In my previous blogpost I explained why discussions are such a crucial part of succesful meetings. The experience and knowledge of your audience is a powerful source of valuable ideas and inspiration which should be shared. Time to transform your passive audience into active participants. In this post I will explore three formats that get your audience engaged into discussions.
The classical fishbowl format is comparable to the familair panel discussion. A few chairs (4-5) are arranged in an inner circle, the so-called ‘fishbowl’. The remaining audience is seated in concentric circles outside the fishbowl. The discussion is performed by the participants who fill the seats of the inner circle and is probably facilitated by a moderator. The audience in the outer circles is invited to listen. So far it sounds pretty standard.
The fishbowl format gets more dynamic when you decide to leave one seat in the inner circle empty. This is called an open fishbowl. Any member of the audience can, at any time, occupy the empty chair and join the discussion. When this happens another member of the fishbowl must leave the inner circle to leave a free chair.
The open fishbowl is suitable for both small and large groups. Unlike the panel discussion, every participant has the opportunity to join the discussion at any given moment and there is no difference between the individual speakers. Since the discussion is centered, it is easy to follow.
The main problem of this format is to encourage people to occupy the free chair. You will need some kind of icebreaker for entering the inner circle. If your audience contains some very prominent speakers you need to make sure that they are not going to dominate the discussion.
A typical open space meeting begins without a formal agenda. In the invitation a broad theme and the general purpose of the meeting are announced. In the beginning the audience is seated in circles around a central bulletin board. After a short introduction of the topic, participants are invited to introduce an issue or opportunity related to the theme. Their suggestion is written on a piece of paper and posted to the topic wall. After all issues are collected the wall becomes the official agenda of the meeting. When the topics are established participants can sign up for the individual sessions. Those participants who suggested a topic are expected to moderate the session about it.
This format is suitable for medium-sized to large groups since the group as a whole is split up. The great advantage of open space is that participants can address issues which are important to them and are free to join those session they view as relevant. Keep in mind that your own influence on the agenda is limited.
Big problem: rather than one central discussion there will be numerous small discussion tables. How can you manage that the main results can be shared at a central point at the end of the meeting? Many participants might feel unable to cope with a role as a moderator, with as a consequence that they won’t suggest a topic. How can you get them prepared for this task?
The general setting for this format is modelled like a cafe with many small, round tables, each providing 4-5 seats. The host welcomes the participants, introduces the topic and the goal of the meeting. He also describes a problem or question which is subsequently discussed between the participants at the tables. Discussion time is about 20 minutes. Then, each member will leave his seat and shift to a new table for a new round (which can probably be prefaced by a new question/problem). At the end of the session, participants are invited to share their results with the whole group.
The World Cafe is a highly dynamic format for very large groups. The conversation threshold at the individual tables is very low due to the small group. There is no problem to engage everyone into the conversation. However, it can be difficult to monitor and moderate the progression of the individual discussions and to connect them to a general outcome in the end.
What do you think?
Do you have any experience with these meeting formats as a planner or as a participant? How did you feel at these events? What is your opinion? I would love to discuss that with you.