Creative meeting design: 3 formats that foster discussions

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.

Blog Holland Creative meeting design discussion session open fishbowl setting

Open fishbowl

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.

Blog Holland Creative meeting design discussion session open fishbowl

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.

Blog Holland Creative meeting design discussion session open space setting

Open Space

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.

Blog Holland Creative meeting design discussion session open space agenda

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?

Blog Holland Creative Meeting Design World Cafe table

World Cafe

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.

Blog Holland Creative meeting design discussion session world cafe

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.

Creative meeting design: less listening & lurking, more sharing & doing

In my previous blogposts I discussed the option to integrate interactive tools like Send2Stage and TimeVote into your meeting. These tools provide the great possibility to give your audience a voice during the session. However, if you don’t listen to that ‘voice’, these tools are quite senseless. Besides, you might miss big opportunities.

Your audience is not a flock of sheeps that has to be led into the right direction, but a powerful source of valuable experience and knowledge. Their input can improve the output of your sessions and your meeting as a whole. Therefore discussions are a powerful tool, but unfortunately most meetings skip them for several reasons. In this post I will give you some reasons why you should foster the discussion for your future meetings.

Flock of sheep, New Zealand, Pacific

What is a discussion?

The term ‘discussion’ is often misused. The Q&A moment at the end of a session is not a discussion. Tools like Send2Stage enable the audience to give their feedback on a speaker or topic, but they don’t create a discussion. Questions and comments only adress the speaker who will answer them from his expert point of view. By doing so, the audience is treated like an empty bucket: they listen passively to be filled with the experts opinions and knowledge.

In a real discussion you facilitate not only the dialogue between the audience and the speaker, but also interaction within the audience. Let your participants articulate their own ideas, identify different point of views and integrate new input with their own background knowledge. This has two great advantages. Firstly, you increase retention of the received information. Secondly, it allows all participants to learn from each other and to generate new knowledge.

Prolonged learning

During most conferences the audience is a passive recipient of information that is sent by the speaker. As I explained in my post about Pecha Kucha and Ignite Events, this information will be quickly forgotten if the recipient gets no chance to apply it. By discussing the new information with other participants they can think about the content and embed it into their individual framework of knowledge, experiences and emotions. As a consequence they will still be able to recall the information four weeks after the session.

Blog Holland Creative Meeting Design Discussion Paint Buckets

Colourful buckets

For a real discussion and useful meetings we have to change our idea of the audience. If I fill an ’empty bucket’ with information, I won’t create a new idea or generate knowledge. Luckily, each of your participants brings their own knowledge and background to your meeting. Thus, using the bucket-analogy, we could assume you audience as a composition of half-full paint buckets of different colours. Now imagine, that we allow these buckets to get in touch with each other and exchange their contents. Instead of adding one and the same colour (the colour of the speaker) to each bucket, we will create various mixes composed of all present colours. Instead of putting the same information into the head of every participant, we can generate inumerable new ideas, insights and perspectives by joining and adapting our knowledge in a discussion.

How to get started?

Of course a discussion will not emerge out of nothing and unfortunately you might feel a certain resistance from your audience and your speakers when you try to integrate one into your session. How can you convince participants that the discussion is beneficial and how do you encourage them to get involved? What can you do to prevent that the interaction will be monopolized by two or three people? In my next post I will pay attention to these questions. Do you have any suggestions concerning discussions? I would love to hear them!