A Magical Meeting Story from professional facilitator Cam Houser
Welcome to Magical Meetings Stories, a series where I chat with professional facilitators, meeting practitioners, leaders, and CEOs across industries about their meeting culture. We dive deep into a specific magical meeting they’ve run, including their approach to facilitation design, and their tips and tricks for running meetings people thrive in.
Our first story is with Cam Houser, founder of Actionworks. He is a facilitator and workshop leader with over 10 years of experience. Cam is also an internationally recognized professor at the University of Texas at Austin and Universidad Rosario in Colombia. Cam’s company combines artificial intelligence with room intelligence to deliver online courses and workshops for entrepreneurs and innovators. Cam was first inspired to work with experiential entrepreneurship education 10 years ago while in grad school at the University of Texas. When he realized that universities struggle with entrepreneurship education, he founded and led an organization called 3 Day Startup. This initiative served 15,000 people in 200 countries—ranging from college students in the rainforests of Brazil to grad students at Harvard to professionals twenty years deep into a manufacturing career. These people founded thousands of companies, achieved dozens of exits, and raised over $187 million in funding. A decade later, Cam started Actionworks to expand his vision further to help universities and governments build and implement entrepreneurship education.
Today, he spends most of his time helping established organizations, from Apple to a 100-year-old Danish paint company, adopt and implement entrepreneurial approaches to projects and problem-solving.
I talked with Cam about his Instant Community-Building Workshop, how he designed it, what it helped to accomplish, and his approach to facilitation design.
“I think Zoom fatigue is a lie. Zoom fatigue only happens when facilitators don’t know what they’re doing.” – Cam Houser
“The greatest Zoom session I’ve ever had”
Cam created the Instant Community-Building Workshop to help people break down walls and connect on a deeper level to work better together. He was first inspired by researcher and psychologist Arthur Aron and his ‘36 Questions That Lead To Love’ experiment. The theory behind the experiment was that taking human beings, sitting them down, and asking them 36 intimate questions would lead to a deep connection. Aron found that questions escalating in intimacy indeed gradually led to a greater closeness between people. He and his wife found that people felt very bonded after answering three sets of 12 questions at the end of their sessions. A couple in one of their cohort experiments even ended up getting married. That’s when they knew they had something really powerful.
Cam was on his own quest to use this formula to connect people in the business, specifically in the new virtual landscape. “We’re all separated over carbon or fiber optics right now…What I’ve been really interested in is how can we run community-building sessions and meetings…I’m talking about human beings becoming intimate together, closeness.” So he decided to run 36 similar questions in Zoom rooms. “I’ve been experimenting with it as far as startup founders, I’ve been doing it as a corporate training exercise, but the whole point of things is that we are disconnected, strewn about the world right now…What does it mean to get close to someone? What does it mean to transition from an acquaintance to a colleague or even getting closer to a peer?”
Cam pairs participants in Zoom breakout rooms to answer escalating questions, starting with “what would you like to have for dinner?” and ending with “what do you want to be remembered for when you die?” Vulnerability breeds connection, and Cam has the framework to prove it. He’s run this magical meeting 10 times with great success. The last time he led this workshop was in late January 2020 for 130 entrepreneurs from the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, or YLAI–a program that supports Latin American entrepreneurs. The purpose was to build genuine, lasting relationships among members to kick off the group’s orientation. Until last year, YLAI brought over 200 entrepreneurs to the U.S. to learn how entrepreneurship works here. However, due to COVID, the meeting needed to be run virtually for the first time. Cam stepped in to connect the dispersed audience across 40 different countries in Latin America, Central America, and South America.
“The point of this was to spike them with enough dopamine and bonding and oxytocin so that all the subsequent learning they get, they’re set on a nice foundation of bonding and togetherness.”
Let’s take a closer look at Cam’s process to see what made this workshop magical.
Cam began the workshop with a bonding mechanism. He told a personal story about how he accidentally insulted an audience while giving a talk in Chile. He accidentally used the wrong phrase to casually address the group, unknowingly saying “What’s up jerks” in their language. He pivoted from the story and opened up a chat storm with the workshop group, prompting them to share how they informally say hello where they’re each from. All participants hit “Enter” at the same time to create the chat storm. The waterfall effect connected the group in real-time while they are disconnected physically.
Next, he shared the workshop agenda. He started with a congratulatory ‘welcome for showing up’, followed by a 5-min explanation of what to expect in the workshop. During this time, Cam also set the ground rules. He explained that the workshop exercise was completely voluntary and that all participants must treat each other with respect.
The main exercise consisted of 36 questions in 3 sets of 12. Each set of questions is allotted 15 minutes. The questions escalate in intimacy, starting more casual and elevating to more personal. For example, from “If you could have dinner with someone alive or dead, who would it be?” to “If you died right now, what would be your deepest regret?” Participants were randomly assigned breakout rooms with a partner to discuss the questions. There is a break between each set of questions where all participants were routed back to the main group to debrief. The debrief can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30+ minutes, depending on the level of engagement. “Because this is such a charged, delightful experience, a lot of times I have to extend the debrief to be 45 minutes because that’s where the richness is coming through.”
