Last week, my friend Traci B wrote to me about a workshop that wasn’t.
“You’ll love this…I went to a 4 hour morning workshop at this digital conference. The speaker said, this will be interactive because no one wants to listen to me talk for four hours. He then proceeded to talk for 4 hours!
I did learn stuff and it prompted some ideas, but imagine how much better they might stick if it actually was a workshop. Also, he polled people in the audience and asked who was B2B [business-to-business] and who B2C [business-to-consumer]. 90 percent of the room was B2B…his presentation was almost all B2C.”
Sadly, experiences like this are far too common. Speakers (and the folks that concoct conference programs) decide to jazz up the description of a broadcast-style session by calling it a workshop.
Obviously, the lecture Traci had to endure wasn’t a workshop. Genuine workshops include significant, frequent, and appropriate work by participants, guided by leaders. The leaders typically have significant content-specific experience. However, they also need adequate facilitation skills to guide the group through the session’s activities.
Some workshops are better described as trainings, where the participants are novices and the leader supplies the vast majority of the content and learning environment. However, most workshops I’ve led included professionals with significant skills and experience.
Customizing a workshop
When running such sessions, it’s important to customize the workshop in real time to meet the actual wants and needs of the participants, rather than plowing through a predetermined agenda that may be partially or largely irrelevant.
This did not happen at Traci’s event!
“Also, adapting your presentation isn’t tagging on “it’s the same for B2B” after every example…cause it’s not.”
Skilled leaders know to uncover the wants and needs of participants at the start of the session, and use the information to build a workshop that’s optimized for the attendees.
This sounds more difficult than it usually is. Preparation involves having a broad set of potential content, techniques, and skills to cover. Then, during the session, the leader concentrates on the wants and needs the attendees have initially shared, adjusting the time spent on each area to match the expressed interest.
One final suggestion
If a presenter (like me) is actually running a workshop, please don’t insist on calling them a speaker! In my experience, attendees prefer well-designed workshops to almost any other session format. Tell them the session is a workshop. They’ll appreciate the information (and likely the session too)!
Twenty-five years ago I was a college professor who spent hours preparing classes, fearful that students would ask me a question I couldn’t answer. And when I started convening and speaking at conferences I was scared of being “on stage”, even in front of small audiences.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is training associations how to create powerful and effective participant-driven and participation-rich conferences. I love facilitating the learning that occurs. The training equips the organization with the tools needed to transform its events. Do you want to significantly improve your meetings? Then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
“…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’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 on!
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. We used no high tech, with one optional exception. We projected a Google Doc at the end, to capture and display 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. They planned 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, almost everyone will ask questions in public at some point during the event.
If you aren’t getting excellent audience engagement, don’t blame the audience! Change the processes you use in your sessions, to guarantee engagement!
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.
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.
What I learned from this collision of agreements
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).
I can trust participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) 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 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 of a collision of agreements is amusing too.
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You’ll save $100 when you sign up for my Chicago workshop by September 9th, earn 16.00 CE hours, and — most important — learn how to significantly increase attendee satisfaction at your events.
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I have learned so many lessons from improv. Here are more of my experiences and takeaways for event professionals from the wonderful five-day improv and mindfulness workshop Mindful Play, Playful Mind, held June 8-13 2016, at Mere Point on the beautiful Maine coast — followed by their relevance to event design (red). (Here’s Part 1.)
The YOU game
In the YOU game, participants stand in a circle and create — by saying YOU and pointing to someone — patterns of categories, such as people’s names or breeds of dogs, around the circle. (Detailed description & instructions can be found here.) When you have several different patterns going around simultaneously, things get hectic. When we add people moving to the next person’s place in the pattern while playing, things get…demanding! The game vividly drives home this golden rule: When communicating, make sure that your message is received! When everyone successfully implements this rule, the YOU game flows despite complexity. And when we slip up, the patterns mysteriously disappear…
Successful event professionals learn the importance of this golden rule early! Another way to think about and practice this rule is the ask, tell, ask formulation.
I have written about status in both my books, as it’s an important aspect of event design—and improv. At the workshop we played several improv games that explored status and allowed us to practice taking status roles and working to change our own or other’s status. One example was a two-person scene we played over and over again with the same dialog:
Player1: Been waiting long?
Each player had the option to choose their original status and then work to raise or lower their own or the other player’s status. Qualities of body stance, control of space, speech, and interaction affect status, and it’s something that I would like to be more aware of in my life. As a facilitator, I typically work to equalize status with people with whom I’m working, but, programmed by my upbringing, I also have a tendency on meeting new people to default to lower status until I know them better. Improv status work helps me become more aware of such proclivities.
Ted also introduced us to Patsy Rotenburg’s Second Circle model of communication and connection, which maps in many ways onto improv status work. Worth checking out!
If you’ve read my books or this blog you know that I am a proponent of replacing traditional preordained status at events with a peer model where individual status can and does change moment to moment. Such participant-driven and participation-rich events provide a fluid-status environment that supports leaders and experts appearing and contributing when appropriate and needed.
