The 60-minute magic trick

Though I’m not a magician by trade, I am often asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat. This often means creating and delivering an educational gathering (i.e. a training class) in a limited amount of time that will solve a particular problem, and fast.

Let’s call it, ‘The 60-minute magic trick’.

Be it, helping a group of managers to delegate more, solve an interpersonal conflict, or enhance strategic thinking skills, the task is essentially to put a group of people in a room and create an experience that helps them think, be, or do differently.

The question is, how do we achieve the biggest magic trick of all: extending that initial 60 minutes into much more. The answer rarely is to keep people in a room longer. The answer and the impact lie in creating an experience that lasts, sticks, and extends far beyond the initial gathering. Rather than extending the time in the room, here’s how to do more with what you have:

Shift your audience from passive consumers to active co-creators:

Though a magician may practice their tricks alone, they need an audience to survive and thrive. Their tricks are only as strong and captivating as the audience believes them to be. In an educational setting, your content is only as helpful and beneficial as the audience’s connection to it. Our job is not simply to share content – it is to help close the gap between the utility of the information and the participant’s ability to do something with it. Help them become co-creators instead by giving them agency, ownership (a role), and when appropriate, choice. This shift doesn’t relinquish control completely, it simply increases a sense of skin in the game which can lead to more accountability. 

Provide certainty through language:

Your time in room is precious. One of the ways to shift the brain out of fight or flight mode and prepare it for concentrated learning is to provide certainty. Make sure attendees know not just the learning objectives, but where things are, what to expect, how to use what they’re being taught, etc. Even more basic – name the class something clear and concrete. No jargon here. This relaxes the brain into being ready to digest information because it knows how to orient what’s about to come. Don’t waste students precious cognitive resources on asking them to map the course on their own.

At comedian Hannah Gadsby’s most recent show, attendees entered the theater to see a picture of a dog on a screen and the name, “Douglass” underneath it. This small choice helps the audience immediately understand how the name of the show (Douglass) connected to the content that would follow. Uncertainty decreased, focus increased.  

Tell us how to feel about something:

Just like naming something gives us certainty, it can also provide a common language and shortcut. This shorthand serves us well in organizational life – it can cut down on misunderstanding, help us get on the same page faster, or in some cases, take the emotion or charge out of a potentially challenging situation.

Take, the word ‘puckerfish’. In Gadsby’s same show, she offered this phrase to highlight her disdain for something. Over the course of her hour, she repeated this phrase each time that same emotion aroused. After the second use of that phrase, she no longer needed to explain what she meant. We understood it immediately. By the end of the show, she didn’t use the phrase at all.  She simply moved her mouth like a puckerfish would. She taught us how she felt about something so that we as an audience knew how to feel too.

This common language also helps these experiences scale. One message, multiple messengers. Puckerfish. We can teach people more than content – we can teach people how to feel about something. Furthermore, it bonds a group of people together with more than a common language. It gives the group a common emotion.

In each of these tips, the content is not the main attraction. Why? Though our desire to pack in more content in our 60-minutes usually comes from a good place and a desire to share more information, people can often find content on their own. The solution then is not to give more, but to give what exists more meaning, more personal attachment, and a roadmap for its utility.

Let your gatherings be the start, not the only singular solve. Lasting change is gradual. It’s not magic.

The value of these experiences rarely come from checking all the boxes in 60 minutes. The true value is in handing off ownership of the experience to someone else.

If we do these three things well, we can more realistically view these one-off experiences as what they really are, a launching point for important people challenges, and thus teach people how to carry them forward with momentum and staying power.

What is mine is yours

“I’m going to tell you a story. But first, I want to tell you about a couch”.

This is the first line from comedian Mike Birbiglia’s most recent show, “The New One”.

While the audience is expecting to hear a personal story about parenthood, Birbiglia starts where the most adept facilitators do: he makes the personal, universal.

While not everyone is a parent, everyone has a couch. This choice allows his gathering to start in a neutral, non-polarizing place and immediately gets everyone on the same page. Once he has that implicit first agreement and head nod, he can and does lead us elsewhere.

Entertainers, educators, and leaders share a unique gift and opportunity to bring people together by transforming something personal into the universal.

What’s mine can also be yours.

Though you’ve probably gathered to hear them, they don’t start with their experience. They begin with ours.

This small choice to zoom out first exemplifies the key to creating a personalized gathering: The audience feels seen and can see themselves in the material.

This choice is especially important at the start of a gathering – whether it’s a class, a workshop, an offsite, etc. This is when we are often starting with zero; a blank screen, a quiet room, or a gathering people don’t actually want to be at, or one where we don’t have buy in, or one where we are dealing with a challenging or controversial topic.

The easiest way in to the hardest starts is to find connection first.

