What’s the best way to facilitate a community discussion? Recently, I had to answer that question at short notice. My task: design and facilitate a two-hour community discussion in response to a bombshell announcement made by the largest employer in my tiny rural hometown of Marlboro, Vermont.
The community was in shock. Consequently, I felt it was important to use a discussion format that:
Supported respectful dialog from a variety of constituencies;
Created an environment that was as safe as possible for people to share;
Minimized the likelihood that people would monopolize the meeting;
Allowed both short statements and controlled impromptu conversations; and
After a one-day Participate! Lab for Dutch professional moderators, Otto Wijnen interviewed me about presentation and speaker tips for making presentations more effective by incorporating active learning. Apart from a brief introduction and closing in Dutch, the 13-minute interview is in English.
In 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
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!
I’ve just returned from a wonderful 48-hour whirlwind of experiments and play with 30 meeting designers in Utrecht, The Netherlands. We came from Europe, South America, Slovakia, and the U.S. (me) to learn, share, and connect at the first Meeting Design Practicum, hosted by Eric de Groot and his merry gang.
Similar in spirit to the many EventCamps that have been held around the world since 2010, the Practicum was a safe place for event professionals to experiment with techniques, approaches, ideas, and formats without the obligation and pressure of a “successful” outcome for a paying client. We met informally at an ancient Dutch fort, cooked meals together, did our own housekeeping, and quickly built an intimate community with connections that will continue to reverberate into the future.
I can’t give a complete survey of everything that happened at the Practicum. For one thing, I couldn’t attend every Practicum session because we often had to choose between simultaneous sessions. In addition, some of the important take-aways were already familiar to me, so I don’t include them here. Rather, I’ll share new insights that I made an impression on me during our three days together. I apologize for not attributing them to specific people; suffice it to say that every single participant brought important insights and contributions to our gathering.
Elementary meetings One of the great concepts Eric & Mike van der Vijver introduced in Into The Heart of Meetings was that of modeling portions or an entire event on the familiar format of what they call Elementary Meetings—such as weddings, legal trials, birth celebrations, etc. The Practicum provided several examples of this.
Our journey through the event was mapped onto a large wall “tree”, with our influences mapped onto the roots at the start, and our learnings added as leaves to the branches as the Practicum progressed.
Participants were given the opportunity to share a single short meeting design tip/trick. This was mapped onto the magic competitions of Asterix and Obelix where druids demonstrated their magic to the tribes. On several occasions, those of us offering magic disappeared into a small room, only to reappear wearing impressive druid beards. One at a time, introduced by a flourish played on a trumpet we shared our tips. At the end of the Practicum we chose the most useful tip, and the winner, Victor Neyndorff, took home the golden snouieknife (sp?).
Gardening Metaphors provide powerful ways to communicate, and I find them surprisingly difficult to discover. A delightful and effective metaphor for meeting design was shared early in the Practicum. Seeing the meeting designer as a gardener maps so many aspects of meeting design process onto the familiar act of gardening that enumerating the parallels is left as an exercise for the reader.
Objects From 2007-8 I was a participant in a year-long leadership workshop held over a dozen weekends. For our last meeting we were asked to bring a personal object and share its meaning and relevance to what we had learned and our experience. I found this a moving and bonding experience, as we told our stories, each linked to an object that we held in our hands or placed at the center of our group.
The Practicum reminded me of this format, thanks to a session on using objects at events. We concentrated on using individual objects with attributes that evoked a desired event theme, message, or mindset. One interesting aspect of this approach is that it could be used to replace the common practice of saturating the event environment with theme/message decor. Imagine—no more branded cocktail napkins needed! Another interesting suggestion was the use of two or more interacting objects: e.g. a mirror ball together with lights held by participants.
Improving a traditional presentation with closing Q&A Instead of moving straight into Q&A after a presentation, provide a short time for participants to share possible questions in small groups. This helps introverts get their just-as-good-as-anyone-else questions out, and provides a check for those wondering whether their question is a good one, or optimally phrased.
