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Add Elements of Theatre to Make Meetings That Inspire

Originally published Meetings Today Blog

Add Elements of Theatre to Make Meetings That Inspire

For years, I’ve tried to understand why going to live theatre and experiencing a performance, usually not an interactive one, is more invigorating than going to a meeting or session at a conference.

Meetings and live theatre have so much in common:

  • Seating
  • Delivery
  • Duration

Seating: Oddly, what I rail against for many meetings is the seating styles. For meetings, straight theatre seating (rows and rows of chairs facing forward) makes me cringe.

When deciding what session to attend at a conference, even if the topic sounds worthwhile, if I peer into a meeting room set with straight rows of chairs—or, worse, one set schoolroom-style (straight rows of tables facing forward with little room to maneuver—and a stage with a lectern), I don’t want to walk in.

Experience tells me the lights will be lowered and someone will speak from the stage with no opportunities to discuss the content throughout. Rather there will be, especially if I see aisle mics [shudder], “Q&A at the end” of the session.

Yet, when I go to live theatre, seating is … theatre-style, albeit in usually more comfortable-than-banquet-chair seating (thank you, Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. for finally getting better seating), and I don’t question it.

One exception of seating is when we attend theatre-in-the-round such as at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage (take a virtual tour). I love the Kogod Cradle for its intimacy.

In what is fondly known as “The Fich,” part of my enjoyment, in addition to the production (most recently Anything Goes) is watching audience reactions.

It is a bonding experience just like in a meeting making eye contact with someone and sharing a smile or a nod of recognition of shared enjoyment or agreement, or yes, even the agony of a miserable presentation!

It brings an emotion and a community experience to the enjoyment.

Delivery: While researching for this newsletter and blog, I came across this marvelous article that explains why acting and theatre are so vital. Speakers often tell their stories and too often in the same words and manner that they’ve told the same so many times, simply inserting the profession or group’s name to whom they are speaking.

(Confession: I was, years ago, honored by the National Speakers Association (NSA) as a “planner partner,” an honor of which I am proud. Still, I find many “motivational speakers” to be ho-hum, delivering stories of hardship suffered and overcome that make me feel guilty on days I just don’t want to get out of bed.

It’s not all speakers—some do an outstanding job of telling their stories to suit the particular audience to which they’ve delivered—it’s just too many who could deliver a story as if they were part of a stage production and don’t).

Even TED Talks, which I learned are rehearsed and rehearsed, sometimes feel so stiff that, though I’ve only experienced them virtually, seem almost as if delivered by robots.

TED Talks, like the old model of “talk shows,” once very popular in changing how content was delivered at meetings, have become the “go to” model in our industry and others for supposed different delivery. The mechanical performances feel less improvisational than if someone in a theatre production forgot their lines and filled in with spontaneity that made the audience feel delight … and relief.

Then there’s this decry: if you have ever watched The Rachel Maddow Show [take her political POV out of the equation if it is not yours; look only at delivery], you know that Rachel talks, right at the camera often reading from words that are shown on the screen.

The graphics used are often documents out of which words are highlighted. She’s doing what most decry: in essence, reading her slides!

What is it then that draws so many to TED Talks? To Rachel Maddow whose show has been judged to be more popular today than ever in this acknowledgement from Forbes?

It must be the manner in which stories are delivered—with passion, in many cases with Maddow; with comfort when the TED Talks are not so rehearsed that there is nothing spontaneous in the delivery.

Duration: Theatre productions are of many lengths, some performed without intermission. Indecent, which was performed this past fall 2018 at D.C.’s Arena Stage, was a shorter, no-intermission play. It was riveting in words, story, set, music and acting.

In one of two accompanying articles within the Friday With Joan newsletter, you’ll see a comment from LeAnne Grillo about getting out of the head and into the heart.

Indecent was in both my heart and head. I longed, as I do after some conference sessions, to carry on the conversation and not rush off to something else.

At meetings, we often don’t allow time for reflection after sessions—either quiet personal reflection as one would do with Open Space, if you were the only person interested in the topic or in conversation with others after sessions.

