We're all quite familiar with the Q&A portion of a meeting session: The final few minutes where the audience has its chance to drill down a bit with the presenter. But one participant asking a question to a presenter is the smallest form of interaction imaginable. What about all the other participants? They are simply listening. This means that, at best, three to five percent of the audience becomes actively engaged in that session. With a format called conversations & input (C&I), though, event organizers can radically improve audience activation and interaction, and deepen learning by orders of magnitude.
What Is C&I?
There's more than one way to do it, but let’s start with the basic version. Set the room so that groups of six to eight people are around tables, or allow classroom-style seating to be moved to form a number of small semi-circles. After 15 minutes of presentation, the presenter pauses to activate the audience by introducing a conversation topic. It can be a question that always works: “What have you just learned?” or “What did you find interesting?” or “What elements can be applied to your work?” Of course, a more focused or specific question can be introduced, using a text slide in the presentation that remains on screen for the period of conversation.
Next, the presenter tells participants that they have a specific amount of time (usually between five and eight minutes) to discuss the question in their group. As a result, several opinions and perspectives can move the conversation in any number of directions.
After the period of small-group conversation, the presenter asks participants to conclude and then invites anyone who is motivated to provide detail from their group's collective input to the rest of the room. The standard question the presenter can ask is “Who learned something great from another participant during their conversation?” This takes another five to eight minutes, so the entire C&I exercise lasts 10 to 15 minutes before the presenter delves into the next content segment.
In a 75-minute session, then, you can have three presentation segments followed by three C&I segments. This format makes participants pay attention, contextualize what they've heard, speak, listen further, and come to actionable conclusions.
In terms of attendee motivation, C&I is certainly powerful. When we move from an audience of listeners who must maintain singular focus for an hour to short learning segments followed by conversation, almost everyone will feel comfortable enough to contribute something to their small group. Ideas flow, debates happen, humor is introduced, and the noise levels rise. The brain gets more opportunities to transfer new information from the short-term to the long-term memory because of the deeper context from various viewpoints. Participants learn more by chunking information and having time to process it, as opposed to when focusing on a long presentation. Further, the energy feeds upon itself throughout the entire session, and it feels faster to attendees than would a typical session.
What's more, because networking is often the top reason why people go to conferences, the small-group conversations are natural opportunities to get to know several other people quickly. Being able to assess how someone speaks, listens, answers and generally interacts in a professional conversation is a high-speed quality test for future connections, and it tells you more about that person than would a social chat during lunch.
For presenters using C&I, the pressure is lessened because they do not have to carry the session and be the primary source of granular information. They simply need to present the right topical information in order to get useful conversations started. However, event organizers should explain C&I to presenters and ensure that they are comfortable adapting their presentation to use it.
C&I produces dynamic sessions that create more energized, more satisfied participants. It is likely to improve the perceived quality of your event's presentations, and you will see that in attendees' post-meeting evaluations.
Maarten Vanneste is President of the Meeting Design Institute in Belgium.