Some Important Parts and Processes in a Conference

Objectives for these Notes

1 These notes define some important terms which describe some parts and processes which occur in conferences.

2 An understanding of these parts and processes will help Readers to –

      (a) plan a conference better,

      (b) analyse what occurs in a conference, and

     (c) decide the extent to which various conference activities help, hinder, or have no effect on achieving conference objectives.

3 Note: the terms do not aim to evaluate the activities; they merely describe a part or a process.

4 These notes also provIde a basis for a group discussion of the definitions with the aim – Achieve consensus on the definitions given in these notes. (This objective uses consensus as defined in the following notes.)

A Distinction between a Meeting and a Conference

5 Meeting – A group of people in a situation where they can communicate orally with each other at the same time where, at least, one person achieves communication with the others.

6 ConferenceA group of people in a situation where they can communicate orally with each other and where two-way communication occurs between at least two people.

7 Or, more briefly, a meeting where two-way communication occurs between at least two people.

8 The distinction between a meeting and a conference rests on the point about whether two-way communication exists. Two-way communication describes a Discussion defined as: two or more people communicate with each other on at least one topic.

9 Thus a simpler definition of a conference exists –  a meeting where discussion occurs.

10 The following diagram illustrates the above two definitions.

     (a) Inside the shaded square one or two-way communication can occur.

     (b) Inside the white area only one-way communication occurs.

     (c) For an activity to fit into the inner area labelled conference, two-way communication must occur.

A Contribution – The Basic Element of any Conference (or Interview)

11 Contributiona communication signal that one person sends and/or other people perceive, from the time when the sending or perception starts until it finishes (or from when the perceiver believes the signal starts until he/she believes it finishes)

12 The start and finish of a contribution will sometimes prove difficult to identify; hence the more useful next definition.

13 Spoken Contributionan oral communication signal from when one Conference Member starts to speak (or other Members perceive the Member to start to speak) until the Member finishes speaking (or others perceive that the Member has stopped speaking) and some other Member starts to speak (or other Members perceive the other Member to start).

14 In some cases, spoken contributions from two different Members will overlap – when two people talk at once. However where only one Member talks at one time it will prove easy to identify each person’s spoken contribution.

15 A Procedure Contribution includes any (spoken) contribution which relates to how the Conference Members should discuss a particular topic.

16 The ‘how” would include points on (a) who should contribute and (b) when a contribution should start and/or stop and/or the sequence and/or duration of contributions.

17 A Content Contribution refers to any (spoken) contribution which does not relate to how the Conference Members should discuss a particular topic.

18 A Relevant Contribution describes a content contribution which rates as on the official discussion topic.19 See paragraph 32 for a definition of the official discussion topic.

20 An Irrelevant Contribution describes a content contribution which rates as off the official discussion topic.

A Diagram of Various Types of Contributions

21 The following diagram shows (a) various types of contribution and (b) relates them to varying degrees of helpfulness.

Combinations of Various Types of Contributions

22 As shown in the previous diagram, various combinations of contributions exist.

     23 Examples. A contribution could exist that rates as verbal, content, and irrelevant. The conference has the official topic of deciding who should speak at the annual dinner and one Conference Member states: “I think we should re-arrange the annual dinner so that we do not have a speaker” The Contributor in this example has spoken and therefore made a verbal contribution. The contribution does not attempt to alter the discussion procedure and therefore rates as content. However it does not refer to other persons acting as annual speaker; therefore it rates as an irrelevant contribution. Nevertheless the term “irrelevant” does necessarily imply harmful. This contribution may put forward a useful idea on a new topic. Eventually the conference might discuss this topic and agree that they should not use a Speaker.

     24 Another example - “I think we should stop discussing this topic and discuss whether we should use an annual dinner speaker at all”. This contribution rates as a verbal, procedure contribution. The classification of procedure does not allow for a rating of relevant or irrelevant (to an official topic). However someone could rate the contribution on a scale of helpfulness.

     25 A third example - A Leader puts up his hand using a nonverbal signal and directs the gesture toward a couple having a conversation at the side in an attempt to quieten them. (Non-verbal, Procedure, Contribution – which probably rates as Helpful to the Conference.)

