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!


Picture this

25 08 2010

The conversion of a project memo to a map this week reminded me of just how effective visuals can be. As a construction project I am working on gets underway, the management  team requested a weekly report of planned activities. Originally formatted as a memo, it looked like just another list of hard to read (do I have time to read?) items. After some consultation with me and the project graphic designer, the report was reformatted to a map with corresponding numbers to identify the location of each work item. The piece received ooohs and aaahs from the team during this week’s management meeting!

As the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In our media-saturated society, the information conveyed by a visual at a glance is so vital to effective communication. We are also growing more and more accustomed to customizing our information by selecting what we want to pay attention to. The linear format of a narrative memo just doesn’t speak to people. We don’t have time or patience to wade through all the information. We want to be able to quickly ascertain what pertains to us. Use of visual tools is key to helping people sort out information and find what’s relevant.