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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Question for you guys.

I am responsible for organizing a 1-2 day meeting for our grantees this spring. They must attend; they'll be giving their first annual reports at this meeting. There'll be 30-40 people there, of the environmentalist persuasion. My boss wants this to be fun, in addition to work. He will give me a lot of leeway; we've talked about renting campgrounds or a houseboat or an entire hostel over in Marin.

My goals:
Opportunities for both formal and informal information exchange. I'm a big believer that a lot of the work done at conferences happens during the gossip in the corridors. Might as well facilitate that.
I would like to have information rich sessions. I think that panels give out more information than a single presenter, but wonder if you agree, or if there are better options than either of those.
I would love to ban PowerPoint. My boss will back me, but I'm a little worried it will cause an uproar.

Given those goals, do you have suggestions for making this a productive gathering? Any of your thoughts (length of sessions, format of sessions, structure of meeting, tips or techniques you've liked before, potential California venues (not Asilomar or Granlibakken, we can't afford those)) would be welcome and helpful. Thanks!

33 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Google for "Open Space Technology" and see if running the conference as an Open Space would work for you.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Renting campgrounds? How do you plan on feeding everyone at a campground? Where would they all sleep? Would that many people even fit on a house boat? And, aren't Hostels generally kind of boring?

Anyway, any of that stuff sounds like it would be a pretty big distraction from whatever the point of the meeting was.

Justin

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few suggestions:

- Ban Power Point. Doing so will not cause an uproar. Most people will be happier without it, even if they don't say so.

- Panels seem more effective than single speakers. Small panels, that is; anything more than four or at most five panelists can get confusing.

- Sessions should not be longer than about 90 minutes. People tend to lose attention if sessions go on for too long.

- Choose a nice venue, but don't go overboard. If it's too fancy and/or quirky, for example a luxury spa or on a boat, attendees won't be sufficiently focused on the matters at hand.

- This may sound trivial, but make sure that the PA system in the conference hall is adequate. No one likes to have to strain to listen.


Peter
Iron Rails & Iron Weights

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple quick thoughts for what minimal worth they might have:

1. A ban on powerpoint can work IF it is announced well in advance. Many people have become so used to it that they really have to adjust if they can't present in powerpoint. You need to give those folks sufficient time to come up with an alternative if you take away their favorite crutch. Also, it can frustrate people if they already have much of their work canned in powerpoint.

2. Your material may be more technical and so require longer presentation periods, but I am a firm believer in the notion that any presentation that goes much over 45 minutes is going to start losing people quickly.

3. Panels work well, but I think are best when the work being presented is similar enough that there is some thread or clash between the ideas involved. Something to get the panelists and audience bouncing ideas and concepts off of each other.

4. I have seen a lot of conferences where you ask for questions at the end of a presentation and everyone just sits on their hands. One thing I have seen used to prevent that is to designate a person or group of people to start the ball rolling by asking questions or making suggestions at the end of the presentation. That of course puts that person or group on the spot, but if everyone has to do it for everyone else, it can get people talking (if for no other reason than to thank the questioner for throwing you a couple softballs).

Good luck and hope some of this helps.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

One approach is that the point of the meeting is to get three dozen people in the same field together long enough to talk about their work. They can do that in an informal venue. I'll handle the logistics for food, sleeping and acoustics for them, if we require them to stay over.

I would announce a PowerPoint ban long in advance. I'm thinking they will still want to project a map of their area, for reference.

I'm about to Google Open Space Technology.

Keep the ideas coming, please.

What about basic stuff, like forcing them to change seats during breaks? I like that...

11:17 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

Hi, two points:

1. That Marin Headlands hostel is a good venue - I've stayed there, it's probably perfect, not too rustic like camping, but accessible to hiking and stuff. I think that could be great.

2. You know, I actually have taken Edward Tufte's seminar, and I think there's no point in banning Powerpoint unless people understand WHY Powerpoint is not always the best tool. So if I were you, I'd avoid the ban and instead make a suggestion for people to avoid it. Then, if you want, you can have your own 30 minute session where you run through some of Tufte's more compelling reasons why Powerpoint can be used for evil and teach people something in the process. I think if you ban it alltogether in advance, people will just get pissed and think you're being ridiculous.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

And, aren't Hostels generally kind of boring?

Once again, I heart Justin.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

I fell for Justin all over again when he linked to the boots that get him all hot and bothered.

Hostels are, yes, boring and I've hated them ever since I lived in one for a school year. But as a way to house three dozen people who are all in the same field and presumably have a lot to talk about? Maybe convenient?

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about basic stuff, like forcing them to change seats during breaks

Hard to say ... that might lead to more productive discussions, but the attendees also might find it somewhat condescending.

