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7 fresh meeting formats to powerfully engage participants

To generate ground-breaking ideas for meetings, I first ask: “How will we engage meeting participants in ways that could never be experienced outside of this event?”

This one question elevates and disciplines event design. It also generates engagement tools that are exceptionally suited for building more meaningful connections among participants and delivering content that makes long-term impacts. Whether your time slot is five minutes or five days, what makes meeting formats fresh and effective?

  1. Focused: apply it to a specific subject to boost takeaways
  2. Flexible: caters to a range of skill levels, ages, audiences, topics
  3. Functional: Can stand alone or be integrated into the larger event. (The 20-minute TED format is crazy-popular because it can be inserted anywhere in an agenda. Or you can string together 20-minute segments to form the entire meeting.)
  4. Fun: people want to engage and participate, and the learning environment is relaxed to stimulate creativity

With these “Four F’s” in mind, let’s consider meeting formats that engage attendees in innovative ways. What’s cutting edge today, in the same way that TED, Pecha Kucha and Open Space were once novel? Seven great options:

  1. Post-Program Pair-Up is a simple, powerful exercise I’ve designed to increase networking and the likelihood of positive change. Whether you have 5 or 5000 attendees, near the end of your event, have participants find partners. Each dyad discusses new goals they want to reach in the next 60 days. They record their objectives—plus each other’s contact information—and together commit to reaching these milestones. Smaller audience? Take commitments to a higher level: invite everyone to state their goals before the whole group; sharing publicly means you’re more likely to succeed.
  2. Second loop of learning: Speaker Dr. John Izzo takes the above a step further. Both meeting goers and leadership commit to what they’re going to achieve. He encourages executives to also email what stood out for them at the event, describe what they’ll do differently and ask attendees to personally share what they’re doing differently. Leaders report their progress and their challenges; then call out some audience members each week to highlight their accomplishments for the entire group. Voila: greater engagement, leadership transparency AND more goals realized.
  3. Need to solve the “unsolvable”? Try cricking: Think of historical figures, celebrities or someone outside your industry. Then consider: How would Oprah approach this problem? What’s Mark Zuckerberg’s POV? What does the founder of Zumba bring to the table?
  4. The Flip: Turn attendees into participants by changing who gets the most “air” time. Ask speakers to present for, say, 15 minutes; follow this with 45 minutes of time for participants to discuss their resultant ideas, applications and strategies.
  5. Four Corners: Great ideas for business meetings are alive in our nation’s classrooms too. Yarmouth, Maine, high-school teacher Amy Sanders introduces a controversial topic and posts four divergent opinions related to the topic in each corner of her classroom. Students move to the corner that most closely fits their opinion, discuss their viewpoints in these small groups, and then reconvene to share input.
  6. PowerPoint Improv. Have attendees bring favorite image-rich slide presentations on flash drives. Place all drives into a bowl; participants grab a drive—and must immediately make a presentation based on slides they’ve never previously seen. It’s just the ticket when you want something participant-led and entertaining.
  7. The Live Transmedia Experience: Developed by No Mimes Media, this concept combines a range of ways for attendees to learn and engage. The audience first discovers a puzzle box in the meeting room, and hears a plea for help. In an effort to assist, they uncover a URL, make a cell call, read a blog, view a YouTube video and search the internet to “liberate the prisoner.” Correct answers elicit an auto reply and, eventually, a simultaneous call back to all participants’ cell phones as the answer is revealed. The collective experience is a fun, engaging way to involve everyone in problem solving, explains No Mimes founder and president Behnam Karbassi.

Which of these formats will you use to freshen up your next meeting? Or what will you design yourself?  Get on the cutting edge of meeting design—by defining it.

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