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A Cup of Creativi-tea: How To Enhance Your Next Meeting

By Terri Wilson, Published on June 18, 2006
Terri Wilson is a solo librarian at the law firm of Underwood, Wilson, Berry, Stein, and Johnson, PC in Amarillo, Texas. She has a BFA in Theatre from Eastern New Mexico University, an MFA in Theatre from Texas Tech University, and an MS in Library & Information Science from the University of North Texas. Prior to becoming a law librarian, Terri was a paraprofessional for six years in the reference department of the University Library at Texas Tech. And prior to that, she explored a cornucopia of employment positions while a laboring as a struggling actor (emphasis on the struggling part). Terri has recently started a blog for creative ideas for librarians.

We've all been in those meetings where it was a constant fight to stay awake until the bitter end. We've all run those meetings where a request for input was met by the chirping of crickets.

"Bueller? Bueller?"*

But it doesn't have to be like this. With the exception of the strictly information dissemination meeting, people meet in order to exchange ideas, work on projects, plan strategies, and the like. In other words, meetings are meant to involve active participation. Tapping into participants' creativity can make these meetings more productive, and dare I say it, maybe even enjoyable.

As every actor knows, you have to have the right props. Starting with a comfortable room. (Ok, that's more of a set, not a prop, but let's not ruin my metaphor.) If you have a choice, be picky about your meeting room. Some seem to be continually climate-challenged, ranging from sub-arctic temperatures to stagnant swamps of heat. Some are cramped and some have the most uncomfortable chairs in the building. Ideally, you want an appropriately sized room for the number of people who are meeting, that has a reasonably controlled thermostat, and comfortable chairs. It would be even better if the seating was informal, such as couches and armchairs. But if you're restricted to standard business furniture, at least try to configure the room so that people are sitting in a circle or square, either around a table or not. Avoid the long table with the chairperson at the head or, worse yet, classroom seating with everyone in neat little rows and the chairperson at the front of the room. The less formal you make the setting, the more likely your participants will be to open up their minds and "play" a little.

Now the props. It may sound hokey, and you may even have laughed that sarcastic little laugh the first time someone brought these to a meeting, but toys, snacks, and brightly colored writing implements jumpstart people's creativity in no time flat. A basket full of simple dollar store toys will suffice. Puttys, clays, spongy balls, and blocks can keep hands busy while the wheels in their heads are turning. Stay away from any toys that make sound, puzzle toys that are too engrossing, or balls that will spend half their time rolling onto the floor and across the room and create more distraction than innovation. Snacks need to be simple as well. Bite sized candies and crackers are good, as well as raisins or nuts. Have a variety so that those with a sweet tooth and those who can't or won't indulge in sugary treats will have something from which to choose. And last but not least, for us rabid doodlers, crayons or colored pencils or markers. The colors stimulate the imagination, and you may even see people start to visualize their ideas on paper before they offer them vocally to the group.

To further stamp your meeting as open to creative minds, consider starting off with an icebreaker. It could be a creativity exercise like everyone writing down and then sharing the top ten places in the world they would visit if money was no object. Or a competition of who can draw the fastest stick figure house with the winner getting to keep one of the toys on the table. An icebreaker can help loosen everyone up and encourages people to forget about the events of the day and get into the groove of the meeting.

These examples presuppose that you are the one leading the meeting. If you're not and you have a comfortable relationship with the person who is, share these suggestions with him or her and offer to help set things up. If you don't feel that you can influence the way the meeting is run, then bring something to the meeting for yourself. A squishy ball or a bright marker can help you keep yourself engaged. And who knows. You might even start a trend. A creative one.

*Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Matthew Broderick. Paramount Pictures, 1986.