Building things together
One of the most wonderful things about improv is the opportunities it gives us to experience what can happen when we build something together with others, something that is a true joint creation that would have been different if any one of its creators had not been present. Improv games provide an environment of mutual support, where players add to what’s currently been created. The addition can be of more detail or deeper focus on some aspect, but the whole glorious edifice only increases in size and complexity over time.
Many improv games provide this experience. One that we enjoyed a lot was three-words-at-a-time poems. We wrote group poems, our only instruction being to read what we received and add to it in a way that seemed true to what had already been written. Sitting in a circle, each of us wrote the first three words of a poem. We then passed our paper to the next person who wrote three more words and passed the paper on again. Our papers circulated twice around the circle, with the starter of each poem contributing the last three words.
Here’s one we created together:
The cold lasagna sat on the white stool.
What, no noodles?
No because too much.
The guests departed, deflated, never to return to my sugarless, soulless party.
My hungry friends
Even hungrier for the lost moment
Of Italian goodness lingered beside
White plates and glasses.
Never host again.
I think the most satisfactory experiences I have designing, producing, and facilitating events occur when every person involved in the event contributes creatively to making the event what it becomes. It feels darn good to be part of something wonderful that a group of people built through their individual work.
I learned so many important lessons from improv at this workshop. Our five days together passed swiftly. Throughout our time together we had moments of play, joy, seriousness, sadness, intimacy, fun, learning, and much laughter. I love workshops like this, because they offer and support a unique experience for each participant—prescribed learning objectives are refreshingly absent, though I am sure that each person (including Ted and Lisa) took away something personally meaningful, valuable, and probably important. I’ve only covered some of what I experienced and enjoyed. I recommend Ted and Lisa’s skillful, supportive, and empathetic workshops to anyone who wants to explore the wonders of improv and mindfulness in a community of not-long-to-be-strangers.
I plan to be back next year; please join me!
Ted & Lisa’s excellent Monster Baby Podcast just published David Treadwell’s interview with Ted & Lisa, which was recorded during the workshop. They explain “why they offer these retreats, what the weekend usually covers, and how improv skills can lead to a better life”. They also consider what keeps people from such ways of being in their normal lives and when they themselves can get into the “no” mode. David asks about how the retreat can help teachers, business professionals, and those in personal relationships before getting into the rewards and challenges of leading such retreats. Ted and Lisa offer a few specific examples of the kinds of exercises they offer. The podcast closes with a few short testimonials from this year’s participants. And if you keep listening past the apparent end, there’s a hidden bonus track improvised performance from Ted and Lisa!”
You had to be there. In this case, “there” was a wonderful five-day improv and mindfulness workshop Mindful Play, Playful Mind, held June 8-13 2016, at Mere Point on the beautiful Maine coast. In this two-part article I’ll share a little of my experience and takeaways, followed by their relevance to event design (red).
How I got there
Many people think of improv as a form of entertainment. I am fascinated by my experiences of improv as a tool for better living. As Patricia Ryan Madson, a teacher of both workshop leaders, says: “Life is an improvisation.” In addition, I’ve been working for over 40 years (with erratic focus and success) on practicing mindfulness in my daily life. So, when I heard in 2015 that Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland, with whom I’d spent three days at a 2012 beginner’s improv workshop in San Francisco, were offering a workshop on improv and mindfulness, I badly wanted to go. Although that opportunity had to be passed up—PCMA made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: facilitating the 2015 PCMA Education Conference—I made it to the 2016 workshop.
I’m glad I did.
Where I came from
I became interested in improv after short experiences in various workshops during the last 15 years. After a three-day introductory workshop at BATS, I attended two four-day Applied Improvisation Network World Conferences (San Francisco 2012 and Montreal 2015). In Lessons From Improv, and other posts I’ve shared how improv shines a powerful light on core practices that improve events. Saying Yes to offers can allow amazing things to happen at conferences, Being Average improves our creativity by focusing on the possibilities inside the box, and Waking Up to the Gifts makes the importance of public and specific appreciations at events obvious.
Looking back, I’ve only one post about mindfulness. Not because it’s less important, but because I find mindfulness hard to write about.
The content and process of Mindful Play, Playful Mind was so rich that I’ll cover only a fraction of what one might learn from participating: the fraction that especially resonated for me at this time in my life. Here goes…
One of the key gifts I received from the workshop was the gift of practice of improv and mindfulness.
The principles of improv, though easy to grasp, require practice to master. I’m far from mastery. The first time I worked with a fellow participant in a simple game, Ted and Lisa gently pointed out that I blocked her first two offers. (Essentially, I said “no, not that” to what she had suggested about my character and motivations). I noticed that I sometimes say “no” to perfectly appropriate ideas. Improv doesn’t mean accepting anything anyone says to you; rather it is a way to expand a world of possibilities that one might otherwise reject. Practicing saying “yes” over our five days together helped me be more open to saying it in my life.
Each morning, Ted led us thought an hour of movement and meditation. During the last ten years, I have had a rather, well let’s just say, sporadic mindfulness practice. On the fourth morning of the workshop, I was so aware of the benefits of daily practice, I determined to start each day henceforth with yoga and meditation. This decision was a surprise to me. It may well turn out to be the most significant change in my life from this workshop. We’ll see.
