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Should presenter contracts include a no brown M&Ms rider?

December 5th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

vanhalenriderVan Halen‘s 1982 World Tour performance contract contained a provision calling for them to be provided backstage with a bowl of M&Ms from which all the brown candies had been removed. Although this sounds like a self-indulgent rock-group’s outrageous whim, there was a sound business reason for inserting this peculiar request in the depths of a 53-page contract:

“The M&Ms provision was included in Van Halen’s contracts not as an act of caprice, but because it served a practical purpose: to provide a simple way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and complied with.”
Brown Out, snopes.com

If the group arrived at a venue and discovered brown M&Ms present, they knew they needed to immediately check all contract stipulations — including important matters like whether the stage could actually handle the massive weight of the band’s equipment. Apparently, David Lee Roth would also trash the band’s dressing room to drive home the point.

Over the years I’ve contracted with hundreds of organizations for meeting facilitation and design consulting, and I’m starting to wonder if I need to adopt Van Halen’s approach.

For example, I have arrived at presentation venues to find, despite a written contract agreement to the contrary:

  • The room is full of furniture that prevents participants from moving around. “We didn’t realize it was important, and we need this room set for the session after yours.”
  • I can’t post materials on the walls. “Can’t you use some tables instead?”
  • Requested audio equipment isn’t available. “We couldn’t get you a Countryman/lav, but here’s a hand mike.”
  • The unobstructed free space is far smaller than what I requested or was told. “We needed a stage for the afternoon keynote.“/ “We decided to hold the buffet in the room.”
  • Fine-point Sharpies have been replaced by ballpoint pens. “Oh I see, yes, I guess no one will be able to read all the participant Post-Its at a distance. We’ll just have to make do.”
  • Projector resolution is not what I was told or requested. “Your slides will be a bit distorted, but I’m sure people will still be able to read them.”
  • Tables that were supposed to be covered with taped down white paper for participant drawings are still bare. “Kevin said he’d cover them, but we don’t know where he is. Surely it won’t take long; can you help us?”
  • Carefully diagrammed room sets have been replaced with something different. “Well, our staff have never set up curved theater seating before — it’s not on their standard charts — so they set the rows straight.”

It’s true that I’m not the standard-presenter-talking-from-a-podium-at-the-front-of-the-room — i.e. “Give me a room full of chairs and my PowerPoint and I’m all set!” Yet there are sound reasons for my, apparently to some, strange-seeming requests. Those contract provisions are not about making my life easier or more luxurious — they are needed to provide participants with the best possible learning, connection, and overall experience during my time with them.

I am well aware of the incredible demands made on meeting planners before and during events. I’ve had that role for hundreds of events, and know what it’s like. Things rarely go according to plan, and creative solutions need to be invented on the spot. No matter what happens, I always work with planners to the best of my ability to ensure that the show goes on and it’s the best that it can be under the circumstances.

What’s frustrating is that complications like the examples above can almost always be avoided with a modicum of planning — if meeting planners read and take seriously the contract terms to which they’ve agreed. I will bend over backwards to resolve pre-event concerns, but being hit with last-minute surprises is, at best, annoying, and, at worst, can significantly reduce the effectiveness of what I have been paid and contracted to do.

No, I’m not going to start trashing dressing rooms like David Lee Roth. (Full disclosure: nobody’s ever even offered me a dressing room.) But, folks, if you hire me, don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. Please read the contract before signing it, ask me about anything you don’t understand or are concerned about so we’re clear about my needs and your ability to fulfill them, take my requests seriously, and, as the event approaches, keep in mind your commitments so they don’t get overlooked. I will appreciate your professionalism, and everyone — your attendees, you, and I — will reap the benefits.

Three prerequisites for lifelong learning

November 28th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

pablo_casals_in_buenos_aires_1937When the renown cellist Pablo Casals was asked why, at 81, he continued to practice four or five hours a day he answered: “Because I think I am making progress.

