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Let Your Objectives Determine the Format

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The host of a meeting or conference has the task of deciding what format the occasion will adhere to, but often this decision is based on the wrong criteria. 


Most often any significant gathering of people above a certain threshold predetermines that attendees should sit in neat rows listening to someone talk from a raised platform - or on a smaller scale that they will be gathered around a table occasionally contributing to a set of discussion topics.

It doesn’t have to be like this, and in fact shouldn’t be like this. The format should be determined by what you want your attendees to achieve from the meeting: different formats are better for different objectives.

There’s now a wealth of new and interesting formats to make use of to help you achieve these objectives, whilst keeping them interesting and, most importantly memorable.

Some of them are quite different in their approach to imparting information and require an open mind to succeed in their application - but this is also why choosing the one based on the relevant criteria is so important.


A format drastically different to the traditional controlled style is called ‘Open Space Technology’. The essence of it is to let the meeting agenda form organically from the ideas of those attending.  A facilitator is present to make initial greetings and explanations, but beyond this they are only required to give a minimum of input and allow the group to follow itself.

Each meeting begins with everyone sat in a circle (small or large, this style has been used for groups ranging from five to over two thousand people) and anyone can raise an issue they think is important enough to discuss in accordance to the general theme.

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Each issue raised then becomes a meeting in itself, with a dedicated space and time – run by the person who volunteered it. After everyone who wants to raise an issue has finished, everyone else is free to attend whichever meeting they like and contribute – or even leave to attend another if they feel they aren’t learning or contributing to it.

When using this method there is no real control over what shape the meeting takes beyond the initial theme - it is shaped by those attending it. It provides a number of benefits that are hard to achieve in other formats, most notably being ideally suited to addressing very complex topics to which no one person will have all the answers.

By having separate forums for each issue raised, the people most interested and most qualified to help solve those issues will naturally gravitate towards them and be of greater value. If a company has an extremely difficult set of problems to overcome this could be a very useful exercise for them to experiment with.

It’s a real departure from how a traditional meeting takes place and one can’t help but be curious as to how they themselves would behave in such an environment.  It does have its downsides, in that there are a specific set of conditions that both enable and disable a meeting of this type to occur, meaning you have to very careful when choosing it as a format.


A more common style is ‘Flipped Learning’, where attendees are given learning material ahead of time so that when they attend they are already equipped with a certain level of knowledge, and are eager to learn more about the subject and more crucially how to apply their new found knowledge.

This format is suitable for captive audiences that do not need coercing into fully engaging with the subject matter or the meeting, and allows them get further along the learning process than if there having to pick up everything from scratch on the day. This allows you to cover some quite complex subjects as well as reinforce them.

A downside to this format is ensuring attendees do the pre-learning required – hence it being suited to those needing less coercion, such as employees, volunteers or those particularly invested in a particular approach, methodology or technology.

Software conferences are a perfect example where flipped learning would be at its most effective.


Another somewhat ‘alternative’ meeting format is the ‘Long Table’ or ‘Empty Chair’ style. Imagine a dinner party surrounded by an audience carefully listening to what’s being discussed. However, most of the table is in fact empty - but whenever an audience member feels they have something to contribute to the discussion they can take a seat and engage. If all seats have been taken they are able to take another’s seat by tapping them on the shoulder and asking for it.

Aside from the audience, this is near enough a dinner party - with everything present that you would expect. Not suited to those uncomfortable in expressing their opinions, the conversation it encourages both on and off the table can generate an amazing array of ideas and opinions.

The challenge is to keep the subjects discussed on point, but nevertheless this format can be of tremendous use where creativity is needed. It also encourages listening as well as contributing, as you observe from within the audience before moving to the table to make your point.

Some of these formats will not be suitable for you or your business, but these examples should at least encourage you to look a bit deeper when deciding how to conduct your meeting especially when weighted against your outcomes

There are numerous formats to explore and you may discover one that’s perfect for your employees or client base - their sheer diversity meaning a standard meeting format should be a thing of the past.

Update: Moving away from standard meeting formats is helped by keeping an eye on new trends. Discover those expected in 2019 and consider which, if any, you can adopt here.

If you would like more information on organising a Conference with us, contact us or call us on 01494 881171.

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