Want Better Engagement in Meetings? Take Some Tips From This Fabulous Ship Full of Nerds

I often find inspiration for better meetings from gatherings outside the business world. I’m curious: what is it that makes someone who grimaces through every meeting pony up good money to gather with other people after work? Why do so many people raise their hands claiming to hate meetings when I speak at meetings they had to pay to attend? 

People don’t hate meetings. They hate pointless wastes of their time. So what does success look like?

Successful gatherings of all types share several common characteristics. The JoCo cruise is one such successful gathering.

Mermaids with Boat
Mermaids relaxing at a JoCo cruise stop. Pic by Steve Petrucelli

Billed as a “nerdy summer camp at sea,” the JoCo cruise is an affinity cruise for lovers of sci-fi, fantasy, board games, and all things deliciously nerdy. More importantly, as John Schwartz writes in the New York Times, the JoCo cruise regularly creates a “floating community of friends.”

The people embarking on these cruises don’t all enjoy the same activities. There are introverts and extroverts. There are families and singles. There are those who like to party loud and those who prefer a quiet corner. As Mark Frauenfelder wrote for BoingBoing after the 2018 cruise, “I felt comfortable around these people and temporarily transformed from being a full-on introvert into a semi-introvert!”

Does this roiling combination of loosely aligned but otherwise very different people sounds familiar? It should. Those dynamics exist in our business meetings, too.

But unlike the JoCo cruise, which sells out fast with new and repeat cruisers every year (they’re over 90% booked for the March 2020 cruise already), businesses are plagued by an epidemic of disengaged employees. The only people who consistently seem to enjoy meetings are those running them.

The good news is that strategies the JoCo cruise uses to build that community of friends work in businesses too. Here are three ways to create more engaging meetings, and a more engaging company culture, that you can learn from their example.

1. Make the purpose exquisitely clear.

The cruise’s purpose is crystal clear, and your meeting’s should be too.

As Priya Parker wrote in The Art of Gathering, “Purpose is your bouncer.” A clear purpose attracts people who want to engage and discourages those who don’t.

I think the JoCo cruise sounds fun. Unlike Ms. Parker, I include more than one Star Trek reference in my book about meetings. My teenager, on the other hand, would be mortified to see I wrote any of that publicly. Our interest in embarking on a nerd cruise isn’t about our age or gender or any of that – it’s about affinity to purpose.

Great meeting engagement becomes possible when you communicate the purpose. Knowing why you’re in a room together and how to succeed there should be as obvious in meetings as it is when choosing between a group playing the Magic card game or one playing Munchkin.

Clarity of purpose makes it easy for people to choose to engage.

2. Establish clear structures for engagement.

All cruises have naturally liberating constraints that make engagement easier. The time, the space, the schedule, and the available resources are all known, giving everyone a clear frame in which to play.

Engaging meetings are also bound by constraints. Brainstorming, for example, works best when teams work in silence and stick to strict time limits. A well-crafted agenda limits the discussion topics and clarifies the process the group will use, blissfully constraining the conversation to focus on relevant and achievable outcomes.

While all cruises share a basic structure, the JoCo cruise takes it further. Cruise-goers take on many leadership roles throughout the voyage. Return cruisers volunteer as “Ambassadors,” mentoring first timers. Others lead activities and step up to assist throughout.

2017 JoCo cruise Formal Night. Photo credit: JD Lasica on Flickr

Great meetings happen when everyone involved has a job to do.  Leading the meeting, presenting, note taking, time keeping – there are many ways to get everyone working on making the meeting a success together. And like the JoCo cruise, many excellent business teams include one person in the meeting acting as an “Ambassador” or steward who pays special attention to the group dynamics. It’s the meeting steward’s job to make sure everyone has a chance to contribute and to teach new people how to participate effectively. 

On the JoCo cruise, name tags include conversation starters. The top of the name tag says “Ask Me About,” then people fill in a topic that excites them. This choose-your-own-adventure icebreaker makes it possible to sidestep all the typical awkward networking questions and dive right into a juicy conversation.

As they say, interested people are interesting.

They also give everyone a way to signal when they’d rather not have a conversation in the first place. A red “Nah” flag on a badge gives those who dislike small talk a polite way to advertise their disinterest. 

Engaging meetings begin in the first five minute. Meeting leaders can use icebreakers, activities, or rituals to get everyone involved at the very beginning of the meeting. 

Finally, on the JoCo cruise, people can watch video broadcasts of large group events from quieter spaces on the ship, giving those who want to be a part of the action—but not part of the crowd—a way to join in.

Meeting engagement happens naturally when meeting attendance is optional. That way, people who really don’t want to be in the room can bow out.

As the cruise organizers recognized, though, just because someone doesn’t want to meet right now, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to stay informed or that they don’t have anything to add. While you may not livestream your meetings (some companies do), you can post the agenda for comment in advance and distribute notes afterwards. This gives those who aren’t attending a way to stay in the loop.

3. Unleash autonomy.

The JoCo cruise has a well-defined purpose and boundaries. Within that frame, cruise goers schedule and lead many of the activities. The cruise organizers declare there will be games, then it’s up to the attendees to decide which games, where, and when.

The JoCo Game Library
Over 2000lbs of games in the guest-contributed library and clear rules of engagement. Pic by Kristin Amsden

In your company, you can take turns leading meetings. This gives everyone autonomy to design a meeting they find engaging. It also shakes people out of the spectator role onto the playing field, getting them invested in the meeting’s success.

The meeting leader always holds responsibility for some parts of the meeting design, but that doesn’t mean they have to build the whole agenda on their own. Techniques like the Real-Time Agenda – or even simply requesting agenda topics in advance – create joint ownership for how the group uses their time together.

By sharing responsibility for the activities, the JoCo cruise gives everyone a stake in the cruise’s success. That joint ownership changes everything.

When a scheduled performer lost his voice, he wasn’t heckled. Instead, a lady from the crowd stepped in. When another event was rained out, the audience didn’t file complaints or demand refunds. They brought out towels and helped move the band to a dry venue.

When your employees engage in making your meetings a success, you too can enjoy less complaining and get more help solving problems. And, like the JoCo crew, you’ll have more fun too!