Like Casals, I want to keep living lifelong learning by:

As an example, here’s what I recently learned while leading a workshop.

Trying new things and noticing what happens
During the workshop:

  • I used a projected countdown timer and a 90-second piece of music to get participants back in their seats on time at the end of a short mid-workshop break. Outcome? It worked really well!
  • While facilitating body voting (aka human spectrograms) I verbally stated each question we were exploring. Outcome? It seemed like a few participants didn’t hear or understand what I’d said until I repeated myself. Verbal communication didn’t work so well.
  • I wore a red hat when I was explaining/debriefing, and took it off when I was facilitating experiences. Outcome? This was the second time I’ve tried this approach, and I’m still not sure whether it’s effective/useful or not.

When you pursue risky learning, some things work while some don’t — and for some, the jury is still out. Whatever happens, you can learn something!

Soliciting and being open to observations and feedback
During the workshop:

  • Some of the questions I asked during body voting asked individuals to come up with a numeric answer, and then join a group line in numerical order. Someone had the bright idea of showing their answer with fingers raised above their head, so it was easy for others to see where to go in the line. Many participants copied the idea, which sped up forming the human spectrograms. I’d never seen this done before, and will adopt this simple and effective improvement.
  • I love to use a geographic two-dimensional human spectrogram to allow participants to quickly discover others who lives/work near them. The wide U.S. map I projected did not correspond to the skinny width of the room. A participant suggested that we rotate where we stood by 90º. I tried her suggestion and found that it was easy for people to move to their correct positions. Duly noted!
  • At the end of the workshop, I solicited public feedback at a group spective. One participant shared frustration with my verbal statements of the body voting questions, and suggested that the questions also be projected simultaneously. An excellent refinement that I will incorporate in future.

Notice how participants were able to point out deficiencies in processes I used, and simultaneously came up with some fine solutions. Peer learning in action!

Final thoughts
I’ve been designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich meetings for 25 years, and many participants have been kind enough to share that I’m good at what I do (check out the sidebar testimonials).

But I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I’m no Casals, but, like him, I keep practicing, learning, and — hopefully — making progress.

Photo attribution: Gus Ruelas

Guaranteeing audience engagement at your events

November 21st, 2016 by Adrian Segar

engagementMost people won’t ask questions at meetings. So how can you get authentic audience engagement at your events?

In a thoughtful article “Audience Engagement – at the Heart of Meetings“, Pádraic Gilligan writes:

“…We all want audience engagement so why doesn’t it take place?…While the speaker can be to blame for lack of audience engagement, in my experience, it’s usually the fault of the audience!”

I disagree.

I’ve found that lack of audience engagement is due to the generally poor process used during most meeting sessions.

A different workshop
Last Wednesday I led a two-hour workshop in Boston for 160 members of a national education association. Every participant was active during ~80% of the workshop: discovering the concerns and experience of other participants, moving around the room while forming human spectrograms to learn about each other and the group (I used three participant-created chair sets during the session) and learning and connecting around issues and topics relevant to them throughout.

The hardest task of the workshop was getting people to stop talking with each other so we could move to the next part!

Pádraic suggests that hi-tech polling methods can be used to increase engagement. I agree that such technology can help engagement, but it’s not necessary. During my workshop, I showed 12 slides, but would have been fine without them. Other technology I used included 5″x8″ cards, pens, and large post-it notes. No high tech was needed with one optional exception — we projected a Google Doc at the end, to capture and display all the group feedback during the closing public workshop evaluation.

In 25 years of experience, I’ve found that most people have a fundamental need and desire to connect with others with whom they share something in common. When you use good group process to safely facilitate appropriate connection, ~98% embrace the opportunity and learn, connect, and engage effectively with their peers. Anonymity, if needed, can be readily supplied by no-tech/low-tech process, but it turns out that it’s needed a lot less than people think.