“Never trust a leader who doesn’t dance at the event party” I’ll let this stand without comment, except to say my experience bears this out.
A good question for pair-share “What motivates you the most?” An excellent question for energizing participants by reconnecting them with their personal passion.
Working with status-conscious leaders at events Some leaders are heavily invested in their personal status. At events, they may insist on speaking at length to everyone, even though their talk is widely considered by the audience to be a waste of time. This issue was discussed at one of the four Practicum “challenge sessions”. One possible solution suggested was to elevate the leader’s status, for example, by adding a short well-produced video showing the leader to best advantage. Once this is done, the leader may accept more interactive and interesting formats, such as being interviewed by some key participants with preplanned questions.
Relief from discomfort My philosophy when facilitating is to bring participants as gently as possible into situations or experiences that may be uncomfortable, but are needed to satisfy desired outcomes. During the Practicum we went through what was described as a Maori discussion format. We found an issue on which our group was roughly equally divided and, with the two groups standing facing each other, took turns arguing for our point of view using the format “YOU think that… WE think that…”
I found the format artificial and uncomfortable (not least because none of us had any idea of what the other members in our group actually thought). What was interesting to me was the next step, when we all came together, sharing hugs and reconnecting across the groups, followed by a debrief where we all lay down and spoke about the experience when we felt we had something to say (rather like a Quaker Meeting). The relief felt after the “confrontation” was much stronger than if we had used a less confrontational discussion format. The experience made me think that there may be times when it’s worth increasing the discomfort at some points of event process to improve post-discomfort bonding.
Escape Rooms On the last evening of the Practicum, we piled into cars for a mystery outing. Our destination was revealed to be an Escape Room, or rather three Escape Rooms.
We had an opportunity to cooperatively solve (or watch others solve) a myriad of physical and mental problems in order to either escape from a room or, in my case, to compete against another team in an identical room. I had heard about these rooms but never experienced one before. For a group to solve the puzzles, members had to communicate effectively with each other. Our group worked fairly independently, calling out or showing findings to the other members as we found clues and objects needed to increase our score or unlock further puzzles. I was told afterwards that our competitors were less effective at listening to each other, which is why we ended up “winning”. Video cameras watched us as we worked, though the staff told us that the video would be kept private.
I had fun working with my six first-time teammates!
The Escape Room experience is an effective way to expose existing or potential communication problems in a group, and it could be debriefed afterwards using video of the session. However, it might be a rather negative experience, as there’s certainly potential for intra-team conflict, so I’m not sure if it’s an optimum environment for what is usually called team building.
Conclusions I’ve shared just a few thoughts that were quickly stimulated by this unique event. As always, reading about an experience is a pale ghost of the experience itself. Just as important was the opportunity to reconnect and deepen relationships with old friends, and make some wonderful new connections. I hope that Eric and Co will be encouraged to do this again; I will be among the first to sign up!
Ten minutes after I’d finished facilitating a large national association meeting hour-long discussion on solutions for a persistent industry problem, the conference education director walked in. His jaw dropped. “The attendees are still here talking to each other! That never happens!” he exclaimed.
Well it happened this time. Many small groups had formed and people were chatting energetically. Business cards were being swapped. When I left to catch my flight home twenty minutes later, conversations were still going on all around the room.
How did I build and support this level of interaction and engagement?
Here’s an effective variant of pair share—a fundamental participative technique that fosters connection and learning via discussion with a partner during a conference session—that was conjured up the other day by Malii Brown while we were co-facilitating a peer conference roundtable.
To keep participants alert during round-the-circle sharing at roundtables, I break every 20-25 minutes, either for a short bio-break or a relevant exercise involving movement. I often use pair share as one of these exercises (see The Power of Participation for a complete description) by asking participants to stand up and spend a few minutes introducing themselves to someone they don’t know.
On this occasion, Malii and I were alternating facilitation, and she got to introduce the pair share. Malii asked everyone to find someone they didn’t know, but when everyone was paired up she simply said:
“Share with each other what’s on your mind right now.”
