Effective Meeting Planning & Facilitation
This transcript is from Episode 28 of The Savvy Event Planner Podcast
To listen to this podcast, please visit: http://SavvyEventPodcast.com/28
Interview only transcript
Tom: Folks, I'm on the line with Kristin Arnold. Kristin, first of all, I'd like to say thank you and welcome to the podcast. How are you today?
Kristin: Why, thank you, Tom. I am doing great.
Tom: I'd like you to start by introducing yourselves to our listeners, and give them a little bit of your background, and how you got involved in the event industry.
Kristin: So, Tom, I am what I call a high-stakes meeting facilitator. So my primary, core competency is around facilitating really important meetings that you can't afford to screw up, and usually that's at an executive director type level, and I've been doing that for about 23 years. And I realized probably about 15 years ago that speaking at events was a great way to attract notoriety, attention, get the word out.
And so I joined the National Speaker's Association about 15 years ago and started “speaking,” in addition to facilitating and training others how to facilitate. And since then, I've gotten more involved in the meetings industry I was past…well, I'm currently past president of the National Speaker's Association. I was president in 2010 and 2011. And so I got indoctrinated into the whole meetings and events industry then, and now I'm really, really passionate about making panels even more engaging and interactive than they're notoriously not.
Tom: That's something we're definitely going to talk about, there. So let me start by asking you, how did you get involved in…because you do train people to facilitate meetings, how you get involved in training others to do that?
Kristin: Well actually, that's where I got started. So I was in the Coast Guard back in the early '90s, and the Coast Guard started doing something called Total Quality Management, “TQM.” Nobody knew what that was, and nobody knew what a facilitator was. I mean now, everybody knows was a facilitator is but for the most part, back then, that was a fairly new term, Tom, and nobody really knew what it was.
So they looked at the job description and they said, “Hey Kristin, that's kind of your natural management style, so why don't we give you gobs of training?” And what they did is they gave me two weeks of TQM training, but it was how to train others in TQM principles and tools, not how to facilitate a team. So my first team that I went to go facilitate, I kid you not, it was 26 one-hour meetings. Me and Barbara Bailey were literally trying to figure out how to move the water cooler from one side of the office to the other. I mean, it was just horrible. I wanted to put needles in my eye balls.
So I said to myself, “There has to be a better way.” So I read all three books that were available at that time, and I put together a little training course. And so I trained a bunch of “Coasties” on how to facilitate team meetings, and then somebody on the outside said, “Hey, Kristin, could you do that for us? And here's an idea, we will even pay you.” And I went, “Oh my gosh, this could be a business.” So, it took about a year. I moonlighted in the Coast Guard, and I trained other people on facilitation and facilitated meetings, and then I went out on my own.
Tom: So, what is the role of the facilitator during the meeting?
Kristin: That's a really great question, Tom, because a lot of people think that facilitators are like trainers. Facilitators are really guardians of the process, they make sure that the objective is well-known, and that you get from wherever you are to where you need to go. And the shortest distance between two points is a straight-line, ostensibly. However, teams don't operate in straight lines. So sometimes they wander off into the wilderness, sometimes they go veer off, sometimes they make crazy statements, and so a facilitator is the guardian of the process to make sure that you don't go too off track, and you get to the result that you're looking for.
Tom: So, what qualities would you say it takes to be a good facilitator for a meeting?
Kristin: The good qualities is that you understand process, that teams go through a very logical meta-process where they generate ideas, they organize those ideas, they make decisions and then they take action on them. And so you really have to have a process mentality, or an understanding of the process. There are some people who literally, no offense, Tom, cannot think process, and so they would not make good facilitators. So you need to have an understanding of process, and you also need to be a good listener, and a good synthesizer of information.
So what happens is you might be talking about one thing, and Mary might be talking about another thing, and Frances might be talking about another thing, and really, they're in violent agreement. A facilitator can pull the key pieces, and question the group and say, “So, here's what I'm hearing. Is that accurate?” And the group will say, “Oh yeah, that is!” or “Oh no, Kristin, you're way off base.” So it's somebody who can really think through the different pieces and threads of conversation to help the group get further in the discussion than they would if you weren't there.
Tom: Okay, so if somebody was going to be facilitating a meeting, are there any tips you would give them on preparation for this role?