Every person in the workshop received a copy of my book The Power of Participation, which explains why participant-driven and participation-rich sessions are so important, how to create an environment for this kind of learning, connection, engagement, and resulting action, and how and when to use a large organized compendium of appropriate process tools. The participants I spoke with after the workshop told me how excited they were: planning to read the book and start putting what they had experienced into improving their professional development work in education.

It’s possible to create amazing learning and connection though approaches I’ve outlined above. When I facilitate longer conferences I can assure you that almost everyone will ask questions in public at some point during the event.

Conclusion
If you aren’t getting excellent audience engagement, don’t blame the audience! Change the processes you use in your sessions, and engagement will be guaranteed!

You can experience how to use process tools to significantly improve the effectiveness of your sessions and events at one of my 1½-day workshops in North America and Europe. If you can’t participate in a workshop, buy a copy of The Power of Participation to learn the why, what, and how of building better learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes into your events.

When consensus is dangerous

November 14th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

consensus-animateImagine a group of people who need to make a decision about something. As the size of the group increases, the chance that everyone will be happy with what is decided falls exponentially. Unless there’s unanimous agreement, the group will use — either explicitly or tacitly — some kind of rule that determines whether a specific decision is acceptable. Groups often use tacit rules when the consequences of the decision are minor [“Harry, you feel strongly we should do this but Kerrie & I don’t care either way, so let’s go with your approach”] or when “consensus” is only a pretense [“Well, I think we should do this. Any objections? OK, it’s decided.”]

So, you may wonder, if a group wants consensus, where consensus is defined by an explicit decision rule, then what decision rule should be used?

Danger, Will Robinson!

The moment we start trying to define consensus with a rule that tells us whether we have got it or not, we diverge from the core reason to seek consensus.

The value of consensus is in the process of seeking it — not a “yes, we have consensus!” outcome as defined by a decision rule.

There is no magic formula that will create the maximum likelihood that consensus, however we define it, will be obtained.

The best we can strive for is what Hans, Annemarie & Jennifer Bleiker, who have trained over 30,000 public-sector professionals over the last 40 years, call Informed Consent, which they define as follows:

Informed Consent is the grudging willingness of opponents to (grudgingly) “go along” with a course of action that they — actually — are opposed to.

The concept of consensus becomes dangerous when we use process that forces a fake “consensus” outcome on a group. An example of this is what is sometimes called 2-4-8 consensus, as quoted here:

2, 4, 8 consensus is an excellent tool for prioritising in large groups. This exercise will take time, but will help a group reach a decision that everyone can live with! It’s usually best to impose tight time limits at every stage of this discussion!

  • Draw up a list of proposals in the whole group.
  • Form pairs. Each pair discusses the list of possible proposals and is asked to agree their top 3 priorities (it could be any number, but for this example we’ll use 3).
  • Each pair then comes together with another, to form a group of 4. The 2 pairs compare their lists of top 3 priorities and, after discussion, agree on a joint top 3.
  • Each group of 4 comes together with another to form a group of 8. Again, each group takes its 2 lists of priorities and reduces it to one list of 3.
  • Repeat until the whole group has come back together and has a shared list of just 3 priorities.

—from Consensus in Large Groups

There is nothing wrong with using a decision process like this to pick top priorities in a group. But picking a group’s top priorities is not the same as reaching consensus.

You can’t please everyone
Seeking consensus, however you define it, is difficult for large groups. Techniques like Roman voting can help us determine how close we are to informed consent, and can pinpoint who cannot go along with a proposed decision and why. The journey towards informed consent is what we should concentrate on if we are to reach a “consensus” that everyone can live with.

I stop talking for five days. You won’t believe what happens next.

November 7th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

vallecitosI do something I’ve never done before
In August, I stopped talking for five days.

I flew to New Mexico and drove four hours to Vallecitos, a remote ranch in the heart of the Carson National Forest.

For five days, forty of us lived in silence, meditating in the Vipassana tradition. No talking, no reading, no writing, no phone, no internet.

Before this experience, I had never been silent for even one day of my life.