Here’s a video excerpt of the resulting pair share. (I’ve removed the sound to maintain confidentiality, but you should know that the volume was substantial!)
I liked the energetic conversations Malii’s suggestion triggered, and have added this prompt to my mental toolbox for future use. This is a nice example of the kind of learning that can occur when co-facilitating—thanks Malii!
In American schools, the first experience of public speaking is typically Show and Tell. A child stands in front of the room with something brought from home and tells their classmates about it. The child gains experience and confidence in addressing a group, and provides entertainment to the classroom audience. Everyone quickly forgets the details of the monster truck except the presenter.
Many conference sessions follow this same format. A presenter imparts information by showing and telling to an audience. A “good” presenter may entertain people, but research shows that much of what is learned during the session is quickly forgotten.
So, how can we learn better? It turns out that the more multi-sensory our environment becomes the more our ability to learn improves. This requires us to become active participants in our learning. If the child passes round the monster truck for other children to touch and explore, their memory of it will be more accurate, more detailed, and longer lasting. If everyone gets to play with the truck for a while, they will learn even more.
We can improve the learning in our conference sessions in a similar way. If adults are to effectively learn new ideas—and this doesn’t just include rote learning but also understanding the ideas—they need to actively discuss the ideas and answer questions about them. When two people discuss a topic, research indicates that the current speaker makes the greatest cognitive gains. This occurs because 1) speaking provides the opportunity for tacit knowledge to become conscious; and 2) articulating ideas activates more of the brain than listening.
Three ways to do rather than show and tell One simple technique to create active discussion at a conference session is pair-share. When pair-share is happening, half the audience is explaining their ideas to the other half. As each speaker and listener swap roles, everyone in the room gets to actively process the session’s content. This is far superior to the typical question and answer session at the end of a presentation, which provides little or no opportunity for most of the audience to take part.
Another example is LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, a method for getting people to “think through their fingers”. This tactile interactive process uses working with Lego® to quickly move small groups of people into sharing and learning through creative problem solving.
A final example: my favorite conference sessions to facilitate are experiential workshops that involve participants working together throughout, experiencing new techniques or solving problems as a group rather than as individuals. The high level of activity provides a fertile environment for learning through doing, rather than by listening or watching.
All other things being equal, when we do, we learn better than when we’re shown or told. If you want your attendees to learn more effectively, you’ll need to incorporate more “doing” into your conference sessions.
My next book includes a large number of participatory techniques that you can use to maximize learning, connection, engagement, and community building at any event. Sign up to be informed when it’s published!
Off to GMIC’s Sustainable Meetings Conference this weekend. Besides a four-minute rant Torn About Tech, which will explore my ambivalence about some uses of technology at face-to-face meetings, I’m also emceeing a novel closing session on Tuesday, April 24, 3:00 – 4:30 pm with a format I haven’t tried before: Conference Weavers.
Conference Weavers? The purpose of a Conference Weavers session is to encourage reflection and reinforce learning by publicly sharing thoughts and impressions from the conference presentations and experiences. We’ll use a number of volunteers (current list: Danielle McNair, Denise Naguib, Sharon Shuford, Melanie Pelouze, Stephanie Robinson, Darice Solognier, Genevieve LeClerc, Paul Salinger, Jan Peter Bergkvist, and Michael Luerhs) who will each spend a few minutes sharing their conference response with the group, followed by a chance for audience questions and responses. Jenise Fryatt will lead a little interpretative improv at some point, and, if time permits, I’m going to include a pair-share so that everyone will have an opportunity to share his or her thoughts.
Pair-share? I thought you’d never ask. Pair-share is a simple participation technique you can use to get every audience member involved in sharing and discussion. Audience members divide into pairs and take turns sharing with their partner their conference impressions. Once that’s complete, optional public sharing can be added.
I’ll report on how this format worked after I’m back from the conference. Stay tuned!