Anonymous 11:10's suggestion of designating a person to ask the first question during the Q&A session is excellent. Few people want to take the initiative and ask the first question, but once someone "breaks the ice" other questions are sure to follow.

Peter
Iron Rails & Iron Weights

11:41 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm afraid that for anything less than an outright ban, everyone will just default to PowerPoint.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

If you consider 4 person panels, you'll probably need to do two days in order to get everybody's work "presented."

I'd probably ban powerpoint outright, because people are really, really, bad at it. Only so much the worse when they're earnest.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then, don't ban powerpoint, just have the meeting somewhere where there are no projectors, or electricity.

Though, I still think getting a few dozen people excited about camping is going to be a tough sell.

And, the overhead in camping is high. Cooking your own meals, and cleaning your dishes, and not having stuff neatly organized in cabinets, it all adds up to a big hassle.

I don't get the powerpoint bashing, personally. I like powerpoint, but I don't give many presentations. Though, I don't like it when people just read the slides back to you. I'd prefer they elaborate more.

Justin

12:22 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

I got really into Power Point is Evil until I decided it is secretly kind of useful. See if you can get your hands on a copy of Moving Beyond Ice Breakers, it is more helpful than Tufte.

What do you actually have to accomplish at this meeting? What is the purpose of presenting annual reports?

You can't just ban powerpoint outright and suddenly make everyone a fantastic public speaker, but with a good facilitator you can accomplish what you need to accomplish (which I assume boils down to some variation on sharing information) in two days without deadly boring slideshows.

Designing workshops and trainings is my favorite part of what I do, so if you want to actually brainstorm, email me.

4:01 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

What do you actually have to accomplish at this meeting? What is the purpose of presenting annual reports?

I need to nail this down more. The annual reports are a pretext for getting everyone together, really. So, part of it is to show the grantees what other grantees did. But I also think my boss is hoping to strengthen networks among all these people who are, after all, working on the same types of projects. That's why a fairly large social component is appropriate. Since they are forced to attend, I want it to be a valuable use of their time.

I'll ask my boss more about it, although he's had three personal losses in the past month and is kinda reeling right now. Then, I will definitely email to ask for your help. Your comments are always right on.

4:20 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

Another good facilitation link is Aspiration's Facilitation Guide. I bet you could adopt a variation on the speed geek. You have to be careful, as they can be seriously exhuasting, but they can also get a lot of conversations started that can continue later.

I used to worry about people feeling condescended to by facilitation tactics but my experience has consistently been that they work. A colleague of mine puts tinker toys out on every table when he does trainings. It turns out to be a documented fact that some people learn better if they can do something with their hands.

Most people are not very good at explaining what they do or how they do it. They think they are supposed to use power point and they have a few salient points that make more sense if you can see some slide so they make a slide show. And then they look at the slideshow and describe what it says, mumbling. Panels can be just as deadly, but they don't have to be.

The point of the reports is what? To demonstrate that they accomplished what they said they would? To draw out innovations that other participants might find useful? To invite conversations that will lead to collaboration or better information sharing later?

4:21 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I want to pare down the "presentation" of annual reports. They're all experts, so I don't want to let them provide much background. I was thinking of writing up a list of questions (how did you address this common problem?, how do you get local politicians to pay attention?) and having them sign up to address the questions that kept them busy their first year.

4:24 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

PS, I didn't see your comment before I carried on.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I've never felt so comfortable as at the meeting that had Play-doh out at every seat. I fiddled with it the entire time. I was watching a woman knit at our last meeting, craving something in my hands.

The point of the reports is what? To demonstrate that they accomplished what they said they would? To draw out innovations that other participants might find useful? To invite conversations that will lead to collaboration or better information sharing later?

I'm hoping the point of the reports will be to provide enough physical background that they can identify the things they do alike and differently. Yes, to innovations. Yes, to common problems.

We would like to initiate collaborations but I'm not sure how much we can arrange that, beside giving them enough time to talk amongst themselves.

There is some chance that they will be like I was at the conference of league organizers, starved to talk to other people who think about this stuff all the time. In that case, we just need to gather them in and give them any pretext to interact.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm checking out both your links. Thank you.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Amanda, I am loving the Speedgeeking idea. I'll keep thinking about it. Thanks!

4:55 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

It sounds like you can start by telling people that they will not be presenting their reports, but should come prepared with images and figures that they might want to share.

It sounds like you want to do some kind of icebreaker pretty early in the meeting where everyone gives the project-in-a-nutshell report.

