How Can Active Participation In Meetings Be Encouraged?
How Can Active Participation In Meetings Be Encouraged?
This is one of the most valuable things I share with all of my clients, who are some of the top leaders and educators on the planet. A big chunk of my job is helping those leaders and educators make connection and engagement easy—both online and off. Below are five essential ingredients to do just that.
By the end of the chapter, I guarantee you’ll be able to answer this question: How can active participation in meetings be encouraged?
You can think about these five ingredients as they occur throughout the meeting, from start to finish. But you don’t always need to infuse all of these ingredients into every single meeting. In fact, I would recommend you don’t, because it would be a lot. Instead, try to incorporate a couple of ingredients into each meeting. By doing that, I guarantee that you’ll see active participation increase.
Also, I teach and share this in the context of virtual and remote meetings, but these ideas are just as relevant and important for in-person gatherings as well.
1. Unofficial Start
The first ingredient is the unofficial start. I got this term from Mark Collard, director of playmeo and an experiential trainer and consultant, who pointed out that we tend to reward people for being late. We wait a few minutes for people’s Wi-Fi to catch up or for their commute (even if it’s just from the kitchen to the home office).
The unofficial start says don’t do that. That unofficial start should run from a few minutes before the official start time to a few minutes after the scheduled start to reward the people who showed up early, while also showing understanding for people who might be shuffling in a bit late. For a 9 a.m. meeting, have the unofficial start run from, say, 8:55 to 9:03.
With this approach, you immediately and purposefully engage people. There are a lot of ways to do that. One of my favorite ways utilizes a deck of cards I created called We! Connect Cards. These are being used by universities and organizations all over the world to help create conversations that matter.
I might hold up a question like this one: “What are people usually surprised to find out about you?” or “What are you grateful for?” Then I ask people, just as they’re joining the meeting, if they can jot down their answer on a sticky note and hold that up to a camera to share with the group virtually. If it’s an in-person meeting, I might have them sit next to somebody they don’t typically sit next to and start a conversation riffing off this question. That’s immediately engaging. More often than not, I choose an unofficial start that helps me connect everyone to the purpose of the gathering as well.
2. Context Hook
The second ingredient is probably the most important ingredient to create active participation. Without it, you risk people being “present,” but in totally different worlds. The context hook could be reduced to as little as one sentence or turned into a quick five-minute experience or illustration.
The purpose is to “hook” your attendees into the same context.
The first way I frame the context hook is by getting clear about what my intention is for the meeting and making sure that it’s others-centric. I think about an intention like a rubber band that stretches over the needs of everyone in the meeting and pulls people together. By contrast, most of the time an “objective” is laser-focused. An agenda item is very task-focused—it’s the thing that we need to get done, and it might not incorporate what other people care about or need.
In short, I’m going to get clear about my other-centered intention and state it in a way that resonates with the group, so I use their language, not mine. For example, I was leading a workshop on how to make virtual connection and engagement easy for 125 executives at a big national insurance company. I knew that some of them didn’t want to be there, so my context hook was really important to grab everyone’s attention.
To engage the group I essentially told them that “whether they wanted to be there or not, my intention was to be a painkiller for the next 100-plus hours they’d have to spend in meetings.” For most of them, they were going to meet that mark in two or three weeks—as executives spend a lot of time in meetings. That was my other-centric approach.
Not many people love meetings. Given that, the idea that maybe this hour could actually make the next 100 hours of their meetings less exhausting and more productive got these executives curious. They played along because they wanted to know how they could make that happen.
That’s the purpose of a context hook. Sometimes I use this ingredient to invite people to shift their state. A mentor of mine, Matt Church, likes to say that state matters more than script. This is a really valuable idea.
I do another exercise where I invite people to cover their camera on Zoom. If you’re meeting in person, you can just have people turn around with their backs to the group. Then invite the group to get into a certain state of mind by sharing a quick narrative. For example, I might tell the group to imagine that they’re in the most boring, terrible meeting they’ve ever attended. I’ll have them picture the facial expressions they’re making, and imagine their posture, and what they’re thinking and feeling. Then, on the count of three, I’ll have them remove that object in front of their camera (or turn around to face the group), and be in that state. They’ll wear that facial expression and take on that posture. On Zoom in gallery view, it’s awesome. The exercise puts everybody in this worst-meeting-ever state.
Of course, you shouldn’t end there. That would be a bad context hook. For the second round, cover your cameras, and this time imagine traveling to a brand new city that you have never traveled to before. You’re on a train, and it arrives at the station. There, one of your absolute best friends of all time is standing on the platform much to your surprise. Imagine your state, your facial expression, your gestures, and be in that state.
Use this opportunity to promote how your workshop will be way more interesting, engaging and energizing than the average webinar. That’s a great way to hook people from the beginning.
3. Connection Before Content
I talk about this idea of putting connection before content in all of my work. My co-founder at We and Me, Will Wise, and I wrote a book about it called Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations That Matter.
Peter Block, who coined the phrase, claims that connection before content must have three ingredients. It must:
- Connect to the purpose—make it clear why people are there.
- Connect people to each other.
- Create choice and space for authenticity and vulnerability.
Typically, connection before content is going to involve breaking into small groups with two to five people talking about a question that connects to the purpose of why they’re there and allows them to connect to each other. The best questions invite people to share a story or personal experience. Throughout this book, there are dozens of other methods and exercises to make connection before content happen as well.
The fourth ingredient is content. This usually makes up about 80% of most meetings or gatherings. You’ve got an agenda, with things to address and talk about. My tip for spurring active participation is to make your content as visual and experiential as possible. In other words, design your content for contribution—not consumption.
We remember visuals and experiential data much better than language and numbers alone, and the brain loves participating in and contributing to experiences. Yet if you rewind the tape, probably the last 10 meetings you attended were 90% language and numbers, which you’re unlikely to remember.
The fifth ingredient is also the most often forgotten one. It is burned into my memory, though, since meeting a woman at an event, who introduced herself as a professional storyteller. I asked what her best tip was for telling really phenomenal stories. Without pause, she said, ‘all you’ve got to do is know the first and last sentence you’re going to say and you can kind of fill in the middle.’
Having a background in psychology, I found this fascinating because it aligned with the primacy/recency effect. This is where we tend to remember what happens first and last more than what happens in the middle. How you end your meetings is extremely important to setting the expectation for your team for the next meeting and affects how they’ll take what they’ve learned and apply it to their work.
My facilitator/leader version of the storyteller’s advice is to know the first experience you’re going to start with and the last experience that you’re going to end with for each meeting. In the same way, if you go into meetings knowing ahead of time which of these five ingredients you’re going to include to engage your team, you’re bound to increase participation.