7 tips for designing great gatherings (and a few major don’ts)

Think about... 

1.  Is this a divergent or convergent conversation (or both?)

90% of your time pre-gathering should be spent on working out specifically what you are trying to achieve at the meeting.

Think about - is this a divergent conversation? i.e. You are trying to crack open a problem, gather a wide range of ideas, build on top of ideas and make the as big as possible?

Or Convergent one where you are sorting through ideas, making sense, evaluating what has emerged and clarifying the most prominent ideas in the room. 

2.  Objectives, Objectives, Objectives

Once you have a rough idea of why you are bringing people together and what you want to achieve, it’s time to set some clear, concise, powerful objectives.

You should end up with a maximum of 3 that should cover not only the kind of output you want from the meeting, but also how you want participants to feel when they leave. They should look something like this:

  • Gather a wide variety of ideas on x,y,z
  •  Identify the most popular solutions
  • Build lasting connections between participants

Once they are set, workshop objectives become your North Star when you are trying to decide on a design. You need to refer back to them ALL OF THE TIME. Are we going to achieve these if we do x,y,z?

As you go through, you will need to set objectives for each element of your workshop design.

4.  Put a time limit on the welcome and framing  

Time to start putting together a draft design.

Step 1- who’s introducing the meeting? Think about your objectives here. Do you need to build credibility? Highlight a sponsor? Share some framing material you will be using in the meeting? Introduce the hosting team? You always need to give clear instructions about what participants can expect, but think about what’s the minimum they need to know before you get going?

Your aim here is to hit your objectives and try and keep intro’s to a maximum of 10 minutes. Any longer and it creates a boring start to the day.

5.  Get people talking asap

Your room will spring to life as soon as you let people talk to one another. It will take the pressure off you to say something captivating and send a signal that this meeting will be ‘different’. Do this as soon as humanly possible.

When designing this big of the agenda, make sure you are thinking about how people feel as they sit in this room. How far they’ve travelled, if they know anyone else, if they might feel intimidated or excited to network, if they’ve had coffee yet. Set objectives based on this information.

You can do really simple things like ask participants to turn to the person next to them, and share why they showed up to the meeting, or more personal, like share what their name means. Get creative, but this is a vulnerable time in the design of the meeting, people often haven’t really ‘arrived’ yet, so make sure you do something that sets the tone for the rest of the session.

6.  Design each session with your objectives top of mind  

Take each of the overall meeting objectives you set out at the start of your design session and generate creative ideas about how to meet it.

If the first is something like ‘Gather a wide variety of ideas on x,y,z’ ask yourself things questions like - what’s the best way of getting everyone’s ideas (not just the dominant few)? How might we help participants generate as many ideas as possible in a short space of time? How are we going to gather these so that everyone can see them?

There’s a whole host of facilitation methods you can use (I will write about them in a separate blog), but this doesn’t have to be complex. Simply breaking up your group into small tables of 4 is often enough to turn a meeting from a dull roundtable to a fun, lively, productive workshop.  

7.  Work out how you’re going to capture insights

If you want to develop an idea of the ‘collective intelligence’ of the room, then it makes sense to gather and sort ideas then and there. My favorite way of doing this is to use ‘Bingo’. Ask each group to write down their top 3 insights, one each per post it, and share with the room, one by one. If any other group has the same or similar they shout ‘Bingo!’ and we stick these together on the wall. Two benefits to this method 1) it’s a quick way to show the most popular ideas in the room 2) it is fun, wakes everyone up and makes most people in the room smile.

If you want to do more in-depth analysis after the meeting, put some flip chart paper in the middle of the table and ask someone at each table to volunteer as scribe, to capture the main points of discussion. It’s lovely to design these sheets in advance, draw pictures on them, make them look nice. It helps to make sure people feel like their ideas are valued.  

8.  Close strong

End by thanking everyone and then move on quickly to what will happen next. What are you going to do with the precious ideas you’ve captured at your workshop? To do this you obviously need to have a plan in advance and to have thought this through. Planning a successful workshop always includes a plan for what you’re going to do in the short and medium term after it ends.

Major Don’ts

Don’t ask for your participants’ input, if you don’t actually want it  

If you have already set the strategy, signed it off and are clear on you the way forward, don’t gather a group to ask for their ideas. It’s too late, people see right through this and it only causes resentment.

Instead find a problem you are genuinely stuck on. Something you are struggling to get your head around, where fresh ideas would help you find a direction forward. Invite a diverse group of people to help you solve it.  

It’s ok to set boundaries, to say ‘I want your input on this part of the project, but not this bit’. If you’re leading the project, people will understand. Just never, never, never ask for participants input in a bid to try and ‘bring everyone along with you.’ What a waste of everyone’s time.  

Don’t get excited and create an over complicated cringe-fest

Don’t start thinking of an exciting design for your workshop before you are crystal clear on your objectives. The most nauseating workshops in the world happen when you have ‘fun’ activities with no clear purpose. Put a lid on your creativity and unleash it only after you have used your rational brain to work out why you are hosting this event in the first place.

Don’t let presenters speak for too long

People can only concentrate for 20 mins at a time. You might be able to push this to 30 minutes if the subject matter is really interesting. Don’t send everyone to sleep by filling the agenda with back to back speakers. Guest start to get grumpy and they will always take it out on you. You can jazz it up easily with videos, or graphic recorders or table discussions half way through.

Don't forget this is a performance

People work better and feel more valued if they are invited to a beautiful space. Try and host your event in a room full of natural light. Remove unnecessary furniture, put flowers or candy in the middle of the table, space out tables, tidy up between sessions and have somewhere to put guests coats and bags. Decorate the walls of the room with the work you produce in the workshop as you go along. Make sure your instruction slides match and look stylish. If all else fails, plan a session outside or a brisk walk at lunchtime. Make sure you get a professional photographer to capture photos of the session so you can use them afterwards.   

And don’t forget, you are on stage too

When you are facilitating an event, you are effectively holding the group of people together. I think of it a bit like choreography, or conducting, or even just being a good teacher. One of most significant roles during the day is your presence. If you leave the room, look at your phone, look bored when people feedback their ideas, gossip with your co-hosts in the corner, your guest will feel your lack of interest and become less motivate to participate yourself. I always know I’ve done a good job at facilitating when you go home utterly exhausted and brain dead. It’s part of the process!

Looking to host a great gathering, but not sure how? We can help you design and facilitate your event and teach you how to do it yourself. Get in touch rachel@thesystemstudio.com