by Courtney Spero

PCMA’s Convene Magazine published an article in their CMP Series about innovative meeting formats. And one of those formats really caught my attention – The Long Table.

First, read the excerpt from the article, and then I’ll explain why I think many meetings can learn from this Dinner Party idea.

Pull Up a Chair

The long-table format is part dinner party, part public discourse, and part unscripted theater, with the lines blurred between audience and speaker. The room is staged with a long table, of course, set with many seats and microphones, as if a panel is going to address the audience — except the panel is made up of only a few official speakers… “Imagine the very best dinner party you’ve ever been to,” said [Marc] Pomerleau, who uses the format for topics that lend themselves to a vibrant exchange of wide-ranging opinion. “You have the lighting, the wine, the conversation, the energy of people coming and going in free-flowing discussion.”

Some speakers might be concerned about giving up the ability to manage the material. “If I as the speaker relinquish control, I’m showing respect that there are a lot of smart people in the audience who have something to say, and I might not like all of it, but I’m okay with that,” Pomerleau said. 

“If you’ve created the goal and inspirational value of the event properly, everyone’s minds will be pointed in the same direction and you have trust, and a space opens up where magical things can happen.” But it won’t if the event is overly scripted and controlled. “Millennial audiences can smell a lack of authenticity a million miles away,” Pomerleau said, “and will avoid it like the plague.”

The long-table format comes with a few caveats. If you have a large group, you’ll want to break into several sections. The topic should be something the audience has a vested interest in. And the makeup of the group should be such that no one is intimidated to speak. “If you have people who are going to be shy or reserved or worried about getting up and saying something they shouldn’t in front of their boss, that model wouldn’t work,” Pomerleau said.

PCMA Convene

Intrigued? Sounds interesting, right? As mentioned in the excerpt, “Imagine the very best dinner party you’ve ever been to.” You were likely extremely engaged and even walked away feeling enlightened from the discussion you participated in or listened to. The long table format can’t work for every meeting, but here are five ways a meeting could be more like a dinner party.

1. Meetings Should be Themed

Dinner parties are usually themed. From Sushi and Mexican to BBQ’s and Masquerades, the possibilities are endless. The drinks complement the food and the décor is unmistakable. Meetings should exude the same vigor; only the themes should be more strategic. The theme should be a powerful, motivating message, a common goal that is thread through every piece of communication and by every speaker. The environment, like at a dinner party, should complement the theme as well: the room set up, the background music, and food and beverage displays should all add something to the experience.

2. Meetings Should be Fun

If there’s a fear of silence, one way to break it could be the introduction of games. Charades, Pictionary, and Trivia do a great job of getting everyone involved and breaking the ice. I didn’t go to parties in college without my Catch Phrase game. Plus, who doesn’t like having fun?  Whoever decided that B2B meetings and conferences needed to be buttoned- up and monotonous was wrong. Skift reported that some CMO’s are allocating up to 50% of their budget to live experiences to engage consumers. Meeting participants are YOUR consumers and they need to be entertained and engaged too.

If you’re not fearful of silence, perhaps you’d be brave enough to host a silent dinner – that right, where no one speaks. Tim Leberecht shared his experience at a silent dinner and summed it up this way:

As a friend of mine likes to say, “The best things in life happen around a table.” I’d like to add: the best moments in life are silent. Maybe that’s why I liked everybody at the silent dinner, for the first time at a dinner table at all. In fact, it was more than just liking, it was a strange sensation of tenderness, of fundamental mutual agreement. “This is how it’s supposed to be. This is how we are supposed to be,” told me a dinner guest afterward. And indeed, it felt like falling in love — with everything. Days after the dinner I couldn’t help talking about it, with my mind desperately trying to catch up with my heart.”

 3. Meetings Should Foster Conversation

It’s ironic how a silent dinner ended up sparking conversation for Tim and the other dinner guests, but it’s not unlike other dinner parties where the conversation continues well beyond the 90 minutes.

Creating connections and networking is one of the top reasons people attend meetings. You just never know who you’ll meet; maybe a potential client or future employer. A simple shared experience, like attending a meeting or event, can lead to an amazing partnership that you can’t even see yet.

Interesting speakers and topics is another reason people attend meetings. But they don’t come to just listen. Meeting participants want to do just that – participate. They want to be able to take what they heard from speakers and peers and apply it to their work and life.

Another important aspect of conversation is problem-solving.  My husband and I try to sit down as often as possible for dinner together and during this time we discuss our challenges. Maybe it’s something at work, with friends or family, or with each other – but it’s a great time to brainstorm solutions to tackle those challenges.

4. Meetings Should Promote Diversity

A profile by Fast Company about the movie Beatriz at Dinner shows that not every dinner party is rosy and fun. “Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a homeopathic healer whose sensitivity and empathy toward the world around her runs in direct conflict with the night’s guest of honor Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a real estate tycoon whose casual racism is just a base coat to his brash, 1% viewpoint of the world.

“Our goal with Beatriz was to make a story of our very divided culture having a chance to talk and what that would look like,” [director Miguel] Arteta says. “We’ve all been trapped at a dinner party with someone we disagree with. In a way, it’s a fantasy of what it would be like for two people who would never have a chance to debate each other, to debate each other.”

While this example may be extreme, you are likely not going to agree with what everyone says at a dinner party, but opposing points and diverse perspectives can be refreshing and informational to the open-minded.

5. Meetings Should Offer Complementary Technology

Just like at a dinner party, technology should be complementary to the conversation. No one enjoys sitting across someone more engrossed in their phone than in what you have to say. Arguably the only reason to use technology at the dinner table would be to settle a dispute on facts. TGFG (Thank God for Google.) A lot of meeting technology is subtle and helps to enhance your experience, i.e. the right number of microphones and speakers. As simple as an open discussion sounds, the acoustics of the room and proper audio/visual equipment, if required, will make or break the experience.

The next time you are planning a meeting, think of ways you can make it more intimate and conversational, like a great dinner party; if not the whole thing, then certain aspects of it. The most important piece of advice is to really understand your audience. If it’s a timid group that doesn’t enjoy speaking in front of people, this probably won’t work. By the same token, if there are people you know will steal the stage, it’s worth having some rules in place so the conversation doesn’t get too far off topic.

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