Category Archives: Designing Experiences

5 Ways Improv Tools can pump up your meeting or event

The Engaging Event Series, #6

Much as we might like to control our day-to-day existence, the fact is that we live in an unscripted world, where we are constantly called upon to think on our feet–in other words, to improvise.  Most of us usually associate “improv” with comedy and theater.  Some have described it as “organized chaos” (not that different than life in general, when you think about it).  But it turns out that Basic Improv Techniques can provide us with opportunities to encourage bonding, collaboration, brainstorming and creative problem-solving–pretty common objectives whenever you get a group of people together.

This time around, I’m featuring a Guest Post by Jenise Fryatt, who’s one of my favorite bloggers about new ideas in event experience design. Among other things, Jenise creates content at Engage365 , Sound & Sight and  In this post, Jenise shares a few things she learned about using improv while attending the 2011 Applied Improvisation Network Conference  in Baltimore last June.  In Jenise’s own words:

Here are 5 things I learned about how improv skills, games and concepts can enhance and even transform events and meetings.

1 – Help people connect and have fun
Be it a small group session or a large general session with hundreds of people, there are improv-inspired games that can get people smiling, connecting, bonding and having fun. Sometimes they were as simple as a game called Back to Back that helps people get to know each other in a fun, musical chairs way, or the Diamond Dance, in which participants stand up next to their (theater style) seats and mimic the dancing of the person in front of them.

2 – Teach communication skills for better learning, networking
Improvisors are EXPERT communicators who are trained to use much more than words in connecting with others. They learn these skills through games like Zip,Zap,Zop; Red Ball, One Word Story and much more. Nearly every game that improvisors use is an exercise in effective communication. Practicing such games at a conference is a fun way to teach skills that will not only help attendees get more out of your event, but will help them in the situations they return to at home.

3 – Create your presentation with your attendees
What if you became comfortable with taking your presentation in a different direction than you had planned. What if you actually co-created it with your attendees?

Time after time sessions at the AIN conference followed this non-structure. It wasn’t about the presenter imparting knowledge alone. The attendees played a great role in what direction it took. In fact, I often got the feeling that the presenter learned as much from the attendees as the attendees learned from the presenter.

Improvisors learn to be very PRESENT oriented and because of this, they are much more aware of learning opportunities and are quick to seize the moment. So what if the original plan gets dumped? As long as attendees are finding more value, it’s worth it.

4 – Work together to solve a problem
Crowd-sourcing is a great way to get information and it’s used widely on the internet through surveys and polls. But an event where you have them all in one room presents an opportunity for doing this that won’t take days or weeks. You can do a lot in under a 1/2 hour.

The AIN conference organizers wanted to use the group to help create better branding. During a session of nearly 30 people, they had individuals take turns sharing one word he or she felt defined AIN. The words were written on flip charts.

After each person had shared two words, the group was divided into smaller groups of 4 people each. Each smaller group choose 6 of the previously chosen words. Each group reported what their words were and a dot was placed by each word. Then the words with the most dots were chosen to be used in crafting a branding statement about AIN.

I was impressed by how well this quick process got to the heart of who the AIN attendees are and what they care about.

5 – Practice dealing with difficult situations
One of the general sessions employed a game (invented at the conference) for applied improvisors to address obstacles they face in selling their services. All 100 participants chose stations labeled either AIN or the name of one of our ideal clients, i.e. event planner, business schools, etc.

Each client group invented a persona and identified some of the obstacles they face. Then each person in a client group (of about 3 or 4) took turns facing off with an AIN member who was selling applied improvisation services.

It was very illuminating. Some of the insights gained included; how important it is to understand and use the terminology of potential clients; establishing a relaxed, friendly rapport is extremely helpful and practicing such conversations can really help to address issues ahead of time. The whole exercise took less than 1/2 hour.

Being around people who have in common a love of  “making stuff up”  was energizing and inspiring beyond words.  I hope to give you more of a feel of it in future posts.  But something that I think all of us AIN conference attendees also share, is the conviction that improv isn’t magic.  The tools that make us highly creative are tools that can be used successfully by anyone. AIN is an organization dedicated to spreading the word and I’m very proud to be associated with it.

