Connecting people to make better events: In conversation with Jan-Jaap in der Maur

You’ve been moderating events for many years now. So I have to ask, how did you find yourself in this profession? Do you remember your first event?

The first event I moderated was for a chain of supermarkets. I got into this business because I was a filmmaker for companies and at some point I was working with a producer who was involved in both corporate films and events. She asked me if I wanted to moderate and I was curious so I said yes and ended up on stage. I loved it. And I have been doing it since then.

And so you worked as a moderator for a few years before starting Masters in Moderation? What made you start that venture?

We (that’s Hans and me) already had worked for a few years as event moderators before the idea came to me. Sometimes there would be events for which I knew a colleague to be a better fit than me.

I’m arrogant and confident enough to say that I’m above average. But even with my skills there would be some events where my performance might be a 6.5 out of 10 and I would feel certain that someone else would have been a 9 at that event. And if we could just make the right connections and redistribute the events, then everyone would be at the event that fits them. Events – meaning participants ánd organisers – would also benefit from the right moderators.

That’s quite simple and at the same time, really efficient! I’m impressed that a democratic mindset made you start it.

Well, not so much ‘democratic’ maybe… I would ask: why are you in a profession?

The basic reason why I love this profession is because I want to make events and meetings better. If you look at it from the perspective of effect and not primarily from the perspective of making money, then it just makes sense to connect the right event to the right moderator. Also every moderator in the circle ends up getting events that fit him/her. Also, I am not a saint. When giving work to other moderators, I keep a part of their fee. It’s a business model as well as a passion model.

So I’d like to ask, why are you in this profession?

Events and meetings help people stay connected. On a more philosophical scale, you can even say that the world will be a better place when people meet. Provided of course, that these meetings are well organised, well designed and well moderated. So that’s my reason for doing it.

How long have you been doing this?

It’s now been 20-25 years roughly—

And in that time I am sure you have met many different kinds of people. I remember you had commented on my interview with Wendee Lee-Curtis about discrimination in the event industry. Could you expand on that?

Sure. In my experience, many clients will choose the typical middle-aged, white male as a moderator.

Wow! They specifically say they want a man?

Let me put it this way. If we send them a selection of our moderators to choose from, the chances of them selecting the young woman wearing a hijab or the physically handicapped male is going to be very slim; even when they are great moderators.

The exception is clients asking for a female moderator, because there are only men on stage. They are asking for a female moderator for the wrong reasons: just to make it LOOK diverse, instead of fundamentally BEING diverse. If you have all male speakers, you should bring in some female speakers for balance, and not a female moderator. That isn’t addressing the problem of why there is a male-only panel in the first place.

Do you remember any specific instances of discrimination?

Well, just an example. A very talented meeting designer was working with a client. She was almost 30, so not new or inept in any way. She had been trying to suggest a change in the event design for months. The meeting director kept telling her, we don’t want any changes.

Then they hired a moderator— this is my colleague Hans. He entered the stage, 20 mins before the event, and made the same suggestion and they accepted it.

Do you think it came from accepting his suggestion because of his age? Was there an assumption that because he is older, he has more experience?

Yes, I’m fully convinced that this had to do with the idea being pitched by a young female versus an older (sorry, Hans 😊) male.

And yes, Hans did have more experience. But that doesn’t mean he knows everything better! Youngsters may bring in fresh ideas that are worth listening to. That’s why we work a lot with upcoming moderators: partly to share our experience, but also to be inspired with new ways of looking at meetings & events.

So in all these years of moderating, was there a time when something really went wrong? Did you learn something from that?

Of course! For instance a speaker didn’t turn up for a conference. Very last minute. And we did a powerpoint karaoke for his presentation!

A powerpoint karaoke?

I picked someone from the participants to present the first slide and they had to pick someone for the next one. Sometimes people didn’t really know what they were reading, so I asked the other participants to help find the meaning of the slide. In a way, that combination of dialogue and fun ended up being better in the absence of the speaker.

Yeah, sounds unique and engaging!

And about mistakes and things going wrong, there was a period of time when I thought I knew everything. At some point there is a little voice telling you that you are brilliant. So you come to think you don’t have to learn anything anymore. You stop preparing. Then you really mess up an event and then you really learn. There is a story where I thought I understood a fairly complex topic in economics. I knew something about economics, so I felt really confident. But on the day of the event I realised that I didn’t know anything, really.

So how did you figure that out?

The participants told me. They told me that my questions sucked.

Oh! I’m cringing a little imagining that.

Well yes, so did I on the inside. The right thing to do in such a moment though, is to accept that you made a mistake and ask them what is a question they would want answered. Makes you humble and also increases audience participation.

You and a couple of your colleagues have created the dialogue tool ConsensIQ. What led you to that?

ConsensIQ as an idea was developed over the course of 5 or 6 years. The basic idea is that there are voting tools and they work very well when you want simple questions with one outcome. But if you want to allow people to have doubt, to stimulate progressive insight in a matter, to learn from each other, to reach a joint understanding of dilemmas and to take balanced decisions, then those tools, in my experience, fall short. So, we decided to come up with a tool that allows groups to truly explore a question, dilemma or decision. It will open up the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and will bring better, deep-democratic outcomes.

