An Event Apart: Designing Meetings to Work

by June 24, 2013

In his Designing Meetings to Work presentation at An Event Apart Boston MA 2013, Kevin Hoffman outlined how to get the most of meetings by applying a series of framework for meeting design. Here's my notes from his talk:

  • There's a collaborative design exercise that helps people learn to work together called the marshmallow exercise. The best results for this exercise some from architects and kindergartners.
  • Why do kids do so well? They use their time building things and trying lots of solutions. They are not worried and the point of the exercise, who is in charge, or if they will fail or not.
  • Meetings are a great place to fail and learn.
  • Many meetings aren’t productive because of the way they’re organized and run. They don’t move us closer to our actual goals.
  • Kickoff meetings are important. If you have a bad kickoff, you can have longer term issues because: first impressions are powerful & lasting, roles are hidden and unclear, time & money ad wasted.
  • People retain 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, but 50% of what we see and hear, and 70% of what we discuss. Meetings with discussions feel productive because we retain more information from them. Good meetings feel like discussions.
  • Even more importantly, we retain 90% of what we make and manage. This is why people like to work alone –they feel more productive.
  • Doing something is better than seeing something, which is better than hearing something.
  • Increasingly on the Web we build on top of frameworks, we can use similar frameworks for meetings as well.
  • If you move deliverables to collaborative sessions and spaces, you jump into doing work.


  • You always need to diverge before you can converge.
  • To make a decision, you go through a series ideas until you reach a decision point.
  • Humans tend to go in tangents when having discussions. This helps us to explore new ideas but can make making decisions hard.
  • Open with divergent thinking to explore ideas and close with convergent thinking that allows you to reach consensus.
  • Divergent: Generating a list of ideas, Free-flowing open discussion, Seeking diverse points of view, Suspending judgment.
  • Convergent: Sorting ideas into categories, Summarizing key points, Coming to agreement, Exercising judgment.


  • In order for a meeting to go well, it needs outcomes, agenda, rules, roles. Different roles are required to make meetings run smooth. These roles need to be filled by people who know what they are doing.
  • Facilitator: is neutral and keeps moving the meeting along; should not add or evaluate ideas doing the meeting.
  • Recorder: should be taking notes in a public way –this gives people a way to respond to what is being documented.
  • Everyone else is a group member: they contribute content & engage in conversation/ideas.
  • Leader is the person who should be designing the meeting, selecting attendees, and defining the outcome.
  • Start to record what people are saying by writing things down on the blackboard. This helps everyone keep up with what’s being said. Use visual memory to complement what they are hearing.
  • Distributing facilitator role across people and meetings allows more people to participate and also grows skills in meeting management.
  • Even in small meetings, its important to publicly record what’s being said. Paraphrase the essence of what people are saying. Repeat what they said back to them to make sure you heard them right.
  • Be neutral but still do your job. Phrase your comments as questions to get people thinking about possibilities and implications.


  • Real time sketching facilitation can help clarify the ideas people are discussing. Dave Gray, David Sibbet and others have a lot of resources about sketching during meetings.
  • If you can’t do real time sketching, you can still use visuals before a meeting happens to orient people and get them all on the same page about concepts, implications, and how things interrelate.
  • Make a few quick sketches of what needs to get discussed or understood.


  • If you move deliverables to collaborative sessions and spaces, you jump into doing work.
  • Example: give each person in a meeting a persona (ideally a well known character) and ask them to use post-its to highlight what each persona needs from your service.
  • Assign different scenarios to people, then ask them to combine into groups of 2, then 4, then 8. Each time, have them share their ideas and come up with the next set of designs.
  • Start your sketches in the most constrained size first: small mobile screens to big whiteboards.
  • Everyone has an idea or insight that you need to design. Good meetings can get those out of their heads.