being and work created laughter, great big tear-rolling, doubled-over laughter. She allowed us to leave feeling good about our work, ourselves, and the conference with her style and words. I can’t remember leaving a conference ever feeling so good. (This, a Loretta LaRoche YouTube clip about “wearing your party pants,” should make you feel the same now).
9. Recently at ExhibitorLive, I presented back to back sessions about creating different meeting settings and delivery methods. I asked for and through the understanding of Dee Silfies, responsible for education, and of CORT Furniture for the different furniture—not all of which was too low for those who may not be able to get down to or up easily—we created an example of what can be done. At the break (30 minutes versus 15 or even the back-to-back-to-back with no time between sessions at too many meetings), some participants who’s not signed up for the second session, did so.
They liked my style of teaching, the creative tools used, the “norms” and permissions given, and the set that was more relaxed and comfortable and included some crescent rounds for those who wanted more traditional seating.
Here’s the thing: it is messy and more difficult to design conferences and meetings to accommodate different learning preferences and comfort levels, and adding genuine laughter, for and from those who are participating and delivering.
As we continue to learn more about learning and interactive—”audience-centric,” experiential, community-focused—gatherings, we will need to change what we do. And to do so means involving our partners (aka “suppliers”) and those responsible for the fire laws and other safety and security issues, and policies governing spaces. Having suggested that many years ago after being told “no rounds” in a convention center unless we were serving food, I’ve not yet seen that the industry is meeting with all the right participants to make massive changes.
There are enough researching and talking about changing learning models at meetings that the revolution to create better conventions and conferences is upon us. ASAE just completed XPD about which the reviews are still coming in. I’m hopeful you’ll join in and tell others the creative ways you’ve designed and delivered events and meetings and more, suggest ways we can better truly partner with venues and vendors rather than just looking to them for underwriting. I’m convinced they are the key to making it work by understanding education and how their spaces and work can contribute. Share this with each other and your partners. Let’s move meetings forward. Really!
This blog post and the June 2017 Friday With Joan newsletter are dedicated to the people and organizations noted below because they want people in sales to learn more about how to help market, sell and service more creative, comfortable, conducive-to-outcomes, experiences. It seems our industry has relegated “suppliers” to a category of “sponsors” and “underwriters” versus full partners in learning and creating (or co-creating if we’re still using that buzzphrase) and suggesting different uses of their spaces.
Thus, this blog post is dedicated to Michael McQuade, Director of Sales, Washington State Convention Center, and founder of Emerging Sales Professionals, an organization committed to helping those in hospitality sales learn more to aid them in making meetings and events—and those who sell space and services—more rounded in their knowledge beyond “rates, dates and space”, and to Convention Sales Professionals International. I had the privilege this Spring of presenting sessions to both organizations on how to be consultative sales professionals by understanding the elements of good education at meetings.
Additional thanks goes out to Brent Grant, CMP, for patience to create the right audience-centric room set. Also to Jane Kantor of Visit Bellevue and the Meydenbauer Center and Julie Deweese of the Oregon Convention Center, for their creativity in programming.