When we make the choice to see who we have gathered it can look, feel, and sound like this:

  1. Heavy use of the word ‘you’ or ‘we’ as we if are literally reaching into the audience to connect our experience with theirs. The material becomes generalizable to who is in the room so that it’s not ‘my’ problem, it’s ours, and we can all feel it together. This is what musicians do when they explain a song before they sing it… “this is a song about…”
  2. When an audience reacts, the gatherer does too. They are right there with you. When an audience gasped at a particular part of the story, Birbiglia exclaimed, “I know!” in agreement. In many cases, an audience wants to be seen as much as the gatherer does. That is often why people shout things out at comedy show. They want to connect their experience with yours.

When we make the choice to gather we aren’t just coming to hear someone speak. We want to find a connection between what they have to say, and our experience.

The best gatherers know that the story they are telling, the material they are sharing, or the change initiative they are leading is not about them.  They are constantly crafting their work to figure out, how is this about the audience, and how does this make us feel closer to each other.

What’s mine can be ours.

The one-size-fits-all fallacy

Marketing guru Seth Godin put it simply, “Everyone is not your customer”. Same goes for learning.

But people can still feel that something was made just for them.

When we over-prioritize size and scale, we can easily forget the importance of creating a truly personalized learning experience.

Whether it’s a workshop, conference, town-hall, or another form of gathering, those deemed one-size-fits-all are ones where:

  • an audience is replaceable or invisible because the experience can apply to anyone
  • the particular medium is unnecessary because the information could have been shared a different way

It is possible to personalize a gathering, even at scale. Here’s three examples of how to shift from “made for everyone”, to a “made for me” mentality:

Speed limits do apply

When it comes to learning or retention, speed of information flow matters. At a recent conference I attended, participants were shuffled between 8-10 sessions back-to-back, some lasting only 15 minutes. Though we may be intrigued by the amount of information and learning available to us, we can’t necessarily consume or recall it all, at least not meaningfully. It’s like going to a grocery store and purchasing everything in stock just because it’s there. We can’t physically consume that much food. And we can’t consume that much information…at least not in a healthy way. Though it seems efficient, it’s actually highly wasteful. If time constraints keep us from spacing out our learning, at least we can digest it by:

Building explicit time or nudges into the experience that allow people to process what they just consumed, either alone or with each other. Ask a few pointed questions. You want to know, just like a game of telephone, how much is that learning being passed on? Without this time or energy, we as learners are less likely to take up the information as our own and do something with it. 

Providing content isn’t the same as solving a need

Content is a key reason that many people initially come to your gathering. Sure, they want to hear a speaker, they are intrigued by the topics or the agenda, etc. But the way that we frame, market, and put that content into context for people is often more important than the content alone.

For example, there is a difference between a conference that simply lists a bunch of session titles, versus one that shows and describes a clear arc of how each session builds on the other and leads people from A, to B. Make it easy by connecting the dots for your learners so that their energy can be spent on making meaning of the content, not the agenda. You can do this in a few ways:

Instead of a list of sessions or pieces of content, share:

  1. The questions each section will answer
  2. A guide to know if each session is right for you
  3. A recommendation engine tool
  4. Chunk the day into pieces
  5. Obsessively tie back to outcomes

The goal here is not to be allured by the number of tracks or choices of sessions. Learners want progress – more than just the steps in the recipe, tell me how each step leads me to the final product I care about making.

Pro Tip: You’ll know if you’ve over-prioritized content if you see low energy levels in and outside the room.

Find out what we all have in common

No, I don’t mean hometowns or favorite foods. It is possible to leave a gathering feeling more connected to others in the room, even if you haven’t met them. This is made possible when attempts are made to create a strong in-group. What is unique about this room of people? What do they all have in common?

When we make an experience for everyone, we aren’t able to clarify or classify what makes that group different and distinct. What specific language, rituals, or needs does this group have? People want to feel like they belong and they want to exhibit pride in their groups. Attempts to foster a strong in-group help others feel seen and that an experience was made just for them.

Just for me, just right, just in time. Personalized gatherings are possible, even at scale. It starts with a desire to view our audience as irreplaceable and necessary to our success… no matter the size.

Gimme the Real Thing

Ice cream. Merchandise. People.

When it comes to our preferences, most of us want the ‘real’ thing.

Tangible. Applicable. Relevant.

When it comes to our preferences for learning experiences, we don’t just want something close to the real thing…we need it.

‘Real’ in a corporate learning context can mean a few different things. Namely, is the content presented applicable to my actual work context? Is the class too steeped in jargon and theory or language I don’t understand? Is the emphasis on the unique tool being shared, or the application of that tool to what I do day-to-day and the real needs I have?

