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Four reasons why traditional conferences are obsolete

October 24th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

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 January 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: Approximately 2,500 sq. ft. (~230 square meters) or larger space that is substantially clear of pillars, fixed furniture/obstructions.

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, 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)
 Africa Asia Canada Central America Eastern Europe European Union Middle East Oceana South America The Caribbean United States - Midwest United States - Northeast United States - South United 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 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.

Use pair share to quickly improve your conference sessions

October 10th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

psIn less than three minutes, you can improve almost any conference session with pair share. The technique is simple: after pairing up participants and providing a short period for individual thinking about an appropriate topic, each pair member takes a minute in turn to share their thoughts with their partner. (More details can be found in Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation.)

Pair share is not the same as conversation, because pair share gives each person an exclusive minute of active sharing and a minute of pure listening. This balance rarely occurs during conversation, because typically:

  • One party speaks more than another, and;
  • Whoever isn’t speaking is often not fully listening to what is being said because they’re thinking about something they want to say themselves.

Pair share improves conference sessions by:

  • Resetting every participant’s brain to a state of active engagement;
  • Providing structured opportunities for participants to share expertise and experience with their partner, and (if built into the subsequent session design) with others in the room; and
  • Modeling and supporting social learning during the session.

For pair share to work effectively:

  • Each assigned topic must be central to the session’s purpose;
  • If the session is presenter-content heavy, hold a pair share roughly every ten minutes to explore and consolidate participant learning; and
  • Design the session to build on relevant expertise and experience uncovered by each pair-share.

I also like to incorporate a closing pair-share where partners each share three takeaways they’ve acquired during the session. I’ve found that when I use this in a session design like the fishbowl sandwich, participants inevitably stay around deep in conversation after the session is officially over. (That always looks and feels good!)

Finally it’s worth mentioning that pair share can be used as a tool for introductions. Invite everyone to pair up with someone they don’t know and have each person take a minute to introduce themselves to their partner.

Pair share is quick, simple, versatile, and effective. Use it!

How do you use pair share? Share with everyone in the comments below!

What’s the best learning model for conference sessions?

October 3rd, 2016 by Adrian Segar

We don’t usually think about the learning models we employ during conference sessions, and I believe our events would be better if we did. Conventional conferences assume a ready supply of experts to whom we listen while they cover the learning that has been advertised at their sessions. Here’s how Jeff Hurt describes this approach, which he calls surface learning, contrasting it with deep learning where attendees discover through exploratory activity:

Content Covered Or Discovered
“In surface learning, the session reflects the knowledge and skills of the speaker. Knowledge is considered a thing that can be deposited into the minds of the listener. The attendee consumes as much as the speaker says as possible and tries to store it in the mind. The speaker covers as much as they can as fast as they can.

In deep learning, attendees explore challenging questions, dilemmas and problems using new and past knowledge. A focus is put on the attendee testing ideas, correcting them as needed and opening up to new perspectives. Attendees spend time discovering and investigating.”
—Jeff Hurt, We Must Stop Promoting Conference Fast-Track, Artificial, Butt-In-Seat, Surface Learning

As explained in my books, we know that the active learning that occurs through attendee discovery is indeed more effective than the learning that may result from sharing information with passive listeners. More is learned, more is retained, and overall retention is more accurate. So I agree with Jeff that discovered learning trumps covered learning. But from whom do we discover this learning?

Even when we incorporate active learning into a conference session, invariably the assumption remains that we are learning about content provided exclusively by a speaker or presenter. What we are discovering is limited to the content he or she can provide.

While this approach is far better than the pour-information-into-their-minds model, I think it can almost always be improved. Unless the room is full of novices — attendees who know nothing about a session topic — using process during the session that uncovers knowledge and resources in the room opens up the quantity and quality of learning that’s possible.

I know this to be true from my own experience. When I’ve led a conference session using process that supports and encourages participants to contribute their own expertise and experience, I’ve always learnt something new! Extending our resources for active learning to the entire room uncovers relevant and useful knowledge from everyone present. Active learning then becomes social learning, reflecting today’s reality that knowledge is a social construct, no longer something residing in an individual head. When we incorporate social learning into our events we all benefit because, as David Weinberger says: “The smartest person in the room is the room.