What happened next?
A totally unexpected outcome was that I fundamentally changed how I eat. Mindfully eating in silence for five days allowed me to learn how much my body really wants to eat. It turned out to be a lot less than I’ve been eating most of my life.

When I was younger, I could eat anything and not put on weight. At thirty, something changed, and I gradually became overweight. Over the years I tried various approaches to eating less. Most of my efforts had a temporary effect, but they were essentially efforts of will—always a struggle—and I remained at least ten pounds overweight.

Now, three months later, I am at my lowest weight in thirty-five years. My Smart Body Mass Index is now in the normal range. And, to my surprise, this practice remains easy for me to continue.

What can we learn from my experience?
Experiential learning is the most powerful kind of learning! Five days of mindful eating reprogrammed my lifetime pattern of applying external strictures — eating certain foods, avoiding others, disciplining myself to wait until a set time to eat, etc. — to one where I eat from what Jan Chozen Bays, MD calls a sense of cellular hunger rather than other kinds of hungers such as eye, nose, mouth, stomach, mind, and heart.

Five days experiencing what I mindfully wanted to eat trumped years attempting to teach myself what and how to eat.

What else did I learn?
Prolonged sitting mediation — focusing on my breath for forty-five minutes many times each day — was a new experience for me. I became aware over and over again of the games my mind continually plays. Sometimes I found my thoughts drifting to scenes from the past or imagined situations in the future; sometime I found myself in a blurred dreamlike state. Each time I noticed my mind straying, I brought my awareness back to my breath.

As you might imagine, it’s hard to do this, but the practice has fascinating benefits. Besides the mindful eating outcome, I feel more connected to my experience of the world, more able to flow with what happens, more in touch with the suffering and impermanence in my life. The latter may seem an unlikely benefit, but seeing more clearly what exists (we all suffer, we all die) is transformative.

A lot of people think that meditation is about attaining a blissful state. That’s not the whole picture for me, though there were wonderful moments during my five days, especially while experiencing the beauty around me. Rather, being closer to what life is actually about — both the joy and the suffering — is what the retreat gave to me.

In addition, the retreat reinforced my experience that we are the stories we tell ourselves — further deepened by the observation that we’re telling these stories to ourselves in our own minds all the time!

My retreat experience was fascinating, hard and wonderful, and I now plan to participate in one or two retreats a year. I recommend the experience, even though yours will surely be different from mine.

Dear Adrian — How does group size impact process design?

October 31st, 2016 by Adrian Segar

ask-adrianAnother issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, facilitation, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please contact me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).

Here’s a great question from Australian facilitator, trainer, and coach Steve Rohan-Jones about … The Three Questions! (Check out the link if you aren’t already familiar with The Three Questions, otherwise what you are about to read won’t make much sense.)

Good morning from Canberra, Adrian,

I have just read through The Power of Participation over one year after I received a signed copy from you!

In short, I have a question about The Three Questions. I understand the process both in singular and multiple form (combined with round tables). From my reading, The Three Questions appears to take some time (based on the amount of participants) with only one person speaking. This appears at odds with the aim to get people engaged in conversation.

I would also think – not a question just an observation – that group of 6 would be better. This would speed up the set piece of one person speaking and others listening, reduce the need for breaks and keep the energy going early in the day.

Can you clarify my understanding of The Three Questions?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Cheers
Steve Rohan-Jones
O2C Pty Ltd

Steve, I like your question because it highlights a key tension inherent in group process design: the tension between intimacy (going deep with a few) and discovery (uncovering the possibilities of the many). Let’s explore this in more detail.

When people are meeting for a shared purpose, some of the potentially valuable outcomes include:

  1. Learning about each other.
  2. Being and feeling heard.
  3. Sharing with each other.
  4. Learning from each other.

The Three Questions focuses on #1, #2, and #3. I love to use it at the start of an event or workshop, because we can’t really learn effectively from our peers (#4) until we:

  • have learnt what they might have to offer (#1);
  • feel safe sharing with them (#2); and
  • have each had an opportunity to share our own expertise and experience (#3).

