Consider the language we use to name the elements of most large meetings:

  • Dignitaries on a podium (raised platform) in the front of an auditorium
  • Plenary sessions that everyone is expected to attend
  • Agendas packed with speakers

“Podium, ” “auditorium, ” “plenary,” and “agenda” are words with Latin roots that come to us from the European academic and religious institutions of the late Middle Ages.

Embedded in these ancient words and practices is a hierarchical, one-way communication model that no long serves the needs of contemporary organizations. In today´s world there is no justification for bringing people together, subjecting them to lectures from the front of the room and then expecting learning or change to take place.

Nevertheless, otherwise intelligent people, charged with the responsibility of organizing large face-to-face meetings, still default to the medieval model.

To transform today´s meetings and conferences we need to focus less attention on the podium in the front of the room and think seriously about the sea of people seated in the audience. In fact, we must stop thinking of them as “audience” (those who listen) and consider ways to convert them into active participants in the discussion.

We need to stop accepting a 10-minute question and answer session at the end of a long speech as a substitute for meaningful interaction with speakers and their ideas.

We must recognize that a standard panel discussion only engages the panelists, relegating everyone else to the category of passive listeners.

We need to question the usefulness of meeting in a space where the chairs are bolted to the floor, making it impossible to create small groups.

We should explore ways to integrate technologies such as keyboards and tablets into the proceedings, using them to generate ideas or document results.

We should look carefully at highly interactive methods such as World Café and Open Space as ways to stimulate meaningful conversations and dynamic interactions among those present.

With a deep bow of respect to the past, we need to bring our meeting practices into the 21st century.