I wrote this in 2007, and published it in my blog in 2012. I found it again today, re-read it and thought to myself that I really should blog that. Luckily I checked before blogging it again.
Here’s what I left out of the blog post:
“This book explores what facilitators can learn from improvised theatre and the role of spontaneity in facilitation. We’ll explore what improvisers do to hone their skills, how they apply their improv skills and some of the ways these can be applied in facilitation.”
Here’s how my focus has shifted since then: just replace ‘facilitators’ and ‘facilitation’ in the above paragraph with whatever your profession is.
Onward!Improv, Just Stuff | Comment (0)
This is worth watching again – and again, and every single time you think that standing up in front of a group of people and talking at them will ‘educate’ them about something . It won’t. It never did. It never will. Visit Donald Clark’s website for lots more to back up his arguments.
What does work? Repeated practice over time. Let me repeat. What helps people learn something, anything, is repeated practice over time.Conferences, Learning | Comment (0)
Last night I attended a community meeting. It was great. Lots of really useful information and a great simulation activity to enable all of us to relate to our own situation. Sure the powerpoint had bullets and the handout was a copy of the slides (why that matters is the whole point of Insanely Great Slideshow Presentations). I’ve seen a lot worse though, so a small quibble. The facilitators were engaging and the presenters were knowledgable. I did smile to myself when the facilitator gave us some instructions for a discussion, and we did exactly as we pleased – it was still ‘on topic’ – just not what she had suggested we do. How often that happens! Did it matter? Not a bit.
There really is a lot to notice when seeing another facilitator in action. Towards the end, our facilitator asked if we had any insights to share. The gap between asking the question and then making another statement was 2 seconds! (Yep, I timed it!) This is barely time for people to process the question let alone answer it. I’m sure it felt a lot longer up the front – I’ve been there, I know how time morphs into something else when standing in front of a group. What we experienced as 2 seconds, our facilitator probably thought was a different amount of time altogether.
Johnnie refers to this here and it’s why we often practice being in front of a group and doing nothing.
And nor did they make any of the other common mistakes of community meetings.
We had something to do on arrival (rather than all sit/stand around staring at each other). We had name tags (helpful for those faces I recognised that I couldn’t put a name to). It wasn’t all talking heads. There was a relevant activity. There was the slow reveal (which kept us interested and engaged). There were refreshments. There was a friendly vibe. They finished on time.
But they made one huge mistake.
Can you guess what it was?
If you’re a regular reader of this blog it should be obvious.
It was the room set-up.
They set the room up with large oblong tables in a classroom style for 18 people.
That pretty much filled up the available space.
When more than double that many people turned up (not an uncommon thing to happen at a community meeting) they had to scramble for more chairs and there was hardly any space to put them. People seated at tables had no chance of moving. The tables had foldable legs (yes, I checked – I’m like that!) and could have easily been stacked away. You could only talk to the person next to you, probably the person you came with, or one or two others. No chance for sociometry. No chance for mingling – because there was no space to do so. Pity. It detracted from an otherwise fabulous meeting.
Facilitating is not just what you do in front of the group, it’s the whole experience you provide. And that includes the space and how it is used.
I’ll say it again – no, I’ll shout it out loud – GET RID OF THE TABLES!Community, Facilitation | Comment (0)
What are the 3 big mistakes that Meeting Leaders make that keep them frustrated with drawn out meetings and a lack of enthusiasm?
Number One: They do all the work themselves
This means you are in front of the group, maybe chairing the meeting or leading a workshop, and seem to be doing all the work, while the participants sit passively – you’re not even sure if they are listening. They don’t answer questions or contribute much, and if they do, it’s often to disagree with each other. It can be demoralising, drawn out, and frustrating. You don’t plan to do all the work – you want people to participate – but what can you do? You need to get an outcome, you need to make sure the meeting was worthwhile, so you step in and do the work. It’s important to get others involved and contributing – the people in the room bring different perspectives, and without those you may be missing valuable information and ideas. There’s lots of ways of getting people to participate and contribute their ideas.