Because each person gets the same amount of time to share their answers to The Three Questions to a group, the time needed to run the process is proportional to the group’s size. [I’m neglecting here the few minutes needed to a) explain the process and b) provide one or two short breaks for large groups.] In practice, I’ve found this restricts the maximum effective size of a single group using The Three Questions to 60 people. If more than 60 people are present, you divide them into smaller groups and run multiple simultaneous The Three Questions sessions.

Even if we have 60 people or less, we may still decide to divide our group into several smaller groups and run multiple simultaneous sessions. Typically we’ll do this when time is a constraint.

For example, next month I’m leading a two-hour, ~200 person, participation techniques workshop. In order to cover multiple core techniques in two hours with this many participants, I will give them just a taste of The Three Questions by running 30+ concurrent 6-person groups. Everyone will know five former strangers much better after the ~20 minute session is over, but they won’t have learned more about the others in the room.

So when designing a session or conference that includes The Three Questions, there is a trade-off between the time we have or want to allocate and group size, because we need to give each person sufficient time for meaningful sharing with their group (typically 1 – 2 minutes per person).

There’s no single answer for this design decision that’s optimum for all circumstances. At a multi-day conference, for example, it makes sense to run multiple simultaneous  50-60 person Three Questions groups for a couple of hours at the start of the event. Everyone in each group will learn important information about the interests and resources of their 50-60 peers. For a monthly board meeting, once a year I might run a single session with the ten board members to remind the group of each member’s “why?”. And at a one-day peer conference with ninety participants, perhaps three simultaneous 30-person sessions would be the way to go.

In some ways this design consideration is a parallel application of Jerry Weinberg’s Law of Raspberry Jam:

The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets.

We are looking for a balance between:

  • intimacy — sharing deeply with a few people, making the format feel more like a conversation; and
  • discovery — learning important things (interests and resources) about everyone in a large group, in a process that feels more like structured sharing.

Both intimacy and discovery have their benefits. By choosing the size of the groups using The Three Questions, it’s possible to select the balance that works for the design and constraints of each unique situation.

Four reasons why traditional conferences are obsolete

October 24th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

obsolete_-machine_5214316102_c5c6e745d3_b
Previously, I’ve described three major trends that make traditional conference formats obsolete:

Here’s a fourth.

Job obsolescence caused by increasing computer automation
Every adoption of new technology has led to a shift in the world of work. Books and the industrial age fundamentally remade human society. Now the exponentially increasing power of computing is making rapid inroads into professions that have been the safe purview of well-paid workers for centuries.

It’s likely, for example, that in my children’s lifetime (and perhaps mine) we’ll transition to a world where most vehicles drive themselves. In the United States alone, there are currently 3.5 million professional truck drivers who stand to lose their livelihood. Other threatened professions, according to Martin Ford in his book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, include warehouse workers, cooks, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and programmers.

While some work is clearly destined to be taken over by software and machines, never to be performed by large numbers of humans again, recent history also suggests that adding technology to the workplace is likely to transform, rather than eliminate, many jobs. In addition, new jobs will appear that offer alternative work opportunities.

So how do we prepare workers for these changes?

“The evidence suggests that while computers are not causing net job losses now, low wage occupations are losing jobs, likely contributing to economic inequality. These workers need new skills in order to transition to new, well-paying jobs. Developing a workforce with the skills to use new technologies is the real challenge posed by computer automation.
James Bessen, Why automation doesn’t mean a robot is going to take your job

During the last two or three decades, learning from our peers—on the job, via our social networks, and at conferences— has become far more important than classroom learning. Non-interactive, broadcast-style learning modalities are restricted to standardized knowledge; knowledge that one person believes is valuable for many to know. Peer process allows us to explore and share precisely the kinds of group-resourced knowledge and understanding that is not standardized; knowledge that is uniquely responsive to the just-in-time wants and needs of the group.

