I’m a conversation designer.
When I design a meeting, a workshop or an off-site, my goal is to create an experience that shifts a group of people to a new trajectory, to transform teams and companies long after we work together. I do it by co-creating a powerful and engaging conversation with my clients using the tools of experience design applied to conversations.
Designing a Meeting as an Experience
Meetings are experiences in the same way a digital product or service is an experience. And experiences have a clear architecture, that, once you see, it's impossible to unsee. And once you see the components of an experience, you can shape them!
Earlier this year, I started a podcast called The Conversation Factory to find out if there’s a common thread running through how people foster effective, transformative, creative conversations. I’ve interviewed Harvard Negotiation Professors, Global Brand Strategists, Information Architects, Interaction Designers, Agile Coaches and Conversation Design Advocates at Google (of all places!).
The thread I see connecting all effective conversations is seeing those experiences as a design material that can be shaped, like the shape of a story arc. The shape of that arc is best described by the 5Es framework, first coined by the Doblin Group.
5Es of Experience Design: ENTICE, ENTER, ENGAGE, EXIT, EXTEND
When you design a meeting as an experience, keep the 5Es framework as 5 “phases” of the experience in mind. Ask yourself: How might I entice people to join the meeting, how to get them to enter the conversation, how best to engage the participants, how to exit on the right note and how to extend the action to maintain momentum. I’ll guide you through these five phases with tools and case studies, so you can apply them at your work.
We often accept meeting invites without a second thought, mostly because we're expected to show up when asked, not because we actually want to go. Don’t settle for a reluctant "yes" instead of an enthusiastic “yes!”
The invitation to a meeting is one absolutely critical component that people often get wrong, leave out or miss the mark on. And I'm not just talking about the email you send out. Great products get it right. Think about all the unboxing videos on youtube, of people opening up their iPhones for the first time. The experience of that product is enticing *way* before you even turn it on!
Tool for inspiration: The Cover Story
I was coaching someone at a major financial firm about a brainstorm she was planning for her team. She wanted them to help generate ideas for an internal tool they needed to make. She mapped out a plan that was missing the "entice phase." When I looked at her agenda, it wasn't clear to me what sort of ideas her team was going to be inspired to have.
I advised her to use a "future state" visioning tool called a "cover story mockup". This activity includes creating a poster that shows the cover of a magazine featuring their successful product or project. What would get this internal tool on the cover of the Harvard Business Review? How can they knock it out of the ballpark? Sharing the goal of her meeting through a cover story activity with her team ahead of time made people eager to come out to the meeting and give their best creative efforts.
At the threshold of your meeting experience, what will people find? How will they leave behind everything else on their plates and come to be fully engaged with the world of your meeting?
Getting people to leave their tech at their desk or turned off is one great way to get people to leave the world outside the meeting behind. So is a moment of mindful quiet, if your culture is cool with that.
I tend towards wanting to warm things up and move people towards the Engage phase rapidly, so I think of "energizers" and "thought starters" as a great way to enter into a meeting environment. I get asked about "warm up" or "icebreaker" activities in my coaching all the time. How can we design a meeting activity that really gets people into the world of the problem, to own it, and to be ready to roll up their sleeves? And how can it not be too silly?
Tool for inspiration: 5-10-20 Sketchstorm
One really easy way to get people to enter the world of the problem, to get them thinking, is to give them time to draw. Draw?! Yes, draw. Drawing activates many more parts of the brain than just talking alone. Drawing gets people to pull ideas out of their heads and make them tangible, making them easier to discuss. 5 minutes of solo sketching followed by 10 minutes of paired discussion and co-sketching can get people fully in the room and in the problem. The final piece is 20 minutes of sharing around the room: what did people think before and know now? Were there surprises? With an experienced facilitator or team, this activity can shortened. You might also skip the third phase if you’re using it just as a warm up. If you want to read more about how to run a sketch studio, click here.
If you have designed for the Entice and Enter phases, Engagement should be an easy next step: people will be ready for anything! But I usually like to "chunk" my engagement time into little arcs: People need to be re-enticed and re-entered into each topic or section of a meeting. You move the participants through the three modes of conversation: open, explore, close the experience arc, in each segment.
Tool for inspiration: Divide and Conquer
There are two ways I like to divide and conquer dis-engagement: By time and by people. It can be hard to manage engagement when 7+ people are talking "popcorn" style around a table. Only the people talking are the most engaged, and the people who talk the most are the same from meeting to meeting, right? Allowing people to talk in small groups and report out to the large group makes sure more voices are heard and that more people are engaged.
Tool for inspiration: Mapping to Explore
Mapping ideas or options together is the best way I know to maintain deep engagement as well as to explore ideas. There are many, many mapping methods. Proscriptive methods like SWOT analysis can be useful, as are mapping options by Importance or Impact vs Complexity or Difficulty. Inventing new categories in the moment, together, is vastly more engaging! One way to do this is Affinity Clustering, also called the KJ Technique. To implement this method, you can ask participants to write an idea on each sticky note, and identify new categories of ideas together.
EXIT TO EXTEND
Literally while writing this article I got a text from a coachee who's a freelance strategist for a major fashion brand. He sent me a picture of a whiteboard with an Importance-Difficulty matrix he just built with his client that helped them map out ideas and options for a major transformation they're planning. The clarity of the matrix helped them start to build a Now-Next plan to leave the meeting with. Leaving without clarity, without designing the exit is a major "cliffhanger" in an experience. And it’s not a good one.
Tool for inspiration: 2-2-2 Map
One great way to frame this perspective is a tool called 2 Days, 2 Weeks, 2 Months that I first learned about from Nobl, an org design company. Simply put, ask everyone to grab a piece of paper and write down what they will be doing to keep the project moving forward in those three time frames. Obviously, if your project is shorter or longer, you can map your own time frames, or use the Now/Next/Later framework. Having a quick share-around and a celebration is a solid way to make sure you leave the room with a boost to keep things moving forward.
LOOKING WITH NEW EYES
“ALL REAL LIVING IS MEETING” - Martin Buber, philosopher
The next time you feel super happy with a product or a service, notice why. A chocolate on your pillow at a wonderful hotel. A masterful host at a fantastic restaurant. An amazing onboarding screen for a new app. An entertaining screen that asks you to please not unsubscribe from a newsletter or a 404 error screen that makes you laugh. These are moments that have been carefully designed for a particular phase of an experience and help bridge gaps and smooth things out.
You can use nuggets from those moments to make your meetings not just meetings, but extraordinary experiences that make them come alive.