Kristin: Well, personally, I think the preparation is three-quarters of the job. So, making sure that you've got a really good understanding of what the objectives are, what's the deliverable? Just as our listeners are meeting organizers, from a strategic perspective, what's important? How are we going to get there? What are your ideas about how to get there? And then you create a process to get you from point A to point B that's going to be effective and efficient, building the relationships, getting the results that you're looking for, as well as using a nice, smooth process.
So that's the way I look at it, Tom. It's those three elements within the time frame. So it's results, process, and relationships. And that's really where my benefit comes in is that I've been facilitating meetings for 23 years, so I understand what works and what doesn't with specific kinds of groups within specific time frames. So you're really paying for that expertise around process, not necessarily the “what” you are talking about, which is the content.
Frankly, I do a lot of work with a lot of technical people that I have no idea what they're talking about. I learn over time, but the reality is I don't need, and in fact, I don't to want to know much about that topic because if I do, then I become a participant and nobody watches the process.
Tom: That's a really good point, and I thank you for sharing that with us. Now, Kristin, we're going to be talking about your book in a little while, but first, I want to talk about panels. You mentioned you're an advocate for powerful panels, what can event planners do to make their panels more powerful at events?
Kristin: So, Tom, I did some research with over 500 executives and meeting organizers, just like the listeners here. In fact, we might have some listeners who took this survey in 2014. And I found that about 95% of all meetings have some kind of panel. And a panel is where you get a couple of experts on stage and theoretically, you're having a great discussion about the topic that involves the audience.
Unfortunately, in this same survey that I took, about 63% said that the panels that they had recently attended said that they were okay or worse. So I think that there's a lot of room for improvement. There's been a couple of people who say, “Panels suck, so I'm just not even going to put them on my program, period.” And I'm going to suggest to you that is not that the panels are a bad format, it's just that we're not leveraging them so that they can be engaging and lively and informative.
Tom: So, let's talk about that. How can you take a panel and make it more informative to the audience? Is there an interaction? I'm asking this for a couple of reasons, one for our listeners, and two, I'm actually leading a panel in July of this year and it's a topic that I know well, but I want to make sure that everybody is engaged. So, what can I do as the facilitator for that panel to draw out the information that the audience wants to hear, and how can we interact them?
Kristin: Right, so if you want to do the typical, traditional, boring ho-hum panel, the best thing that you can do is to put a table in the front of the room with white draping and those little microphone stands. And that you have a little lectern over on the side, and you stand behind the lectern and you do the same old boring stuff. So the first thing you can do, Tom, is to change up what it looks like. Make it more intimate. Make it more fireside chatty.
Get some decent chairs. Don't get big chairs that your panelists are going to sink in, but get some chairs. I like director's chairs, they're easy, they're good quality director's chairs. Tell the women that you're using director's chairs because you don't want them wearing something that's too short. Set it up as a conversation, and the way that you do that is with your panelists. You encourage them to make it more conversational. And don't have any presentations.
Harry Overstreet, who is the first guy who put together the panel process, he wrote an article in an educational magazine for nurses back in 1932. And he said, “The one unforgivable offense of a panel is for someone to rise and give a speech.” And yet, many panels have…it starts off with the panelists giving a five-minute overview about the topic. So, why don't we give them a short, short talk, separate, and then convene the panel after the panelists have given their presentations? It's just a different way of looking at things, but then that way, it puts people in a more conversational tone. So, that's to get started, I could keep going on.
Tom: I'd love to hear more if you don't mind sharing.
Kristin: So, there's a lot of things that you can do ahead of time, even before people even get in the room: using social media platforms, using blogs, using your meeting planner apps. Many meetings are using some kind of app that you can get input from the audience ahead of time, even before the meeting, so you can get an idea for what the questions are. You could, as the first initial conversation is, people are coming into the rooms say, “Hey, turn to your neighbor or the people at your table, and what's the one question you want to have answered by this topic?”
Because people are really looking for a behind the scenes, The Wizard of Oz moment, they're not looking for something that they can already see on YouTube, that they can read in a blog posting or a newsletter article or something. They're looking for that serendipity, that behind-the-scenes look, that off-hand exchange from the panelists. So, ask them, “So what is it that you want to know?” And let the audience drive the questions.
You need to have some in your back pocket that you've curated with the panelists or within your own research, but it's a lot more fun to let the audience drive the conversation. And you can do that using technology tools, you can use that using 3×5 cards, you could just use it by being a roaming microphone in the audience. I like to use something called Catchbox, which is a throwable microphone, and I throw it into the audience and I give them some rules about how to use it, but then they throw it to the next person who has got the next question. So, it's really another way of creating a more energizing and uplifting conversation.
