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Selecting a Topic

Some readers of this resource will have built-in opportunities to practice the techniques and methods detailed here. If you are the presiding officer of a club, chairing a committee, managing a business, or pastoring a church, you have issues and opportunities to try out these guidelines for managing meetings. If you already have issues, use them. However, if you want to practice a bit before trying your "meeting wings," select a topic to use in working through the three meeting segments detailed in this resource. In general, this section will help crystallize your thinking about the process used in setting up meetings.

Information Meeting Considerations

You need a topic on which you can find enough material to present a fairly detailed ten-minute information meeting. The material needs to divide logically into three major areas for the purposes of your first presentation. Then, consider what problem lies in this topic, since you'll have to parlay your information into a problem-solving format for the second segment. The third segment, decision making, is a matter of choosing among alternatives developed in the problem-solving meeting, so this segment doesn't play into your choice of topics quite so much. Remember that the major input of information comes during your first meeting, but you need to know enough about your topic to answer whatever questions may occur during problem solving and decision making. In the last two meetings, you basically introduce yourself and repeat the highlights of your information talk, but the structure in the last two meetings usually requires a major portion of time. It is nice to "freshen" your material with a new fact or two!

A caveat, however, is not to select a topic in which choices are limited.

Problem-Solving Tips

For example, the quandary of whether to lease or buy a vehicle sometimes arises. Could you gather enough material for a ten-minute information meeting? Yes. What problem within the topic would you attempt to solve? An obvious strategy is to make one pro-and-con list for buying, and one pro-and-con list for leasing. Several problems are inherent in this topic choice.

The goal of your problem-solving meeting is to have a group of participants collaborate to construct a list of alternatives which could solve the problem you've advanced. As a topic, buying or leasing a car only provides two alternatives. The instructional process used here requires at least five viable alternatives, so unless you can think of a way to stretch buy or lease into five different alternatives, this topic won't work. Buying or leasing is more of a personal choice issue, rather than one which requires group discussion and decision making. So your challenge is to find a topic in which there is a problem which a group can discuss and on which consensus is possible.

Another reason not to use this particular topic is the problem you create for participants. In your first meeting, you hold forth for ten minutes about the advantages and disadvantages of buying versus leasing. If you start a problem-solving meeting on this, you will essentially be asking participants to list back for you the information you gave out in your first meeting. Wait a minute! You're supposed to be the expert on this topic, not the audience! Don't make problem solving into a reverberation of an information meeting.

What you're aiming for in problem solving and decision making is to encourage discussion from several points of view. You're trying to elicit other people's ideas. "Here's what I know. Now, tell me what you think."

Let's take another example. If you've selected fire safety in the home as your topic, your three main points could include:

  1. the prevalence of home fires and damages to life and property

  2. precautions to observe in preventing home fires

  3. equipment/devices that homeowners should have and maintain

This is a lot of information for a ten-minute talk, but it can be done if you are succinct and well-organized. Where's the problem to be solved? You don't want to ask participants to list ways to prevent fires, because that's what you told them earlier. If in your first talk you mentioned smoke alarms as useful devices, in your problem-solving talk you could ask people to brainstorm ways to encourage the use of home smoke alarms. During the problem-solving meeting participants might respond with these ideas:

  • hand out alarms free during Fire Prevention Week

  • have volunteer firefighters install alarms for purchasers

  • ask local government to subsidize their purchase in high-risk areas

  • reduce property tax rates if alarms are in place

  • lobby for a local ordinance requiring their use

And the list goes on! This is the purpose of a problem-solving meeting—having people brainstorm possible solutions to the problem you've posed. In decision making, then, you can list the five alternatives arrived at previously and ask the audience to select the best alternative.

Notice in the fire safety example that smoke alarms came from the third main point of the first meeting. Frequently, choosing an item imbedded in a main point as a problem to solve is good and a natural thought progression for your audience. Remember, it always has to make sense to them. Thus, the idea here is to choose a topic with an imbedded problem in mind.

Your question now probably is: Can I just talk about a problem to begin with and then solve it? The answer is, "Yes, but…." If the problem is a terribly complex one in which a number of issues need to be fleshed out thoroughly, you may need the ten-minute information meeting to make participants aware of everything they need to consider. Topics we've used in class which fit this description: introducing and encouraging Euro currency use in geographically remote areas of Europe; ameliorating the cultural disputes in northern Ireland; and addressing individual rights issues in the Kashmir/Pakistan conflict. These topics were very good ones, but they demanded a higher level of information sifting and presenting from the students explaining the issues to the class. For the purpose of learning this meeting process, a less complicated topic might be a better choice.

Theory Versus Practice

Now a caveat about selecting too broad a topic! Let's say you've just gotten a directive from upper management to make your work group aware of sexual harassment. Is this topic too broad for a ten-minute meeting? Maybe. The best you could probably do here would be to cover this topic at the theoretical level in a ten-minute talk. Because this is a size Large topic to begin with, the most you could expect would be to define harassment, cite recent court cases, and state your company guidelines on harassment.

This is a problem that needs more specific applications in order to appeal to and become more understandable to most workforces. If you think about it, the function of middle- and first-level managers is to interpret upper-level management pronouncements to the rest of the workforce. So, if you just define harassment and say, "Don't do it," will that take care of the matter for workers? Probably not. The theory isn't translated into practice, and to change behavior, we all need practice—albeit theory-based.

