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What happens, if you put a speaker on stage? Yes: he or she will speak! Participants will sit back and listen (at best); the speaker will talk … endlessly, sometimes.
But what would happen, if we would stop referring to them as ‘speakers’, and would from now on call them ‘experts’? That would open up an endless number of engaging and interactive options. And that is exactly why we – the moderators – don’t want speakers on stage. We want experts!

In our Workshop Interaction Design we take the average congres as a starting point: a line-up of speakers. And then we take our participants on an expedition, finding alternative formats for these speakers, in order to make each session more fun en more effective. And the great thing is: none of these formats take extra time or money. But they dó bring extra engagement between expert and participants. Here are some options:

Moderated interview
Instead of allowing the expert to talk, all by himself, get your moderator to interview him/her. This will ensure that the most important questions are answered, that the perspective & needs of the participants are met and that there will be interaction & engagement.

Once you take this step, there’s an number of options to involving the audience actively: having them prepare questions in groups, using eventech to find their most urgent challenges to talk about, etc.

Another form of moderated interviewing is the panel-conversation. And yes, I know: in many cases the panel is even deadlier then a speaker. But believe me: if well executed, a panel can be inspiring and energizing!

Participative interview
With the moderator interviewing him, the expert is still mostly in the lead. If you take it one step further, it will be the participants directly interviewing the expert, with the moderator only being there to streamline this proces.

A well-known format is the town-hall meeting or college tour: the expert is on stage, only to answer questions from the audience. If giving the initiative to the participants completely is too frightning (or if you need to make sure that a minimal amount of content is covered), let the moderator split the timeslot into a few clear chapters, allowing the experts to open up each of them with a 1-minute talk.

Another variation to this theme is the so-called campfire-session, fit for smaller groups: The expert and the participants sit in a small circle (as if sitting around a campfire), as equals. The experts is allowed a 1-2 minutes opening, but then it is over to the participants. The great thing about this format, is it’s intimacy. It allows participants to feel more free to talk to the expert and to each other.

I often use this one in the ‘dying moments’ (sometimes they are, almost literally) of a congres day, when often there’s less people in the room. Changing the seating to a campfire will bring new energy and engagement.

But, you might say, this only works with smaller groups and you have 300 delegates in the room. True, but think of this option: instead of having each speaker talk to 300 people, let each speaker do 6 campfires in a carroussel. This will bring the numbers down to 50 per session!

There’s a long list of TV-formats that include experts and that can be brought to stage with some minor adjustments. The great thing is, that participants will recognize the formats immediately and will be ‘into the story’ within seconds. But beware: every TV-format has it’s pro’s and con’s, so choose with care. A ‘late night talkshow’ for instance will do wonders for the energy, with all the high-speed comedy etc, but at the same time is kind of superficial. At some point in your schedule, this is perfect; on other moments, take another option.

The same goes for the moderator, by the way: not every profesional moderator will feel comfortable in every format. So when you’ve designed the meeting, look for the one moderator that will be the perfect match.

When looking at TV-formats, you tend to look at the talkshow/interview-format/newsroom-like options first. But let’s take it one step further: why not use a playfull TV-format, like ‘Have I got news for you’, in which 4 of your experts engage in friendly battle? It would certainly spice up things.

Case Study
The thing with speakers is that they bring you their story, leaving it up to the audience to translate the learnings to their own daily reality. By turning the speaker into an expert, we can turn this around. It is so powerfull, to have the participants work on a case study, an assignment or an example from their own life and then have the expert function as their side-coach. Instead of a room full of listeners, you will then see groups of people working together and/or individuals sweating on a task. The expert is there to help them when they get stuck, or to explain general learnings once they experienced them.

We all know that even grown-ups learn better, when they play. So let’s organize a pub-quiz rather then a dull presentation. Have teams fight for ‘the grand prize’, answering questions. And let the expert explain the answers or be the jury.

Or take any party game you know, and turn it into an expert-format. Let’s take a board-game for instance, where participants put a question to the expert on each spot on the board, have the expert role the dice and answer whatever question comes up.

Have participants talk to each other first in any given format: House of Commons debate, table-sessions, Lego Serious Play … anything that will have them think the topic over, before the expert comes on to respond to their own findings. It bet you, that the experts’ performance will be more tailored to their needs ánd that they will pay more attention to the experts’ answers.

Participants are the experts
Why does the expert have to be on stage? Or why does it even have to be someone outside the group? In many cases, the real expertise is in the room, with the participants. So even if you have a speaker, don’t treat him like some sort of half-god who knows it all. Make him part of the group and help him find extra knowledge there. If you have expert and delegate-expert cooperate, wonders will happen.

I had an opening key-note once, who insisted on staying for the full day. He took part in all discussions and work-formats, constantly referring back to his opening-speech, asking questions and learning new stuff himself. This speaker was not bigger then the group, but made the group bigger!

In conclusion
I could go on endlessly. And so could you, if you simply allow yourself to be creative. So can we please remove the word ‘speaker’ from our vocabulary and instead refer to them as providers of information, insight and inspiration?
Using them as experts rather than plain speakers will make meetings more enjoyable and effective, and that is in everyone’s interest: participants, moderators, meeting-owners and speakers … sorry: experts!

Jan-Jaap In der Maur

Picture by Andrei Stratu on Unsplash

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