5 Ways to Design a Great Effing Meeting

5 Ways to Design a Great Effing Meeting

Neil Stevenson
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Our quest: to invent an un-boring meeting. My colleague Michael Hendrix (above, immersed in one experiment—a bubble-bath-based brainstorm) and I were preparing a conference session about the importance of putting yourself in a creative mindset. But the way we were delivering it—two dudes standing at the front of a room with a PowerPoint deck—was about as inspiring as the DMV. We needed the audience to experience the thing we wanted to teach.

With slogans like this being passed around, attendees had high expectations.

We thought about the physical context: If looking at a screen put viewers into a mode of judgment, what environment might lead them into a state of openness and wonder? After a few false starts—and ruling out marijuana—we settled on a campfire. Everyone has experienced the magnetism of a flickering flame and its power to open you up to a good story.

Burning wood was going to be a challenge indoors. But then another part of our talk occurred to us, in which we identify iPhone addiction as a scourge that prevents people from engaging in creative daydreaming. What if we took away the audience's phones and used them to stoke up the flames rather than dowse them?

You could look at your phone during this meeting, but only if it was on fire.

Here’s how the experience played out. We gathered everyone in a conventional classroom setting and ran them through a calendar review exercise (“Look at your last week and count the hours of creative imagination”). Then we shared some recent brain science studies that point to the power of daydreaming to cultivate creativity. Diving deep into the intricacies of neuroanatomy, we could tell we were losing people.

Just before everyone fell asleep, we herded them through a back door to another part of the building. Here, in dimmed light, we had each person load a YouTube video of a campfire and set it on top of a foam-core structure made by our designers in the Chicago office. Soon we had a raging digital bonfire of iPhones, with additional sound effects from having our audience gently crinkle Post-It notes in their hands.

No campfire would be complete without taking turns strumming a guitar and telling stories of things we’d done to rediscover our creativity, so that's exactly what we did. The previously restless audience sat on the floor, gazing at the virtual fire, curious and relaxed.

Look at your last week's calendar and count the hours of creative imagination.
Look how engaged these people are. All without alcohol, drugs, or even a chair to sit on.

We turned the floor over to the attendees. What strategies did they use in their own practice?

One colleague shared a story of hanging a lamp above his desk to serve as a beacon. When the lamp was on, it let others in the studio know he was available to talk. Another shared her technique of running away from distractions—literally, on foot—until her head was clear. A third announced he would try to change his mindset by drawing for a few minutes each morning when he got out of bed. As the session ended, we asked everyone to write down something they would try in the future to spark their own creativity. Commitments were made and notes were tossed into “flames” as attendees drifted away, dreaming of a new way to work.

In sum, here are 5 ways to design a non-boring meeting:

  1. Start conventionally, then lead attendees to an unknown frontier
  2. Confiscate phones
  3. Commit to a gimmick so they don't complain that you've taken their phones
  4. Play music
  5. Ask people to share personal stories

*Only one iPhone was lost during the making of this session… but seriously, who took it?

A midair meeting at the same conference. Interesting conceptual twist, to be sure. But not quite as comfy (or productive) as our campfire.

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Neil Stevenson
Neil Stevenson is on a mission to understand creativity and find new ways to enable and encourage it in others. He's particularly interested in how the slowly-evolving human brain interacts with the rapidly-changing tech environment we live in, and the strange and wonderful new behaviors that emerge as a result.
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