Tom: Okay, that's some great information. Thank you so much for sharing all that. You're making my mind already turn about exactly how I can change things up and make them more exciting, so I appreciate that.
Kristin: I'm pretty passionate about this and in fact, my next book is “99 Ways To Engage The Audience During A Panel Conversation.” So, if you're looking for lots of different ideas, my blog is full of them.
Tom: Okay, fantastic, and we'll share that information in just a little while. Now, Kristin, on your website as I was going through some research for our interview, I came across your conference and meeting design that you do. And one of the bullet points that stuck out to me was that you assist in overall designing of the meeting, and insuring an appropriate ebb and flow of energy throughout the day. Can you talk to us a little about the ebb and flow of energy for an event?
Kristin: Yeah, so I got started on this because I found that I was either speaking or facilitating or doing a breakout session, and it was like it was a plop. It wasn't an intentional piece that connected to the other pieces of the conference, and I started really getting frustrated with that. And what really was the apex of that was, I was at a very high-level executive summit-ish, and we started out in the dark, with the obligatory Thank you for coming…” And then we did two back-to-back panel discussions that were drier than toast.
I was just appalled, quite frankly, that we didn't start off with something that was high energy, that was interesting, that made people go, “Oh my gosh, this is worthwhile.” I mean, I'm not talking about Schmaltzy because we're talking about an executive group. So you have to make sure that whatever you bring to the table is appropriate for that group and appropriate for the topic at hand, because if you're talking about something that's somber, you're going to have a different flow, but you're still going to have high energy.
So, you have high energy at the beginning, and you can't staccato that energy. You have to have some time for reflection, and some time for thought, and then what are you going to be doing at the break that brings energy either up or keep…you have to be thinking about the ebb and the flow. What is it that you want the audience to think, feel, and do as a result of each of those segments? And then how do those segments tie in together, and what are their transitions? And so I like helping meeting organizers think those things through because I've seen lots of the traditional stuff, but I'd like to see more engaging and interactive ways to manage that ebb and that flow.
Tom: During episode seven, I was talking with Julius Solaris of the event manager blog and he mentioned that in his mind's eye, engagement is one of the most overused words and misunderstood words in the event meeting industry. So when we're talking about the energy flow of engagement, what happens in your mind? Or as an event planner, what can you do to overcome a situation where maybe the energy and the engagement isn't as you planned?
Kristin: Well, there are a couple of things that come to mind when you're talking about it. Engagement is different than involvement. So engagement means you have my mental presence, and involvement is you've asked me to do something. I am now moving from being engaged, to involved. But honestly, I think that there are perfect amounts of time where you do need to allow your participants to disengage or to reconnect or to have some time to process the information.
So I don't think it's necessary to be engaging, engage, engage. That's the staccato style and that drains people, introverts and extroverts alike, but it really drains the introverts more highly, so you have to be considerate of all the different styles. You have to be considerate about how people process and learn information. So it depends on what your objective is. If your objective is a learning style, then you need to have a higher ebb and a flow.
If you're doing an incentive trip, you need to have times of high energy and times for relaxation, and times where they can completely disengage that they don't have to be at a specific time at a specific place. I hate to say that there's an always or a never because it is dependent on what your objective is, what's your outcome, what the deliverable is, what is it that you want them to think, feel or do? And then you construct something based on the theme, the thread, of what it is that you're trying to accomplish so that that event is completely memorable in their mind.
Tom: Excellent, thank you so much. Now, you wrote the book “Boring to Bravo,” talk to us a little about “Boring to Bravo.”
Kristin: Well, as I said earlier, I was a member of the National Speakers Association and I come at speaking from a very facilitative standpoint. I can't stand up and deliver a memorized speech. Well, I could if I really wanted to, but I don't want to. My style is much more extemporaneous, I know where I want to go, I've got the points in my head, I've got some stories that I want to tell, but I really want to involve the audience. I can't do anything really without the audience to engage and interact.
And so I was watching speakers, my colleagues, do things that would either make me get really excited or make me go, “Oh, what a missed opportunity,” and so I started collecting examples about what they did and what they didn't do. And so I put together a lexicon, a way of looking at it, and I presented it at NSA a couple of times and people said, “You know, you should really write that into a book.” So I did, and it's called “Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques To Engage, Involve And Inspire Your Audience To Action.” And so basically, it's just a bunch of ideas in a format that's easy to read, that you can pick up and leaf though, and go, “You know, I'm giving a presentation and I'm looking for an idea, a spark, about how I can engage and involve the audience.” So, that's how that book came to happen.