Try this: Pose an open question (that’s one that has no specific answer, there could be many different ways of looking at it) and then get people to pair up or in groups of 3, and ask them to discuss and write up a couple of answers. Use these answers as the basis for further discussion. This gives you an overview of people’s thinking, and importantly, they are doing the work, not you!
Number Two: The agenda is crowded and inflexible
Someone probably took some time and effort to create the agenda – asking people in advance what was important – and creating an agenda that is full of ‘very important topics’ and not enough time to do them justice. There are also all those ‘carry over’ items from the last meeting. The result is a crowded agenda that is set in advance, and everyone expects that it will be followed (because that’s what agendas are for!)
Just how much time do you and your colleagues spend in meetings? I bet it’s a lot! Have you ever counted the amount of time you spend in meetings in a week? Have you ever worked out how much of that time was worthwhile? Of course you haven’t! You’re too busy attending meetings!
Try this: Spend 10 minutes at the beginning of the meeting creating the agenda (this will also encourage people to be on time, because if they’re not present, their topic won’t get a mention). Ask everyone who wants to, to write up an agenda item on a flip chart. Then ask everyone in the room to cast three votes (this can be simple as three ticks) and vote for the three topics they think are most important for this meeting to address right now (they can vote for any except their own). Tally up the votes and start with the top vote getter. Continue down the list until finished or until time runs out – whichever happens first.
Number Three: They don’t really know how to get people actively involved
They have been to plenty of meetings, workshops and events and have sometimes seen, or even participated, in ways to get people actively involved, but don’t feel confident or able to do this themselves. So much could go wrong, it’s easier to play it safe and do what they are familiar with – even if it’s not working.
We can’t go on meeting like this!
There is so much time and energy wasted in unproductive meetings, so many ideas lost and not shared, and grumpiness about yet another boring meeting. We simply can’t go on meeting like this! We need to reinvent the ways we meet and how we engage with each other and get that valuable time back for all the other important things we do our lives.
I’ve seen my friends and family exhausted after a week at work, with no energy left for their family and friends. They don’t know that there are better, more efficient, rewarding and fun ways to have meetings – yes, even meetings about very serious issues. They don’t know that they are shouldering all of the work, and trying to do too much when there are simple strategies they can use to host engaging meetings, deal with difficult people and topics and be prepared to step in whenever needed to host a great meeting.
I’ve seen people who are passionate and talented get into a meeting and drown in the process. They come away feeling demoralised and exhausted. It saddens me because I know it doesn’t have to be like this. It’s easy to learn. I learnt it, by trial and error, but you don’t have to.
I’ve decided to share with you a whole bunch of tips and tricks thst I’ve learnt and developed over 20 years of designing and leading meetings – from one hour meetings to multi-day events. You too can learn How to Lead Engaging and Productive Meetings.
Here’s another tip, one that I use often. Use the walls and get people moving. If you have five options (for example) and you want people to debate which will work the best, get people on their feet and making an initial choice. Write the options on flip chart and put them on the walls around the room. Ask people to go and stand by the one they think will be the best option. Ask them to write up the reasons on the flip chart and to advocate from that position. Offer people the choice to move to a different option once they have heard the arguments. This enables you to document the arguments and to have the debate without getting bogged down and to see where everyone in the group stands on the issue – literally.
How to Lead Engaging and Productive Meetings is a one-day intensive.
You’ll have tools to conduct much more engaging meetings, and people will want to attend your meetings, instead of finding an excuse. Why? Because they know they will get value and be valued by attending your meeting – they will participate instead of being passive. This means you’ll get more time for the things that matter, and have more enjoyable meetings.
I’m offering just one program before Christmas and it’s limited to 18 people.
Of course, you can get more engaging and productive meetings by engaging a facilitator – like me! It’s what I do for a living. I would come and work with you to find out what you need, design the meeting, facilitate it on the day. I recommend this. I’m great to work with. I’m experienced as a facilitator and nothing much fazes me. This would cost you $5500 for a day-long meeting. This is not what I’m offering right now, but if you are interested, drop me an email email@example.com or call me on 0417 135 406.
