Originally published: Oct 10, 2012
Running an epically productive meeting requires a lot of stars and planets to align. Attendees need to be informed and prepared to discuss difficult issues and take risks. Facilitation and structured protocols are design imperatives. But some of the most important things I’ve learned about running stellar meetings I learned from being a teacher.
My first semester teaching web design was Fall 2005 in the University of Baltimore’s M.F.A. program in Integrated Design. It was a darker time in both professional web design and the higher education curricula that supported it. Browser software makers were still competing in ways that hamstrung their users, and the teaching materials I inherited were sorely out-of-date. The course I was teaching needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, but that wasn’t my biggest challenge. That real challenge was overcoming my fear of getting in front of a group of people and running my mouth in a productive manner for three hours each week. I was eager to share everything I knew about web design and coding, but I had no idea how to structure what I knew into a learning experience that would move information efficiently and enjoyably.
So I did what anyone would do in that situation: I asked a teaching expert. I found one with 30 years of experience teaching kids, adults, and teachers, both hands-on in the classroom and as an educational consultant. She personally mentored the 2006 National Teacher of the Year award winner; she lived, breathed, and ate teaching a minimum of 10 hours a day, seven days a week. If she hadn’t also been my mom, I imagine she might have been too busy to speak with me.
“Mom, I’m about to teach a class and I don’t know anything about teaching. Teach me how to teach.”
My mother taught me four simple, easy-to-remember guidelines about how to convey information that I still use in every classroom I teach, every meeting presentation I make, and every workshop I run.
1. People can only remember about seven concepts at a time.
A college lecture and a business meeting are similar in that they are both mechanisms for conveying structured information. It’s also common that in both situations, not everyone in the room is equally prepared (or, unfortunately, sometimes even inclined) to receive that information. But when running either, your job is to help them retain as much as possible so that the group can reach it’s intended goal, be it learning how to make a website or making a critical business decision that affects your product. People in classrooms and in meetings are always coming to the table with either too little, too much, or just the right amount of prior knowledge. By dividing up key concepts in groups of seven items, give or take a few, you create a manageable cognitive load for everyone’s short term memory, regardless of that variation in prior knowledge.
We’ve all been in that meeting where the presenter boldly states “I will demonstrate my position is valid with the following fifteen points.” It’s impossible to remember that much at once, much less apply that knowledge. Just try going to the grocery store without a grocery list and see what you forget. Shoot for around seven concepts at a time when you are making a presentation in a meeting, and you’ll reduce those awkward moments where attendees need to be reminded of previous points, or tune out as a result of being overloaded.
2. Review your previous seven concepts before moving to the next ones.
Complex ideas cannot, and in many cases should not, be boiled down to only five concepts. Edward Tufte’s critique of PowerPoint demonstrates that conceptual simplification can weaken verbal reasoning and lead to flawed analysis that can have devastating repercussions, depending on the seriousness of the task at hand. But we use meetings to make serious business decisions every day, and in many cases those decisions are made based on what can be successfully conveyed in the allotted time.
In order to convey more complex (or just more) information in a structure that people can mentally manage and apply, there must be stopping points in the meeting where the team reviews ideas that have been covered so far. It seems obvious, but how many times have you heard something like “We’ve got a lot to get through today, so let’s dive right in,” and then sat through a machine-gun rapid fire of too many ideas in too little time? Stopping to review allows the brain to assess the relative importance of groups of concepts against what you’ve previously covered, and develop one of the most critical aspects of learning: understanding and applying context. Breaking things into manageable chunks of seven items, then reviewing regularly, you provide a structure that will allow people to start applying context on their own.
3. If people sit too long, they will stop listening to you.
Of all the dangers we face in the workplace, who would have guessed that our own chairs are some of the most lethal? In addition to being hazardous to your health, sitting and listening for too long is also hazardous to the retention of information.
Any college professor will tell you that conventional wisdom and several academic sources agree that attention wanes after the first 10 to 15 minutes of a classroom lecture. However, in 2007 Wilson and Korn set out to evaluate the accuracy of that convention by taking a hard look at the scientific methodology behind it. They found that, among other things, there is not a correlation between what students retain and how many notes they take, which was the measure of retention in previous studies. An additional, more recent eye-tracking study by David Rosengrant found that there is a correlation between how attentive students are, and where they sit in a room relative to the content being presented.
How does this affect a meeting? When presenting in a meeting, your goal is identical to a professor lecturing a classroom: getting a group of people to retain as much information as possible, and then apply it in some fashion. In order to maximize that retention, you must be cognizant of dynamics that affect it: how long people are sitting, where people are sitting in relationship to you and your content. Don’t forget to take regular breaks during longer meetings, and don’t be afraid to move people around during a meeting to help them engage with your content from a different perspective, literally.
4. People learn better by discussing and doing.
The most classic and oft-quoted statistic regarding learning and information retention is that we retain, on average,
This has obvious applications for how you design learning experiences and meetings. Immediately after hearing and seeing a series of concepts, provide opportunities for people to engage in discussion and experiment with what they’ve learned. People love a good workshop because it integrates learning across multiple channels, including hearing, seeing, and doing. For this reason, meeting structures like breakout groups, facilitation with sketching, and participatory exercises like those found in business meeting games are more effective at moving ideas into brains by design. They’re more fun and engaging because they work better, and because they work better, they are more fun.
The next time you’re confronted with building a difficult meeting agenda I hope you’ll find value in a teacher’s insights into building better learning experiences. By chunking information for short term memory, providing regular chances for review, being creative about how long and where people sit, and integrating active learning, I’ve found tremendous gains in productivity and trust during business meetings.
Kevin is an independent UX consultant, writer, and speaker whose career accolades include redesigns for Harvard, The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Zappos. He's also giving a full day workshop at the User Interface 18 Conference on leading super productive meetings.
Do you have specific guidelines you follow when presenting information? What are they? Share your techniques with us on our blog.
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