Let’s summarize the three learning models I’ve described.

  • Covered learning is an outdated, inferior learning model.
  • Discovered learning is an improvement, because we are actively involving attendees in the learning process, though the focus is just one person’s content.
  • Uncovered learning further improves discovered learning by increasing the resources for active learning to include the expertise and experience available in the entire room. If a presenter or facilitator knows how to effectively uncover learning, they will be using the best learning model available.

To successfully implement uncovered learning, we need to use process that, as Weinberger puts it: “improves expertise by exposing weaknesses, introducing new viewpoints, and pushing ideas into accessible form.” Such process is the focus of the peer conference designs and associated participation techniques that I’ve been developing and writing about here and in my books. Studying how to facilitate this process and then adopting it is perhaps the most effective way you can improve the learning at your events.

Quotes from David Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous, Times Books, 2007

Image attribution: Flickr user chiotsrun

Five reasons NOT to use a Conferences That Work meeting design

September 26th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

ear_-wall_16354757995_cca1f66d9e_kI’ve been promoting the Conferences That Work meeting format for so long, that some people assume I think it’s the right choice for every meeting.

Well, it’s not.

Here are (drum roll!) two meeting types and three situations when you should NOT use a Conferences That Work design:

 — Most corporate events
Many corporate events have a tight focus. Management have desired outcomes for the meeting: e.g. developing new products and services, communicating changes in company strategic goals, training and incentivizing sales teams, implementing successful product launches, etc. The function of such meetings is primarily top-down: effectively communicate management objectives, answer questions, and get employee buy-in. Fixed agenda corporate meetings are not a good fit for peer conference designs because they are predominantly about one-way broadcast-style communication; participants are there to listen and learn rather than to determine what’s individually useful to them or to build intra-company connections.

 — Special events
Special events involve a mixture of entertainment, celebration, and raising money. While some may include impromptu participant involvement, they concentrate on creating a wonderful experience for attendees. Special events are carefully choreographed in advance and participant interaction is generally limited to the traditional social forms of meals and parties, so they are not a good fit for the spontaneous generation of topics, themes, and participant-determined process that peer conference designs generate.

 — When simultaneously scheduled alongside traditional meeting formats
Much as I would like to tell you that participant-driven and participation-rich event formats are common these days, it just ain’t so. As a result, many conference attendees have not encountered these designs before and have not experienced how effective they can be in creating valuable connections and learning with their peers. When meeting planners add participant-driven sessions as a track to an existing schedule of traditional presentations, few attendees will pick the unfamiliar. Unfortunately, this convinces the organizers that few people are interested in these formats, reinforcing a return to a familiar predetermined program.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this mistake made … well … that would pay the bill for a very nice dinner out.

 — When time is short
Participant-driven and participation-rich events are messy and, by the standards of a content-dump-into-listeners-ears event, relatively inefficient. You can share some good information in a ten-minute talk, even if most of the audience will have forgotten it a month later. If you’re attempting to build connections and learning in a group of a hundred people in ten minutes, however, little of any significance is going to happen in such a short time.

I’ve run the core Conferences That Work design in a day numerous times, and it’s always a rush. A day and a half is the minimum needed for a group to really benefit. A peer conference design such as Open Space doesn’t need so much time—a few hours can be useful—though it omits some of the features that make Conferences That Work so effective.

Valuable peer learning and connection takes time. It’s worth it. If you don’t have enough time, remember that a peer conference isn’t like a podcast you can speed up and still understand what’s said. Schedule the time actually needed for the process to work and wonderful things will happen. Shortchange the time needed, and you and your attendees will be frustrated and unhappy.

— When a meeting is significantly about status rather than learning and connection
Sadly, in my view, some meetings are primarily about asserting and demonstrating status. Government, political, and, to a lesser extent, academic conferences often fall into this category. If your conference attendees come from a culture where power and influence is firmly controlled by the people in charge, a peer conference will be a poor fit, as the powers that be will be threatened by a format that does not reinforce their dominance.