No matter what learning experience we are engaged in, the content shared is only as useful as the ability for someone to understand and use it (successfully, eventually) in their particular context.

Although we can’t control all learning transfer, asking “What percentage of you were able to immediately apply what you learned?”, is a good place to start.

The fundamental challenge of anyone trying to influence or encourage new behavior, skills, or knowledge is to present material in a way that engages the person in their real world…not yours.

This doesn’t just extend to corporate learning. A friend recently shared how after a tricky diagnosis, his doctor used imagery and similes to describe his condition. In this way, he was immediately able to understand something inherently foreign, and easily communicate it to his family and friends. Peace of mind was another benefit.

When we present material in this way, learning transfer isn’t just increased between teacher and student. Students/learners/employees are also able to pass down and teach back their learnings to others.

What closes the gap between ‘interesting material’ or ‘fun experience’ to engaged learner able to immediately apply what they learned? Make the experience more real with:

  1. A clear before and after: Help learners answer, what will be different after this experience and how will I know if I’ve been successful?
  2. Critical incidents: Seek out or ask participants to bring in/think of/practice with real scenarios to apply the material to.
  3. Make the material more applicable by relating it to real universal examples (stories, metaphors). Not only does this engage the room around a common idea, it helps the material stick and spread.

When it comes to consumption of material, we have an array of choices. But when it comes down to it, gimme the real thing.

The push of fear versus the pull of hope

You’ll get more flies with honey, the old adage goes.

But when we need someone to do something, especially something important and worthwhile, sometimes this approach simply encourages others to keep expecting ‘honey’ in return for their efforts.

Honey is one strategy. Fear is another.

When something is extra important, either to our success or our ego or status, we don’t always reach for sweetness. We reach for a scare, a stick.

This compliance-based approach is likely one we’ve all experienced. We are warned or told what will happen if we don’t comply. This approach often makes the messenger seem large, and the audience small. Instead of bringing people together around something bigger than ourselves, fear forces us to whisper, or work in isolation.

Sure, compliance has its place.

This is the musician who wants others to listen to their song, the educator who wants their students to finish their homework, or the manager who asks employees to complete a one-time task. Here, securing compliance is enough. It’s something people either did or didn’t do.

Yet, this approach yields a short-term reward, not a long-term sustainable gain.

When we invest resources (like, time, energy, or money) in an initiative, we are often hoping for more than compliance; we aim to truly engage others around an idea that we want them to take up as their own and spread.

When engagement is our desired outcome, what’s important to us, may not be important to others, unless we show why.

This could be a new company ritual, a management behavior, or a change in how the business operates.

Fear is a natural and often necessary part of change and transformation. It involves asking people to go to a place they are often terrified to go to, or let go of.

Though it can originate from fear, a strong why ultimately relies on hope.

Rather than lean on fear or what will happen if don’t comply, we can first engage others around a universal truth. Choosing to pull on hope versus push on fear means painting a vision of a future others want to be a part of. Hope is something we can rally around together.

Inviting others in: How to create duets instead of solos

“What do I need to know about you to make our time successful?”

The answers flew across the room, one after the other: “We like group work”, “We covered X last week”, “Some of us are international students”. On the second-to-last day of a packed graduate seminar, a different professor appeared at the door. Rather than plow through with material, she turned the class from a solo into a duet with a simple opening question.

We make explicit and implicit choices all of the time about who we want to follow, and what gatherings we want to be a part of, whether we’re buying a ticket to a comedy show,  enrolling in a training class, or to be a part of an organization.

Whether we are the gatherer or the ones being gathered, we have the power to shape the quality of the gathering with the choices we make. And, we are making these choices constantly, often in split-seconds, that either pull others in or push them away from the moments that actually seek to bring people together.

What this professor did is akin to what great gatherers do: they seek to destroy the distance between themselves and the audience to create intimacy, connection, and ultimately, engagement.

Crafting a duet instead of a solo requires a few key choices:

Lower your status: It’s tempting to believe that to gather others we need to have more status than our audience. Yes, an audience needs to feel that you have the reigns and are in control. But when we signal, “I’m just like you”, we are able to more effortlessly join you on the journey you’re about to take us on. This can be through a self-deprecating joke, or commenting on a common experience you all share (bad traffic on the way in, the weather, the news). Start from commonalities instead of highlighting differences.

Invite others in: To be an engaging gatherer is to firmly believe that an audience is as crucial an ingredient as the material you’re sharing. And, an audience wants to be seen as much as the gatherer does. That’s one reason why people shout things out at comedy show: they want to connect their experience with yours. The best gatherers know that the story they are telling or the content they are sharing is not about them. They constantly craft their work to figure out,” how is the material about the audience?”.

