20 July 1997
HOW TO RUN BETTER MEETINGS, GROUPS, CLUBS AND
Have you ever had the experience of having something important
to say but no opportunity to say it? How easy or hard is it for you to
really hear and respond to what someone else is saying while
you're sitting there seething with your own thwarted urgent
--Same for your participants. Every time you've done your job as chair
ore moderator so well that your people have gotten interested and
involved, you inflict that perception-inhibiting frustration on your
brighter members and in direct proportion to the degree that each has
something important to contribute!!!!!
--Same for your students! Every time you've done your job so
well that your lecture starts to get interesting, you inflict that
perception-inhibiting frustration on your brighter students and on your
In a corporation where time is money, how much time is wasted in
board and staff meetings, either in lengthy discourse by the chair or CEO
while expensive specialists and executives sit mute, or in
pre-orchestrated speech presentations whose "discussion" outcome was
determined long since, or in a chaos ended only when the chair or CEO goes
out and either does things himself or by dictate, dismissing 99% of all
that was said at the meeting? Or where everyone is saying only what the
chair or CEO wanted to hear, providing no meaningful feedback or
--So why the heck HAVE such a meeting? IS there a way to make
meetings contribute positively and meaningfully to our affairs?
Here is how to get the best out of your group or staff, instead of
settling for the lowest common denominator of performance. Here, then,
follow in summary a very few, very simple provisions through which you can
build interest, sustain tight topical focus while fostering dynamic
expressive interaction, wonderfully integrating and developing your
group's various perceptions and perceivers. You will find that you can
maintain a stronger, better topical focus with these interactive
group-managing techniques than you can sustain now in solo lecture! This
is not loose soft-minded stuff about letting employees or students or
members express themselves: this is highly efficient group, boardroom
or classroom MANAGEMENT. You've been getting your group's seemingly
inevitable idiocy: now, through "Dynamic Format," discover and focus your
people's (your people's!!!) very real genius.
Dynamic Format fits comfortably with and can benefit most other group
methods and procedures. It can turn miraculously productive, all kinds of
group meeting from classroom (and even faculty meetings!!!!!) to board
room to sales meeting to Town Hall and civic clubs. --Be first in
your block to try it out!!
Dynamic Format will enable you to easily get the members of your group
actively, richly exploring, debating, investigating, and relating to
any topic or issue, yet staying far better focussed than can the
most forceful lecture or most rigorous use of Robert's Rules. Dynamic
Format helps your participants to participate without getting in each
other's way or in your way. Dynamic Format is a set of very simple
managing techniques to conduct the transaction of information
and/or decision with maximum sensitivity and breadth of consideration and
perception quickly, crisply, in depth but efficiently. (Doesn't sound like
meetings you've been in before, does it? We've all heard the old joke
about an hippopotamus being an animal designed by committee, meaning that
group outcomes normally are a joke or come out close to being the lowest
common denominator. Getting genius from such a group?!?
Unthinkable! --But within a few paragraphs you'll be seeing how to easily
The simple "house rules" of Dynamic Format enable your people to
be interactive, thoughtful, perceptive, expressive, comprehensive, and yet
to maintain a tight, clear progressing focus on your topic. Dynamic
Format allows a group to move deftly, crisply and quickly, without
heavy-handed directing and without having to wander through mishmash.
Dynamic Format Instructions:
Here is how to bring about these and other desirable effects from
a group meeting---
FIRST: Have any group of more than 5-6 participants to subdivide
at the start of your session, so each is already in place with his or her
partner(s) on a stand-by basis. That will let you move swiftly and
smoothly and deftly in and out of the interactive mode when you come to
the point in your session where you want to use it. Have your people stay
oriented with their partner(s) even while functioning in your larger
(plenary) group. This way, when you want to switch modes, neither
logistics nor shuffle is required. You are free to move crisply between
levels of interaction as well as from step to step, or into interaction
and crisply back to formal lecture or other formal process.
