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I’m a professional planner, facilitator, and educator. I plan and host meetings all of the time. So when my son was turning eleven during the pandemic, it was natural that I would help him plan his online birthday party.
“But a Birthday Party is not a meeting,” you might say. On the one hand you are right – a birthday party is not a BORING meeting. But a birthday party is a gathering – defined by Priya Parker as “the conscious bringing together of people for a reason” (The Art of Gathering, 2018). Meetings are gatherings, too, and they don’t have to be boring.
In fact, I argue that the effort I put into making this birthday party memorable is the same effort you should put into planning online meetings (absent the animal masks, or maybe not?).
So what does it mean to plan your meeting like you plan a birthday party?
Know WHY you are meeting
The purpose of a birthday party is to make someone feel special. To focus on them as the center of attention and create an experience that contributes to their happiness and honors their milestone. Other purposes may include bringing a group of friends together who don’t often see each other, and making sure all of the attendees feel welcome and part of the festivities.
In the case of my son’s pandemic virtual party, the purpose was to make him feel like he was connecting with his friends in a special way even though he couldn’t see them in person.
Why are you gathering? What is the WHY of your meeting?
As Priya Parker reminds us, “There are so many good reasons for coming together that we often don’t know precisely why we are doing so” (p. 1).
Think through your answer carefully. Notice that I did not say that the purpose of my son’s birthday party was to celebrate my son’s birthday. That would be quite circular and not very helpful.
The purpose of your staff meeting is not just to bring staff together. Think deeper. Is the purpose to check in on the status of group projects? It is to create an atmosphere in which staff learn to trust each other and count on each other for constructive feedback? Is it to deliver an important announcement or update?
Knowing why you are meeting is the first step to creating an agenda that actually achieves this purpose. Otherwise, you are bound to fall into old habits, boring agendas, and cookie cutter processes that may not fit your group’s needs.
Put your WHY in all of your meeting materials, designate how you are going to reach your why, talk about your why with participants, and create space in which the outcomes of the meeting will be explicitly addressed.
Think about how you want attendees to FEEL at your meeting
When I asked myself how I wanted the kids to FEEL at my son’s birthday party, included was huge. Online gatherings aren’t always the easiest venues in which to feel engaged and involved. We needed to make kids feel involved, so we dropped off special bags of goodies at their house that would help them to participate – a mask to wear when they logged on, personalized charades clues, and a cupcake.
I know, KUMBAYA and all that. But I truly want you to think about how you want attendees to feel when they are part of your meeting. If you want them to feel bored and obligated, plan your meeting the same old way. But if you want them to feel engaged and productive, you’ve got to think differently.
Let’s think, for example, of a teacher’s retreat for a school system. School is closed and teachers are coming together for professional development. They have no choice but to attend (it’s part of their contract). There is the distinct potential that many in that room could feel resentful (“oh boy, another mandatory training), distracted (“my time would be better spent planning for my classes), or downright resistant (“I do not want to be here and I am going to make that clear.”).
Your job as a meeting planner or host is to think about desired emotions that you could evoke in your attendees and figure out how to achieve those. Just like the birthday party, if you want everyone to FEEL welcome and happy to be there, you’re going to have to do something that actually evokes that emotion.
If you want teachers to feel appreciative, engaged, and like their time is being valued, then you are going to have to plan an agenda that actually evokes those feelings. Is your professional development topic one for which they have explicitly asked? Are you being extremely efficient with your agenda so that they can have some time in the afternoon to get to their planning (and are you being transparent about that)? Are you recognizing that some might disagree with your chosen topic and creating more productive ways for them to express their concerns rather than through passive aggressive resistance?
Thinking about the feelings you want to evoke in your participants may feel hokey at first. But you may be surprised at the result when you actually explicitly ask that question. It may cause you to look at your agenda differently, to re-examine how you usually do things, and to make changes for the better.
Don’t shy away from structured activities
In order to make it easy for kids to participate, we included 3 different games in my son’s online Zoom meeting. At first, my son rolled his eyes at me and said, “Mom, we can just hang out.” But the fact is, when we ran out of activities the group kind of sat and stared at each other and my son and his friends felt awkward. So we quickly identified a new activity and they lit up with engagement again.
It can be tempting to think, “We’re all adults, we know how to have a meeting.” But the truth is, we often don’t. Without a structured agenda, we risk so many pitfalls for meetings – getting off-track, only hearing the voices of a few, losing track of our purpose. Structured activities break up monotonous “always the same” meetings and create new ways to get things done.
As cheesy and over-planned as they may seem when you are thinking them through, structured activities ensure that everyone can participate and that goals are achieved. Don’t be afraid of the cheese. Even in a short meeting, integrating and “pair and share” to have individuals talk with one other about a topic can be a valuable tool for drumming up new ideas. So can small-group break-outs, structured brainstorm sessions, pro/con lists, and many other facilitative tools.
As an added bonus, these activities break up the monotony of boring meetings in which the same format is used over and over. I have had great results with break-out groups in online meetings, for example, as participants get a breath of fresh air talking to just 4 other people instead of a Zoom room full of 30.
Last but not least, it is ok for meetings to be fun!
Yes, the purpose of a birthday party is to have fun. You may think that a “fun” goal is irrelevant for a professional meeting. I think you’d be wrong. Why can’t professionals laugh a bit, get to know their colleagues, and have fun at a meeting? A relaxed atmosphere can break down barriers and help people get to know one an other, thereby creating a sense of comradery that will lead to more productive teams.
Go ahead, play a game, do something silly. As long as there is true purpose behind your plan, fun can be a legitimate part of the agenda.