Why presenters need to incorporate audience engagement

Small groups meeting at edACCESS 2011

Why is it important for presenters to incorporate audience engagement?

“…it isn’t our schools that are failing: it is our theory of learning that is failing.”
— Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, authors of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

An inconvenient truth

Think back on all the conference presentations you’ve attended. How much of what happened there do you remember?

Be honest now. I’m not going to check.

Nearly all the people to whom I’ve asked this question reply, in effect, “not much”. This is depressing news for speakers in general, and me in particular as, since the publication of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, I have been receiving an increasing number of requests to speak at conferences.

When I ask about the most memorable presentations, people (after adjusting for the reality that memories fade as time passes) tend to mention sessions where there was a lot of interaction with the presenter and/or amidst the audience: in other words, sessions where they weren’t passive attendees but actively participated.

Take a moment to see whether that’s your experience too.

Social learning

Conference sessions that are designed to facilitate engagement between rather than broadcast content provide wonderful opportunities for social learning: the learning that occurs through connection, engagement, and conversations with our peers.

Social learning is important, and here’s why, courtesy of Harold Jarche:

incorporate audience engagement

There are additional reasons why supporting social learning during conference sessions makes a lot of sense:

  • Active participants almost always learn and retain learning better than passive attendees.
  • Participants meet and learn about each other, rather than sitting next to strangers who remain strangers during a session.
  • Participants influence the content and structure of the session towards what it is they want to learn, which is often different from what a presenter expects.
  • Being active during a session increases engagement, creating better learning outcomes.
  • Actively participating during a session is generally a lot more fun!

A mission for conference presenters: incorporate audience engagement

Conferences provide an ideal venue for social learning; they are potentially the purest form of social learning network because we are brought together face-to-face with our peers. And yet most conference sessions, invariably promoted as the heart of every conference, squander this opportunity by clinging to the old presenter-as-broadcaster-of-wisdom model.

Of course, there are conference sessions that routinely include significant participation. Amusingly, they have a special name so they won’t be confused with “regular” conference sessions: workshops!

In my opinion, every conference session longer than a few minutes should include significant participation that supports and encourages engagement. If you’re a conference presenter, make this part of your mission—to improve your effectiveness by incorporating participation techniques into your presentations. Your audiences will thank you!

An opportunity to learn how to add participation techniques into your presentations

I’ll be leading a three hour workshop on how to add participative techniques into your presentations at the Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress, July 23-26, Orlando, Florida. Transform your sessions with these participation techniques is limited to eighty participants. Check out the introductory video. I’d love to see you there!

Are you a conference presenter? How much do you incorporate participation techniques into your presentations? Please share your ideas here!

An innovative experiential leadership session: The Music Paradigm

Maestro - Music ParadigmAt the recent Medical Group Management Association PEER Conference, I had the good fortune to attend a fascinating opening session created by Roger Nierenberg of The Music Paradigm. Roger, Music Director of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra and a guest conductor around the world, uses a semi-impromptu exploration of the work of an orchestral conductor to illustrate a host of lessons about leadership.

When we entered the large performance room, we found, not the traditional orchestral layout, but clumps of professional orchestra players scattered amongst our seats. During the session we sat “inside” the orchestra, experiencing Roger and the other musicians as the orchestra did, rather than as audience members.

Roger started by telling us that many of the professional musicians present had not worked with him before that morning and that the session was not scripted, and he asked players and audience to be honest with their comments and responses.

Roger then conducted a ten-minute piece of orchestral music that was to be our musical touchstone for the session. During the remainder of the session, various excerpts from this piece were repeated, preceded with Roger’s instructions and followed by solicited observations from audience & orchestra members and Roger’s commentary.

Random audience members and musicians were asked for their honest responses and observations after each musical experiment; the session was in no way canned, and, being experiential, a written account obviously cannot do it justice. However, I’m sharing my notes in order to give a sense of the powerful learning a session like this can provide. I’ve italicized Roger’s words:

Roger compared his role as an orchestra conductor to the paradigm of leadership, to the work of leading change.

He began by instructing his orchestra I want this to be big & wonderful, and then proceeded to conduct “flat”, illustrating the problems that arise when leaders say one thing and do another.

Then Roger announced he would be very engaged, and over-directed a soloist. Afterward, the soloist described herself as “stifled”. Soloists, Roger told us, like to take control during solos and not have the conductor in their face—they will shut out conductors who over-direct. The parallel to micromanaging staff was obvious.

It’s such an easy thing for an orchestra to hate a conductor.

Roger asked Why a conductor at all? He demonstrated by not conducting a selection that included abrupt, unrehearsed change. The orchestra did a magnificent job, but sounded ragged. Egos won’t help. The lesson: good leadership requires specific direction at the right time, so everyone can execute together. A leader becomes more critically important the more change there is. The soloist who had to start illustrated another lesson—she thanked the rest of the orchestra for supporting her.

The baton: The tools of leadership are pretty simple.

Roger shared …the conductor’s nightmare: I’ll commit and nobody plays.

He demonstrated the following concepts:

Don’t get out too far in front of the group.
The perils of an unclear signal.
I’ll show you the way, but you’ll go there.

Conductors listen for stuff going wrong and fix it. And they also listen for the things that people are doing right. Take what the orchestra gives you and work with it. Listen for what could be.

