Do You Make Your Attendees Play Seating Roulette?

Even best-selling author and thought leader Dan Pink feels a little intimidated when he walks into a meeting room for breakfast or lunch without knowing anyone in the room. Here are his ideas for helping attendees connect.

Thought leader and author Dan Pink

Daniel Pink, the best-selling author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, recently spoke to Editor in Chief Michelle Russell about how to apply what he’s learned about timing to business events, including what research about our biological clocks suggest is the best time to start a meeting.

But timing isn’t everything. What matters just as much, said Pink, a frequent keynoter, is the kind of experience that you create for attendees. And some meetings he’s attended as a speaker, he told Convene, have made him feel like he was back in the junior-high cafeteria. The following insights about timing and meeting design are from a longer conversation.

When is the optimal time to start a conference program? At 7 in the morning? Nine a.m.?

I don’t think there’s a perfect answer to that. It’s going to depend on the representation of larks [early birds] and [late-night] owls in that group. What we know about the distribution of larks and owls is that about 15 percent of us are very strong early people, 20 percent of us are very strong late people, and two-thirds of us are kind of in the middle.

 So, in terms of the actual start, maybe you want to offer something super early for the larks and then maybe you want to have at the end of the day [some programming] super late for the owls. But to some extent, if you have a very large conference, you have to do that for the middle. The vast majority of us, myself included, are a little bit of both. In which case I would suggest not starting at 7, but also not starting at 10.

Timing is part of it, but there are other kinds of design principles behind it as well. At some level, it doesn’t really matter so much whether you are starting at 8 or at 9 as much as what can you do to enhance the experience of the people going to those conferences. So if there’s something at 8, you don’t want to have people wandering in there and saying, “Oh, my gosh. I don’t know anybody here. Where am I going to sit?” There should be more intentionality of how you integrate people.

I’ve started to see this a little bit more. Let’s say we’re going to have a breakfast. Why not put little signs on each table for people who are interested in this topic, and people who are interested in that topic? That way you don’t have somebody walking in by themselves with a plate of scrambled eggs, looking for an empty chair, wondering who they can sit with, like it’s a junior-high cafeteria, and having awkward conversations with and randomly sitting next to a stranger. To me, the intentionality is as valuable as the time of day.

How should conference luncheons be designed?

Well, I think lunches can be a great opportunity for networking and for affiliation and those sorts of things. I think the challenge is that they’re often not intentional enough, so you end up, if you’re a participant, randomly sitting with someone who you might not have anything immediately in common with. There could be more intentionality about seating or even about having some kind of shared ritual at the beginning where everybody gets to know everybody.

Earlier this week I was at lunch at a conference and it was like open seating. It reminded me of junior high where some people will talk to you and some people won’t and I just think that’s a very unpleasant experience for a lot of people. So, maybe there’s some kind of ritual to start the lunch.

The other thing is, typically what happens is that you sit down, you have the lunch, and then when the dessert is passed, someone gets up on stage and talks. That’s pretty standard I think — I’m wondering whether the sequence is not quite right. What you might want is to have a speaker speak and then have the lunch so that people have something to talk about at the lunch itself. It gives strangers something to talk about with each other. What typically happens is that you have the lunch, somebody talks, and then they just race to the next thing and there’s no opportunity for integration or synthesis or talking amongst themselves about it.

One of the problems with our timing decisions is that we just kind of let them happen. So, is it ideal for people to walk into a giant room and go to the first seat that’s available that they can see, playing roulette about who’s going to sit with them?

There are probably better, more intentional ways to do that. Perhaps returning to the table topics concept? It could be table topics. It could be that you have — depending on whether it’s a company or trade association or whatever — tables with team captains whose job is to basically be a good host. When you’re a host, you have certain obligations to make sure that everyone is taken care of, to make sure that everybody knows each other. So maybe it’s assigning every table a host.

Read the entire conversation with Pink here

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.