Community to Community is a series of blog posts meant to share great ideas between STC’s chapters and SIGs. If your community is doing something you’d like to share with others, please email me and we’ll get it posted! This post is written by Dan Voss, STC Fellow and member of the Orlando Chapter, and discusses their annual post-Summit chapter meeting.
Washlines: A Great Recipe for an August or September Meeting
One of the most memorable keynote addresses at an STC international conference over the past two decades was the show the late Gordon MacKenzie put on at the 41st annual conference in Minneapolis back in 1994.
An intrepid and unpredictable creative designer for Hallmark and a self-appointed gadfly on the back of corporate America (see his masterpiece, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace), MacKenzie put an entirely new spin on the words “interactive presentation” in his keynote. He strung a rope all the way across the stage and hung 30 large posters from it bearing graphics or words that identified a subject upon which he was prepared to speak.
He then took numbers from the audience and proceeded to speak for one to five minutes on the selected subject. In some cases, he had prepared slides; in other topics, he spoke off the cuff. The audience responded with great enthusiasm and nearly mutinied when the program manager intervened to indicate his time was up and we had to move on to maintain the schedule for the conference sessions.
When we in the Orlando chapter got back from the conference, we decided to take a leaf from Gordon’s book in our August 1994 chapter meeting. Several of us who had attended the conference prepared mini-presentations on some of the sessions we had attended, and we strung the topics from a clothesline across the meeting room. We let the audience “interactively” select the content of the meeting by calling out the numbers on the signs just as the audience had done during Gordon’s keynote.
We dubbed that meeting Washlines. At the time we didn’t know it, but it was Washlines I in an unbroken series that will reach Washlines XVIII at our August chapter meeting in Orlando.
Over the years, we have taken various spins on this idea, but the guiding principle remains the same—chapter members who were fortunate enough to attend the international conference share some of what they learned with colleagues in the chapter who were not able to attend.
We used the original Gordon MacKenzie formula for the first few years, with the presenters in a panel responding to audience requests for information on the topics listed on the signs on the clothesline and in a printed program. In essence, we were giving chapter members a “mini-conference.”
These meetings were very well received by chapter members. There was just one drawback—using Gordon MacKenzie’s precise format meant that not all the people in the audience would have the chance to select a topic. It also meant that some presenters would be “on stage” much more often than others.
We solved that by moving to a progression format with six to eight tables, depending upon how many people we had at the conference. Each presenter offers anywhere from one to six topics from which people who attend their progression rotations can choose. Obviously, if there is only one topic, it is a detailed presentation that occupies about half the 25-minute rotation, leaving time for Q&A’s and discussion. If there are several topics, the audience in a rotation makes the choice whether to pick one topic for in-depth coverage or two to three for briefer treatment. Under this agile format, every rotation and every table plays out a little differently, but that just adds to the fun.
Also adding to the fun is the fact that we always theme the Washlines meeting based on the city where the international conference was held. Presenters are renamed “venue hosts,” and they each select a theme for their tables that ties in to the conference host city. The year the conference was held in Las Vegas, for example, we set up an entire casino (including non-monetary “gambling” during the networking and refreshment time), panelized the presenters, and determined the topics by the spin of a roulette wheel. That was the last time we used the panel format (for reasons expressed above), but it was one of our best Washlines ever. The presenters went above and beyond in the costuming, ranging from “femme fatales” wielding bright-colored feathery boas to tuxedo- or gown-arrayed blackjack table hosts and hostesses. We even had a burly bouncer with dark sunglasses (as I recall, the chapter president’s husband).
We also “customize” the refreshments we serve during the pre-program networking time to reflect the conference host city. For example, the refreshments at this year’s Washlines XVIII will definitely be Chicagoan in flavor, including delectable Windy City delicacies such as Chicago pizza and the famed “Chicago Dog”—just the way that was done with the refreshments in the vendor area at the conference during “Community Night” and other events. When our theme was Atlanta, refreshments included—can you guess?—peach and pecan pie, and peaches and cream.
Returning to the progression format we have used for the past 10 years or so, we use colored balloons keyed to the colors in the meeting program to identify the venues, and we use color-coordinated candles, light bulbs, or “Open” and “Closed” signs to indicate when the venue is open for a rotation and when it is “dark.” This, plus the venue host costumes and the graphics strung from the clothesline, gives the event a festive, carnival-like air—yet the information provided in the progressions is legitimate and valuable.
The resulting program makes the annual Washlines meeting like a mini-conference. We give attendees five minutes between the networking time and the “gong” to start the first progression rotation to select and prioritize the venues and topics they want to explore, just as conference attendees have to do.
Each presenter has one “dark” rotation, enabling him/her to visit one of the other venues as well as to take a break from the exhilarating but somewhat grueling pace of back-to-back progression rotations on multiple topics adjusted in real time to meet audience preferences.
We make the “head counts” at the tables during the progression rotations a mock competition, with the presenters doing their best to attract “clients” to their tables. Strategies include costumes reflecting the venue theme, free “trinkets” such as office supplies or candy, and, if necessary, snake oil salesmanship and outright bribery. This once led to a very entertaining water pistol duel between venue hosts across the room. Don’t ask.
We use the city-centered theme in all our meeting promotionals in the chapter newsletter, on the website, in listserv postings, etc. Year in and year out, the result has been one of our best-attended meetings, generating great momentum for the coming year.
In addition to generating member interest in our chapter meetings, another advantage Washlines offers is to give our student members who attend the conference the opportunity to present for the first time before a professional audience in an informal, low-risk, low-stress environment. Let me tell you, I can hardly express the satisfaction I feel when I watch our students members or recent graduates from the University of Central Florida delivering their very-well-done presentations from conference sessions to a rapt audience of seasoned professionals at their Washlines venues! It doesn’t get any better than that!
Check out the August 2011 edition of our chapter newsletter Memo to Members, which promoted Washlines XVII, featuring a California/Sacramento theme from the 58th conference. It includes the matrix for the venues, the presenters, the rotations, and the topics to be addressed. The matrix doubles as our printed program for our mini-conference.
And see the September 2011 MtM, which presented photos and highlights of the 17th edition of Washlines. Note that most of the photos are after the “jump” at the end of the article about Washlines XVII.
I encourage fellow geographic chapters to consider this idea for your August or September chapter meetings. It has worked well and drawn a good-sized audience in each of the 17 years we have used it in Orlando, and we anticipate that will again be the case with Washlines XVIII on 21 August.
The amount of preparation for the progression table hosts is fairly minimal. They can work from their notes from the conference sessions, use materials the presenters at the conference posted, and bring copies of handouts that were used at the conference.
For the meeting coordinator, this does require a “sprint” of administrative effort in the month before the meeting. I speak from experience; this is the 18th time I have worn that hat for the Orlando chapter. However, if you like this idea and think it has potential for your chapter, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I can provide you with things like the template for our master program matrix, promotionals, etc., that will keep you from wasting time “reinventing the wheel” administratively so you can focus on the content of the program and, assuming you are also a venue host, your own presentations.
In the words of the old commercial: “Try it. You’ll like it!”
And if you had student members at the conference, be sure to include them among your presenters.