26 A Contribution will contain one or more Points or ideas.

27 A Contribution will refer to one or more Topics.

Topics & Points - Important Aspects of all Contributions

28 Topic: (Conference Topic) – the subject matter of a communication (in a conference)

29 Point: an idea about a particular Topic.

Difficulties of Defining the Boundary of a Topic

30 It will prove difficult to set boundaries for any one idea. However a relationship exists between a topic and a point – a point always refers to a topic and rates as a smaller concept.

     31 Examples of Topics and Points:Point - Bradman made more runs in Test Cricket than Benaud. This point relates to each of the following topics:(a) Cricket or (b) Who do you rate as the best Test Batsman? or (c) Who do you rate as the best Australian batsman or (d) the respective cricketinq ability of Bradman and Benaud or (e) the respective batting ability of Bradman and Benaud, etc.

32 Official Discussion Topic – the subject matter which one or more people rate as correct for a group of people to discuss at any point or period of time.

33 A Discussion consists of two or more Contributions on the one Topic where at least two people contribute at least once on one Topic.

Discussions - Different Types

34 Discussion – the exchanging of views and ideas on a particular topic between two or more people.

35 Thus, if four people at a meeting make one contribution each but each contribution relates to a different topic then they have not carried out a discussion.

36 Leader-Centred Discussion – the Leader makes many contributions in relation to the number made by the Conference Participants.[1]

37 Group-Centred Discussion – the Leader makes few contributions in relation to the number made by the Conference Participants.

38 Directed Discussion a discussion where the Conference Leader aims to get the Conference Participants to agree on an idea, an attitude, or a decision which someone (sometimes the Conference Leader) has predetermined before the discussion started or the Conference Leader decides to aim for a particular idea, attitude, or decision during the discussion.

39 Assisted Discussion – a discussion where the Conference Leader aims to help the Conference Participants agree on an idea, an attitude, or a decision but does not aim to influence the content of any agreement of the Conference Participants on the topic discussed.

40 The statement – “I aim to help you make decisions; I do not aim to help you make wise decisions” sums up the attitude a Conference Leader will take to an Assisted discussion.

41 A Conference consists of one or more Discussions.

Butterflying - A Common Process in Conferences

42 Butterflying – A period of time in a conference which includes a “high’ number of topics in comparison with the number of contributions made.[2]

     43 Generalised Example of Butterflying: In conferences the following situation occurs quite often. Person A talks on Topic 1. Person B comments on Topic i. Person C introduces Topic 2. B comments on Topic 2 and introduces Topic 3 .D comments on Topic 1. E introduces Topic 4.Person A returns to Topic 1 again. F comments on Topic 1. E comments on Topic 4 and topic 2; and so on.

44 High Degree of Butterflying. If ten consecutive contributions occur and they include at least five different topics, then a high degree of butterflying exists.

45 Low Degree of Butterflying. If ten consecutive contributions occur and they include no more than two different topics then a low degree of butterflying exists.

46 No Butterflying. If ten consecutive contributions occur and all contributions refer to the same topic then no butterflying exists.

Consensus - A Wise Objective for all Discussions

47 Consensus – Exists when all (100%) Conference Members achieve ONE or more of the following three situations:
(a) Understand another person’s ideas(or a group’s ideas)  The Person(s) may, or may not, belong to the Conference Group.

           48 Examples. (a) We understand what the Bible says about love thy neighbour or what Barnard (a Management Writer) means by the word “authority”. (b) The Conference Group understands that Mary (a Conference Member) does not want to discuss whether we should take a vote.

(b) Acknowledge that disagreement exists - about a topic, including an action. This heading really fits into the previous heading. However it deserves highlighting since too few Conferees use this state of disagreement as a means of helping a Conference to proceed further.

(c) Make a decision. This involves agreeing on some matters such as: the problem to discuss, some action to take.

49 Readers should note that consensus[3] exists if the Conference Group reaches any one of the above situations at any time. A Group may achieve one of the first two and decide to try to achieve a decision; but they need not do so to achieve consensus.

50 In the case of (c), the decision could include the following: “We agree to disagree about that point and we agree to defer further discussion and move on to the next point”.

