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.

More is not always better

When it comes to learning and development, a dream scenario is one in which your employees are hungry. They want to learn. They want classes and resources and opportunities. When this is true, how do you decide to feed them?

Though there are many options, let’s start by comparing two common approaches:

The Zoo Mentality

Often times I see learning and development groups function like zookeepers. In this scenario, there is a set number of courses and opportunities and they are rationed out on a schedule.  Here, learning is metaphorically thrown over a fence for employees to grab. While it seems generous to be providing these opportunities, it takes the power away from the ones who should be in control of what they learn and when. They can become so dependent on the zookeepers that learners don’t learn how to search for, source, or determine what’s best for them.

The Grocery Store Mentality

We can also view learning and development like a grocery store. Often times it is very tempting to stuff more and more content into our classes, decks, or learning experiences. We believe more is better and while we have people’s attention, why not just feed them more?

Here there is no grocery list, people want the whole store.

Though we might be tempted to, we don’t purchase everything in the grocery store when we go shopping. We may want to consume all of the food, but we can’t. There are limitations to consider from budget to freshness, storage space, usability, etc. We also know the store will still be there next week, and we can go back for more.

These same limitations exists for our learners, from cognitive capacity, to transfer ability, relevancy and application.

It is great to be hungry. We don’t want to let our learners starve. But hunger is only one part of the equation to sustaining a learning culture.

Just because content is at our fingertips doesn’t mean it’s ready or right for our learners.

We can teach people to not just to consume, but to create and share what they are learning with others.