The cost for How to Lead Engaging and Productive Meetings – where you’ll learn the skills to get people involved, is just $493. And I’ll provide follow-up coaching and mentoring – all included.
I know how helpful it can be to have others from your organisation also learning this. So, if three or more people from the same company/organisation registers at the same time I’ll give you all a 50% discount.
Onward!Facilitation, Learning | Comment (0)
Occasionally, someone will ask me how I became a facilitator (by surprise, is the answer) and what they need to do to become a facilitator (do facilitation, is the answer). Sometimes they’ll press me for a little more (helpful) information. Here it is – thanks to the wonderful people on the Facilitating With Confidence LinkedIn Group, who answered my call for what advice they would give. Do go there and read all their comments. Great stuff.
It’s not about you! The group you are facilitating is central – they are the ‘heroes’ of the workshop. When you understand this you will also be clear that they know more than you do and it’s vital to acknowledge and use their existing knowledge. Therefore you don’t need to be a subject matter expert, because you are a process expert – you know which process will most likely help the group.
I was once facilitating in China (through a translator) and made this point about not needing to know about the subject you’re facilitating. They didn’t believe me. Instead of arguing, I showed them. With only translation of my English instructions into Chinese, the whole process was conducted entirely in Chinese. All the data was written in Chinese (and not translated). In the end, they believed me.
It’s about you and the group in partnership Watch the language that can reveal a lot: for example, what’s the difference between ‘facilitating for a group’ and ‘facilitating with a group’. I wish I’d known when first starting out how important it is to build a partnership with the group, to work on the issue together, to see the group as allies, share with them what’s going on in your mind, and ask for their help. You’re not there as a magician to entertain them, or to impose your opinions.
It doesn’t matter what process you use! Yes, I know this contradicts something said earlier. Processes are tools, some are better for some jobs and others, that’s for sure and it’s helpful to have a process that is matched to outcomes. If you are starting out facilitating though, the only way to learn this is by trying different processes. There’s no formulae or golden rule as long as whatever you do gets the participants working with each other, connecting to each other and to the purpose of the session.
Let them do the work Most of the work of facilitating happens before you even set foot in front of a group. Once with the group, your job is to get them working then get out of the way. Give them time and space to get on with it. You’re not a teacher, it’s not a classroom, they’re adults, you don’t have to check their work. They’ll figure it out.
Use space and movement Have lots of space, get rid of the tables, get people moving about as they work. We all spend too much time in our heads. Connecting with others and ideas also requires us to connect with ourselves, including our whole body. Movement helps with this. Not convinced yet? Check this out, “sitting is the new smoking.”
Look after yourself Know yourself. Know what works for you to enable you to enter a facilitation centred, calm and fully present. I can’t tell you what works for you (but I know what works for me). You’ll have to figure this out for yourself. Plus it’s a good thing to know for just about anything you might do.
Get used to the blank looks (1) You’ll be at a party, or the hairdressers, or in a bar and someone will ask what you do (don’t they always?). When you answer, facilitator, they’ll stare at you blankly for a moment, blink, and eventually say ‘what’s that?’ Have a snappy answer ready.
Get used to blank looks (2) This will happen when you are actually facilitating with a group. You’ll say something that you’re pretty sure you spoke in a reconisable language (to you, and to them) yet they will stare at you as if you just spoke in gibberish. Don’t get flustered, just wait for them to catch up. See below.
Notice more, change less This from my facilitation partner Johnnie Moore. The tendency is to always be doing something, to think that it’s not working and you should do something else. Better to notice more and change less. Just let the group get on with it, but be present for them and step in if you really need to. Again, the only way to learn this is by facilitating.
Facilitation is not for everyone Some people are just not cut out to be a facilitator. That’s okay. I’m not cut out to be an accountant – I can barely manage basic book-keeping! – and I’m okay with that.
Get out there and facilitate! I want to learn Spanish. And it’s not going to happen until I start speaking Spanish. If you want to be a facilitator, don’t wait until you are ready. Find opportunities to facilitate, even if it’s only for a few minutes in a regular meeting.