Peer conferences, therefore, are what we need to prepare workers for the continuing and accelerating transformation of the work marketplace. As Niels Pflaeging recently put it (paraphrased by Harold Marche):

´Machines can solve complicated problems. They cannot solve complex, surprising problems’. Valued work is no longer standardized. Therefore a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.

I’ll repeat that: “…a standardized approach for education and training to support creative work is obsolete.” Say goodbye to traditional conferences — and say hello to peer learning!

Photo attribution: Flickr user astrid

Wisdom from International Facilitation Week!

October 21st, 2016 by Adrian Segar

20150254e41d9a739f5Gosh, how could I have overlooked International Facilitation Week? (Dontcha know, there’s a minute, hour, day, week, month, or year for everything these days.) Luckily it’s not too late to share the latest crop of fine facilitation wisdom from the mysterious Shit FacilitatorsSay (profile: “I facilitate groups. But really, I’m just holding the space”; location: “A Circle of Chairs Near You.”)

Here are some recent favorites:

Help Wanted—Venues for my participation techniques workshops!

October 20th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

help_664316355_7fb5883812_oThe success of my last request for workshop help has inspired me to ask for more. Traditional meeting venues aren’t always the best fit for participant-driven events, and I’m looking for meeting spaces for my upcoming 1½ day participation techniques workshops that concentrate on inexpensive simplicity and flexibility rather than glitz and expensive high-end features. Over the years, I’ve convened conferences in all kinds of unconventional meeting spaces, such as churches, school auditoria, and corporate entrance halls, so don’t limit your suggestions to conventional venues.

[At the time of writing, I am especially interested in European venues for a February 2017 workshop I am planning with Jan-Jaap In der Maur. If you know a possible candidate, please get in touch ASAP!]

If you’ve worked with me before, you’ll know that I am super flexible about making deals that are win-win for everyone involved. (Example: Let us use your organization’s space in return for reduced/free fees for employees.) So let me know what you want and let’s see what we can create together!

Here’s what I need.

Minimum requirements
Location: Within reasonable (1 hour) reach of an airport. Includes or is close to appropriate accommodations. (Most, if not all, participants will need to stay overnight for at least one day; some for as many as three.)

Space: Ideally 2,500 sq. ft. (~230 square meters) or larger space that is substantially clear of pillars, fixed furniture/obstructions. Smaller spaces may be acceptable, depending on layout and attendance.

Furnishings: One moveable chair for each participant (25 – 40). A few tables.

Inexpensive A/V:

  • A digital projector and screen. (We have been quoted obligatory fees for a two-day rental that exceed the cost to buy a nice projector and screen. And a “technician” was extra.) At a pinch, we could use a large flat-screen TV and my laptop.
  • Appropriate sound reinforcement for workshops with over ~25 participants, including:
    • either a genuine Countryman E6 headset (1st choice) or a high quality lav wireless mike (2nd choice).
    • a handheld wireless mike plus stand.

Food and beverage:

  • Light provisions for one mid-morning and two mid-afternoon breaks.
  • Water, tea and coffee service available during the 1½ day workshop.
  • One dinner and one lunch. Breakfast optional (though it must be available locally.)

Nice to have
Some 48″ – 60″ rounds.

A second handheld wireless mike plus stand. (Nice to have, but only needed for larger workshops.)

An available second adjacent smaller room would be great.

Things to avoid
Venues that require using expensive house suppliers of food & beverage and A/V.

I am happy for the venue to be beautiful/interesting/impressive, but don’t want to spend participants’ fees on glitz.

Please help!
Know a venue that would be a great fit? Own one? Then please contact me now, using the form below. Thanks!