(To view this post in its native habitat, follow this link to Eventprov.
Thanks, Jenise!

How have you used or seen improv techniques applied to your own event experiences?


For 10,000 Bonus Points:

  • For improv ideas, check out this laundry list of Improv Games (oddly enough, some of them double as drinking games…)
  • You might also be interested in this TED Talk by Stuart Brown, exploring the serious subject of Play:

Setting the stage for change: Getting your audience into creative learning mode

— The Engaging Event Series, #5 —

Today I feel like telling you about some overlapping ideas I’ve stumbled across from three very different people, who all happen to be brilliant, creative thinkers.  Each of these ideas has something to do with the challenge of helping people get into a mental and emotional space where they can most effectively absorb new information, brainstorm ideas, solve problems and develop creative solutions.  In other words, think differently.

Up first: Jeff Lieberman, host of the awesome Time Warp program on the Discovery Channel. Jeff says that creativity does not involve thinking; it involves attention–being in the moment. As he puts it, “Creativity comes from the moments we stop thinking.”  Here’s what Jeff has to say about the popularity of his TV show:

“The pieces that I developed in the arts and on the TV show created this feedback cycle where I noticed more and more that what I was working on was primarily engaging because of this initial sense of wonder it created. No matter what infor­mation you want to get across, this initial emotional reaction is necessary.” Simply put, this is what we mean by “getting their attention”.

Jeff says he noticed that people are only watching his show because in the first few seconds of each program, they see something that is totally foreign to them, and that opens them up. “When you’re in that receptive state, everything is different. When you’re in a state where you know that the things you are observing are outside of your realm of experience, you open yourself up to treat­ing things in new ways. It’s always about that initial three seconds, when you first engage this animal impulse of wonder and your audience is left speechless.” This is the true opposite of boredom—where we begin to “tune out” and, eventually, change the channel.  That’s the natural enemy of engagement and change.

I heard a similar message in a conversation I had recently with Russ Bennett, a designer, builder, sculptor, musician and social activist who lives just over the mountain from me in Waitsfield, Vermont.  Russ has done visual design and site layout work for most of Phish’s large extravaganzas as well as the incredibly successful Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee (a worthy focus for a future blog post on the power of events—stay tuned). Russ believes that when you create an experience with music or theater, your audience comes to you with an open mind—and if you associate an agenda, learning objective or cause with the experience, you can truly move people to change the way they think and ultimately the way they behave. In the case of a festival like Bonnaroo, the context of camping out with 80,000 strangers and sharing a vibrant, multi-sensory cultural experience takes people out of their normal day-to-day operating mode and opens them up to new experiences, as well as new ways of thinking about things. And evolving our thinking is the first step in improving our actions and results.  

Why is this so? I got some insight into this from a webinar I attended last month led by Andrea Sullivan, who runs a company called BrainStrength.  Andrea explained that “states of mind” are the emotional, cognitive and physical condition from which people are operating at any given moment. (In the events business, we might also think about states as “experiences”.)  The more of the brain that is activated by the immediate experience, the more your audience will become engaged.  Activating not only the mind, but also the body and multiple senses, will increase the impact.  Whenever your body is engaged, your brain is engaged and focused on that very moment, as opposed to thinking something that happened this morning or that needs to happen by tomorrow.   Again, as Jeff Lieberman says, creativity comes from the moments we stop thinking. 

The brain also responds powerfully to emotion.  So creating personal meaning for people—establishing relevance to their lives and the things that are important to them—can build an emotional connection that will support a change in thinking. Tapping people’s emotions helps them learn, by opening them up.  If you can create a context and activities that put people in such a state and then attach good feelings to it, you will be well on your way to getting your attendees into creative learning mode.

Of course, you don’t have to blow up a banana or build a campground for 80,000 people to accomplish this (although it certainly might help). These principles can work in any situation, with any size group–even with an audience of one.  But when you’re designing this initial experience, it’s generally not a bad idea to have fun and include some simple physical activity.  And if you can start out by creating that little sense of wonder–that intriguing idea, image or experience that falls outside of our normal experience–that will set the stage for receptivity and creative thinking. 