Your teams can be pairs, or threes, or you can have "buzz groups"
consisting of as many as 5-6 participants, depending upon what you want to
do with them. Each participant in a pair has far more "air time" in which
to examine and describe what she perceives, in the context of the defined
topic or question. The larger your sub-divided groups, the more chance
that someone in each will catch on to what you want and model how it is
done. The more difficult your question or task, therefore, the larger you
want your sub-groups up to a maximum of six, to ensure that someone there
in each group will be able to comprehend and get things moving as you
want. Most of the time, though, to get the maximum of Socratic benefit,/
the maximum of perception-developing "air time" for each, work your
participants in pairs. You can even have your participants, as this writer
has often done with his participants in his workshops and classes and
demonstrations, orient in pairs within larger sub-groups of 4 to 6
SECOND: From the very start of such a session, set up at least
some of the following "Core Agreements" or "house rules for this session,"
to make it easy for you to swiftly and gently guide and focus or refocus
your people into, through, and out of highly
involved, highly interactive "buzz-sessions."
- A. Waterglass Rules. The waterglass, ashtray or chime which
can be heard easily when everyone is talking at the same time -- so your
voice won't have to compete with all the other voices--
- 1. Three 'bings' = Instant Pause in Talking. Rule: the
moment you hear 3 'bings," pause in talking not only in mid-sentence
but in mid-word so that you and others can hear the next
topical question or step of instruction. The game: to not be
the last one caught talking after the third bing. (Keep the whole
- Over the many years since I started demonstrating this process in
classes and conferences, I've seen many conference presenters adapt
this part of the process to use with light switches, drums, pianos,
party horns, even in one instance a trumpet! Make the
sensory-attention-catching device pleasant and agreeable, however.
This works by far the best if you keep your participants in good
- 2. One 'bing' = Half-Minute's Notice, before
the 3-binger. Rule: keep on doing what you are presently doing but be
ready a half-minute after this one 'bing' to pause in talking,
to hear the next instruction. Because the chime is so different a
sound from human voices, it is heard easily through the buzz-murmur.
You don't have to be strident: even a very light chime will carry
through and can be made to sound quite pleasant.
- 3. Hand-Up = Instant Talk-Pause + Hand-Up, this simple
device often used by the Scouts. This is best for very large groups,
of one hundred or more members. Rule: the instant you notice either
the leader's hand go up or other people's hands going up, pause
instantly in your talking and get your own hand up! (On-off flicks of
the room lighting can serve the same purpose, especially in starting
groups that have not yet previously been introduced to these house
- B. RELEVANCY CHALLENGE. Make a triangle of your thumbs and
fore-fingers. Sight at the speaker through that triangle. Rule: on that
instant, whoever is speaking must
- * Demonstrate how his/her remarks relate to the topic; or
- * return to the topic; or
- * yield the floor. Instantly.
- How many times have you been reluctant to shut off someone's story
but had to stand there bleeding internally while s/he got further and
further off the subject and broke your hard-built context?!?
- You can see how, with just a little simple pre-arrangement, major
group dynamics can be set in motion or stopped, directed, focussed. You
can orchestrate these effects to produce a maximum in terms of
meeting-goal, in terms of learning, in terms of creative production, in
terms of arriving at decision and consensus.
- Simple arrangement of easily used signals as standing rules or
agreements allows you to orchestrate a wide range of group behaviors
virtually without effort or delay. On the same principle, from time to
time you may want to set up these special-occasion rules for particular
- C. Support-First Rule. Used to obtain creative production,
fresh ideas and perceptions, innovations, and answers to questions or
issues whose outcome is not narrowly predetermined. To get more and
better ideas contributed, the first response to the contributing of an
idea should be a positive reinforcement. However off-the-wall an idea or
input may seem at first, the first response to it must be some
form of meaningful, content-related support! After that
meaningful first support, then it's o.k. to carve that weird
notion into corned beef hash. --So long as the support came first. Every
major system of creativity training or creative problem solving now has
some form of this rule. To use it effectively, simply put it in this
- 1. Any time you observe an idea not getting
supported first, whether yours or someone else's, clasp your hands
together over your head for a second or so while looking wistfully
upward, then go on.
- 2. Don't use this support-first rule where you don't want richly
expansive creativity, multiple considerations, and enthusiastic
participant expression. In much of schooling, for example, information
is arranged to have only one right answer and creativity might be in
the way of the leader's or teacher's immediate objectives. To avoid
creativity being obstructive, have your audience know when this rule
is in effect and when it is not.
- 3. Note: the best ideas usually are those which were greeted first
with a burst of laughter. You may wish to give those laugh-burst ideas
special attention. In any case, make sure that the first response to
whatever input positively reinforces that act of creating and
contributing ideas and fresh perceptions. Win your way past the usual
reflexive self-censorings that stifle creative thought and
- D. 3-Sentence Limit. (Or 4, or 2, or simply a 1-minute limit
per input, depending upon the size of group and the nature of the
process you are working.) Once this rule is invoked. any time you notice
someone going beyond the set limit, simply lean forward with hands
clasped in front of you.
