Magician at NOAA or GSA Meetings, Might Be a Good Idea!

Magician at NOAA or GSA Meetings, Might Be a Good Idea!

A Viewpoint and Commentary by the Author of Boring Meetings Suck; Jon Petz

Have you missed the headline about “Magician at meeting” on the news networks in the past few days? It referred to the upcoming National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) leadership and training meeting that had plans to include a motivational guest speaker/magician to present “The Magic Of Change.”

Maybe you recall the General Services Administration’s (GSA) recent disclosure of a 2010 conference for federal employees. It carried an $830,000 price tag, billed to American taxpayers. This conference’s program featuring a magician as well as a comedian and mentalist has been the focus of a media frenzy and taxpayer outrage in the past month.

I’m thankful for the watchdogs who help our government be more fiscally responsible. I vote for smaller government. I vote for aggressive cost-cutting measures. I vote against lavish cocktail parties hosted at taxpayers’ expense. I also vote against ineffective meetings and abuse of productive time that gets lost due to poor focus and engagement. What suffers? Achieving meaningful results.

So where and when should that red flag be waved?

Here’s my viewpoint. Meetings are about creating, informing, recognizing, evaluating or deciding. To realize any of these, the organizers must know how to connect with participants in today’s fast-paced, high-distraction world. The best results stem from participants being actively engaged in the process. That means no attendees are typing away on their mobile devices as a presenter monotones through an array of poorly designed PowerPoint™ slides. 

It doesn’t matter how awesome a message may be, if it doesn’t engage its listeners, they won’t get it! And they certainly won’t take action because of it.

Maybe a magician, professional speaker, or polished emcee who knows how to engage participants is needed to bring a creative focus to a meeting’s objectives. Maybe the money spent because of that focus leads to an exponential return on investment. Contrast that with an organization’s director or executive leading the conversation. Do you see attendees slowly slump into PowerPoint prison? Can you count how many quickly disengage and quietly work on items unrelated to the meeting at hand?

“Connection, participation and implementation” versus “wasteful spending of taxpayer money, time and talent.” That’s the issue with the NOAA “magician meeting” controversy. But my viewpoint isn’t political; rather, it’s a concern about connecting participants so together they can drive action-oriented results.

Now, the vast majority of people might perceive the magician at the meeting to be clown like—a sideshow with no purpose beyond amusement and intrigue. And on many occasions, this might be the meeting’s objective. However, the NOAA planners did design objectives into the guest speakers’ role and content requested. These objectives appear to clearly align with the event’s strategy and innovative flair as indicated in a statement from NOAA’s publicly posted request for a speaker. It stated: “a unique model of translating magic and principles of the psychology of magic, magic tools, techniques and experiences into a method of teaching leadership.”

What were the strategically planned outcomes of these NOAA or GSA leadership meetings? What actions and/or new understandings are meant to be the result from this time together? Let me speculate: Presumably, NOAA’s strategy for this conference is to find innovative ways to help the struggling fishing families that Senator Brown (R-MA) is fighting for. Maybe an activity using an engagement tactic can spark a creative idea that fosters new insights and plans of action.

That’s highly possible. Why? Because humans learn and retain information through emotion and novelty that engage the brain and promote recall (along with visual, verbal and physical interaction). This isn’t my own view; I’m citing information from these neuroscience expert publications and brain scientists:

–          How The Brain Learns (Dr. David Sousa, Corwin Press, 2011 4th edition)

–          Brain based learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching (Dr. Eric Jensen, Corwin Press, 2008)

In addition, speakers of all kinds use jokes, stories, anecdotes and analogies to give messages a meaning. Why not use a magic trick for the same purpose? How do any of these differ from each other anyway?

If all of these tactics are designed to engage listeners (which they are), then should every story, joke, anecdote or analogy be labeled “entertainment”? Should these tactics be shunned or blamed for wasteful spending in a meeting? What’s the benefit of having boring meetings anyway? They get us nowhere. In fact, they become the time wasters when people don’t get engaged. That’s when do-over meetings have to be scheduled; no results came out of the first one!

Meetings that are conducted effectively lead to productive results, and organizations implement those results for the betterment of the people they serve. Isn’t that the idea?

So answer this question: Which is the bigger waste of money:

(A)   A $12,000 meeting that gets results in the form of behavioral changes, innovations and/or solutions to problems.

(B)   A $10,000 meeting that has no effect in creating change.

Meeting (A) includes a guest speaker or trainer who’s focuses participants on the right issues in an entertaining, original way. That leads to creating a connection and providing a measurable result based on the strategic objectives of the meeting. 

Meeting (B) includes a familiar organizational leader or speaker who’s presenting material that participants have probably already heard in less-than-engaging manners. This meeting results in few behavior changes or even a less-than-successful implementation plan.

Costs for both meetings include the same meeting room, pots of coffee, mileage expense and afternoon cookie snack in line with government per diem meal allowances. But also consider the lost time that could have been spent researching solutions for fishing families instead of sitting in a meeting. 

Doesn’t this argue for spending 10% more to get results from a pro who knows how to use stories—even magic tricks—to focus the audience on the organization’s objectives?

It’s a small (additional) price to pay to replace boring meetings that suck the money out of an organization (and you know the ones I mean) with ones that rock.


Jon Petz is a professional keynote speaker and author of Boring Meetings Suck, Get More Out of Your Meetings, or Get OUT of More Meetings (Wiley & Sons 2011).


Posted by Jon Petz in Articles.

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  1. […] Magician at NOAA or GSA Meetings, Might Be a Good Idea! […]

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