Classes of Conference Personnel

51 Conference Originator – a person who identifies an end objective and tries to achieve it by the means of the Conference.

52 A Conference Originator may not necessarily take part in the conference which the Originator originates; i.e. the Conference Originator may not become a Conference Member.

53 Conference Member  – any person who takes part in a Conference.

54 Conference Leader  – any person who make a procedure contribution; i.e. a person who tries to influence the procedures used by the Conference Members in discussing one or more topics.

55 Official Conference Leader – a person selected[4] – (a) to help the group achieve the groups objectives (assisted conference) or (b) given the objective which someone (often the Conference Originator) wants a group to achieve (directed conference) . Thus, usually, Official Conference Leaders will make more procedure contributions than any other Conference Member.

56 Conference Participant – a person who takes part in a conference but who does not warrant the description Official Conference Leader.

A Summary Diagram of the Classes of Conference Personnel

[1] A specific definition exists in the notes – “Types of Meetings, Conferences, Discussions, and Contributions.”

[2]Other  notes offer a specific definition of butterflying, i.e. they substitute a number in place of “high”.

[3] However the word consensus gets used in the business community at different times without people defining what they mean by the term. In order to check how someone uses “consensus”, ask such questions as: Does consensus just mean agreement? (If so, why use consensus?) Does consensus just mean 100% agreement or 51% or two-thirds or what percentage? However, expect some annoyance from the receiver of your questions - because you have put the person “on the spot”. Some will answer - “everyone knows what consensus mean, you’re just splitting hairs”.

[4] Sometimes the Conference Originator will make the selection. Sometimes the group will do so. Sometimes one or a few members of the group will do so because of their dominance and/or interest and/or the lack of interest of the other members.

A List of the Various Notes on Conference Leading and Participating.

A List of the Notes


A Broad View of Improving Conference Leading and Participating (3)[1]

Some Basic Parts and Processes of Conferences

Types of Meetings, Conferences, , and Contributions (9)

Some Additional Points on Contributions

An Example of Topics and Butterflying. (8)

A Basic Objective for any Conference: Consensus (5)

Some Important Elements in a Conference (8)

Some Important Parts and Processes of a Conference (7)

Stages in a Topic Discussion (25)

Some Common, Related, Discussion Topics (6)

Discussion Techniques

Discussion Techniques – Introduction (3)

Discussion Techniques – Asking Questions: Classes of Questions and when to use the Various Classes (15)
Discussion Techniques – Using the Group’s Questions and Statements and making Statements (4)

Discussion Techniques – Visual Aids (8)

Discussion Techniques – Physical Actions (2)

Discussion Techniques – Outside Distractions (2)

Planning Conferences

Planning the Conference – Broad Considerations (5)

Planning the Conference – Detailed Considerations (3)

Planning the Conference – Personal Preparation by the Leader (5)

Planning the Conference – How much Preparation should the Leader Do? (2)

Conference Leaders and Participants

The Qualities of an Effective Conference Leader (3)

Dealing with “Typical” Conference Participants (7)

Some Useful Techniques for Meetings including Conferences2

Gaining Group Acceptance (4)

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Seeking Unanimity at Meetings and Conferences (2)

A Straw Vote (1)

A Procedure for Selecting Some Items from a Larger List of Items (4)

Silence does not necessarily mean Agreement.


Evaluating the Conference (6)

Exercise – Conference Leading and Participation – Evaluation (4)

Classification of Contributions (22)

Meetings and Some Relationships between Meetings and Conferences

When should Organisations use a meeting (5)

What type of Meeting should a Group Use – Formal, Informal, or Semi Formal? (6)

Some Suggestions to Reduce the Problem: Meetings waste the time of Some Members3 (6)

Additional Notes on Conference Leading

How to chair meetings well (2)

How much time should a conference spend listening to the ideas of a minority on a particular objective?

Some Objectives for a Conference Leader.  (    )

A Role for your Conference Leader/Facilitator. (   )

Outline Points to help Improve Conference Leading. (2)

Description of a Conference Leader. (2  )

Exercise – Conduct an Assisted Conference on a previous Session and/or Exercise. ( 2 )

Observing Conferences

Practice in Observing a Conference – Seven different Roles for Observers to Play (7)


Activities to Improve a Group’s Effectiveness (7)

Another Set of Notes called “Some Ideas for Improving Meetings” exists. The notes in this other material take a similar detailed approach to the material mentioned in the previous footnote; however they concentrate on Formal Meetings.

