Want Better Meetings? Choose your space wisely

photo credit: securecat

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

The key to great meeting space is that it provides everything participants need to be 100% focused on the topic being discussed, and nothing more. With that in mind, a good meeting planner will:

Make sure everyone can see each other–This is a key factor in group participation, so if you make only one change to your current meeting space set-up, this should be it. If you have a small group, (10 people or less) a round table is best.  A large square table or tables set up in a square or U-shape can also work–just make sure there are no more than 3 people on each side of the table. For 10-30 people, you can use this same basic idea, just replace the large center table with a  a circle of chairs or desks.  With more than 30 people, the circle gets too large to hear what everyone is saying; another solution is required.

Traditionally, large groups use a theatre or classroom-style set-up.  The problem is both assume one person is talking (from the front) and everyone else is listening.  If you want people to participate,  a  modified version works  better.  Instead of lots of short, straight rows of chairs facing the front of the room, use fewer (3-4) long rows of chairs in a crescent shape.  Break up the rows with 2-3 aisles so participants can still easily get to all of the chairs.  This shape makes it much easier for participants to see and each other while still providing space for a speaker or facilitator at the front of the room.

Make sure everyone is comfortable–This means you need comfortable chairs, adequate personal space, and room to write (if that’s required).  If the meeting is longer than 2.5 hours, it’s also best to provide some sort of food and/or beverage.

Some experts suggest the opposite.  The theory is if people are uncomfortable they will limit discussion and let everyone get on with the “real” work.  I think that is a little silly.  If the main goal of your meeting is to be done fast, cancel it.  Meetings that are just about delegating responsibility or making reports are happening out of organizational habit.  Find other ways to distribute information (e-mail, shared on-line work spaces, conference calls) and save face to face meeting time for work that can only be done by the right people, working together to find solutions no one would think of alone.  For meetings like that, everyone deserves a chair.

Reduce distractions–Make the space comfortable enough that participants are not distracted by being too hot or too cold, too cramped,  or unable to hear what’s going on, but not so comfortable that they drift off into daydreams (or actual sleep).  Music, excessive street noise and televisions are also generally bad.

A final note of caution.  If you are working with a hotel meeting planner, don’t expect your vision of the room setup matches hers.   Your goal is to make sure your participants have everything they need to be successful, her goal is to get you in to the smallest room possible without breaking the fire code.  Make sure you are very, very clear about your space needs and always check out the space at least an hour before the meeting starts.  More times than not, you will be rearranging the chairs.

What are your “must haves” for meeting spaces?  Tell us, or better yet, link to photos of your favorite (or nightmare) meeting locations in the comments!

Looking for more meeting advice?  check out the first post in this series, and add me to your rss reader to catch future updates.

Rather not deal with the details?  Let me help.

3 simple ways to improve your public speaking

for the purpose of illustration only.  "Real" public speakers don't use podiums.

photo credit: rick

1.  Organize your Speech

The fastest way to embarrass yourself in front of a group is to stand up and “wing it.”  You may hear experienced public speakers say that’s what they do.  They are lying .  They actually organize speeches in their heads very, very fast–possibly as they walk up to the the front of the room.  Don’t try this your first time out.  I promise you it will end badly.  Well organized speeches include the following elements.

2-3 main points
If you have 10 points you want to make to an audience, a speech is not the way to do it.   By point 4 most of your audience will have drifted into daydreams and one guy in the back will be writing his grocery list.   It’s ok to have sub-points under each main topic but again, no more than 2-3.  More than that and your audience will be lost.

A beginning, middle and end
A beginning (or introduction where you preview your points), middle (area where you make your main points) and end (where you re-cap your points and make your final argument) helps the audience follow your train of thought remember what you’ve said.  In public speaking circles this advice is expressed as “tell ’em what you are going to tell them, tell ’em, tell ’em what you told them.”  It may seem like over kill, but I promise you it’s not.

Write it down
As you get more speeches under your belt, you may be able to organize your thoughts without the help of a pen and paper, but to begin you will want to make notes, even if you don’t refer to them when you are actually speaking.  For most situations, you won’t want to write out the entire speech.  Make a notes on how you will open (usually a catchy story that illustrates your main point), what your three main points are and the pieces of evidence/stories you will use to back each of them up, your summary and your final point.  Don’t remember the outlining skills you learned in 7th grade?  Check out this guide on how to outline a speech.

2. Be Interesting

This is really key.  Humans have a short attention span so if you don’t capture them at the beginning and then continually pull them back in, they will be lost in their own thoughts before you know it.  There are two main ways to accomplish this goal.

Be Funny (but not too funny)
Humor draws people in and makes them want to like you–which makes them want to listen to you; so if you can get your audience to laugh or smile, you’ll be ahead of the game.  That having been said, this technique can backfire  if you over do it (it hurts your credibility), if you are too mean–even if aimed at yourself (people get uncomfortable and  tune out) or if it’s comes across as fake (hurts your credibility and makes people uncomfortable) so be sure to use a form of humor that is natural to you and not offensive to anyone.