So rushed are we to move to a bio- or food break or another session (woe unto those who attend conferences with back-to-back-to-back activities and nary a minute between activities) that reflection or conversations about what we’ve experienced or learned are either hurried or non-existent, limiting the staying power of the learning.

Some plays and musicals are 2 to 3 hours in length, sometimes with an intermission of 15 minutes. And for some that’s too long to sit; for me, when I’m engaged, it is perfect and with an intermission and an opportunity to chat with others, even better.

Why then are meetings cutting session length, even to 15 or fewer minutes?

I know it’s difficult to vary the length of sessions although I think if we provided guidance for participants about how to reflect and consider what they’ve learned versus running off to yet another activity, perhaps we could do better with the duration and delivery of sessions and the use of what was learned and its retention.

I asked Daniel Mayer, currently the executive director of The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, North Carolina who has worked at a number of arts organizations and theaters including Book-It Repertory Theatre and The Empty Space Theatre, both in Seattle, what he saw as the elements of theatre that are not now being incorporated into meetings and why.

(Mayer is also someone who has attended many meetings in his professional life).

Dan responded: “I think that theater is very conscious of something called ‘the fourth wall,’ the space between the stage and the audience and there is an engagement in a performance that is missing in meetings. There is never a moment that you ‘get lost’ in a meeting … unless you fall asleep and dream of something more interesting than the meeting.

Both meetings and theater can engage but theater creates a world and invites you to enter that world; meetings are more static than that.

I understand that there are meetings that are exceptions to the rule (and there is plenty of theater that is boring) but the definition of success for a meeting and for theater can be very different. And, the answer is not for facilitators to be theatrical…”

Experiential or Experience? Making Meetings ‘Sing’

You’ve heard talk of experiential learning or experiences for people to have at meetings and in general. Even hotels are being designed to be “experiential.

I asked colleague, Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects, to help me understand the difference between experiential learning and experiences.

“If you asked this question to 10 meeting planners, I am fairly confident you would receive a wide range of answers given the lack of clarity with which the term is applied,” Cufaude said. “A common thread among their responses would likely be [something similar to the differences between being] ‘hands-on or interactive.’

“That’s fine, but achieving better results requires a more precise use of the term, one that specifies a deeper intention that can shape the meeting or session design,” he added.

Here are three desirable possibilities to better engage participants:

1. First, think about David Kolb’s experiential learning framework.

In it learners:

  1. have a concrete experience;
  2. observe and reflect on their (and others’) involvement;
  3. form some generalizations and hypotheses based on the experience;
  4. and then experiment and test them in new settings.

Meeting designers and session presenters can include interactive elements that move participants through this cycle.

2. Using deeply experiential formats that involve little formal presentation such as simulations, team exercises such as a ropes course, mock trials or debates, or case studies with role plays.

In such highly experiential formats, the learning comes from the doing, and it is surfaced and cemented in reflection, debriefing and discussion after the experience:

  • What just happened?
  • What might it mean?
  • How, when and where might you apply these insights?

3. Attending more to the overall experience design as explored by B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore in their book The Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business a Stage.

After identifying core values or attributes they want associated with their conference, meeting designers would do a deep dive into identifying how to infuse them into every choice made for every element of the meeting experience. I often frame this as “clarifying the macro intention that should inform micro attention and choices.”

[See Ken Fischer’s example in one of two accompanying Friday With Joan newsletter articles that provides guidelines for creating a theatrical experience].

I also asked Jeffrey what makes a session “interactive” and/or “engaging”?

He responded: “Simply put, an interactive session intentionally shifts participants from passive consumers of the content and community to active participants in their co-creation.

“Speakers move from talking at participants and presenting information to facilitating learning through use of session elements that effectively blend their ideas and insights with participants’ knowledge and experiences,” Cufaude said.

“A common mistake is to equate interaction or engagement with verbal participation,” he added. “Smart presenters diversify their teaching techniques and learning formats to engage both introverted and extroverted learners, helping deepen and enrich participants’ interactions with themselves, the content and the session community.

“I wrote about these considerations in a three-part blog series starting with You Need to Make Your Presentation Interactive,” Cufaude said.