Your Location (required)

Your Suggested Venue(s) Region(s) (pick one or more)
AfricaAsiaCanadaCentral AmericaEastern EuropeEuropean UnionMiddle EastOceanaSouth AmericaThe CaribbeanUnited States - MidwestUnited States - NortheastUnited States - SouthUnited States - West

Image attribution: Flickr user tudor

Lessons From Improv: Make Sure Your Meeting Messages Are Received

October 17th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

pointing-finger-nounWant to improve the learning at your meetings? Here’s what I learned from You. No, not you — “You“!

“You”
You is a delightful improv game I played at the Mindful Play, Playful Mind retreat in Mere Point, Maine. Players stand in a circle and the first player points to someone and says “You”. The pointed-to player does the same by pointing to someone else until the last person has pointed back to the 1st person, creating a pattern. The pattern is practiced a few times until everyone has it … and then another pattern is created, using names of a class of common objects such as junk food, or birds, or colors, etc. Once the players have got that pattern down … well, let’s run both patterns simultaneously! Then let’s start doing things like adding another pattern, changing places in the circle with the “next” player…

As the game gets more complicated, it becomes an exercise in concentration and dealing with potential chaos. You have to figure out how to deal with unexpected situations: e.g. two people point to you simultaneously with a pattern while you’re trying to pass a third pattern on to someone else. It’s challenging — and a lot of fun!

Learning from a debrief
After you play a game at an improv workshop, it’s time for a debrief, so we held one in between adding further complexities to “You”. Then we worked on incorporating our incremental learning into the next round.

What did we learn?

We discovered that when we were playing with multiple patterns going round the circle, the game fell apart when we incorrectly believed we had passed on a pattern to the next person and could turn our attention back to the circle to deal with the next pattern to be passed to us. It’s easy to point to the pattern’s next recipient, then hear another pattern that you have to respond to and fail to make sure that the pattern you’re passing has been successfully received. This only has to happen once for a pattern to stop going round the circle.

We realized that when we got caught up in the excitement and high-attention needs of a complex game, we played too quickly to reliably pass on pattern messages to the next person in the sequence, leading to dropped patterns.

We then realized that what we needed to do to play the game reliably was to switch our focus from frantically keeping up to making sure that our pattern message for the next person was received. We needed to wait until our desired receiver was giving us their full attention. Then we could pass the pattern, check visually that they had received it and, only then, turn our attention back to receiving patterns from others in the group.

The beauty of this focus switch was that if everyone did it, the game automatically slowed down as needed to successfully deal with complex or new situations. For example, if Mohamed & Juanita both wanted to send me a pattern while I was supposed to send one to Laurie, I would wait until Laurie was free to receive my pattern before turning my attention to Mohamed & Juanita. Mohamed & Juanita would see that I was occupied and wait until I had successfully sent Laurie my pattern, whereupon one of them would get my attention while the other waited until I was finally free.

If you didn’t carefully read the previous paragraph with full understanding, I forgive you. It’s much easier to experience how this focus switch works than to explain it.

The Lesson. You’ve gotta ask! Twice!
Ever had someone tell you something and you don’t understand what they said? Duh! Of course you have! When this happens, the obvious thing to do is to ask them to explain. Do we always do that? No! In Conferences That Work I tell the story of how an entire class of graduate students (including me) stopped understanding our math professor halfway through the semester, and none of us ever informed him we were lost. What a waste of everyone’s time!

When you teach it’s important to provide clear understandable information. When you facilitate or lead a group, it’s important to provide clear process instructions. But regardless of how “good” you are at this, there is no guarantee that your message has been received completely or correctly.

And so to our lesson:

If we want to teach or facilitate effectively, we need to check early and often that what we are saying has been received and understood. When we use the ask, tell, ask model of participative learning, the second ask — the follow-up check for reception and understanding — is the one that’s all too easy to omit.

When we improv players made sure that our pattern passes had been received, we were amazed at how complex a game of “You” we could successfully play. In the same way, faithfully using all three steps of the ask, tell, ask model allows us to check that our teaching and facilitation as been received and understood, allowing us to create complex and successful active learning at our meetings.

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