Hasta luego.Facilitation, General | Comment (0)
Alieke van der Wijk and Henk van der Steen have been turning up to Applied Improv Conferences for as long as I can remember. They have individually and together been a great inspiration to me, as well as often challenging my thinking.
At this year’s conference they again delighted with Popcorn PPT. I loved it, and immediately stole it. I’ve now used it twice – once with a group of 16 people, and once with a group of 100+.
It’s simple, of course. All the best ideas are. Put together 50 slides about your topic (preferably pics – forget the wordy slides, the complicated graphs, the impossible-to-see detail, the bullets) then get the audience to choose the three or five you will talk about. As I said, simple. Awesome.
Avoids you deciding what’s important and what’s not (you do anyway by choosing the slides – it’s just that you have to let go of most of them). Helps avoid the ‘curse of knowledge’ and wanting to share everything you know about a topic. Avoids being too linear – especially when the topic is complex (and most topics are) and adds an extra element of interest to the audience, and keeps you, the presenter, ready to respond to whatever emerges. It also takes way less time than your usual presentation.
Someone quipped it would avoid all that time preparing for a presentation. Um, not so. You do need to be prepared to speak to whatever slide comes up. As improvisers keep reminding us, improvising is not the same as winging it. I found the process of selecting images and thinking about why it was important to my topic helped focus my mind, and my message.
I think it would be cool to experiment with a string of these – next time a client absolutely has to have presentations as part of an event. Each presenter has 50 slides, the audience gets to randomly choose 3 (on the spot – not in advance), then on to the next presentation.
Presentations | Comment (0)
Warning: a bit ranty, but ultimately hopeful
Doesn’t really matter how you wrap it up, we’ve been content junkies – we’ll say process and design are important, we’ll acknowledge the value of relationships, we’ll nod when someone says we need more conversations – and immediately do the opposite. We’ll sit people in rows, we’ll get engaging, inspiring and interesting people (if we’re lucky) to talk at them, and pat ourselves on the back for creating such an awesome event. We know it’s awesome because people came, and they told us so. And we perpetuate this approach by colluding with it, agreeing to be be force-fed information, because it’s prettily packaged or delivered in an unusual location. We’ll complain of content overload, roll our eyes at yet another crap powerpoint presentation, and justify our support of such events because of the opportunity to meet and talk with others in the breaks and during the social events.
I say ‘we’ because I have done all of this. I have gobbled up content in the hope that it will help me forget that I’m a hypocrit, or to help me forget that I’m not contributing, or in the hope that somewhere amongst all of this content I’ll find something affirming and nourishing. I’ll gobble up all this content because I’m trapped by the Tyranny of the Explicit and the fear that I don’t know enough.
I look at all the events and conferences on offer, and wonder what’s wrong with me for not wanting to go along with everybody else who seem perfectly happy with the ‘sage on the stage’, for not wanting to be the ‘sage on the stage’.
Here’s three examples that give me hope that we have finally quenched our content thirst and are willing to step into different ways of engaging face-to-face with each other. They are still the exception. We’ll continue creating, and going to, events that are crammed full of content under the delusion that it’s value for money, and in between, we’ll find gems like these that show us there are indeed alternatives. Onward!
1. The Reading Weekend
Here’s how this works (as described to me by Rob Poynton) You get together a bunch of people, and each person brings a book they haven’t yet read (I suspect it doesn’t matter what sort of book it is, but maybe there were guidelines – I either didn’t ask the question or can’t remember that detail) for the weekend. You find some amazing person or place that can provide meals, and choose a venue where people can disperse and be alone. Between meals you read your book, at meals you have conversations. That’s it. “Read between meals, talk over meals.” So simple. You don’t have to talk about your book, but I suppose that inevitably you do. And who knows what magic is woven over that simple process of reading and conversing?
2. Deceler8 Me
This was explained to me by Dr Froth, who has just returned from such an event. It’s designed for entrepeneurs and is the opposite of the accelerator, time to slow down, no internet, located on an island with no cars, small enough that you can walk around it, and the environment itself slows you down. I imagine this would give you space to, well, reconnect, refocus and learn – just as the organisers propose.