The pairs stayed the same throughout the exercise to establish a solid connection between the participants.
What Makes it Different
Unlike other exercises that lose their richness when participants already know the answers, Cam’s 36 questions can be used in the same group more than once. Pairing people makes this exercise scale well. The key is to pair people with a different partner each time they do the workshop so they can share their answers with someone new.
“What’s really powerful about this meeting is that when you do it, it’s still rich and interesting…Some people start crying in this thing.”
Facilitation Design Approach
I asked Cam about his overall approach to facilitation design, the tools, tips, and tricks he used to create his magical meeting. He said that he is a musician and he approaches workshop structure the same way. “A musician has a number of songs they know. Like Homer and the poets in ancient Rome, a lot of their storytelling was just stitching together different stories that are from different places. I do the same thing. So I take less of a starting from a blank slate facilitation design, and more about what’s in my repertoire that I can stitch together.”
He stays away from a scaling approach. Cam says he’s not a fan of theorizing and over strategizing. Instead, he prefers doing the “unscalable, slow, annoying way of doing things”. “I’m just very, very big on engagement. I’m trying to keep that ratio of me talking, sage on the stage, to minimal…The people you have in that Zoom grid, they’re where the magic is and that’s what good facilitation is.”
Psychological safety is also a cornerstone of Cam’s facilitation method because he believes in leaning into discomfort. “I will sometimes bake mistakes into my presentations for them to see me make a mistake, which is code for showing some vulnerability. And they see me not get phased and not feel judged. And it sets the tone for the room that, ‘Hey, we can make mistakes here’ because vulnerability leads to better outcomes…I do lots of weird, out-there stuff just to set the frame.”
Another critical aspect of Cam’s approach is getting the audience’s attention at the very beginning of the meeting. “We don’t have time, in the modern era, to wait for people’s attention span…with facilitation design, you need to shock and awe very, very early.” That way, the audience knows the session is participatory, he says. They know not to expect a ‘normal session’, but one that is interactive and transformative.
Cam also gets inspiration for his workshops by borrowing from other places. “When I go to a live show, I watch the performers and see if they’re doing anything interesting. I think that innovation is very much a function of outsiders. So I study the world of facilitation and I read the books a lot, but I look to other places that you wouldn’t expect as well. A lot of entertainment–I listen to a lot of rap music to see how rappers manage their audiences and see how that can apply to everything that’s going on in the facilitation world.”
Tips & Tricks
One key to Cam’s success is creating an agenda for each meeting–a complete, structured sequence of events. However, he also approaches each meeting knowing that there’s a greater than 50% chance that he will need to divert wildly from the schedule. “I have the confidence to do that because I’ve run a lot of rooms. I’ve had rooms that were magical. I’ve had rooms that were awful. But when you do that, you have the confidence to adjust a little more.”
When running a virtual session, he is never in speaker view on Zoom. He always chooses gallery view because it serves as his analytics dashboard, allowing him to read the room. “I will adjust the agenda based on how much reaction and feedback I’m getting from the faces in the Zoom windows. And if I feel like I’m losing the audience, I will speed things up, slow things down.”
Cam also likes to incorporate gratitude attacks, his favorite facilitation play, into his meetings. This is a public acknowledgment of someone, usually on your team, to shine a light on their work. For example, Julia is one of Cam’s behind-the-scenes gals. She helps everything run smoothly during virtual workshops. A gratitude attack would look something like this: Cam announces to the entire workshop, “Hey gang, I don’t know if you can see all the work that Julia is doing, but she’s doing magic behind the scenes, making this meeting happen. So I’m going to unmute the mic and we’re all going to share our words of support, appreciation, and gratitude for her all at once.” On the count of three, everyone unmutes and simultaneously shares their appreciation for Julia. “It doesn’t matter that you can’t hear exactly what people are saying. The point is it’s a Zoom grid full of people, shouting your praises…I am incredibly proud of having come up with this idea…I love these things that transcend exchanging information in a meeting room, coming together as human beings, accomplishing amazing things.”
There are several tools Cam uses to create magic and connection in his meetings:
- Zoom–fosters connection using conversation, chats, and breakout sessions.
- Google docs–a collaborative workspace for people to work async.
- Audio–a perk of virtual workshops is that everyone hears the volume at exactly the right tune when you share audio through Zoom. This bonds people together, as if they’re in the same room.
- Music–another powerful way to connect people. He uses it during debriefs and at the beginning and end of workshops. Some of Cam’s most impactful workshops were due to music. “The music was as powerful or more powerful than the words I was saying.”
Cam attributes his success as a facilitator to focusing on the people he serves. “For me, it’s having that mindset of ‘how do I get people closer together?’ And as much as I am a businessman who gets paid by corporations to run interesting sessions, at the end of the day, I think all businesses are about people.”
His acceptance and anticipation of failure also drive him to be innovative in his facilitation approach. “I have no faith that anything I do will ever work. I expect most things to fail miserably, but because I’m used to it, it doesn’t bother me that much. And that’s the only way to find the things that are really powerful.”