Tom: Now, it's aimed at speakers, but with our audience being event planners, is there anything they can do to make sure that their speakers are going to be bravo, instead of boring?
Kristin: A lot of speakers will claim, “I'm very engaging.” Okay. I know you've probably hired speakers and you go, “Well, boy, that was not as engaging as they've professed.” So one of the things that you can do is to say, “So tell me, specifically, how are you going to engage my audience?” And then just let it sit. And if they come back and say, “Well, here's what I do,” and they are very quick to say, “I mingle with the audience ahead of time. I do some social blogging. I start with an activity that really gets them interested, or start with a provocative question” or whatever.
They are very clear about the ways that they're doing it. That means that they've thought it through. If you get a stammering of, “Well, I have them turn to the neighbor,” and things that you would probably just as easily come up with, then I would probably be suspect of their intentionality. If you look at people who really engage and interact with the audience very, very well, these are not spontaneous things. They are very well thought out because they require, usually, some kind of prep work in their head, or actual prep work.
Whether they're using a prop or maybe they're using some technology, or maybe they're using some other technique, but it has to be thought out. Very rarely do I see anybody do something that's significantly great, that hasn't been thought out. And the most over used interaction thing is a poll. “Raise your hand if you've ever been a child?” “Really? Are you going to ask me that?” And then you ask me again, “Raise your hand if you…” It's like…no, you can't use the exact same technique. You need to pepper them with different techniques throughout your speech.
Tom: I love that example. That's hilarious because I've actually sat in audiences where that's happened.
Kristin: The other thing is I would ask, “So, when do you engage the audience?” So what drives me nuts is, and I saw Tony Robbins to this on a TED talk. He was 11 minutes into his TED talk, and then he did some audience interaction and he does a very consistent audience interaction by the way, if you watch him. And he goes, “Well, now is the time for interaction.” Really? If you're going to interact with the audience, you should let them know and start setting the stage up front. This is going to be not me talking at you. Now, boomers, we're very happy to be talked at, very, very happy. We're very compliant. I think the younger audiences are less inclined to like that style, and so we need to just be aware of that.
Tom: Well, that's a great observation about the different generations that are watching or attending, or trying to be engaged. So you noticed that the boomers, you say, are more interested or are more willing to be talked to. So are there any other tips you would give to engage a wider range of an audience? I know when I entertain sometimes, I've got everybody from the senior retiree to the president of the company, to the guy who just came into the mail room. I'm curious, if you have a wide range, how do you, as a speaker, engage them all?
Kristin: Well, I think number one, you have to know how many people are in the audience. So, obviously, it's a lot easy to engage a smaller audience than a larger audience. So, if you're dealing with a smaller audience, you can frankly ask them. You can do a lot more with a smaller audience. A lot of people say, “Oh, well I can't engage with a larger audience,” or “Oh gosh, I only have 45 minutes or a half an hour, I can't engage the audience.” Well, I say that's bologna, because it's about making sure it's intentional and appropriate for the audience. I think all audience members like to be asked. I think they like to be recognized. I think they like to hear their name. I think they like the opportunity to participate…and so the more intentional and the more thought that you give to who really is in my audience. I love to go interview at least a handful, five or six people who are going to be in the audience. I'll ask the meeting organizer. And I don't need the heavy hitters, I'm not trying to sell to these people but I do want to know what would be meaningful. Who have you seen before in this association or organization that really blew your socks off? And who really sucked, and why? And so you can get a sense for what does this group…what resonates with this group? And I'll ask the meeting organizer, but the meeting organizer has a different perspective than the people who are in the room. And I understand the meeting organizers tries to provide a great perspective, so I take that perspective as well as I get boots on the ground. I also like to talk to whoever the sponsor of the meeting is because that sponsor might have a completely different vision than what the meeting organizer has versus what the people who are actually attending. So I like to make sure I get all three of those data points.
Tom: That's great. That is fantastic advice there and it just points out the different viewpoints. I appreciate that. Now, I'm going to take us away from what we've been talking about, and I'm going to ask about your background. You've done a lot of events. Has there ever been one event that really stood out in your mind, something that you just thought was over the top that was so well done? Can you tell us a little bit about it, and maybe what made it so special for you or for the attendees?