“Many variables influence what interaction and engagement elements to incorporate, including: content suitability; general participant preferences; session length, scheduling, and room set; number of participants; and presenter competence and confidence.

“Conference designers should help presenters become better facilitators of learning overall, as well as provide coaches who can help them adapt their specific session content and formats,” he concluded.

Experiential or Experience Part II: It’s All About Feeling

At this point after emails and conversations and reading, I felt in need of a psychotherapist and a couch to sort this all out!

Instead I turned to Cricket Park (aka The Rev. C.B. Park, Rector of The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Bethesda, Maryland, a former association executive and meeting professional best known for her expertise on the ADA).

Her background in meetings, associations, creating engaging religious services, tap dance, and a love of theatre, I knew would help in my journey to differentiate experiential and experience.

The common element, she said, was that the experiences that made a difference were the ones that were felt.

In this article from Psychology Today titled “Live Theater: Do We Need It?” it says “Live theater is thus a way of being together that nourishes in each individual the resilience, the hope, the joy, the courage, the focus, and the determination that we each need in order to keep creating the worlds in which we want to live—on stage and off.”

Isn’t that what we want from a meeting?

Isn’t this what we want as a result of attending meetings and conferences?

How will we achieve it? How will we bring our partners, including hotels, convention centers, even conference centers; AV providers; speakers; everyone who touches a meeting—including those who attend—along on this journey to better meetings?

6 Suggested Actions to Help Add Elements of Theatre to Your Meeting:

1. Pay attention to what you see, experience, and feel when you attend a live theatre event or concert. If you don’t usually attend theatre, find a local production and go. Think of it as being a “first-timer” at a meeting. Make notes of the experience.

2. From that experience, consider what elements could enhance your meetings and how you can use them.

3. Talk with those who plan the content and delivery for your meetings—trainers, executives, planning committees—and those who service and support your meetings.

Ask them what they gain from a live non-meeting event. Then discover together what you can incorporate into your meetings to heighten the experiences.

4. Observe audiences at theatres (movies too) and concerts and at your meetings. See where you can, as noted in the Psychology Today article referenced above, nourish each individual at your meetings.

5. Once you decide to make changes—perhaps using theatre-in-the-round seating or involving the participants in smaller group problem solving—explain to those attending why and how to take advantage of the changes.

With guidance, we can ensure that audiences will accept how we move changes along.

6. Reread this blog from 2016 with some additional ideas to change up your next meeting. Subscribe to Jeffrey Cufaude’s Idea Architects blog to gain even more insights.

To close out this blog post: My thanks to the following people, in no particular order, who provided input for this blog post and newsletter.

Even if I didn’t use your words, you informed me with your thinking about what you felt and learned from theatre, concerts, and from meetings:

Jeffrey Cufaude, Charlotte St. Martin, Harold Marcus, Laura Daigle Porter, Gail Mutnik, LeAnne Grillo, Quiana Tyson, Tim Barrett, Allison Dossett, Deborah Breiter Terry, Steven Marchese, Niesa Silzer, Staci Blue, Shannon Henson, Jon Trask, Annette Suriani.

If I forgot to add your name, it was my error. I read every single response with respect and interest and am grateful for your input.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by contributing bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Meetings Today or its parent company.

Related Reading From the January 2019 Edition of Friday With Joan

Click here to view additional content in the 01.04.19 Friday With Joan newsletter.

Accessibility, the ADA and Inclusion – It’s Our Job!

Accessibility, the ADA and Inclusion – It's Our Job!

Shortly after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I was an MPI delegate to the board of the Convention Liaison Council—the previous name of what is now the Convention Industry Council (CIC). Speakers were invited to address and inform the board about topical issues, such as music licensing and the ADA, that impacted our industry and each organization. Cricket Park, then deputy executive director of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), and now, the Rev’d C.B. “Cricket” Park, rector, The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Bethesda, Md., addressed us about the ADA and its impact on the meetings and hospitality industry.

Cricket was the only person to ever write a book and, for PCMA, a white paper, on the ADA and meetings. Alas, both are out of print.