- E. Make Record of the Run-Pasts! This is an additional way to
correct the main frustration about any group discussion or process which
gets interesting enough to provoke a lot of desire to participate/ Rule:
Anything you notice that seems worthy of mention, but which the group
process (or lecturer!) has stampeded past: make a written
note or record of it, immediately! So reinforce YOUR OWN perceiving
of overlooked aspects, not merely just that particular point! (--And
clear the traffic jam in your perceptions between what you have to say
and giving more attention to what others are saying now! --And if others
also follow this Record Run-Pasts Rule, your inputs when you
do get to make them will receive attention.
Sometimes: there is a chance before the end to pick some of
these points back up and consider them. But the main purpose of this rule
is to reinforce your own perceptiveness and integrity of view. Any
time you notice someone else seething with an overrun point,
point to his or her notepad and waggle pen or pencil at it.
Boardroom, Clubhouse, City Hall:
Note that Robert's Rules of Order were designed to shut
down communications within a group so that business can be transacted.
The too-typical result leads to all those tired old outcomes about which
we all make all those tired old jokes. Dynamic Format, instead,
elicits focussed communications in a way that causes the business
transacted to reflect the highest considerations and actual genius of the
--Yes, your group! Working this format, you have some very
pleasant surprises coming to you.
Board meetings, annual business meetings of societies, faculty or staff
meetings, planning groups, task forces, town meetings, political meetings,
etc., all are appropriate for this set of focussing strategies. This form
of participant involvement, fostering expression from each participant's
own perceptions while sustaining a tight topical focus, yields results far
superior to those of the methods historically or currently in general use.
Any corporation, society, committee, task force or staff can immediately,
easily and sharply improve its performance and product, and greatly reduce
the time, attention and cost required to arrive at objectives.
Aside: A Lecture to Teachers---
The lecture method was invented for the situation, back in the Dark
Ages before printing, when only one copy of some book would be at the
university. There the most qualified person would both read aloud from
that book to the class, and comment or lecture based upon it, for the
benefit of all the students who otherwise had no access to that book and
its contents. A few of the relevant circumstances have changed since then!
Some churches and most schools have continued the practice, though. All
most classrooms need to become a religious service is a hymn or so! (The
prayers can be said secretly! --if many of our children have a prayer of
making it through intact!)
Even if you are wedded to the lecture method and have never "buzzed a
group" in your life, you can experiment just a little. Identify the key
point you've just been trying to make in your lecture, and instruct your
students to "turn to your partner(s) (or "the person next to you" if
you've not pre-set the class) and, between you, let's see which pair of
you can come up with the best statement of this issue" (or the best
answer...) Or, turn your main point into a question and ask that
question. (Indeed, any question you would ordinarily ask rhetorically can
be usefully handled in this manner.)
- * Get them started. (By look or persuasion, make sure all are
- * Allow 3-4 minutes.
- * 'Bing' and state the half-minute's notice, or hold up with the
'bing' a sign that says, "KEEP GOING - BUT IN A HALF MINUTE BE READY FOR
THE NEXT STEP"
- * Gently or moderately THREE-bing your waterglass, cup or
ashtray to end or pause the "buzz."
- * Sound out (and give at least a little somewhat positive
reinforcement to) each of a few pairs' wording of the issue (or answer).
If possible, hear what they actually are saying instead of what you
expect to hear, but keep orienting toward your intended insight.
Reinforce from there the point you were making, and move on.
Now, that wasn't too hard, was it? --And easier to do next time.
Courage, there, for lo you can soon be effortlessly moving your students
in and out of interactive process, and through different levels of
process, with amazingly well-focussed discussions, like a pro. --Like a
master conductor directing his well-trained orchestra! Yes,
You can manage easily your students, even your students, into
ever more excellent topical focus and intensity and in-depth
Consider: of what value even the most eloquent lecture, or cleverest
workbook, if little is learned from it? What matters is what is learned,
not what is taught. Dynamic Format lets you have it both ways.
Whether board room, club room, Sunday school, task force, public
committee, or classroom: your only possible drawback to doing this is that
you might actually achieve some of your stated objectives, and then
where'd you be???
If you are shy about it, test out these rules one step at a time until
you feel them working for you, and you see and are pleased with the