Another Set of Notes called “Specific Techniques for Specific Situations” exists. It gives detailed help for a wide variety of situations which occur in Conferences (and Meetings).

[1] The numbers in brackets show the number of pages in the notes.

Practice in observing a Conference.

String Diagrams

1 As an Observer to the Conference which follows, draw the “String Diagrams” (see below). It will show (broadly) the people who speak most in the Conference and to whom they speak.

Method of Drawing “String Diagrams”

2 Sketch the Conference layout of people and start a new “String Diagram” every three or four minutes. Record the time that you start each one.

3 Build up the “String Diagram” by putting your pencil on a point near the letter of the person talking and drawing a line directly to the person who contributes next.

4 In some cases it will prove fairly difficult to keep up with a rapid-fire exchange of contributions but do the best you can. When you notice a person talking, even if it rates as an interruption, move the pencil back and forward.

5 Probably you will get most benefit out of a diagram that takes up about a quarter to a third of a foolscap sheet.

6 The following shows an example of two string diagrams.

Procedure Contributions

7 Note down all spoken Procedure Contributions that you can identify and, preferably, who makes them. Try to note down the actual words used.

8 Use the approach – better to get one Procedure Contribution down in full and correctly and miss another one rather than have two half-recorded contributions.

Use the following:

9 A Definition of Spoken Contributions – An oral communication signal from when one person starts to speak (OR other people perceive him/her to start to speak) until he/she finishes speaking (or others perceive that the contributor has stopped speaking)

10 Use the following definition for a Procedure Contribution – Any spoken contribution which relates to how the Conference Members should discuss a particular topic.

11 The “how” would include points on (a) who should contribute, (b) when a contribution should start and/or stop, (c) whether to change the discussion topic and (d) the sequence and/or duration of contributions.

12 If in doubt about whether a contribution rates as a procedural one, record it.

Exercise – Conduct an Assisted Conference on a previous Session and/or Exercise.

Role for Course Member who will conduct a Group Discussion

1 Observe the group or groups which carry out the Session, Exercise, or Role Playing, etc.

2 Take notes if you believe it will help you achieve the objectives which follow.

3 Conduct an assisted group discussion which aims to achieve the following objectives –

     (a) Help the relevant people (or the person) who played a major role in the session, exercise, etc. to – Improve significantly their future performance. (Interpret the word “performance in relation to the objectives laid down for the selected person(s) in the session, exercise, etc.)

      (b) Give more attention to helping the major person or persons than helping other people involved in the session, exercise, etc.

4 Remember you must conduct an assisted discussion. If you do so successfully, the other Course Members will not know your views on any topic discussed.

5 However it will not prove sufficient to achieve an assisted discussion where the content does not help to achieve the objectives in paragraph 3 above.

Outline Points to help improve Conference Leading

1 Remember that any Conference Member can make contributions which will “lead’ the group. Members need not wait for the “official” Leader to lead or have all the helpful ideas.

2 Find out or establish the objective of the Conference.

3 Communicate this objective to Conference Participants and/or check by feedback that they understand the objective.

4 Watch for signs that Group Members do not accept the Conference Objective.

5 Do all the previous three points for each topic (i.e. a part of the objective). (Note: A Conference consists of discussions on one or more “topics”.)

6 Assess relevancy of: (a) each contribution to the topic and (b) each topic to the objective.

7 Bring to the attention of Group, trends or discussions which rate as off the topic.

8 Until experienced (and even then rarely) do not try to act as a Conference Participant – Your job involves helping others make relevant contributions which will help progress towards the Conference objective.

9 Help the Group by summarising at appropriate intervals what Members have said and/or decided and where the discussion stands in relation to the objective.

10 Consider the possibility of designing a framework which will help the Group have a fruitful discussion on content material (as opposed to “designing” conclusions and decisions which the Group will “put on” to the framework).

