Bored with boards at public meetings

23 02 2011

My greatest pet peeve about public meetings is an open house where someone attends but doesn’t speak to anyone. To me, this is a complete failure of public outreach and defeats the purpose of holding a meeting. What is the point of holding a meeting if you don’t take advantage of face-to-face discussion?

To avoid the silent attendee syndrome, I have shifted my public meeting philosophy to be less about boards and polished presentation and more about equipping staff to answer questions and engage people in conversation. I organized a public meeting this week with meeting materials comprised of five boards and two maps for an anticipated crowd of 100 people. These maps and graphics were tools for staff to refer to as speaking points or to help explain what is happening in the area.

I have planned public meetings in the past with umpteen boards with review after review and edit upon edit to get it just right. It is not fun to plan and I think it is not fun to attend a meeting where you take time to be in-person only to learn about a project from a series of display boards.

Here are my suggestions for effective presentation boards at public meetings:

–          Focus on visuals and graphics rather than text. Utilize boards to support sharing a message through conversation rather than relying on the board to tell the message.

–          Utilize the same images and messages in different formats. Content of handouts for take-home should match what is on display boards or in a PowerPoint presentation.

–           Print duplicate boards or maps if you anticipate a large crowd. Again, these are visual aids for staff. I like to plan meetings so that project representatives speak with small groups of people and answer their questions. Having duplicate boards allows several conversations to occur concurrently.

–          Prepare public meeting staff. Hold a pre-meeting to talk through information and anticipated questions. Let them know what visuals will be available to support their conversations.

Public meetings are about meeting people, introducing yourself and your project and hearing the questions and concerns of people who are affected by a project or decision. Interpersonal communication is still the most effective method to deliver difficult or complex information. So speak up!


My story of two recent meetings

22 07 2010

I have planned and facilitated two neighborhood meetings with emotionally-sensitive topics in the past month. The first was a meeting with property owners entering the property acquisition process. The second was a meeting with adjacent property owners who are not being acquired now, but may be in the future. We intentionally set up two separate meetings because each group has different needs and issues; to try and tackle both at once was not going to be productive for either.

In coordination with the project team, I spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of various formats. We spoke at length about what would make the best use of everyone’s time and how to make the meeting valuable to the people who attended. We focused on format and process before finalizing messaging and materials; proof that the media is the message; or in this case, the format is central to how we convey the message and how it is received.

We decided to use a table discussion format that allowed sharing information face-to-face with a small group and letting attendees’ questions drive the discussion.  This helped diffuse some of the emotion and allowed the group at the table to hear the answers to each other’s questions (especially since many people had the same questions). We provided handouts and maps at each table to support the discussion, but the strategy really depended on the table facilitators to answer questions openly, honestly and to the best of their knowledge.

Our team has developed a few mantras that have proven useful in planning for emotional contexts. One is “when you have bad news, see the whites of their eyes.” This reminds us of the need to treat each person individually and deliver information on a personal basis. The large group setting is risky because the audience can become just a sea of faces and project representatives can be viewed as Big Brother. The room set-up of presenter and audience implicitly creates an “us-them” tension. By talking around a table, we were setting up a space for conversation between people. We all act more humanely and treat each other with more respect at the conversation level.

The second guiding principle that led us to the table discussion format is transparency. In my experience, and in these situations the past month, people expressed appreciation that the project team was willing to meet with them, answer tough questions and hear their concerns. We did not prepare an elaborate presentation. We did not do a dog and pony show. We were not going to sugar-coat the difficult situation these property owners faced. People see right through that. Instead, we focused on being genuine, listening to people’s concerns and giving them the best information we had in order to equip them for the decisions to be made in coming months.

Finally, we prepared meeting staff for emotion. At a preparation meeting, we openly discussed how these property owners might feel and tried to see the project and meeting from their point of view. We discussed the need to listen and allow attendees’ time to vent. We also discussed the limits of what was acceptable and how we would support each other if a situation got out of control.

The two meetings went very well with very little eruption of emotion. People were civil, asked their tough questions and expressed their frustrations. Most attendees appeared to leave satisfied that they were heard and had more information than when they arrived. Our team agreed that keeping the conversation at the table-level was the right choice for the situation and both meetings were heralded a success!

Planning tips for public meetings

18 05 2010

Anyone who has planned a public meeting knows the care taken to find an appropriate location and develop a plan for how to set up the room. From way-finding signs and a greeting table to space to sit down to discuss questions and comments, the entire room set-up is designed to facilitate sharing information with participants and answering their questions.

I was reminded of the symbolic power of physical space when I read this article about the closing of the main doors to the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. The open doors represented the accessibility of justice to the American people. It sent a message that all are welcome to the judicial process. According to this essayist, closing the doors sends a troubling message. Sometimes decisions made for practical reasons have serious implications for public perceptions.

You may not be dealing with the likes of the Supreme Court, but your attention to careful planning of physical space for meetings makes a difference to the people you are engaging! Here are a few steps I take:

  • Visit the site, take pictures and draw a map
  • Have an on-site contact you know to call with any questions or concerns
  • Plan how the room will be set up, including what staff will be located where. This will help ensure that you are not over- or under-staffed as well as give each staff person a specific role and responsibility
  • Hold a prep meeting with staff to review the room set-up and responsibilities. Also review the format and content of the meeting so everyone knows the big picture purpose as well as the details being presented
  • Allow plenty of time for set-up as eager stakeholders often start showing up early

What tips do you have for effective meeting planning? Please comment with some “do’s” and “don’ts” for choosing locations and planning room set-up.