Like many of you, I was blown away by what we hadn’t paid enough attention to and what we needed to learn and to implement in regard to the ADA. Not many years later, my company was responsible to help plan and execute a meeting conducted in the U.S. by the U.S. and Canadian governments on issues of accessibility around the world.

On a site visit with representatives of both governments, I observed how clueless the hotel salespersons were about the ADA and compliance and general accessibility issues. Illustrative of that: the clients were in the guest room bathrooms taking measurements and there the sales people were telling us about their turndown service and wonderful spa and pool, the latter two which were totally inaccessible for someone with a disability and had no materials or people to help those with hearing or sight needs.

To date, not all countries have disabilities acts. This blog and the accompanying newsletter specifically address laws in the United States. For those who are in or do meetings outside the U.S., these resources will help: U.S. State Department “International Disability Rights”Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DRED)Disability Rights International; and International Disability Rights.

Alas, none of the above noted resources, unlike this from the U.S. Department of Justice, specifically address meetings. Reading further into this blog post and referencing the somewhat limited resources from our industry—thanks to Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA), formerly ACOM, for their work creating an accessibility toolkit—will help make our industry more accessible, in addition to asking participants what they need to fully participate and experiencing some of the obstacles they face firsthand.

That and common sense on the part of meeting professionals—planners, professional development designers and suppliers to our industry—can help guide us to better inclusion practices and simple adjustments.

I am not an expert on the ADA and all the components of helping to make meetings and facilities inclusive. Niesa Silzer and I, with assistance from Kristen McCosh (here’s a profile and a short bio) who is the Boston Mayor’s Commission for People with Disabilities, at a PCMA’s Convening Leaders in Boston in 2014, lead an experiential session in which attendees participated in several hands-on exercises. This will be somewhat replicated again, as they did a few years ago, at this year’s SGMP NEC on June 7, for more than discussion about disabilities and inclusive hospitality and meetings.

And why this is personal: I took my unassisted mobility for granted. Yes, I’d broken bones necessitating crutches, but somehow I managed. Even after back surgery, I was immobile for a bit but eventually regained my ability to walk and move about well.

Until I couldn’t.

The need for a mobility scooter came long after my knowledge of the ADA. By the time I needed assistance, I was already aware of and in tune with the extreme difficulty of being a person with a different ability or with a disability when traveling or even just getting around in my own city (Washington D.C.)! Others may not be.

These are ways to begin thinking and planning differently in order to have more inclusive meetings. They are by far not all you need to know or do and do not include sensory and other areas of disability. It’s up to you to do more research by starting with a list of questions for your meeting participants and hotel guests.

1. Conduct site inspections using a wheelchair or power chair or mobility scooter.

  • Consider the timing for elevators and see what it takes alone and with others to get to the elevator once it arrives.
  • Once the elevator arrives—or will it? See this video, created by The Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Zach Anner, experienced with humor that I sometimes don’t have—is there room and will you and your device fit?
  • Check on the restroom(s) that have this sign (or the more traditional version):

    …to see if they really are accessible from the outside as well as the inside. A wide stall is not all it takes to make a restroom accessible. If the door can’t be easily opened from inside or out or the turning radius isn’t great enough for a power chair or scooter, how is it then accessible?
  • For guest rooms, how does one traveling alone using a power chair or other device open the door and access the room? How easily is it to exit the room or get around? And where can you park and charge your mobility device in the room? Where are the controls for HVAC? Are the window blind pulls accessible?
  • While moving around the hotel (or other venue) did you find that all doors have push buttons to open them? Or do you, as I have done, just push through hoping not to break glass and wood and not to injure yourself?

​2. Conduct a site inspection wearing an eye patch or with cotton or ear plugs in your earsNOTE: for safety, just like in commercials for cars with a professional driver winding down a mountain road where it tells you not try this at home, it is advised you not do this on your own.

