By Dianna Booher
The vice president had scheduled me for the speech on life balance for 70 executives. “In the last three years, we’ve had a dynamic increase in the number of divorces among these executives,” he said. “They’re working 14 to 16-hour days with lots of travel and it’s killing their families. We need help.” My task was to create a trust level in a short two-hour session that allowed those executives to share what was creating stress in their lives and offer solutions that had worked for them. As a closing activity, I asked them to break into groups of three, away from others who could overhear. Their assignment was to express those things that genuinely created meaning in their life. The emotional release and connection among the group was palpable.
By contrast, during a medical conference, again on life balance, my task was to create an immediate intimacy so that the medical doctors could share their personal concerns. The workshop never reached that emotional level (although individuals did speak to me at breaks about gut-level issues). Why? The room dynamics. I did not have the liberty to alter the theatre-style room set. Plus, the traffic – session floaters, caterers, and convention staff – coming in and out in the back of the room was not only distracting but prevented people from truly opening up.
When your job, in whole or in part, is to help your speaker create an emotional connection, keep in mind that the room setup plays a key role. Here’s how to make the room help – not hinder – your efforts:
Make your meeting room attractive. Consider posting topic-related wall posters, puzzles, gadgets, or bulletin boards strategically around the room, working with your speaker. Not only will they generate downtime conversation that further enhances interaction, such conversation centers or objects can provide nice-to-know information that your speaker may not have time to cover in the formal part of your session.
Keep a sharp eye out for clutter: extra chairs stacked in a corner, overflowing trash cans, rickety easels or screens, piles of materials left over from a previous session. Physical clutter often leads to mental clutter. And ask facility staff to make it a habit to periodically remove food wrappers, cups, and other items left behind by attendees.
To keep people in, let them out from time to time. Provide frequent breaks so they can leave the room and return refreshed. During times of chit chat that so often develop just before or after a break, encourage the individual or the group who’s talking to the speaker to continue their conversation in the hallway or elsewhere. Help them associate the room with stimulating learning activities rather than simply a place to gather.
Always select a room large enough to accommodate your purpose – and nothing larger. When you have 30 people in a room that seats 300, participants start to feel small and insignificant. They become passive. And, of course, a speaker who is forced to lead such a session will find it much more difficult to build intimacy with a group scattered from one end of the room to another.
Dianna Booher, CSP, CPAE, is CEO of Booher Consultants, a communication training firm offering programs in oral, written, and interpersonal communication (resolving conflict, listening, meetings, customer service communication). She is also the author of more than 40 books including her latest, The Voice of Authority: 10 Communication Strategies Every Leader Needs to Know, Communicate with Confidence!, and Speak with Confidence! (all three by McGraw-Hill).