So when should you use the Conferences That Work design?
I thought you’d never ask. If you have all attendees’ attention and enough time to for the process to work (see above), a Conferences That Work meeting design is a fantastic (I would argue, the best) approach for meetings of communities of practice (this link explains in detail what communities of practice are). That includes all conferences, colloquia, congresses, conventions, and symposia.

Association and client conferences are clear candidates for Conferences That Work. Traditional conference elements are easily integrated into the design, so desired sessions like up-to-the-minute research findings, recognition ceremonies, social events, etc. are not excluded.

Existing conferences can be made more participant-driven and participation-rich by carefully incorporating peer conference process into future events. Over the years I have helped many associations successfully make this transition.

But the best time to implement Conferences That Work is at a brand-new conference! (A good example is the edACCESS peer conference, now in its 26th year, and still going strong.) Why? Because conferences are typically started when a group of people finds the need to meet for a new purpose. At that moment in time, invariably, there are no obvious experts to invite. Opening with a peer conference design allows a group of relative strangers with a common interest to make fruitful connections and learn productively about and from the expertise and experience in their midst. The experience is so powerful, that I don’t know of a group that has decided to stop using the format.

Image attribution: Flickr user apionid

Is paid influencer marketing ethical in the event industry?

September 21st, 2016 by Adrian Segar

choice_noun_86702Paid influencer marketing is spreading to the event industry, and I doubt that it’s an ethical practice.

Last week I received the following voice mail (identifying details have been bleeped; transcript below.)

Hi Adrian, my name is _____, I work for an influence marketing agency _____, and I’m reaching out to you this afternoon about an opportunity with _____, who is one of our clients, and I know you are an influencer in the meeting/event/conference planning sphere which is the focus of this campaign with _____  and we’re just hoping to have you involved in this campaign: involves a blog post, some social posting, hopefully a visit to the property with a bit of filming. If you’re interested in more details I would love to chat with you; my phone number is _____. Thanks, and looking forward to talking to you soon; bye bye.”

I was not surprised to get this call because the agency has been calling other event professionals with the same pitch. One of them, whom I’ll call InfluentialEventProf, forwarded me an email with more details of how the “opportunity” would work (identifying details have been replaced with generic terms):

Sent: 9/8/2016
Subj: Paid Campaign Opportunity: Complimentary Stay at Property Z

Hi InfluentialEventProf,

Hope this note finds you very well! Brand X’s Property in Somewhere, USA is a client of ours, and I am working on an influencer campaign to help promote Property Z’s event spaces as ideal venues for conferences and corporate meetings. Brand X would love to have you–a known industry expert on event/meeting planning–involved in this campaign!

We are inviting you to come for a complimentary stay to experience Property Z during a major Industry Sector S conference during TheseDates. Brand X would like you to review the visit and conference experience on your company’s blog and promote Property Z on social media. To give you a general idea of the campaign’s scope, here are some details regarding the influencer package and campaign components:

Influencer package:

One or two (1-2) complimentary nights at Property Z (dependent on your availability)

One (1) complimentary breakfast

One (1) complimentary dinner

$500 compensation

Complimentary parking

Campaign components:

One (1) post-stay blog post highlighting the Property Z as a venue for corporate conferences/meetings/events. Ideally, this blog post would be published both on your company’s blog and on your Linkedin page.

Two (2) real-time Twitter photo posts during your stay

Two (2) post-stay Twitter photo posts

(Use the hashtags of {3 PropertyZHashtags}, and any Property Z social channel handles on all relevant content.)

Would you be interested in participating? If so, I can send you more detailed information regarding these campaign components.

We are really hoping to work with you!

All the best,


This is classic paid influencer marketing via social media, a marketing trend that has been rapidly growing since 2014. Celebrities are paid big bucks to casually introduce positive experience of brands into their social media feeds. Now event industry influencers are being asked to do the same thing.

