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2016 Meeting Design Formats
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In order to enhance the participant experience and increase the return on their time and money, meeting professionals are introducing new meeting formats and delivery methods that provide immediate and long-lasting benefits. These formats and methods vary from open space to mini-lecture. What they all share is a more interactive engagement than the traditional lecture that focuses on the needs of participants.

Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology (OST) is a design approach with no formal agenda beyond overall purpose or theme. Participants create their agendas—for anything from a simple session to a complete multi-track conference—in a relatively short time using simple guidelines. At the conclusion of the meeting or event, participants debrief. Open space meetings are characterized by a few basic elements.

  • An invitation that explains the purpose of the meeting
  • Participant chairs arranged in a circle
  • A “bulletin board” of challenges or opportunities posted by participants
  • A “marketplace” of breakout spaces where participants “shop” for information or ideas

Typically, an open space meeting begins with short introductions by both the sponsor and the facilitator. The sponsor introduces the purpose and the facilitator explains the open space process. Then, the group creates a working agenda on the bulletin board (or other large surface). Each breakout session “convener” takes responsibility for posting an issue, assigning it a space and time and, later, kicking off the conversation, taking notes and sharing them with all involved.

Harrison Owen, the author of “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide,” identifies several principles and one law that describe the open space process.


  • Whoever comes are the right people.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time.
  • Wherever it happens is the right place.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • When it’s over, it’s over.

The Law of 2 Feet

If at any time you find yourself neither learning nor contributing, use your feet to go someplace else. All participants have the right and the responsibility to maximize their learning and contribution.


An unconference is a participant-driven meeting that uses variations of the Open Space Technology methods (participant- initiated agenda and discussions). This form of conference is particularly useful when participants have a high level of expertise or knowledge in the field. An unconference can be conducted using a number of facilitation styles. For more information on unconferences, see


An unpanel is useful for interactive discussions among many people. Four to five speakers converse at any given time (in the fishbowl) and are surrounded by a much larger group of people. Anyone can join the inner circle when a seat becomes available. In an open fishbowl, one chair is left empty and any member of the audience can join. When this happens, an existing member of the fishbowl must voluntarily leave and free a chair. In a closed fishbowl, all chairs are and remain filled. To start the fishbowl, a moderator introduces a topic and participants start the discussion. When time runs out, the moderator closes the fishbowl and summarizes the discussion.


A spectogram highlights the range of perspectives in a group. A facilitator asks a question of interest and directs participants to take a stand along an agree-disagree spectrum, which can be imaginary or a strip of tape along the floor. The facilitator then interviews people at different points on the spectrum about the opinions they hold. This process creates a shared experience while demonstrating the range of opinions in a community. It can serve as an anchor for additional conversations.

Speed Geeking/Rapid Demos

Speed geeking allows participants to quickly view several presentations within a fixed period of time. Speakers present a five- minute demonstration for a small audience. After five minutes, the audience moves on to the next demo/presentation area. This format offers advantages for both sides: presenters refine their pitch through repetition and participants moves from demo to demo, efficiently using their time while exposing themselves to new concepts. A large room is an ideal venue.

World/Knowledge Café

A world café is a conversational forum that allows for in-depth exploration. Tables are set like a small café with approximately four to six seats each. A facilitator puts forth a topic and participants discuss for about 20 minutes. At the end of the allotted time, one participant stays behind and summarizes the conversation to the next group that comes to sit at the table. The other people move on to different tables and another round of conversations commences. At the conclusion of three rounds, the facilitator collects the conversation notes and shares with participants verbally, physically or electronically. A variation on the world café, a knowledge café begins with participants seated in a circle of chairs (or concentric circles of chairs). A facilitator explains the purpose and then introduces a topic and poses one or two open-ended questions. Participants break into groups to discuss the questions for about 45 minutes. Then, they return to the circle, and the facilitator leads the full group through another 45-minute session during which people reflect on the small group discussions and share thoughts, insights and ideas. A knowledge café is ideal for between 15 and 50 participants. If there are more than 50 participants, it’s usually necessary to employ microphones, which can inhibit the flow of the conversation.

Graphic Recording/Facilitation

Graphic recording strategically combines words and images to convey information. Practitioners use large sheets of paper or whiteboards to document dialog and group activities using images, symbols and words. Images often convey information more efficiently and effectively to wider and increasingly diverse audiences. Visual Language can be a useful tool in helping people tolerate ambiguity and communicate quickly, often before concepts are ready to be communicated using traditional writing.


Popularized by the TED Conference, these abbreviated talks focus the messenger and the message. These short presentations are highly scripted, well-rehearsed events supported by compelling PowerPoint slides and orated by professionals. Taking a full-length presentation and reducing it to an effective 15 to 18 minute story requires careful planning and consideration. Some mini- lectures precede brief facilitated discussions, often by the presenters themselves.

Pecha Kucha/Ignite

Japanese for “chit chat,” this delivery format was developed by a group of designers as a way of sharing their work. During Pecha Kucha presentations, speakers present 20 images/PowerPoints for 20 seconds each for a total presentation time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Today, there are more than 550 cities around the world that host Pecha Kucha Nights. The format’s popularity lies in its easy accessibility (anyone can do it) and the rapid and often entertaining short-story format. An Ignite session involves 20 images shared for 15 seconds each for a blistering five-minute presentation. As with Pecha Kucha, the challenge is on the presenters to tell a compelling story using the most appropriate images within the time allowed.


Similar to a poetry slam, storySLAM allows participants five minutes to tell a story, usually part of a chosen theme. No notes are allowed and the stories must be told, not read. This is an ideal vehicle for sharing information, because the stories connect speaker to audience on an emotional level.

Buzz Group

Buzz groups are small units that break off from a larger assembly in order to generate ideas for the larger group to discuss or act upon. The use of buzz groups was first associated with J. D. Phillips and is sometimes known as the Phillips 66 technique. Large groups may be divided into buzz groups after an initial presentation in order to cover different aspects of a topic or maximize participation. Each group appoints a spokesperson to report the results of the discussion later.


Like their musical roots imply, mashups are a collection of seemingly random groups that gather to share interests and ideas. A mashup can be organized by anyone at a meeting or event and promoted via a variety of channels from word-of-mouth to social media. A Tweetup is essentially a mashup organized via Twitter. Mashups can be planned or spontaneous. They provide participants with a time and place to get their needs addressed, in the case that formal educational programs or networking opportunities are not helpful or convenient.

These are just some of the more formal techniques being introduced into meetings and events to increase participation and engagement and ultimately provide a more valuable attendee experience. The International Association of Facilitators ( has a free database of more than 550 techniques that can be used to aid group meetings or events (www.iaf- The techniques are searchable by name, application or group size. A trained facilitator best conducts some of these; however, those with less experience can introduce many. Besides formal meeting formats, there are also many informal designs that accomplish the same objectives of engaging attendees and enabling them to be more successful.

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