3. Trampoline Day Unconference
I love that people have taken Open Space, mashed it up and made it their own. The premis is to bring something to share that you find amazing – you can do this any way you like. There are 30-minute slots that are filled at the beginning of each block by people standing up and pitching their topic. They are allocated a time and a place on the grid and then people go where their feet take them. The Law of Two Feet applies, and it’s a great way of networking and finding out what others are doing. Thirty minutes is long enough to get into a topic and short enough to avoid getting into trouble! For me it’s like an interactive resume: here I am, this is what I do, come interact with me. Personally, it suits me a whole lot better than the traditional networking event where there are endless status games to talk to the ‘right’ people etc.
No doubt there are many more examples – I’d love to hear about them.Conferences, General | Comments (2)
Using games from improvised theatre to build mental agility and responsiveness amongst humanitarian workers responding to disasters
I was in Perth in the 1980s at a conference about soil science. It was a very grown-up and serious conference. In 1983 in Melbourne, the whole city had been enveloped in a dust storm. Years of drought and land degradation caused soil from the Mallee in north-west Victoria to blow across the State. Some of that Mallee soil was eventually found on the ski slopes on New Zealand. So soil science was a big deal.
We had partnered with a local songwriter, Fay White, to write some songs about land degradation – erosion, salinity, soil health. Back at the conference in Perth, imagine 800 or so soil scientists sitting in a plenary session (and yes, your assumptions about soil scientists are probably correct: male, middle-aged, conservative, bearded) and me (female, younger, a bit weird and definitely not bearded) inviting them to sing along with Soils Ain’t Dirt, complete with hand movements? There was a mixed response, though we did get a picture on the front page of the WA newspaper.
It was (on reflection now) the beginning of my journey to explore ways to bring playfulness to serious issues.
I play lots of games from improvised theatre. Improvised theatre is where the players get up on stage without a script, take a suggestion from the audience and spontaneously, improvise a performance. They draw on their existing skills and knowledge, and whatever else is available, and each other. It is the best expression of collaboration and team-work I have ever seen. They can do this because they play games together. Not because the games are fun – they are; not because the games keep them fit – they do. They play games because it helps them hone a set of practices that they need to draw on when on the stage. The games help build their spontaneity muscles. The games themselves teach what it feels like to let go, to look out for each other, to notice more, and to be open to whatever happens.
Humanitarian workers are called on to respond to disasters in difficult conditions. They are often the first people on site after an earthquake, a cyclone, a tsunami. While there are plenty of protocols to support their work, the first 24 hours might be just chaos – and they need to call on their own resources, and that of their colleagues, to asses what the situation is, do something and save lives. It might well be the start of many months, or even years, of involvement with the affected communities. Many humanitarian workers helping out in an emergency are not specifically trained – they might be finance people, development workers, in marketing and communications. All of a sudden, their whole world has been turned upside down – they, their friends and families, may even be directly affected. It is in these situations that the training in improv practices comes into its own: the ability to let go of expectations and the way things were; the ability to notice more; to be open to possibilities and opportunities; to act when you don’t know what will happen or the consequences; to try something and if it fails, try something else.
In a situations like this, there’s no time for the ‘tyrannies’ that can envelop us and render us useless. There are three ‘tyrannies’ that we work with to try and overcome through playing and practicing improv games:
1. The Tyranny of the Explicit – the fear of not knowing enough
2. The Tyranny of Excellence – the fear of not being good enough
3. The Tyranny of Effort – fear of not trying hard enough
Improv games reveal these tyrannies in a playful way. They also teach us to do something even if we don’t have all the information, feel inadequate and could do better if we just tried harder. Improv games break these chains and enable us to contribute as compassionate human beings, comfortable that our contribution is enough.
And who wouldn’t want that?
* Of course, it’s not exactly what I said – I improvised a bit, threw in a couple of games, and had the audience select three of 50 slides I had ready for Popcorn PPT.