We would like to initiate collaborations but I'm not sure how much we can arrange that, beside giving them enough time to talk amongst themselves

Don't be afraid to engineer small groups if you know a bit about where the participants are at. These three are struggling with recalcitrant legislators? These five are really floundering? You might even find Arif's blog helpful in places. (Don't be afraid to use a lot of index cards to come up with your small groups.)

Be careful with the small group + reportback formula. The reports always drone. Think about either letting them hold onto what they learned, or about putting them in different arrangements (one from each group?) at lunch immediately after the small group discussions.


Other advice: Always make sure you have enough easel's for everyone's groups, even if using them is optional.

You can ask participants to facilitate sessions if you are clear about what they are supposed to get out of their session and you talk to them ahead of time. You'll need participants to facilitate if you are going to do small group sessions.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I've long disliked the reportback stage; often repetitive, and they sound like: "this is what we accomplished, teacher".

Index cards, easels. I'm still tempted by a No Projected Anything model, and taping up all their large maps around the room. The maps will be essential. Hmmm. Still thinking.

Not afraid to engineer small groups, perhaps by interests they write on index cards?

One nice thing going for us is that they'll be a fairly homogenous group, of people who have been facilitated a lot. And we give them money, so they have to like us. They'll be pretty docile.

5:12 PM  
Anonymous YK said...

Here's my suggestion: choose a venue that is nice, but doesn't have many distractions. You want people to be comfortable, but you also want them to stick around and talk to each other during their spare time--instead of touring the city, going hiking, etc. A nice hotel in a small town would do the trick (it need not be expensive).

Also, you could do a poster session. Posters give people something to look at or talk about while they're standing around. If you go this route, you should set a specific time for posters (say, at the end of the first day), and put out food, in order to draw lots of people. There's nothing sadder than a room with 30 posters and only a few people.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous gretchen said...

I would ban text on powerpoint. That way you could still use it for maps, charts, and graphics, but you would avoid the problem of having the entire presentation on the powerpoint.

I think that small group discussions and assigned seating for meals (that mixes things up) are both essential.

6:29 PM  
Blogger scott said...

As a computer programmer I have the following suggestion:

I've got nothing. Sorry.

Here's something, though: I used to live in Sacramento when I was a kid. I have cousins there. I was there last summer.

It's not much, and it probably won't help you with your meeting, but there it is.

Hello, Megan.

5:29 AM  
Anonymous ed said...

I don't think you have to BAN powerpoint- visual information is still useful. What you can do is limit the number of slides or limit the amount of time allotted to presentation to keep the powerpoint from turning into an on-screen script.

I've been at meetings before where we did a "data-blitz", where you had to condense everything you wanted to say into 5 minutes. But that may be too brief for this annual report like thing and would certainly not be info rich.

I'm pretty down on panels myself. Usually it ends up either focusing just on one person's work, or everyone up there feels the need to comment on everyone's comments. Which is boring.

If you really want people to spend some time hanging around with people of similar interests, you may want to consider a poster session. Then people can pick and choose what they want to hear about without the limitations of a formal presentation with time limits. You would, however, need a larger space, and might need to a priori group similar topics together (by title or an abstract of their poster).

12:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best way I know of to encourage interaction is longish lunch breaks, even better if lunch and/or a place to hang out and talk shop is provided.

s.

1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found the venue for you.

It's cold, and isolated, and pretty. And, in the winter you can go where ever you want, all the trails are buried, and the whole park is considered wilderness area.

No distractions, no one could do anything but focus.

I'll go check it out in a couple of weeks for you, it's gonna be great, camping in the snow, and hiking without trails.

Justin

1:51 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Justin:
Margie called me a minute ago. She just said your name and sighed. "He's so... so Justin. So pure." I sighed too. Seriously. You have a fan club.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Justin, I just clicked that link. In the first place, it looks cold, to which I say BOOO!
In the second place, since Californians melt in the rain, do you really think I am going to expose them to alternate forms of precipitation? Fuck no.

Enjoy your trip to Siberia, or the arctic tundra, or the atmosphere-less moon, or wherever that was. Have fun, Shackleton.

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not that cold there. It's in the teens at night, and all the way up to the 50s during the day.

At night you're all down inside your nice warm sleeping bag, so, no problems, and who can't deal with 50s?

Anyway, it's not actually cold until it's sub 0. I remember skiing in highschool a couple of days when the wind chill was -80, the actual temp was -30. That was pretty bad, but I didn't have a hat then. I'm going to buy a hat, so I assume I'll be invincible.

Justin

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aren't you going to make it FUN, Megan? Have people throw shit off the roof and play in the mud!

Marcus

11:54 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Not a FUN type occasion. But y'all should come to my New Year's Party, which will be FUN.

10:39 AM  

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