After we have grasped the basics of event design, mindful practice is how we improve. We become better at noticing what happens and learning from it, more focused on the present, and less distracted by our ego. Improv practice increases our creativity in dealing with the unexpected (turning broken eggs into omelets), makes accepting offers (of assistance and opportunities) easier, and helps us to work better with and support collaborators.
It was a surprise to me to find during the workshop that I still short-change appreciations from others. I was taught at an early age to feel embarrassed by compliments, applause, or thanks. Though I’m better able to accept these things nowadays, I still feel a certain reticence at accepting these positive affirmations.
Although I had previously spent time with workshop leaders Ted & Lisa, I had never met my fellow participants before. All nine of us spent five days living, playing, and working together. We stayed in an old family home overlooking a stunning Maine estuary, and ate meals together. One afternoon we hiked together over Morse Mountain to Seawall Beach. Our workshop was held either outside or in the Mere Point Yacht Club next-door 😀.
By the end of our time together, I got to know Ellen, Nancy, Nahin, Ellena, Wendy, and Everlyn better in some ways than our Vermont neighbors (and friends), with whom we’ve shared a driveway for over thirty years. The improv and mindfulness exercises we experienced together allowed us to help each other learn and grow.
Well-designed events can change peoples’ lives through the connections we make during them and the learning and changes that result. What an amazing responsibility and opportunity we have!
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!
Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?
Feeling good—for a while
At MPI’s 2011 World Education Congress I heard the best motivational speaker I’ve ever seen. Bill Toliver gave an amazing twenty-minute speech.
I felt inspired by Bill. Here’s what I tweeted at the time.
But three months later, I didn’t remember a thing Bill said. (In fact I didn’t even remember his name when I came to write this post and had to ferret it out from an archive.)
Now this may be simply because my memory is declining with the passage of time—though I suspect that you may have had a similar experience. But I don’t think my dying brain cells are to blame.
As a counter-example, I still have vivid memories of workshops I attended over ten years ago.
Why do I remember what happened at those workshops but not what Bill said? We’ll get to that shortly, but first….
Testing two styles of lecture learning
I am not surprised by the results of research published in the May 2013 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Here’s the experimental setup:
“Participants viewed one of two videos depicting an instructor explaining a scientific concept. The same speaker delivered the same script in both videos. The only difference was in how the information was delivered. In the fluent speaker condition, the speaker stood upright, maintained eye contact, displayed relevant gestures, and did not use notes. In the disfluent speaker condition, she hunched over a podium, read from notes, spoke haltingly, and failed to maintain eye contact.” Appearances can be deceiving: instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning—Shana K. Carpenter, Miko M. Wilford, Nate Kornell, Kellie M. Mullaney
Right after watching their video, participants were asked to estimate how much of the information in the video they would be able to recall after about 10 minutes:
“Participants who viewed the fluent speaker predicted that they would remember a greater amount of information than those who viewed the disfluent speaker. However, actual performance did not differ between the groups [emphasis added]…
…It is not clear precisely which aspects of the lecturer’s behavior influenced participants’ judgments, and the experience of fluency may be subjective. What is clear, however, is that a more fluent instructor may increase perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning [emphasis added].”
What can we conclude from these results?
It’s just one experiment, but it does support something I’ve believed to be true for years. A great speaker may well provide a more enjoyable and emotionally satisfying presentation—but the learning that results is not significantly better than that provided by a mediocre lecturer!
Am I saying that we should discount the value of the quality of a speaker’s presence, examples, stories, and presentation as a whole? No! If we’re going to learn something from a speaker, there’s value in having the experience be emotionally satisfying.
What I am saying, though, is that it is a mistake to correlate the quality of a speaker’s presentation with the learning that occurs for those present. That is a big mistake.
Highly-paid speakers may provide better emotional experience, but that doesn’t mean their listeners learn and retain what they hear especially well.
But there’s another mistake we’re making when we fill our conferences with speakers.
What’s the use of lectures?
Back to those workshops I attended. Why do I remember vividly what happened in 2002 but not what Bill, the magnificent motivational speaker, said in 2011? Because in the workshops I was participating in my learning. I was interacting with other participants, receiving feedback and insights about what I said and did, and what happened led to deep learning that has stayed with me ever since.
When we give center stage at our events to presentations at the expense of participative engagement, learning suffers. The best speakers may be far more entertaining and emotionally satisfying than the worst ones, but, according to the above research, we’re not going to learn any more from them. Perhaps a truly great speaker may inspire her audience to take action in their lives—and that can be a good and important outcome—but I wonder how often that happens at our events. (There’s an idea for more research!)
What we have known for some time though, is that if we are truly interested in maximizing learning at our events, hiring the best speakers in the world will not do the trick. Instead, we need to incorporate participative learning into every session we program. That’s the subject of my next book. Stay tuned!
So, do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?
What do you think is the real value of good speakers? How much have you learned (and retained) from presentations compared to interactive workshops?