What are some innovative ways you have seen or done this yourself?  Feel free to add a comment below…

Conference design strategies that deliver a punch

The Engaging Events Series, #4

In my last post about Meeting Design, I talked about the two fundamental principles for enhancing the impact of any meeting: 

1)  Minimize The Presentation Time, and
2)  Ramp Up The Interactive Time. 

I also promised a sample list of techniques that I’ve seen used or experimented with, that ratchet up the ROI on the time invested by sticking to the guiding value of “Get on, get to the point, and get off!”.  The value of this approach is that attendees can spend less time passively “receiving” information and more time processing it and figuring out what to do with it. As you’re reading, think about other similar approaches you’ve witnessed, because you might be asked to share one yourself when this is over.  

  • TED Talks.  Let’s start with the most famous example of concentrated presentations in a group setting.  I’m told that when TED talks were originated, speakers were asked to expound on a subject of their choosing, with a limit of 6 minutes to get their point across.  The current formula allows for a relatively comfortable 18 minutes, but I’m sure a lot of speakers have been used to getting 45 minutes or more to address the same topic.  In any case, this requires the speaker to get very focused on the underlying message they want to convey and to deliver that message in a compelling manner.  Note that you don’t need the TED folks to come to town in order to use this technique—just find your own experts. (Or show a YouTube video of a TED Talk.)  And keep in mind that what will make a TED-style talk most impactful is if the presentation is followed by an interactive discussion, where audience members are given the opportunity to do their own talking!  That’s what will ensure a connection between the ideas being presented and actually learning and applying them after everyone has gone home.

  • Flash Point.  MPI created this approach for their conferences.  Similar to TED Talks, a series of industry experts get 15 minutes each to present on a relevant, thought-provoking topic, which again requires them to concentrate their message.  Flash Point sessions can last a few hours, with attendees filtering in and out according to their personal interests (and the quality of the performance, of course).

  • Pecha Kucha.  Adrian Segar, author of Conferences That Work, describes this technique as “haiku for presentations – twenty slides automatically advanced, each shown for twenty seconds, while the presenter shares his or her passion about a topic. Because each presentation lasts just 6 minutes and 40 seconds, presenters are challenged to be concise, targeted, and creative—and you can pack eight attendee presentations into an hour-long conference session.”   20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide, then make room for the next topic.  That requires focus…generally a good thing!

  • Learning Lounges.  Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chain Consulting describes this PCMA initiative as “an adult learning playground with a blend of informal and formal learning.  It consists of a variety of 15-minute, interactive education sessions, live webcasting, and self-directed learning groups.  Learning Lounge features at the 2011 Convene Leadership event in Vegas included peer-to-peer discussions, six theaters offering continuous 15-minute TED style presentations, the Social Media Expert Bar, the Supplier Showdown, and the PCMA365 Livestreaming Studio.

  • MPI’s Solution Room.  Used at EMEC in Dusseldorf this year and on the program for MPI-WEC this month, The Solution Room is a 90-minute, attendee-led wrap-up session for enhancing reflection, learning and change action.  Using “unconference” techniques instead of presentations, speakers from previous concurrent sessions are used to facilitate the conversation and answer questions, while attendees help each other determine best practices for their own businesses. It combines self-reflection and coaching by both experts and colleagues sharing similar challenges.

  • Cafe Conversations.  A precursor of The Solution Room, I first saw this approach at MPI’s MeetDifferent in Houston a few years ago as a breakout session option.  A large whiteboard placed just outside of a large conference room listed the table numbers inside and attendees could write whatever topic or current issue they were interested in discussing next to a table number and then go sit down at that table.  As others arrived, they could scan the list of topics on the whiteboard and either join a table of interest, or add their own subject to the list and start their own table.   Before long, there were more than a dozen tables in action–some had such a large group that there were double rings of chairs around a banquet round;  at others only two or three people may have landed.  But in each case, everyone was talking about a topic they had elected to participate in.  And if they found that the discussion was not engaging enough, they had the option to simply stand up and move to another table with an interesting topic.