Poynton, Robert (2008) Everything’s An Offer “Notice More – Let Go – Use Everything”
Sawyer, Keith (2007) Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration “When people improvise together, they develop innovative responses to unexpected events…”
Block, Peter (2002) The Answer to How is Yes “We need to be willing to address questions that we know have no answer.”
Koppett, Kat (2001) Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning “The power of improv…is its ability to connect people to their intuition, their bodies, their intellect, and each other.”
Johnstone, Keith (1987) Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”Community, Improv | Comment (0)
It was the end of a five-day workshop. What had been going well, suddenly wasn’t. I had to step in front of a group that felt there was still too much unfinished business, and time had run out. My thoughts were racing, jumping from conciliatory to rebellious. “Let’s not cave in,” said my co-facilitator. “We need to hold our line.” So I stood on the edges, and unseen by anyone, I changed my status from defeated (low) to confident (high). I raised my arms, turned my palms upwards, lowered my arms and stepped in front of the group. (It turned out well in the end, and that’s a story for another day).
Status has lots of meanings. Status updates are pervasive on social media. Status is often considered the same as our position in society.
At this year’s Applied Improvisation Network Conference in Berlin, Simo Routarinne and Barb Tint, shared their deepening understanding of status. I first learnt about status from an improv perspective from Simo and other improvisers. Keith Johnstone wrote extensively about status in his book Impro. He called it submission and dominance, and suggested we were too polite to refer to it that way.
In particular, status is how you behave towards others. Tim Minchin, in his recent speech at the University of Western Australia, said he will judge you by how you treat the wait staff in a restaurant. Fair enough too.
So what is status? It’s dynamic, constantly changing depending on our circumstances, and it’s relational – depends on who you are with. It’s how you behave towards others, and it’s always your choice. You can choose to be higher or lower status, or try and match the status of the person you’re with.
Higher status is characterised by bigger gestures, standing tall, taking up more space, making eye contact and deliberate movement. Lower status is characterised by trying to take up less space, avoiding eye contact, or looking away quickly, fidgeting and hesitant movements. There are innumerable choices to make in status, shifting a little or a lot, changing your own status in relation to others, or raising or lowering the status of others by your actions. Mostly it’s unconscious. There is much value in understanding status and knowing when and how to shift it to enhance relationships. It’s also useful to understand status and know when someone is trying to manipulate you!
My example at the beginning of this post was about me raising my own status by changing my body posture. By doing this I could step into a potentially hostile environment in a high status manner, and to boldly acknowledge the uncertainties in the group without being overwhelmed by them. This gave them, and me, confidence to move on.
Back to Simo and Barb’s work. They have identified other aspects of our relationship to others and our situation that is relevant to status.
Rank is our position in a hierarchy, it’s your designated role and describes what you are e.g. CEO (high rank), intern (low rank).
Power is something you have. It can be cultural. Power can be money, knowledge, influence, connections, fluency in a language…
Esteem is what you feel. It’s an external experience and can be changed by social feedback.
Status is what you do, how you behave. It’s relational, and it’s the easiest to change.
You can see this played out in any arrivals hall in any international airport. The immigration officer’s rank might be relevant within the organisation they work for, but for the everyday traveller, what’s important is that they hold all the power. Doesn’t matter who you are, what connections you have, they are in charge. You can’t use your rank, and any power you have is meaningless. What you can do though is use your status – something you can change and have control over – to make the exchange as amiable and quick as possible.
What’s really interesting is the intersection between rank, power, status and esteem. And well worth further exploration in all human interactions.
Facilitation, General, Improv, Leadership | Comment (0)
For too long now I’ve been hedging my bets with my work – espousing the edgy nature of games and improvisation, and, to be fair, I have been incorporating both into my work. Yet not quite committing. Holding back just a bit. As any improviser knows, reluctance may afford some level of safety, and it also leads to missing opportunities. Missing the moment to step in and contribute to or even change the scene.
With the benefit of a four-month break, I’ve noticed how excited I get at the potential of games and of exploring the relationship between games, improvisations, applied improv, decision-making and leadership. It’s time I stepped boldly into this space.Musings | Comment (0)