In this era we kind of live with the idea that you should have opinions about everything within 2 seconds and be very loud about it. But that doesn’t bring the world any further, in my opinion. By having people think and talk about things longer, I think the outcome will be better. We need to slow down and dig deeper, basically.

(In pic: Jerre Maas and Hans Etman, co-creators of ConsensIQ)

How big a role do you see tech playing in the events industry in the coming years? What would you hope from tech?

Before we involve tech, we should start making meetings fundamentally better first. Concentrate on Meeting Design, before you start randomly throwing in tech. Because tech should be more than a gadget. There are too many events where tech is at the centre, whereas it should be supportive of conversation, interactions, etc. I mean: tech is just a tool. A powerful one, if used well. But still just a tool.

I am quite convinced that Metaverse, AR, holograms etc will help us take events to the next level, by bringing the outside world into the venue. That kind of technology where you put on glasses and in 3D experience a simulation of any situation, that really adds another layer to your understanding of what’s happening. Imagine how that could take a conference from talking about something to truly understanding stuff! For example: at a conference on hotels and hospitality, imagine you can experience in 3D what the guest feels like when walking into a hotel. That sense of confusion of being lost as they try navigating in the lobby, to see from their perspective. And then discussing how to change that, immediately trying what those changes may do.

Yes, that would definitely be a new dimension to understanding or appreciating others’ experiences and perspectives.

In the future of events, tech will help us make a deeper impact if we start from human to human interaction and only use tech to deepen the interaction where the human element falls short. If you put tech first, you create a problem in my opinion. I see at events people being asked to take out their phone and use an app right from the get go. If there’s a lot of tech involvement, you set up the attendees/participants to behave like that throughout the event. They aren’t going to step out into the foyer during break and start actively socializing. Chances are, they will be on their phones. That’s why I will always embed tech into H2H-conversation.

So then what would you say is important for event moderators and event designers to keep in mind?

A few things. Your tone of voice as a moderator is important.

You need to be able to compose like you are composing a classical music piece. If you are listening to Bach or Beethoven or whoever you like, there aren’t instruments just playing loudly all the time. Even for a rock song like Killing in the name (Rage Against the Machine), you will hear a sort of a riding of the wave. Even though it’s bam bam bam, there is still an element of quiet. So moderation and meeting design should always be about composing the right tone, pace and style at every moment during the event.

That’s a very cool example. When you talk about pacing the event, what do you mean?

Overall I’d like to say that interaction should not be done just for the fun of it. If you have people interact, do it for a reason. The reason could be to simply open a window in people’s brains. Or help them digest what they have heard when the speaker is finished.

We often give people knowledge, inspiration etc. but we do not give them the opportunity to process it.

The very basic exercise of asking them to raise their hands to a simple yes or no question, engages their mind. And having them discuss a quick question in small groups, you basically bring the networking into the conference instead of just leaving it for lunch or drinks.

Yes, it is easier to get people to interact if you already initiate it within the conference.

Yes. Imagine walking into a conference with 400 people, not knowing anyone. When the speaker or moderator asks you “what is the meaning of life” out of nowhere, you will likely not respond. Too scary, right? Whereas if I ask you a simple question first, ask you to raise your hand to something, you gradually participate little by little. Then later on, you might feel free and safe enough to come up with a question or statement on a deeper topic.

Would you say that people generally respond well if you follow this method?

With some groups it is easier than with others. So the particular country’s culture matters. The Dutch, we talk a lot. But Finnish people are more introverted. It might also change from company to company and so the participants would interact accordingly. It can also be the topic. A positive topic is easier to get people talking than a negative one. Unless the negative topic is so negative that people are angry and want to express their anger.

That’s true. Cultural differences have a way of deciding the overall tone of the event.

I always consider meetings and events as a temporary tribe. We may go home afterwards and never see each other again or become friends for life, but for now we are a temporary tribe. So, as a moderator, I need to make people feel like they are a part of that tribe. If I can make people feel seen, heard and loved, then they will participate.

Finally, a question that I’m borrowing from you: what do you think is the meaning of life?

I think the meaning of life is to

  1. accept that we have no clue what the meaning of life is and
  2. Live well. Some people are religious and some are not; some believe in heaven, while some don’t. I like to believe that we are already in heaven and this life is it. So the reward for being a good person is not in the afterlife. It may be there or not and I’m not in that sense a religious person and I will make up my mind when I have proof. But I believe that we are here to make it feel like we are in heaven here. If you are a good person, it will come back to you in some way.

Unfortunately, we are not doing a good job right now in making earth a paradise. But I am convinced that we could make that happen.

[This interview was conducted and edited by Aayati Sengupta]


Now I will write something about myself. I like to be with people – but I don’t like it when the atmosphere is tense. That’s why I’ve learned to shorten the distance and make it bearable. Sometimes it’s even friendly. So much so that I host the largest conferences and panel discussions in Poland, and increasingly abroad.

My specialities are technology, environment and business. I am also a legal advisor (but that’s a longer story for another time). I have created dozens of radio and TV programmes, including a talk-show in English. I studied at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. And I love the United States. 

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