The quest for more purposeful meetings

Paul Nolan

Janet Sperstad, program director of Meeting and Event Management at Madison College in Wisconsin, has spent her career working toward more purposeful meetings. This fall, she released a white paper co-written with Amanda Cecil of Indiana University entitled, “Purposeful Meetings: How to Plan With Deeper Meaning, Innovation and Insight In Mind.” We talked with her about her findings.

SMM: When you talk about more purposeful meetings, are you saying we need to increase the human element and have less focus on business results?

Sperstad: It’s not more or less, one or the other. It’s about using another lens to drive deeper meaning. When you ask people, “Why do you come to a meeting,” it’s to network, learn and have fun. Those three have not changed. What we’re offering is another perspective and lens to look at what we’re doing and really focus on the human aspect of how people connect so they have a deeper meaning. It’s less about the logistics, it’s less about the outcomes and less about the learning, and really reshifting and focusing more on how those things happen. How people think is as important as what they think. How people feel is as important as what they feel.

SMM: What ignited your desire to delve into this deeper meaning of meetings?

Sperstad: Two years ago, Dale Hudson, the knowledge and events director for IMEX, and I were talking about how we’ve seen so much perfection and discussion around strategic meetings management and all of the logistics of how to create experiences. We were seeing a lost opportunity that we, as event professionals, aren’t really able to maximize in the experience that we create that really touches the heartstrings and the cognitive potential of people. We asked ourselves, “Can people walk away happier and healthier than when they arrived?” We think so. We started talking about these five pillars that are the driving forces of that conversation.

SMM: One thing you talk a lot about is driving creativity. Do you see that as a key reason for having meetings in the first place?

Sperstad: We need to keep doing what we do, whether as event professionals or attendees, in different ways because the world keeps changing. That takes creativity and creative problem-solving. Really looking at how we help people really reach deeper potential and come away with new ideas and new connections and new motivation to solve some of these complex problems in business that they are dealing with.

SMM: In your white paper, you talk about the importance of balanced agendas. Do you feel too many offsites are cramming their agendas too full?

Sperstad: It’s tough because you need to have enough education. For some licensed professionals, that’s why they come. So they pack in their licensed credit units. Even if you have to do that for your audience, look at things like breaks and how we can use those moments for them to unplug and then replug. Your brain can’t run at 100 percent on a 10 percent battery. What other choices can you put in there for some white space and light space for them to sit down, have an impromptu conversation or go off-script with a colleague and brainstorm some ideas? That’s as valuable as sitting in a session.

SMM: You refer to something called “the new ROI,” and leaving a meeting happier, healthier and ensuring the motivation carries over to the workplace. Can you expand on that.

Sperstad: For attendees, we’re looking at how we are enriching their performance and their life, so that after the experience they aren’t exhausted and they can continue to perform at the same pace that they came in. Life is chaotic and work is fast-paced. If they can look at our events as a respite to get renewed, rejuvenated and revived, our events will be more competitive in the world. People will come to events that are organized by professionals who understand these elements. The most precious thing we have in life is time. We want people to say, “I am so not going to miss that conference.”