Best of 2011: Flemming Fog on Why One-Way Meetings Are Doomed

November 10, 2011, 8:40 AM EST

Illustration: Hal Lee for BizBash

There are three key reasons why one-way meetings—where presenters talk to passive audiences—are on their way out: People hate them. They are ineffective. More engaging and effective meeting formats are winning ground.

Here’s why people hate one-way meetings: Very few of us like being reduced to an anonymous member of an audience, passively watching other people excel (except in comedy and sports—but that’s another story). After a relatively short span of time we lose concentration and start using our heads for other tasks, thinking about vacations or sex, or—if possible—checking email or tweeting. As the intensity of our lives has increased, our attention spans have become shorter. The younger generation has an extremely short attention span, but even older businesspeople now run out of attention if they’re not stimulated every minute or two. And then they get bored and tune out.

This whole syndrome means that even though you might be able to get hundreds of people into a conference room—and though they might look awake—the odds are that more than half of your audience at any given time lacks the basic attention critical for them to understand whatever you are trying to communicate. 

That brings us to why one-way meetings are ineffective: The objective of most meetings today is not only to pass on information but also to actually influence—and even change—perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. Most organizations are trying to keep up with the increasing speed of change, and this has (or should!) move the focus toward transformational meetings rather than just informational or motivational meetings.

The challenge is that people do not change on the basis of information, even when it’s presented in the nicest form. People only change as a result of involvement—when they take part in a dialogue, when they get a chance to share their own dreams and fears, and when they feel heard.

The single most important prerequisite for an effective transformational meeting is engagement. That’s why more engaging and effective meeting formats are winning ground: Participants like them and because they work better.

When you realize you need to engage people to meet your objectives, it changes the game. You no longer focus merely on creating the slick presentations. You move toward finding intelligent and engaging ways for people to become involved in the themes you want them to work with. The dialogue among the participants becomes at least as interesting as what you want to say to them. It becomes more critical that you find ways to tap into the collective knowledge of your participants instead of only exposing your own.

Part of the successful formula is meeting interactivity, not in the form of a few survey questions inserted into an otherwise one-way program or using iPads for Q&A sessions. What I am talking about is interactivity in the form of processes that create a true ping-pong between inspirational stimulus, intelligent processing, and co-creation, engaging everyone. When the global leadership team from Vestas ( meets once a year, interactivity is part of the design of everything—from the seating plan and room design to integrating participant engagement processes into the meeting flow, so that an hour (and seldom more than 20 minutes) never passes in which the participants are not working actively on a real questions and issues. When you think in collective processes instead of just communication, you are ready to reach for the next level.

Working and thinking interactively is currently reserved for a small tribe of meeting professionals who concern themselves more with the content of a meeting than the [what?]. And though a surprisingly small percentage of meeting planners share this perspective, the tribe expands. Once you have experienced a truly interactive meeting, you will never turn back.

—Flemming Fog, C.E.O., Wizerize, New York, @fogflemming

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