11 Seek to find relationships between contributions to reduce the number of ideas (or contributions) which the group need to consider in one short period of time (say 5 to 15 minutes).

12 Establish relationships (e.g. links or common elements) by looking for contributions which say the same thing, rate as similar, or say the same thing when defined more clearly. Seek other relationships where a number of ideas have a common element (concept formation) or rate as part of one larger idea or you can group in some way.

13 Consider the advantages of using a board (black or white) to record points made by Participants. Most Participants will find it difficult to remember all the points made if not recorded. If recorded, people can more- easily find relationships.

14 Encourage a constructive and problem-solving attitude in Participants and in their contributions.

15 Deal with the feelings and attitudes of people before attempting to obtain a problem-solving discussion.

16 Consider whether to aim for a:

(a) High-quality decision with (possibly) low acceptance, or

(b) Low-quality decision with high acceptance, or

(c) High-quality decision with high acceptance.

17 Encourage Conference Participants to remember the C-L-U-E to good Conference Participation – i.e. Contribute – Listen – Understand – Evaluate.

18 Separate ideas from idea evaluation. In some cases this distinction will help encourage people to listen and understand before they evaluate early on and decide they need not listen to the rest. Use the phrase ‘1 just want you to listen to me (or another person) and understand me. I do not necessarily want you to agree with me.

19 Consider the advantages of a delay in choosing between solutions in order to search for more possibilities.

Description of a Conference Leader


1 The following extracts (given at the close of the Course) come from actual written statements about the Leader of a Course in Conference Leading.

2 They show the great differences people can have in the evaluation of one person. In some cases almost exactly opposite views exist (e.g. 3 v 13, 7 v 12, 6 v 10, etc.).


3 Lacked sufficient depth of knowledge regarding content of the subject.

4 Perceptive.

5 Clever and quick witted in his handling of the group.

6 Abrasiveness.

7 Very fair.

8 Sense of humour.

9 Sometimes too assertive and type of humour rather unsubtle and I would prefer wit to jibes.

10 Old world charm.

11 Not sufficiently mature in approach and appeared to try to compensate by ‘bluster’ and artificially dynamic.

12 Professional.

13 Somewhat abrasive and lacking in a sense of humour.

14 Excellent conceptionalisation of the components of the tasks of leadership and participation.

A Role for your Conference Leader/Facilitator.


1 Help the group make decisions – not necessarily wise decisions.

Some Sub-Objectives

2 Help the group with the procedures used during discussions.

3 Avoid making content contributions.

4 Encourage that only one person speaks at once.

5 Encourage people to contribute only to the official topic of the moment.  (Avoid Butterflying.)

6 Encourage people to (a) answer the questions other Members put and (b) comment on the ideas of other Members.

7 Check whether people understand what other Members have said.

8 Record ideas (including {draft} decisions) on a board/sheet which everyone can read.

Change of Role

9 The Group may decide to add and/or subtract items from the role described above.

Some Objectives for a Conference Leader.


1 Organisations often arrange a conference/meeting to achieve specific objectives. Sometimes they arrange for an “outside” person to conduct/lead (facilitate) the conference.

2 This person may come from inside or outside the Organisation. The term “outside” means that the person does not rate as a Member of any of the Sections who attend the meeting. Thus this person will not have a stake or interest in the results of the conference.

3 Such a Leader can have the following main objectives –

     (a)   (Help) Plan procedures which will help Conference Members reach the conference objectives,

     (b)  Check that Conference Members accept some or all of the suggested procedures or decide to use other procedures, and

     (c)   Help the Group use the procedures and achieve its objectives.

Specific Objectives a Conference Leader may decide to use

4 A Conference Leader could decide to use one or more of the following objectives.

5 A wise Leader will seek agreement from the Conference Members that they approve of the specific objectives the Leader aims to achieve i.e. the techniques the Leader aims to use in leading the Conference.

