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The Evolution of Public Meetings – Beyond speech-making

Consider the last public meeting you attended. Did you feel it was a satisfactory event – both from the viewpoint of the consultor and those who gave up their time to come along and hear what is happening? If, on reflection, you have concluded that it was not awfully satisfactory, why do you feel that way?

So many factors contribute to the success of a public event. It is inevitable that some attendees will leave feeling very unhappy because they believe that their view is not supported by decision-makers and some of those with extremely tough choices to make will depart depressed at the depth of opposition they faced. It was ever thus …

The Public Meeting is the oldest form of democracy. Citizens in Ancient Greece and Rome knew of their importance and power. Throughout the centuries people have gathered publicly to hold discussions.

But, what can a 21st century public meeting contribute to our lives? Has there been a shift in emphasis and purpose? I know, from personal experience and listening to the stories of many working in engagement over the years, that public meetings can be problematic … to put it mildly.

So, let us see if we can harness the valuable opportunity of having face-to-face dialogues to the mutual benefit of all those involved. This requires a mind-shift. The consultor/decision maker has to be prepared to listen genuinely as well as make speeches. Consultees also need to think through their role in proceedings. They might wish to consider whether to be pro-active or just attend passively. Either position is fine, as long as that’s going to help them understand the situation or make contributions to the debate.

A meeting where an audience is convened to hear a string of (dull?) speeches/presentations from presenters stuck behind a top table will engender at worst anger and frustration or at least bewilderment. If the event is to support a genuine two-way exchange of views, then it must be planned with an accommodating agenda and expectation of real engagement. Do not underestimate the challenges this poses but approach the event with enthusiasm and hopefully you will be rewarded by a positive experience – for all involved.

About the Author

Elizabeth’s career has taken her from teaching, through work in the public affairs industry and into the world of public consultation and engagement. As a Director of the Institute, she has helped to develop many of its unique products and services since 2003.

She is the joint author, with Rhion Jones, of “The Art of Consultation” and "The Politics of Consultation". She has researched widely on the subject – both for material for training courses and in order to deliver presentations and executive briefings, particularly on the impact of the law.

Read more about Elizabeth

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