“What information do participants in a meeting need to make wise and informed contributions?”
This is a key design question that facilitators must constantly ask themselves as they work with their clients to find the right balance of information delivery and discovery. The bias of Subject Matter Experts (SME) is often to overload meeting participants with all the facts, details, and exceptions on a topic. Underlying this tendency is likely the belief that nobody else can possibly provide good input without having the same level of expertise as the specialists (e.g., engineers, scientists, and lawyers). And the response to this should be, “not necessarily” and perhaps even, “not at all”.
When looking for participant contributions in a meeting, the larger intent is to tap collective experience and knowledge, and to bring many perspectives to bear on a topic. This input does not replace SME knowledge, but rather serves to enhance and expand it, with a view of balancing other considerations that may not have been given equal weighting from a specialist’s analysis. So what are some best practices for offering content within a meeting design, keeping it relevant and compelling, while protecting time for participant input?
Just Enough Data. The plain truth is that SME’s lose their audience when they’re spilling out information as if they were speaking to their peers, weaving in all the ‘juicy details’ that nobody really cares about or needs to know for the work at hand. After 7 minutes, most participants will zone out and lose the central plot. Were we to see what is going on in their heads, it might resemble something like an empty bubble with the words “blah blah blah….” encased within it. Coach your SME’s to state their main presentation points, make their points with just enough information, and then restate the points just made in summary – all in 7-10 minutes chunks!
Speak Directly/Don’t Read. As much as possible, have SME’s deliver their information without relying on detailed slides. Encourage them to keep the bulk of their presentation verbal, supported with very high level/visually provocative slides that emphasize the main points they are making. Participants can read four times as fast as people can speak. Don’t waste valuable meeting time going over detailed information downloads. If it is essential to the meeting purpose, then either provide time, before or during the meeting, to have participants read the complex and necessary information. Devote precious meeting time instead to learning conversations devoted to deepending understanding, generating new knowledge, and as relevant, developing practical solutions.
Pull Versus Push Data. Often SME’s mistakenly assume that participants cannot fathom the complexity of an issue. In fact, the research shows that on most topics, participants already know almost 70% of what the presenter is going over. Rather than pushing a heap of data at the audience, invite presenters to stick to the main points, and then give small groups an opportunity to digest, react, and formulate thoughtful questions together around the material presented. After 10-15 minutes, in a focused Plenary Forum, invite participant comments and questions to pull the required level of detail/complexity into the whole.
Remember Your Key Meeting Purpose. The purpose of the meeting is to gain valuable participant insight – not to turn them into specialists. Keep returning to this purpose, and balance the relative value of time spent by SME’s delivering content versus participants contributing input.
Keep It Engaging. If there’s just no way to avoid delivering a lot of content, then deliberately build in short pauses to allow pairs/trios to quickly buzz for 2-3 minutes on the key insights, reactions from the past 7-10 minutes. Nothing need be done with the buzz content. This is simply a strategy to keep participants actively listening, but providing some time to ‘empty’ a bit of the accumulated internal conversation that has built up as the SME is speaking, and to create room to receive the next batch of information.