The special pleasures of your own agenda

In the age of e-mail and live TV conferences, people are discovering new benefits in meeting face to face
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The Independent Online
How do we reach out and talk to each other? Successful newspapers connect well with their readers and their readers with each other. The public may be cynical about the press but the relationship between a newspaper and its readers is intense. I should know. While editing this newspaper for its first eight years, I was constantly made aware of readers' feelings by letter, by telephone call and by direct comment at any gathering I attended.

Now, what about the newest medium, multimedia, which some people believe is distancing? I have experienced it at first hand by starting an electronic publishing business, one small enough for me to run from my house. Instead of journalists and printers, I work with interactive designers and programmers. We produce CD-Rom titles and we will shortly publish a pure Internet product. What I particularly like about the Internet, with its discussion groups, chat lines and free publishing, is that it includes people - the computer screen draws them together. I recently engaged in a radio discussion in which listeners put questions and comments both by phone and by e-mail; the two kinds of talk worked together seamlessly .

But it is more surprising, perhaps, that people still love public meetings. As I have discovered, the person who is completely at ease with the Internet and e-mail and telephone conferences is nonetheless quite prepared to attend a meeting in a public hall, just as our Victorian forebears would have done. It was when the Independent combined forces with Tony Benn some years ago and invited readers to a committee room in the House of Commons to discuss radical ideas for constitutional reform that I first thought that this appetite might exist. At the time, I wasn't sure that we would attract more than a handful. In the event, 600 people turned up and many had to stand at the back. The discussion was lively; first to speak after Mr Benn was a student who in turn was followed by a retired sea captain.

The clinching evidence is now before us in the monthly meetings that have been taking place since January at the Central Hall, Westminster to discuss London's future, organised by the Architecture Foundation (of which I am a trustee) and supported by the Evening Standard. Attendances have varied between 1,500 and 2,500. Again, our first estimate of the likely audience was much lower - 300 or so. Last Wednesday, when the subject was London's transport arrangements, 1,500 people turned up. The proceedings begin at 6.30pm and last two hours. You go after work and you may not finally reach home until well beyond 9 o'clock.

The events that people enjoy attending are invariably participatory, and the new ways of running meetings are built on this insight. Because what the audience may have to say is as important as the points the invited speakers will make, I greatly dislike the traditional format of set-piece speeches from the platform, one after the other, followed by a few questions at the end. De haut en bas.

We have avoided that at the Central Hall. Granted, there is still a platform with the main speakers, but contributions from the audience come between speeches and are given an equal amount of time. In this way the expert opinions form a framework for the evening's discussion. But I couldn't persuade my fellow trustees to go the whole way and place all the speakers in the audience with only a moderator on the platform. Perhaps rightly, they demurred. What I was seeking was the feeling that on this subject, in this hall, for an hour or two, we are all equal - the expert and the citizen meet on common ground.

I have found that the most adventurous experiments in helping people to talk creatively to each other are occurring in private settings, rather than public meetings. You may, for instance, be invited to a two-day "let's think about the future" session of your organisation. Maybe you are a senior executive who expects to be consulted. Maybe you are a junior manager whose opinions are generally dismissed. Maybe you are a shop-floor worker who does not expect to be asked for your opinion about anything. Whatever your status, you will have been told surprisingly little about the event other than its theme or objective - no agenda, no briefing papers.

On entering the room where the session is to be held, you will find that the chairs are placed in a circle or in concentric circles. In the middle, rather than your boss, is a moderator you have never seen before. On one wall of the room hangs a large noticeboard. A number of desks with computers, perhaps 10 machines if there are 200 of you, have been placed to one side. Down a corridor, there will be a number of small rooms that can also be used.

There is no agenda because the participants, sitting in a circle, will be asked to work out one for themselves. Any one of you may suggest a subject and invite interested colleagues to join you to discuss the issue and then write up an agreed version (hence the desk-top computers). You post your agenda item on the board in an empty time-slot, and participants then decide which working sessions they wish to attend. The self-selected agenda is now being tested in the market place. If nobody comes to the subject meeting that you have proposed, perhaps you merge it with another or conclude it wasn't a very smart idea after all; or, if you wish, you can use the time to write up a proposal on your own.

When, after the two days, these meetings are done, you come together around the moderator, consider what you have achieved and depart with the proceedings of the entire conference in your hand - instant gratification. What are these strange events? They are an American import known as Open Space events; and organisations as wildly diverse as the BBC, the Engineering Council, ICI and the University of Surrey have recently used the technique.

The special strength of the face-to-face meeting, whether public or private, is to release creative energy. What is sought is an almost chemical reaction and a type of catalyst may be needed. It may be that the occasion is a distinct event rather than a routine appointment. You go to a committee room at the House of Commons or to Central Hall, Westminster, or to a venue away from your organisation's offices.

It is also critical that the form explicitly diminishes or banishes hierarchy; those in authority are constrained to listen as well as to speak. Moreover, the subject itself has to be bold; it is no use having a participatory meeting about a humdrum problem. There must be a sense in which you are being invited to shape your own future - in my two examples, that of the organisation for which you work or of the city where you live.

There is no reason why the electronic age should be inimical to these sorts of events. Indeed, quite the reverse. The fact that many of us spend our working lives in front of computer screens and then go home and relax with television or even fire up our personal computers and roam the Internet lends piquancy to the revival of the big meeting. It is like the special pleasures of the theatre after regular cinema-going. I am thrilled by what is happening to the television and the computer in the home and new ways of person-to-person brainstorming of issues, but it is the strange revival of the public meeting that particularly captivates me.