  • 1-Minute Sound Bites.  Another technique for applying and sharing what’s been learned is simply to  pause every so often (ideally, after every 7-10 minutes of new information presented) during a presentation to allow tables or small groups of participants to take just one minute to exchange ideas about what they found to be most valuable about the ideas just presented.  This is another example of Chunking material so that it will be absorbed, retained, and taken back to work!

  • Mind-Map Tablecloths.  A variation on the 1-Minute Sound Bite is to cover tables with paper tablecloths and provide markers for each table to capture group mind-maps that illustrate concepts or applications that the participants have been discussing.  Participants are given the opportunity to collaborate and literally create a picture of their most compelling ideas.

  • Key Takeaway Feedback Cards.   Before letting everyone scatter, as a presenter I sometimes will ask each attendee to fill out an index card (or it could be part of an evaluation form–as long as it’s not too long!) that will tell me one key takeaway that they will take back to work with them.  If there will be an opportunity for follow-up, I may also ask them to identify one question they still have, or something they would like to know more about now that the session is over. That not only gives me valuable information to work with in the future, but it also provides an opportunity for each person to review and summarize their own thoughts about how they might apply the ideas offered during the session when they get back to their workplace. When it comes down to it, that’s the whole point, right?

Have you seen or used other strategies to deliver a punch to your meetings or conferences?  Feel free to share them in a comment below.

Meeting Design: It’s all about the experience, not the info.

“If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind,
give it some more thought.”      – Dennis Roch

Lately I’ve been writing about something I call Events 2.0, which is a nod to the term Web 2.0.  By that I mean events that go beyond just a passive TV-style experience and build in not only audience participation, but also make it possible for every participant to contribute to the experience and, ultimately, the value everyone takes with them when they leave.  That can take a lot of forms, depending on the type of event.  But if we’re talking about meetings or conferences, here are two fundamental principles for improving the impact of any meeting: 

1)  Minimize The Presentation Time. Get on, get to the point, and get off!
2)  Ramp Up The Interactive Time.  Spend at least half of the time facilitating interaction among participants, rather than just telling them stuff.

If a one-way information dump is needed, that can be accomplished a lot more efficiently through other means besides meetings.  Send out an e-newsletter.  Record a YouTube video. Distribute an old-fashioned memo.  Include background info in the event program.  Get yourself a bullhorn.  Those are all effective and reliable ways to distribute information to lots of people.

The whole point of bringing people together is to give them the opportunity to experience something that wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t shared with others, in the physical (or online) environment you’ve created for them.  And ideally, that will include interactions between the participants, whether it’s just swapping ideas, collaborating on a project or sharing a group physical activity–or even better, all three.  It doesn’t matter what scale of meeting we’re talking about: 6 people around a boardroom table or 3,000 people in a general session at the convention center. Same rules apply.

I get some pushback on this when I’m in a position to determine how much time a presenter will be given to show their stuff.  It might be a professional who is used to doing 45-minute stand-ups and I’m asking them to limit their presentation to 10 minutes.  Their first reaction is that they couldn’t possibly cover their topic with any depth; they would only be able to give it “lip service”.  (I’ve learned that lip service, if done well, can actually be pretty powerful.)   I see the same thing with groups of my students preparing presentations of their semester projects and, when I tell the four of them that they will have 12 minutes to present, they sometimes protest with, “We can’t possibly present our whole project in that much time!”   And you know what?  They’re right.  But there’s always enough time to present what’s most important.

The hard part?  Figuring out what the most important points are and finding a way to get them across in a compelling manner.  You might only be able to impress 1 or 2 or maybe 3 significant takeaways on your audience.  But that’s okay…as long as those few lessons will be lasting and useful.  If they only remember, accomplish, or learn how to do one thing when your time together is over, what do you want it to be?  If you’re not clear on that, you’re probably not designing the experience for maximum impact and ROI, or Return On Involvement

Of course, there are a lot of people working or experimenting with creative approaches to these challenges, and some of them have actually been doing it for a long time.  Next time out, I’ll give you a great list of examples of event techniques that are getting better and better at this.  In the meantime, make sure you’re getting right  to the point!  Your attendees—or better yet, “participants”—will thank you for it.  (And they’ll also get a lot more out of it.)

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