Connect to what they care about: Talking isn’t the only way to keep track of an audience’s engagement. The power of an in person experience lies is the human desire for connection. “This is a song about…” isn’t just a phrase musicians use to introduce songs. No matter our gathering we can find a way to connect what we’re sharing with something universal. This song goes out to anyone, who… might understand or connect with something I also care about, and thus creating an additive experience we all share.

When we make our gatherings solely about the person on the stage, we miss an opportunity for others to take our cause on and take it up. We also eschew them of the responsibility of being a part of the experience, or even more, owners of the experience. After all, if an audience didn’t want to be needed they could have stayed home. 

Make your audience visible

“Make your thinking visible”, is a phrase I learned from a dear mentor, and one I repeat often to other facilitators and those who gather.

Sharing (some, not all of) what’s in your head and what you’re doing with the audience or students in the room serves a few key purposes. 1) It promotes safety, and reduces uncertainty so that others trust where you’re taking them 2) it helps destroy the distance between you and the audience 3) it pulls them into the unique, singular moment you’re sharing.

When we make our thinking visible it helps an audience feel that they are too.

After all, if your audience is invisible, then there is no reason for them to be in the room. They could be anyone, or anything.

Here are some questions and observation tactics you can use to determine the visibility of your audience:

  1. What energy is the audience giving you? Do you use it, or ignore it? How can you encourage more?
  2. What direction does the energy flow? Hint: it’s not enough for it to flow between an individual participant and the person on the stage, or only between those on the stage
  3. Does your audience talk or engage with each other before or after your gathering? If not, what is that silence telling you?
  4. Do you need your audience? If the answer is yes, how do you show them?

When we treat an audience as invisible, they sit, waiting to be told what to do, or what to think. In these instances, the flow of information and energy is often one-way. 

Making your audience visible is often a key difference between a gathering that is purely meant to entertain or inform, versus one meant to educate, and even engage.

We all gather for a reason. Do you know why your audience came? The five people who had their question answered by the speaker feel visible. How can you see the rest?

It’s not enough to create something for our audience. Create something with them instead. 

Learning is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be insular

It was like our little secret, but I wished it didn’t have to be.

I sat with a colleague just a few weeks prior talking about the learning experiences we both had over the summer. I spent it researching and writing a book about “Gathering”, and he rode his bike across the United States.

“So, what did you learn?”, I asked him on a walk in search of a cool drink on a sweltering New York City day. He talked about his growth, and who he was becoming because of his adventure. He asked me the same. I talked about a deeper sense of purpose, a revived confidence, and a clarity of my future.

We both concluded, each of our experiences were just tools for a similar outcome. It wasn’t the bike ride or the number of miles or pages written that was most significant, it was what it led us each towards. “Do you think anyone will understand that?”, we wondered. We surmised that when we returned to our normal life, this would be hard to explain.

Though well-intentioned, I was met back at work with a repeated question, “so… did you finish the book?”.

In many moments of defensiveness I answered with “no, but that wasn’t the goal!”. I went on to share the number of pages or chapters I’d written, literary agents I had sent it to, or hours logged. It was as if I felt the need to prove that I did ‘something’ worthwhile.

The truth was, I really wanted to talk about my summer – I could talk for hours about it. But, in that moment, I wanted to be asked different types of questions.

Transitions, whether it be at the end of a learning experience, a promotion, or a change of any kind are when we are all at our most vulnerable. It’s when learning can be cemented or siphoned.

So when we, or our colleagues, or friends have a new experience, especially one that takes them out of their comfort zone, we can support them by carefully choosing the questions we ask. We can also educate others about what we want to share or be asked.

Learning is personal, but it doesn’t have to be private.

It’s ultimately a choice. We can choose to keep learning private, singular, and isolated to one moment or one event. In this check-the-box mentality, learning is either something you did or didn’t.

Or, we can view learning as a process instead of a task.

The act of consistently learning, in that messy and undefined and wonderful way that isn’t always tied to clear-cut results is one that doesn’t often get talked about.

To help others, we can start by adjusting our questions.

Learning that sticks with us is personal, and therefore emotional. One way to invite this is by asking questions and framing experiences as ones that connect to our identity – who we are now and who we want to be in the future – and not just an isolated experience. These questions, like “how do you see yourself after this?”, “what do you now see as possible?”, aren’t limiting, they are limitless.

Does learning in your organization feel like you’re putting on more armor, or shedding layers to reveal who you are and who you want to be?

While we can’t assume every learning experience will provide such clarity or layer shedding, these different questions pull at our intrinsic motivation and can connect the dots between what we do and the deeper meaning behind it. This is deep transformational learning at its best. Multiply this by each person in your organization and we can only imagine what it unlocks.

Learning is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be insular.