Will Brand X require all resulting social media posts by InfluentialEventProf to be labeled “Sponsored”? (Will “Sponsored” even fit into the tweets that are required?) Will the post-stay blog post include the information that the stay and meals were paid for by Brand X and that the InfluentialEventProf was paid a fee by Brand X?

Even if InfluentialEventProf provides all this information, there is plenty of research that shows that such paid marketing biases influencers to be more positive about their review than they would have been otherwise. (See, for example: High bias found in Amazon reviews of low-cost or free samples, where the provision of free or low-cost products boosted ratings from the 54th percentile to the 94th percentile!)

I think such practices are ethically questionable. The CMP Standards of Ethical Conduct Statement and Policy includes the pledge “Never use my position for undue personal gain and to promptly disclose to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest“, and I’d argue that what is being offered here is “undue personal gain”. In addition, any event professional who is employed should review their employer’s ethics policy. Additional questions to consider are:

  • “In what way could you justify participation to your employer?”
  • “In what way could you justify participation to your clients?”
  • “Are there ways that this participation could influence site selection?”

What do you think?

[My thanks to InfluentialEventProf for permission given to reproduce the above email, and for suggestions that improved this post.]

When event covenants collide—a story

September 19th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

I was facilitating a one-day workshop for 24 college presidents. At the start, we agreed to follow six covenants, including the freedom to ask questions at any time, and a commitment to stay on schedule. Our program was tight and college presidents are not known for their brevity, and I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the group’s ability to honor the latter covenant.

During our opening roundtable sharing, everybody heroically tried to stop when their time was up, but we were still running late when, at the end of one participant’s contribution, someone I’ll call Q said, “Can I ask a question?”

All eyes turned in my direction. Conflicted and flustered, I blurted out: “No.”

Everyone laughed. My self-contradiction was funny—in the same way that seeing someone slipping on a banana peel is funny.


Q then asked his question anyway, which was the right thing to do. Why? Because both the question and the answer that followed were brief, and then we were on our way again. It was a challenge, but with the participants’ help we stayed on schedule for the rest of the day.

This was an interesting learning experience for me for three reasons. I learned that:

  • A preoccupation with a long-term process goal (keeping a program on schedule) can lead me to try to block a short-term need (getting a question answered).
  • Participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) can be trusted to do the right thing.
  • I am far more capable of dealing with potentially embarrassing situations than I used to be. (The moment I realized that my aim to keep the event on track wasn’t threatened, the experience became funny to me too. In the past, I would have remained feeling uncomfortable for a while about “losing control”.)

I suspect it’s impossible to have a set of covenants that won’t occasionally clash—and I think that’s actually a good thing.

A Taoist might say that tension between opposites illuminates the underlying core. In this example, I was attempting to balance the success of the overall experience with the needs of the moment. There’s no “right” answer; after all, too many delaying questions could have significantly disrupted the workshop flow and reduced the value of our time together. Awareness of the potential contradictions helped me to focus on a key aspect of the day’s work.

Noticing and responding as best one can to such tensions is necessary and valuable in the moment of facilitation. And, as a bonus, sometimes the outcome is amusing too.

Photo attribution: Flickr user manc72

How to get better at doing anything

September 12th, 2016 by Adrian Segar

A lost tourist asks a native New Yorker “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” to which the local replies “Practice, practice, practice!”

Good advice. But if we want to get better at doing something, what should we practice?

The obvious answer is that we should practice improving what we are doing well, so we get even better at it.

My mentor Jerry Weinberg has a different suggestion.

“What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?”

When this question came up on, lots of good and useful answers were given, but they all seemed to be external answers. For me, with more than 60 years of programming experience, the one thing that made me a better programmer than most was my ability and willingness to examine myself critically and do something about my shortcomings. And, after 60 years, I’m still doing that.”
—Jerry Weinberg, What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?

Being continually willing and able to notice our shortcomings and concentrate on working on them may be the most effective strategy we can use to get better at anything we do.

Image by Jonathunder (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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