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

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,

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  • Fine-point Sharpies have been replaced by ballpoint pens.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.

What I’ve learned about working productively

I’ve worked out of my home office for the last thirty years. During that time I:

  • Consulted on information technology for hundreds of companies.
  • Wrote and maintained almost a million lines of code.
  • Ran a couple of small non-profits (still do) and served on my local United Way Board.
  • Wrote Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and am now hard at work on my second book.

Along the way I spent a fair amount of time experimenting with different environments and work processes, always with the goal of improving my productivity. As you might expect of a proponent of the philosophy of risky learning, some things worked and some didn’t. I’ll reserve the things that didn’t for another post.

You may not have as much control over your work environment and process as I do. Nevertheless, perhaps some aspects of what’s worked for me will be helpful to you.

Work environment: Office furniture, ergonomics, and beauty
Twenty-five years ago I purchased two astronomically expensive high-quality office chairs. Until then I had sat on a sagging ancient chair rather like the one pictured. Hours spent in this chair had taken its toll, and a kneeling chair replacement, while an improvement, was not comfortable for long periods. The marvelously adjustable Steelcases that made me gulp when I signed the check paid for themselves many times in adjustability, comfort, and eliminated physical therapy appointments. A few years ago I replaced both chairs, and this time I was happy to sign the check.

In the same spirit, I learned the importance of correct ergonomics for computer keyboards and mice (later, touchpads). Long hours toiling over these machines translate to pain and discomfort if keyboard heights aren’t right and pointing devices aren’t positioned just-so. Don’t skimp on firm work-surfaces, keyboard drawers, and touch devices that are easy to use; you’re body will be the victim if you do.

Finally, when I had the opportunity and funds to add a custom home office onto my home I spent serious time and money creating a space that I would find beautiful. Built at the northwest corner of my home, the office receives natural light from two sides and looks out onto a flourishing garden and beautiful Vermont stone walls and woods. Knowing my appetite for workspace, I also took the opportunity to build about three times more beautiful custom desktop space than I thought I’d ever need. (A good thing I did—these days it’s pretty full most of the time.) Having a beautiful space for my work feeds my energy and spirit and helps me get through those times when I’m feeling creatively blocked and work isn’t going so well.

Getting Things Done
No question—until the day I die I’m going to have tasks on my to-do list. Being at peace with this reality in the here and now is hard. I am perpetually interested in exploring more than I can practically accomplish, and as I age, my ability to keep track of and continually re-prioritize what’s important lessens. Embracing Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done has been a lifesaver. I may always be trying to bite off more than I can chew, but GTD allows me to avoid being overwhelmed by the consequences of my curiosity. What many don’t understand about GTD, and what makes it so powerful, is that it doesn’t impose a specific implementation on you; you get a framework that helps you build process that’s customized for your needs. Here’s more information on why and how GTD works.

Highly flexible, continuously-on backup of digital stuff
I have one word for those of you young enough to miss the decades when personal computers were expensive, hard to use, and frequently broke. Lucky! I’ve spent too much time configuring and running expensive and all-too-fallible equipment designed to back up valuable digital data. Today, there’s no excuse for losing any of the ever-increasing quantities of information we entrust to our electronic gizmos. My four computers are continually backed up to each other (local back ups—great for fast restoration of a lost file or two) and to the internet cloud (remote back ups—where I’d go if a catastrophe took out all my computers). The magic that does this can easily be set up to backup to other computers or hard drives in the same location or across the internet (perhaps your friend’s business across town) or to hosted servers sitting elsewhere on the internet. The name of this magic is CrashPlan. (No, I do not get a penny for recommending their service.) If you’re not using a service like this with every computer you own these days you’re nuts.

Work in sprints, not marathons
It took me years to learn that working at a problem or task for hours on end without a break is not an optimum way to work. Please don’t make this mistake (no matter how young you are). My current process is to decide on the task I want to work on, set a timer for twenty minutes and work uninterruptedly until the timer sounds. Then I’ll take a break for five minutes and repeat the process two or three more times before taking a longer break. I came up with this approach myself; an almost identical version is called Pomodoro. The frequent breaks give my brain relaxed downtime to mull over a problem and, often, propose creative solutions. And I find it easier to ignore the lure of the modern environment of constant email and internet distractions by telling myself I’ll just work for twenty minutes first.

That’s my summary of some of the things I’ve learned about working productively. Do you have lessons to add?

Chair photo attribution: Flickr user spyndle


How 1984 turned out like 1884

Class Room - Fifth Grade, Butte, Montana 4686494376_05169eaff3_o

Modern classroom 74907741_c2d59deb64_o

While going about my day, I sometimes engage in a mental exercise I call the Laura Ingalls Test. What would Laura Ingalls, prairie girl, make of this freeway interchange? This Target? This cell phone? Some modern institutions would probably be unrecognizable at first glance to a visitor from the 19th century: a hospital, an Apple store, a yoga studio. But take Laura Ingalls to the nearest fifth-grade classroom, and she wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Oh! A school!”

Very little about the American classroom has changed since Laura Ingalls sat in one more than a century ago.
The 21st-Century Classroom, by Linda Perlstein

In her recent Slate article, excerpted above, Linda Perlstein, an education writer, muses about the effects that school classroom layout and design affect the learning that takes place. She even asks her readers to submit their “best ideas for transforming the American school” which she conflates with “asking you to describe or even design the classroom for today, a fifth-grade classroom that takes advantage of all that we have learned since Laura Ingalls’ day about teaching, learning, and technology–and what you think we have yet to learn”.

I think that Linda’s emphasis on transforming the physical learning workspace as the answer to our educational system’s woes focuses on the wrong issue.

Certainly, most modern school classroom layouts have changed very little from Laura Ingalls’ day. But this is a symptom of the lack of change in educational circles, not a cause. In fact it’s often easy to alter the physical layout of a learning space simply by changing the furniture (get rid of those chairs with individual writing areas shown above!) or rearranging it (see Paul Radde’s Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements for a comprehensive introduction to this topic).

The reason why schools don’t redesign their learning spaces is because the traditional all-chairs-face the-front approach mirrors the teaching style perpetuated by our culture for the last 1,500 years. We get classroom layouts that optimize our teaching paradigm. Changing the classroom physical design and hoping that our learning environment will somehow improve is a great example of wishing that the tail would wag the dog.

When we change how we teach and how we expect to learn, the need to change our physical educational environment will become pretty obvious. Laura, please use your considerable journalist skills to explore how we do and don’t learn effectively and publicize what you find—we’ll all be the beneficiaries! And then perhaps 2084 won’t look like 1984.

Do you think that changing our physical learning environments is the way to improve how well we learn? Or do you think that changing the ways we learn will lead to fundamentally different learning environment designs?

Image attribution: Flickr users buttepubliclibrary and dcjohn