6 Allow only one person to speak at a time.

7 Keep group on the official (sub) topic until they agree that they will move to different topic.

8 Encourage Members to speak up if dissatisfied with the procedure – or anything else.

9 Encourage the whole group to make decisions – unless the Group’s Manager wants to decide otherwise.

10 Seek to obtain unanimous decisions.

11 Take straw votes[1] to identify the minority.

12 Encourage the minority to put their viewpoint before the majority.

13 Remind Members that a straw vote does not equal a final vote.

14 Overall help the Group make Decisions – unfortunately, not necessarily wise Decisions.


[1] A Straw Vote aims to show – quickly – all Members each Member’s current view on a topic/issue so that the Group can decide how to conduct the discussion on the topic/issue efficiently in the next minutes.

How much Time should a Conference spend on listening to the Ideas of a Minority on a particular Objectve

A Conference Leader should encourage more time to learn of, and discuss, minority views.

     (a)   the greater the influence the minority Members would have on whether the Organisation/Section would achieve the particular objective.

     (b) the greater the importance of the objectives.

    (c) the greater the amount of time available – in relation to other things to do inside and outside the meeting – at that particular time.

    (d) the greater the number of hidden reasons which exist and the greater the importance of these reasons to the Organisation. These hidden reasons would not necessarily relate to the particular objective under consideration. Thus one or more of the minority may have some hidden reasons for opposing a particular objective. It will prove important to establish these reasons. They might rate as important. If Conference Leaders do not know of their existence, the Leaders cannot evaluate how much time the group should spend on these reasons.

     (e) the greater the ramifications of the Decision/Objective on other Objectives of the Organisation. This factor includes precedence. If one part of an Organisation adopts a particular objective and it affects what happens in other parts of the organisation probably it deserves greater consideration time.

      (f) the greater the resentment the minority feel if they do not have the opportunity of putting forward their ideas. Sometimes simply giving the minority some time to put their ideas and for others to listen  to them will prove sufficient to obtain their cooperation.

2 Sometimes a minority Member opposes the majority simply because of the person with the idea.

     3 Example. Tom always tends to oppose the ideas of Dick because he does not like Dick. If a Leader and/or Group gives Tom time to talk they only waste the time because it will have no effect on Tom’s opinion or Dick’s opinion. No matter what Dick or Tom say to each other they will oppose each other. Thus in the case where the objective does not rate as important and Tom does not play a major part in achieving the objective, spending time on the objective will prove useless.



How to chair Meetings well.


1 Most meetings waste many minutes for those who attend. Just think of the improvement in productivity if people could eliminate only half of this wasted time.

2 While the cause lies in many areas, poor chairing of meetings contributes more than most.

3 Thus Chairpersons should examine their own behaviour by answering the following questions.


4 When you announce an agenda item or a new topic, do you put your own view first?

5 On at least half the occasions, immediately after a Meeting Member has contributed something, do you make some comment?

6 Do you believe that you talk for more than thirty per cent of the time of a meeting?

7 Do you allow two or more conversations to occur at once?

8 Do you lack a system that allows one Member to indicate to you, without disturbing the current Speaker, that he or she wishes to make a contribution?

9 Having arranged for some such system, do you then ignore the signal that you have acknowledged?

     10 Example.You arrange for Members to indicate their desire to contribute by raising their hands. You nod to the person to acknowledge you have seen the signal but then fail to ensure that the person gets the chance to contribute in his/her correct turn.

11 Do you take votes when people do not understand the issue on which they vote?

12 Do you call for a Yes vote without inquiring how many want to vote No?

13 Do you fail to have a motion written down and read out before taking a vote?

14 Do you allow the meeting to consider a proposition that consists of two parts so that a Member cannot vote one way on one part and a different way on the other part?

15 Do most of your contributions relate to the topics on the Agenda as compared with the procedure that the meeting should take?

16 Do you feel annoyed that the meeting has decided something that you oppose?

17 When a Meeting Member (i.e. not in the Chair) , have you failed to observe other Chairpersons and failed to identify what they do that annoys you and makes you feel so frustrated that you feel like not coming to the next meeting?


18 If you have answered “Yes” to over half of the above questions, you have a wonderful opportunity to:

     (a) improve your chairing of meetings

     (b) improve the productivity of your Organisation

     (c) improve the happiness of other people.

19 However, probably you will NOT grasp these opportunities unless you accept that a Chairperson should take the role of “servant of the meeting members” – not an autocratic dictator.