AT THE MPI CONFERENCE IN LAS VEGAS—A meeting planner friend used to tell the story of the moment her former boss began to take her seriously.
For years, he’d fallen into the habit of scheduling half-hour meetings to talk about the logistics for an upcoming conference, starting the meeting 10 minutes late, then interrupting 10 minutes later to take a phone call. Until the day she set aside the to-do list and asked him the fateful question:
“What are the issues that keep you up at night?”
Two hours later, they were still talking. My friend had found her professional voice and had it recognized.
Fast forward a few years. We’re all talking about the issues that keep us up at night. The meetings profession is still striving for recognition. But one of the keys to that recognition may be found in an area that is still unfamiliar territory to many planners and suppliers.
I spent Saturday in a workshop on meeting design that focused on interactive techniques that can help bring a conference program to life, especially for large meetings of up to 3,000 participants.
The session facilitator, communications consultant Mary Boone, called for a “happy marriage” between the emerging discipline of meeting design and the mastery of logistics that has been a prime focus for most meeting professionals. She encouraged participants to consult executive decision-makers and assemble in-house design teams to develop conference content that supports their organizations’ most pressing strategic goals.
The surprise was the number of participants who said they were already involved in shaping the objectives for their meetings, rather than being called in to implement a fully formed plan. Some people rolled their eyes at the thought that they would ever get 45 minutes to sell their senior management on a new approach to meeting design. But they were far fewer than they might have been a few years ago.
It will be a very long time before meetings are universally understood as a strategic resource. But a sharper focus on meeting design can accelerate the trend. Whether the purpose of a gathering is to share knowledge or rally staff around a common objective, meetings can only expect to survive and thrive in a tightening economy if they deliver the goods.
Meeting design itself is still an evolving art. With dozens of design techniques and enabling technologies available, planners will be challenged to learn enough of the nuances to pick the right mix of tools for each task. And although glorious anecdotes abound, there is little or no data to show that participatory meeting designs consistently deliver the superior results they claim.
Meanwhile, sad to say, content capture is generally an afterthought. Many meeting design techniques presume that participants will volunteer to document their own sessions, and that their scrawled notes or hand-drawn art will be legible and understandable to colleagues trying to understand what happened onsite. The assumption is not always incorrect, but nor are the results consistent or reliable enough to create a usable record of an event…which should matter, if the event in question is expected to shape an organization’s future.
But notwithstanding a few bugs in the system, meeting design is still a discipline that brings meeting professionals closer to the central purpose of the conferences they plan and supply. That, alone, is more than reason enough for the industry to jump onboard.