Your problem-solving meeting would have to be at the theoretical level as well. You'd probably ask the group to brainstorm ideas for preventing harassment in the workplace. Ideas advanced might be:

  • a hands-off rule for all work areas

  • a clearly defined policy from management

  • training for all supervisors

  • an anonymous reporting system for violations

  • zero tolerance for infractions

This is not a bad list; in several respects, it is good. The point here is that these alternatives are more theory than practice. These are alternatives you could probably find in a textbook on the subject. What brainstorming at this level will produce are textbook answers to harassment problems. Does this solve problems? Yes, but if theory isn't interpreted in the light of practicality, what good will it do toward changing people's behavior?

Will people in the workforce change their behavior on Monday morning as a result of having this meeting on Friday afternoon? Looking at the alternatives generated in the last example, the onus for change lies primarily with management. Drawing up a statement on harassment, setting up a reporting hotline, or establishing a hands-off rule are management responsibilities. If you are having a meeting of managers, this would be fine. If you're having a meeting of workers, this doesn't give them the substance they need to change their behavior. One way of determining whether learning has occurred is to note whether people change their behavior. The focus in problem solving on this issue needs to be on changing behavior. Perhaps asking them to recount critical incidents they've seen, or posing a situation and asking for input, or conducting a role play would be better ideas for meetings of this nature. So, a better problem-solving discussion here would center on actualities in the workplace, not theoretical concerns.

The problem reflected here is lack of focus, which is a universal problem with meetings in general. If you want a theory-based outcome, plan for that. If you want a practical outcome, plan for that. Think beyond, "I need to have a meeting," to "What do I want to accomplish with this meeting?" This becomes your meeting objective: why have this meeting. What do you want people to do differently as a result of attending your meeting? More on this later, but for now, choose a topic which is not so broad that all participants can logically arrive at are hackneyed phrases and rule-of-thumb answers. Find something people can get into mentally and emotionally and discuss with fervor.

For example, a subset of the topic of sexual harassment is same-sex harassment— a smaller topic within the broader one. Give some recent examples, something from current news, and ask the audience to create a list of ways to counteract the specific incidences. The idea here is to get concrete, concise recommendations because that's where the workforce lives and functions. This is not a matter of intelligence, because savvy managers know that a lot of very clever people are in the workforce. They are clever in ways that managers aren't, and their skills are needed to produce the product or service of the organization. However, if management is prescribing an atmosphere it wishes to become pervasive or if it is establishing a work rule that all employees are to observe, management should supply guidance as to how work should be done and under what conditions it should be done, which in this example is harassment-free.

That's one of the reasons learning to focus meetings is important. Another, for the purpose of this instruction, is to provide practice in conducting meetings in which heartfelt ideas are discussed. When meetings center on real issues, they are meaningful and worthwhile.

A final bit of advice on meeting topics. Choose something you care about. It's hard to be enthusiastic about a topic when you're thinking, "Frankly, Scarlett…." Half the battle in presenting well and conducting a well-organized meeting is enthusiasm for what you're doing. Choose something that makes your heart beat faster. If nothing comes to mind, read a newspaper, watch a news telecast, or get on the Internet to discover what other people find interesting—within reason, of course. Some issues reflected in recent news:

  • rating systems for rock concerts

    Do students and parents need/want parental advisories based on lyrics, stage behavior, or programming at celebrity concerts?

  • violence in films and media

    Is the Motion Picture Association of America rating system outdated? Is it important to enforce viewing rules?

  • college students as credit card targets

    The Consumers Union is concerned about aggressive marketing of credit cards on campus. Debt has been linked to suicides, dropouts, reduced course loads, and low grades by students working to pay off credit card debt. Are they being unfairly targeted?

  • boorish behavior versus freedom of speech

    In central Michigan, government officials, canoe outfitters, and the general public are standing up for civility by launching a decorum campaign. The issue is protecting families, especially young children, from rude language and behavior. Does this impinge on free speech?

These are newsprint articles only, so to develop your topic, you'd need to find more information from other sources—books, journals, magazines, the Internet, personal experience, interviews with experts, and so on. The worst mistake you can make is not having enough material. Too much material is far better. If you can't work all of it into your information meeting, you can freshen up your information in the problem-solving and decision-making meetings. If you do enough information gathering now, your later meetings will be richer and fuller because you know more and feel good about that!

TOPIC SUGGESTIONS

  • Attention deficit disorder or other disorders interfering with performance

  • Eating red meat or the value of vegetarianism

  • Youth in the labor movement or the usefulness of labor unions today

  • College-age voter apathy

  • Soda consumption versus calcium needs or soda effect on teeth

  • Maintaining interest in 4H, especially older adolescents

  • Rights of smokers versus nonsmokers

  • Women in combat in military services

  • Animal cruelty, especially involving betting

  • Missing blood donors or organ donors

  • Unsafe sex at college

  • AIDS in the workplace or declining media attention to AIDS

  • Alternative medicine, safety and practice

  • Performance-enhancing drug use among athletes

  • Daycare, home versus business, or selecting a daycare service

  • Choosing the best company for your first job

  • Revenue-producing sports versus non-revenue-producing sports in school

  • Sports equipment safety—skiing, biking, rollerblading, etc.

  • Divorce after six months or after 25 years

  • Increase in obesity

  • Managing Internet use in the workplace

  • Euthanasia when quality of life is gone

In summary, the format for instruction in this resource concerns managing three types of meetings: an information meeting, a problem-solving meeting in which you profile a problem and ask participants to brainstorm solutions, and a decision-making meeting in which you select one solution as the best. Topic choice needs to have a problem imbedded in it, usually something from one of your three major points. Choose a topic you're interested in or other people are interested in—an open-ended problem, one on which people can form opinions and do justice to brainstorming alternatives. Be as specific as possible and aim for a practical outcome as the end result of this meeting process—a behavior-changing choice.

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