  • What’s printed in Braille or where and how accessible are human beings to assist? If the hotel uses robots, how do they interact with people who are deaf, hard of hearing or blind or low vision? How much of the printed-for-sighted-people materials—in-room safety cards? Menus in guest rooms and restaurants? Menus and ingredient labels on food for your events?—are accessible for all?
  • As Shane Feldman notes in the accompanying Q&A sidebar, take note of how much information on the in-room television and elsewhere is close- or option-captioned.
  • Ask about all recreational facilities and those who work in them. What Stacy Patnode Bassett experienced on her honeymoon and at the movie theatre (see Q1 in the related Q&A sidebar) was so stunning to me because it’s not 1950 or 1970 or even 1980 or 1990! Yet, I know that her experiences are not unusual.

3. Check guest rooms for accommodations.

  • Is there a bar in the closet that can be raised and lowered for clothing? Or is the only bar a low one that makes all clothing pick up lint from the floor? Just because we use mobility devices doesn’t mean our clothes are short or that we aren’t traveling with someone who needs their clothes to hang higher!
  • Is the extra roll of toilet paper, the hair dryer, the safe and everything else within easy reach regardless of one’s height or ability?
  • How many cases do they have to make any room accessible for someone who is deaf, hard of hearing, has low vision or is blind?
  • What is the owner/developer/management company doing to create designs that are more inclusive? (See: “Making Hotel Rooms Fully Accessible, Discreetly” and “An Artist’s Manifesto for Accessible Hotels”).

4. Check meeting and public space for more inclusive features.

  • Measure the height of buffet tables and items on them (chafing dishes and other food or food displays) to see if everyone can access them. Discern the knowledge of the convention services and banquet staff about doing so. Determine how your group or the hotel will assist those who cannot carry a plate of food on their own.
  • Is the hotel designed for what it is assumed all millennials want and need—that is, with low seating and lighting and many other “modern amenities”—that for anyone, millennials and Gen Zers included, might not be accessible?
  • Is the knowledge of meeting room seating audience-centric for sight-lines? (One of my favorite books, “Seating Matters” by Dr. Paul Radde*, shows how).

*I learned long after I wrote the foreword for the book—I was and am not compensated for the foreword I wrote or for “plugging” the book except to hear great things from people like Gail Hernandez who used seating from Paul’s book and how successful it was!—that Paul worked with Interpreters and the Deaf community on seating to ensure good sight lines.

5. Know what the Amendment to the ADA included.

  • In addition to swimming pool lifts, which a segment of our industry fought, and are now mandated, food allergies and chemical sensitivities are also now included within the ADA. Determine if hotels have unscented guest rooms and unscented products for those who need them.
  • When in doubt, contact the U.S. Department of Justice/U.S. ADA Hotlines: 800.514.0301 (voice) 800.514.0383 (TTY).

6. Make no assumptions!

  • On your registration, use the mobile wheelchair symbol and the statement “Tell us what you need to fully participate in the meeting, including mobility, sight, hearing, food and scent” with multiple methods of contact.
  • Just because someone doesn’t “look” like they have a disability, or because, when the registration form asked they didn’t note it, plan for all possibilities. Someone could be injured just before or while traveling to your meeting. Many who have disabilities do not want to disclose that because it may harm their reputation “if it gets out.” Others have what are considered “invisible disabilities” and prefer to keep that quiet (I’m forever indebted to the Invisible Disabilities Association and their great booklet, “But you LOOK Good”). When you see a person who has a placard and parks in a “handicapped” space and “looks fine,” stop before you admonish them.

7. Prepare for everyone.

  • Our jobs are to be hospitable. To be hospitable is to be inclusive. To be inclusive is to consider all those who may attend your meetings and stay in your facilities.
  • Know the ADA and go beyond it where and when possible. If room service has a “policy” of not substituting meals for those with, say, low-salt diets which may be a result of serious health issues, work with the chef to come up with menus for different diets (See what Tracy Stuckrath has written and said about these issues).

As you read the stories from D’Arcee Charington Neal, Shane Feldman, and Stacy Patnode Bassett in the accompanying April 2017 Friday With Joan Q&A sidebar, think about what you would have done in their situations and more, what you will do now to ensure others at your facilities and your meetings do not endure these types of incidents.

When a venue says they are “in compliance with the ADA” ask them how they know. Then take it the next step to see if they go beyond compliance to real inclusion.