Blog > The centre of attention

June 28, 2011

I’m reading a book about humour, and one of the questions its authors are exploring is the biological imperative for humour and laughter. Apart from the obvious mating game where women are attracted to men with a sense of humour (unless of course they are attracted to women with a sense of humour, but I digress) – there are apparently some complicated neurological reasons why we are pretty much addicted to humour and find pleasure in laughter. I know! Who would have thought? Seriously, when I work out what they are saying (which probably means finishing reading the book) I’ll try and synthesize their argument. This has an important purpose for me – I’m looking for more than anecdotal evidence to support my claim that the most serious issues and problems can be explored playfully. More on that later.

This got me thinking about the one-to-many approach that seems to dominate our meetings and conferences. Is there also a biological imperative for being the centre of attention? On the remote chance that there’s a scientist qualified to comment reading this, feel free to let me know. My guess is there’s some advantage in belonging, and in being seen to belong, in conforming to the norms of a particular group to ensure you get appropriate shelter, food, protection and even a mate. Difference is usually a sign of potential danger. So maybe we conform even when we know there’s alternative ways, simply not to stand out. Which doesn’t help very much in the whole centre of attention, one-to-many question.

So here’s another piece of the puzzle. Many of us would rather poke our eye out with a fork than stand in front of an audience and speak. And yet others of us get a buzz out of being the centre of attention. Whether we like it or not, it appears to be the norm – the one (or some-)-to-many situation: key note speakers, panels, and performers – stand up comics, bands, dancers, plays. What is consistent in all these situations is the passive audience, with the occasional opportunity to engage with those in the limelight. This is different to engaging with the content of course. It’s possible to be in an audience and deeply, emotionally engaged with the topic, the presenter, the performance. It’s also possible to be deeply bored and disengaged.

Why do we put up with bad meetings? Bad performances quickly get the message – they get better or get out of work. Critics and audiences make sure of that. So we’re happy to go to a performance on the weekend and give a standing ovation to an outstanding performance, and tell all our friends to avoid a particular play or band if we think they’re no good. Then we front up to work on Monday and sit through dreadful meetings, attend conferences where we hang out for the breaks (because that’s why it’s worth sitting through all those patchy presentations – so as we can catch up with the people we really want to talk to over a coffee). Seems like a lost opportunity to me.

At Gathering11 – a conference that wasn’t prepared to follow the rules (the only sort of conference I’m willingly likely to attend these days) there were two people in particular who influenced my thinking. Before I explain, check out this drawing. It illustrates different participation models: one-to-many; multi-hub (common in facilitated workshops and quite accurately depicts many community groups where they operate autonomously and are formally or informally connected, usually through individuals) and the distributed model where strong and weak links connect individuals and power, in particular, is distributed rather than resting with any few individuals. The model was first used by the Rand Corporation in the 1960s to describe radio networks. I have blatantly co-opted the model to describe different styles of facilitation. My aim is to work towards using more and more distributed approaches.

Using distributed approaches in meetings and conferences, trying new stuff and causing a bit of disruption is risky. Not everyone is going to like it. So what Adrian Segar said about this based on one of Seth Godin’s blog posts about Steve Jobs and an Apple product launch, really resonated:

Seth Godin on Steve Jobs: 2. Don’t try to please everyone. There are countless people who don’t want one, haven’t heard of one or actively hate it. So what? (Please don’t gloss over this one just because it’s short. In fact, it’s the biggest challenge on this list).

Adrian Segar: Designing events so that they will appeal to the least adventurous attendee guarantees the same-old snooze-fest. Event planners need to aim higher and use innovative formats, even at the risk of jolting people who didn’t expect to be jolted.

Yeah, jolting people who don’t want to be jolted.

Which brings me back to the two ideas that really resonated at Gathering11 in relation to this. John Hagel, author of The Power of Pull, talked about being on the edge and the power of pulling (attracting) people towards you by doing what you believe in and being who you are, rather than pushing against the existing models and ways of doing stuff that you’d like to change or influence. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that chipping away at the core is hard work, and rarely has much impact. It’s easier, and more effective to attract people away from the core towards new ideas and approaches. He said the most interesting stuff is happening on the edges. It’s fair to say that most of the people at Gathering11 were edge people, some doing extraordinary work, most, I’d guess, dissatisfied with the status quo.

The other huge influence for me was Heather Gold. It’s only on reflection that I can see that she epitomises what John Hagel is saying about using the Power of Pull – how small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion – with her approach to subverting (my word) the one-to-many model of presenting. Heather turns up at events, conferences and who knows where else, grabs the microphone, and instead of doing what is expected, but without being so different that it scares people, completely upends the one-to-many approach by actually doing it differently. She uses a techniques that she calls tummeling, or UnPresenting. Basically, it’s all about using the people in the room, surfacing what they know by having a conversations with them, weaving connections, reincorporation and seamlessly moving from a one-to-many approach to a distributed approach. It’s artful, it’s engaging, it requires guts and skill and having a 10-year career as a stand-up comic certainly helps. I’m really sorry I missed Heather’s workshop on tummeling. I’ve had a small crack at it and am itching to do more. I have a lot to learn.

In summary, I am still frustrated at the apparent acceptance of crap meetings and conferences, AND I’m going to continue exploring distrubuted ways of getting the most out of a group of people when they are in a room together. AND I’m going to remember the power of pull AND look for any opportunities I can to try tummelling. You’ve been warned.

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