Use stories
Stories are not just for kids.  Stories are the vehicle humans use to make sense of the world.  You’ll never change anyone’s mind about a subject until you change the story they tell themselves about it.  Annette Simmons wrote a whole book about it.  By using stories to illustrate your points, you provide your audience a way to consider the world from a new point of view.  Stories also engage the imagination of the audience–which helps to keep them focused on you and your message.

3. Practice

Like most things, public speaking gets easier the more times you do it, and every speech you give counts.  Don’t just run though your speech in your head; giving it out loud, even just in the bathroom mirror, helps you get used to hearing your voice and to find the spots where you need to do more work.  After you’ve conquered the mirror give the speech to 2-3 friends.  This will help you get used to talking to real people, looking them in the eye and shifting your focus between audience members.  DO NOT look over the top of your audience to the back wall–this trick fools no one, besides, by looking at your audience you will know when what you are saying is making sense, and when you need to explain yourself another way.  It’s being able to use this feedback that helps good public speakers grow into great ones.

Finally, relax and have fun.  Speaking in front of a group may be scary at first, but like all scary things the rush you get from doing it well is worth the effort!

Impact/Capacity Grid: A tool for choosing among good options

impcappngThe purpose of this tool is to help focus an organization’s thinking about new ideas by measuring them against the following criteria: the idea’s potential impact—i.e. the extent to which its successful completion is likely to move the organization closer to its goals, and the organization’s capacity to complete the program successfully considering its current resources.
The 2×2 matrix on the right pairs these criteria to create four quadrants into which ideas might fall. See the explanations below for a description of the types of ideas that fall into each quadrant.

Low Impact/ Low Capacity
This quadrant represents projects an organization doesn’t currently have the capacity to complete successfully, and even if it did, the program would have little or no impact on the organization’s mission.  Ideas that fall in this category should be discarded immediately.   A great way to find resources for new projects is to examine your current work and find what you are doing that fits in this quadrant.  Look for complicated processes or reports that you spend a lot of time on, do poorly, and never use.

High Impact/ Low Capacity
This is a category for “maybe someday” ideas. The ideas that land here have the potential to be very useful to the organization, but based on current resources, are not possible. Ideas that land here may be good fodder for future capacity building meetings but should not be pursued right now.

High Capacity/ Low Impact
This quadrant is a trap where many organizations spend too much time. If a new (or existing!) program is easy, it often gets accepted without much scrutiny, but every minute spent here, is not being spent on High Impact/High Capacity programs. If your organization finds itself working hard with little or moderate success, chances are too much time is being spent in this quadrant.

High Impact/ High Capacity
This is where effective organizations spend their time. Projects that fall here help organizations make obvious headway toward their goals and are well within their ability to complete successfully.

Using the Impact/Capacity Grid
To use this tool, consider each new idea in terms of its potential impact and the organization’s capacity to complete it to determine the quadrant to which it belongs. To be successful, ideas must be considered objectively and in comparison to the other options available. When a group finds all of its ideas landing in the High Impact, High Capacity quadrant, a second round of review may help to decide which ones have the greatest potential impact and for which the organization has the most capacity.

Also, remember an organization’s capacity must be looked at in its entirety. When considered individually, many new ideas are possible, but when considered in light of the rest of the organization’s commitments, capacity becomes an issue.

Finally sometimes the answer to a shortage of capacity is to end a current program in favor of a new idea.

Want better meetings? Get a flip chart

Expert flipchart usage by flicker user Christmas w/a K

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

If you attend meetings where participants sit around a table and talk until time is up there is one very easy thing you can do to drastically improve your productivity:  Get a flip chart (or white board–any shared writing space will do) and start writing down ideas generated and decisions made where everyone can see them.

Why this works
Group conversations can be hard to follow–especially during brainstorming and decision making sessions.  Most participants are splitting their focus between listening to the ideas generated by the group, formulating opinions, and deciding what to say next.  With all that information flowing in and out it’s difficult to track the conversation and to make sure that everyone in the group is tracking the same way.  By providing a flip chart and someone to write down ideas as they come up group members can not only remind themselves of what’s on the table but also check what they heard against what’s being written down–which means misunderstandings are likely to be caught much earlier in the process.

Who can do it?
You don’t have to be a group’s leader to implement this process.  If your group meets in a room where there is already a flip chart or white board it is often appropriate for any member of the group to say “I’m hearing a lot of great ideas in this conversation, would any one mind if I wrote them up here so we can all stay on the same page?”  If there isn’t an obvious place to write you can improvise by using notebook paper and writing large enough so everyone around the table can see the “shared notes” or even use a laptop and slide creation software (like PowerPoint) to take notes and periodically summarize what you’ve written for the group to make sure the group is tracking together.

If you are a group leader–bring a chart with you and offer to capture ideas–you’ll be glad you did!

Want more facilitation advice?  Read The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz , or contact me for personalized assistance.