Boost your next meeting – get your participants engaged

Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

As a trainer, manager and facilitator, I have led my fair share of meetings. Some were wildly successful and others provided a tutorial on what not to do. I have discovered a few simple techniques to keep participants productive and engaged. As a result, goals are accomplished and people leave feeling the time spent was worthwhile.

To begin, there are some rules of adult interaction and learning you need to respect. First, more oxygen gets to the brain when a person is physically active. The goal is to keep people doing something physical every 10 minutes. Standing, stretching, writing and drawing are all good. For example, periodically I’ll ask my participants to give themselves or a neighbor a sitting ovation by making the letter O with their arms raised above their head.

Next, whoever is doing the most writing and talking is getting the most from the meeting. It should not be the facilitator. Structure activities so the leader is simply guiding discussion and the participants are doing the work. The following techniques are great examples of how to gather information from your meeting participants in an active learning environment.

Let’s say you have three questions you would like discussed by the group. As an example, you are a nurse manager in a hospital. The organization recently rolled out its new service standards and you want to follow up to see how they are being received by your team. You draft the questions as follows: How do you see the new service standards improving patient care and employee engagement? What do you see as the biggest obstacles to living the values? What do you need most from management and each other to make the values a way of life?

What happens next? In most boring meetings, the leader would ask the question and wait for a response. Some outspoken people would participate (and usually the same people for every question.) Others would remain silent or have side-bar conversations with their neighbors. Some would begin texting their friends to ask for input.

Let me offer a brain-friendly, active way to engage the meeting participants. Ask participants to count off one, two and three, not including you as the meeting leader. Smaller size groups will be working in pairs; others will be trios or small groups of four to five. Ask each group to go stand in a designated part of the meeting room and have a flipchart and markers available for each.

Next, number the three questions and ask the respective group with the same number to take the question. Give them three to five minutes to brainstorm their responses on the flipchart. Ask one person to remain with the chart so she can explain the comments. Next, ask the groups to rotate clockwise around the room to the next chart. The spokesperson will share the feedback and then ask for additional input from the gallery of participants. Allow this to proceed for three to five minutes.

Ask the groups to rotate again following the same process. When the participants return to their home chart, ask the spokesperson to review any additional input with the group. Then ask everyone to return to their original meeting seats.

Now, as the meeting facilitator, bring all three charts to the front of the room. Review each chart, clarifying and validating the feedback as accurate and complete.

Another fun information gathering technique is to have 4-x-6-inch colored, ruled Post-it notes distributed around the table. For those of you familiar with team problem-solving tools, this is a variation of an affinity diagram. Ask each person to take a post-it note pad and colored marker.

Divide the group into smaller teams of three to five people. Invite them to stand in different areas of the room. Ask one person on the each small team to collect the post-it notes and put them on the wall or easel. Have your question ready on a flip chart or slide. For example “What are the reasons why our on-time shipment performance has dropped 25 percent in the past month?”

Ask each person to write down a response they have to the question on a Post-it note. Remind them – only one idea per Post-it note. Ask them to say what they are writing aloud so other people on their small team do not duplicate the idea. After they write down their idea, they pass it to the collector and keep writing.

After three to five minutes, ask the team members to return to their meeting seats. Ask the collectors to bring all of the Post-it notes with them. Have two to three easel stands with flipchart paper divided into two-by-two grids at the front of the room.

Now, as the facilitator, ask each collector, one at a time, to hand you their stack of Post-it notes. Read the first Post-it note and place it in one of the two-by-two boxes on the flipchart. Read the next Post-it note and ask the group, “same or different?” as you refer to the note(s) already on the board. Keep repeating the process until all the Post-it notes are placed on the flipcharts. It is acceptable to create as many category boxes as necessary. Ask team members to help you create a label for each box on the chart.

Use these techniques and you will have more and better ideas from the group along with their commitment. Remember, weigh-in = buy-in!

Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at