Kristin: I have to think about this one. So, what comes to mind is an event that I can't divulge the details of, but I can tell you why I thought it was special. Is that I think that they took a look at every single touch point and made it special. So, when I arrived at the hotel, they had a little, customized “Welcome Kristin. Here are the events for today. Here's the weather. Here's what you should wear.” I thought, “Oh, that's pretty cool.” And when I got to my room, there was a little box of chocolates on the desk, which I thought was just kind of nice. It just proceeded throughout the time that they had thought through…what would you want to know? What would you want to feel? It was an exclusive event. It made me feel like I was really special because everything was customized, everything was…like when I'd come back or I would check in at registration, they knew my name. I'm like, “How the heck did these people know my name?” Well, they had obviously seen my name on LinkedIn and my picture, and they knew who I looked like. I just thought it was just really, very, very classy.
Tom: Let me ask you, can we clarify one or two things on that though?
Tom: You say that each thing became more and more special. They made you feel really special. Did they literally do anything different for you, than they did for another attendee? Did they customize it that far, or was it an overall feeling?
Kristin: No, it was just an overall feeling. I am sure that they put boxes of chocolates in everyone's room. I am sure. I don't think they did anything different, but what I think they did is they thought it through to say, “What would make these people feel special?” So, I felt special in a mass-commoditized way, but I didn't think of it that way. I just thought, “Man, these people have their act together. This is just so cool. I feel good.” It just made me feel really, really good about the whole activity.
Tom: Okay, now let's go to the other extreme. Everybody who's been involved in events, at some point has had some type of horror story and the lesson learned, and that's what I'm going to ask you to share with us now.
Kristin: Well, I'll share this from a speaker's perspective, and it was not that long ago. It's in my recent memory. As a speaker, I arrived on site and there was no one there that I could check in with to say, “Hey, I'm here.” I sent a text message to the person that I thought was the meeting organizer and never got a reply, which I found out later she wasn't even there at the event, which shocked me. So then I go to registration, and they really don't have any idea but they say, “You know, there's a speaker room.” I went, “Oh, great.” Go to the speaker room, there isn't anyone in the speaker room. There is nothing in the speaker room. There's not even bottles of water, there's nothing, and I just felt very abandoned as a speaker. Not that I think that I'm a high-maintenance person because I am really not a high-maintenance speaker, Tom, but there are a few things that I just thought, “Oh, this is interesting.” I never saw anyone from the organization, it was a breakout session. I never saw anyone from the organization to welcome me before the session started, or after. And I just felt like, “Oh, okay. I came. I did. I went.” It wasn't horrible; again, it's just like feeling. The one that made me feel really special, this one just made me feel abandoned. Doesn't it make you want to cry?
Tom: That is a perfect example though for all of our listeners to keep in mind thought, that when you have a speaker or a presenter or an entertainer, or anyone coming in to help you with your event, it's that communication to make sure that everybody is on the same page. I love that example and believe me, I can sympathize with you because I've been there, myself.
Kristin: It just left me speechless, so I'll just leave it at that.
Tom: Now, Kristin…
Kristin: As we conclude…
Tom: As we conclude, are there any last thoughts that you'd like to share with our listeners today?
Kristin: I love meeting organizers. I think you have a hero's job, and you are the glue that makes everything come together and I so appreciate all that you do. And I think that your job can be overwhelming at times, but I would suggest pausing every once in a while and stopping the mayhem, the chaos, and just stepping back and looking at things from a strategic point of view. And say, “So, how are we doing? How are we tying all the touch points together? Is there a way that we can make our attendees feel special, our speakers feel special, our sponsors feel special, engaged and connected?” And I know that it's hard to do that sometimes, to step back. I know in my own business, I like to look at the process that I use to connect with people. We just get so busy working in our business versus on the business. And I think that what we've been talking about here today is about stepping back and really looking at what are the things we want to see and not see, and sure that we're more intentional about it.
Tom: Okay, excellent advice. If somebody's interested in learning more about your book, “Boring to Bravo,” or learning more about you as a facilitator, how can they reach out to you?
Kristin: You can reach me at my website, which is “extraordinaryteam.com” and if you're interested in panels, that would be “powerfulpanels.com.”
Tom: Excellent. Thank you so much, Kristin, for taking the time to talk to me today. I've had a blast. I've learned a lot, and I'm sure that our…this is going to be a popular episode. I'm sure our listeners are going to get so much out of it. I thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Kristin: Thank you, Tom. Appreciate it.
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