Roger illustrated having the first violinist as right-hand man when you’re not around.

It’s hard to separate out ego needs. Make it clear to players how they work together.

Shared leadership: Sometimes an instrument leads.

If they trusted me today, that was because of what I did. You can’t ask for trust, you can earn it.

There are a lot of conductors who specialize in passion. This nauseates the orchestra.

An orchestra notices that conductor knows the score by heart.

On hearing something wrong during playing: Get together and check that note. Notice, I didn’t say who was right.

They feel more about your enthusiasm for their playing than my giving them a compliment.

conductingMusicians are trained to work together; physicians are trained as soloists.

If you can see the big picture, the more you can help orchestra members see it.

Roger’s last comment particularly resonated with me, for the times when I’m facilitating group process at a conference: My connection with orchestra members is a conduit for them to connect with each other.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Music Paradigm, finding it an effective way to explore many aspects of functional & dysfunctional leadership via an audience’s experience of the ways a conductor might lead an orchestra. If you’re looking for a unique and effective way to demonstrate multiple facets of leadership and guiding principles to your organization, check it out! And, if you have the opportunity to attend a Music Paradigm session, don’t miss it!

Photo attributions: The Music Paradigm

Leadership, management, and meetings

baran_nets

“Leadership is about the role of the catalysts in organizations who influence and shape both strategy and execution, while management is the discipline that guides how large numbers of people efficiently accomplish complex work. Organizations need both catalysts and discipline.

…leaders are facilitators and their defining characteristic is their ability to enable connections that drive effective collaboration among large numbers of people. When leaders are facilitators, organizations adopt the disciplines of self-organized networks that are designed to leverage collective intelligence.

…the biggest challenge for traditional organizations will be whether or not they can reinvent both leadership and management and transform themselves from top-down hierarchies to peer-to-peer networks.”
Forbes interview of Rod Collins, author of Leadership in a Wiki World: Leveraging Collective Knowledge To Make the Leap To Extraordinary Performance

Rod was the COE of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program with over $19 billion annual revenues. I like how he distinguishes between leadership and management. Although he’s talking about organizations, his definitions apply beautifully to the roles of leadership and management at participant-driven meetings.

Replace “organizations” with “meetings” in the quotes above. Rod’s vision for the viable future of organizations becomes the same set of principles I’ve championed for effective, powerful conferences:

  • Supporting and encouraging conference participants to network & collaborate.
  • Using meeting designs that leverage the experience & expertise of the group.
  • Transforming meetings from top-down presentations to peer initiated & led sessions.

Isn’t that interesting?

How do you see leadership and management roles play out in your meetings? What works, what doesn’t?

Image attribution: From the classic paper by Paul Baran, “On Distributed Communications: MEMORANDUM: RM-3420-PR,” AUGUST 1964, the Rand Corporation

Changing the way we come together at events

Slide 7

“…if we do not change the way citizens come together, if we do not shift the context under which we gather and do not change the methodology of our gatherings, then we will have to keep waiting for great leaders, and we will never step up to the power and accountability that is within our grasp.”
—Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

Another stirring quote from Peter Block, from a chapter titled The Stuck Community.

Change citizens to conference attendees and you have a good description of what continues to happen at traditional conferences, where attendees listen to session leaders, rather than collectively reaping the benefits of co-creating an event and associated community.

Leadership, conferences, and freedom

Leadership at conferences

“[There are] almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.”
—Ralph Stogdill, Handbook of Leadership: A survey of theory and research (1974, p.259)

I’m not going to add to the thousands of existing definitions of leadership. I believe that defining what leadership is—essentially, process that influences others to accomplish something—misses the point. What we need to understand first, is the purpose of leadership. Once we’ve decided that, we can think about what leadership qualities we need to carry out that purpose.

The task of leadership

Here’s the wonderful Peter Block musing in a recent book:

“…perhaps the real task of leadership is to confront people with their freedom.”
—Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

I love this expression of leadership mission.

Too often our vision of leadership is clouded and restricted by 19th century ideas of leadership, emphasizing autocratic, bureaucratic, and charismatic leadership styles that are still commonly held up for us as models of what leadership is about. Even though more enlightened leadership models (e.g. servant and transformational styles) are becoming more widely used, there’s still a tendency to revert to the old models in some situations.

Leadership at conferences

For example, how do we treat conference attendees?

At most conferences, attendees have very little say in what happens. The event revolves around a set of limited preselected session choices made by the conference leadership. Such an event culture implies a default passivity. Organizers, not attendees, make decisions—organizers who are, perhaps unknowingly, using leadership styles more appropriate for young children.

It’s perfectly possible, however, to offer freedom to conference participants. Unconference designs provide structure and support for participants to determine what they want to learn, share, and discuss. Participants are then free to make the event their own.

Most of us who are asked to try something new feel a natural reluctance or wariness. First time attendees at an unconference often feel apprehensive about the prospect of taking a more active role. That’s why Peter’s phrasing confront people with their freedom is appropriate. Unconferences offer an environment that gently confronts attendees with their power to influence what happens. In my experience, once attendees experience what it is like to have a real voice in shaping their event, the vast majority of them embrace this new freedom.

What do you think of Peter Block’s musing on the real task of leadership?

Photo by Flickr user Dunechaser.