Not every meeting has to revolve around words of wisdom delivered from a keynote speaker behind a podium at the front of a room. Sue Wigston, chief operating officer of Eagle’s Flight, an experiential learning consultancy, says it is time for something new to keep gatherings relevant.

“Meetings have included keynote speakers for the last 20 years, let’s try something new to better engage today’s audiences,” Wigston says. “In a world where people have 8 seconds of attention span, planners need to find something more dynamic to keep people interested. That means more active participating and less passive listening.”

Engagement can take many forms.

Do, Learn, Lead

Experiential learning is growing in popularity because it speaks to how people’s brains are wired. Instead of following along with a speaker outlining a lesson, participants complete projects, often as groups. “Doing creates understanding,” Wigston says. “It can lead to the ‘what’, ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ questions that can improve communication and grow leadership skills.”

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Doing Good

Another emerging trend is including corporate social responsibility programs in gatherings. Philanthropic projects, such as building backpacks for at-risk children, can add a warm glow to the event. As a bonus, doing things together builds comradery and a shared sense of purpose that can follow a team back to the office.

Do Tell

Off-site meetings can be a productive place to elicit feedback from employees about sensitive issues such as culture and goals. Surveys administered in a neutral environment or questions asked as part of an unrelated exercise can lead to honest feedback. “People feel safer in a game structure than in the workplace talking about interpersonal dynamics,” says Wigston. Discussions can build on a common language and experience that carries on after the event photos have been shared.

These sorts of interactive events can be as simple or as elaborate as you let them be. Wigston recalls one extravaganza that included trucking in enough sand to cover the entire meeting room floor, imported palm trees and camels. “They wanted people to say ‘wow’ and it worked,” she recalls. Some meetings can be pulled off with almost no money out-of-pocket. The key, she says, is to ask a few simple questions first.

Four Key Questions

  1. What is the desired outcome? Is this a fun outing to build camaraderie or are you looking for behavior-changing opportunities? The answer to that can impact the results of the next few questions.
  2. What is the theme? This relates back to the goals and can help focus the planning while generating fun ideas.
  3. What is the budget? Determine the amount of money you want to spend on the extras once the main activity is in place. Is this a no frills event or an elaborately staged production?
  4. Do you have the resources yourself to plan or if you should outsource some of the work? The answer to question number three, along with your experience, size of team and workload, could determine the answer to this question.

Your responses may lead you back to a podium, but considering alternatives might also take your events in a new, engaging direction.