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. 

Destroy the Distance

No matter our upbringing, beliefs, culture, or daily routines, we’re never completely alone. Throughout the course of our days, years, and lifetime, we all find ourselves in various forms of gathering.

We gather at our workplaces to achieve a common mission. We gather into classrooms, lecture halls, and institutions to be inspired, enlightened, and provoked. We gather in a theater to share a piece of art with people we might not know. And, if we’re lucky, we gather together a set of individuals to achieve something spectacular.

Whether we gather in an office, a classroom, or a theater, we look to others to lead us somewhere, from point A to point B.

This experience brings with it all sorts of familiar dynamics and expectations between an audience, and those on a proverbial stage.

After all, a leader needs a follower. An educator needs a student. A comedian needs an audience.

Though both roles need each other to be successful, we tend to assume one has higher status than the other. With this assumption comes certain choices about how we lead a gathering. For example, we often over index on our expertise, or our content.

This becomes the speech that doesn’t land. The lesson that doesn’t stick. The song that doesn’t connect. Messages without meaning make the audience seem even further away.

When we gather others, we can instead make deliberate choices that destroy the distance between the gatherer and the audience.

We can do this by focusing not just on the material, but on how we deliver it. It starts by changing our assumption about who our audience is and what they are gathered for.

When we consider that our audience, whether it’s our followers, students, etc, is of higher status than us, we work to more directly connect our work with their intentions instead of ours.

Though we need an audience, it is too easy to view them as replaceable or invisible. The best gatherings know that not only is the audience of high importance, they are the hero.

If our gatherings are meant to move people from A to B, they require more consideration than slides, a syllabus, or a set list.

We choose to gather in-person rather than another medium to see and feel the impact of our message. If this is true, our focus need to take the needs of our audience into account. We can make them feel needed and nurtured, so that they won’t just gather once, they’ll come back.

Can People Change?

“Can people change?”

A great learning experience, like a memorable play or an important book asks a central question.

And this is the question I’ve been mulling over for the past 15 years. Though this notion of ‘change’ has always been a central theme in my work, it has bobbed and weaved through several different creative pursuits: from the behavior of television characters to the behavior of organizations.

What propels someone or something to change either alone or with another? What magical forces of power, will, circumstance, emotion, or luck get us from A to B? (Hint: it’s not a gantt chart). Whether we write the experiences to propel change for others, or face it head on ourselves, change is constant but never comfortable.

Having just led a major change initiative in my organization I was reminded of what it takes to hurl yourself into the middle of a ‘change’ tornado and the high-stakes risks you face when you take the lead. When you’re no longer just the writer behind the scenes, but the writer, producer, director, actor, and editor too… how can we ensure a fairytale ending?

We all want to belong

Groups are powerful players in the change game, often much stronger forces than individuals alone. At the end of the day, we crave belonging. A sense of belonging and of not being alone is often overlooked in why we do or don’t change. Yes you can pull on someone’s heart-strings, but a pull towards being a part of the in-group is often an even more powerful motivator. Relatedness is your friend, not your foe.

Make it universal

There’s a reason why we remember fables and the morals of our favorite films – they are relatable, digestible, and universal. How can we lower the risk of change or translate jargon into something meaningful? Use a metaphor, analogy, or a story. Like attracts like, and our brains attach to what we already know.

Be wary of the resistance

Who said change was easy? Change that truly transforms a company (or a person) demands that people give up something they care about (habits, ways of working or thinking, etc). Movies have villains (or the change resistors that will get in the way), but at work we have equilibrium to go up against. It’s natural for people to resist change – this reaction keeps us safe, whereas the new invites discomfort. Thwarting tactics may appear, but it’s only done out of aversion for the new, loss of the old, and a desire to maintain what’s familiar. As the saying goes, it’s (usually) not you…it’s them.

But just like the classic Hero’s Journey there will be someone who comes along at your low point to remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing (Thank you Adam Grant).

Use your voice

As a writer it was easy to hide behind a laptop and let my characters say the hard things. But when you’re leading change the risks don’t disappear – instead, you learn to say the hard thing and to be alright (over time) with others not wanting to hear it. The more visible we are, the more we open ourselves up for unwanted feedback or projections. If leadership is about taking risks, bolder choices come with the territory. So does criticism.

Being able to understand change for what it is, with all of its intricacies and dynamics allows us to be both observers and participants at the same time.

Change can be incredibly rewarding. Whether you’re the one going through it or helping facilitate behind-the-scenes, it is a process of asking people to move to a place they are often frightened to go. But, there is a more promising future on the other side and it is that hope that reminds me that yes, people can and do change with the right amount of support and challenge.

The story secrets of organizational change

In the world of Storytelling and Organizational Consulting, similar mantras are drilled into us – different words, similar meaning:

1. Make the audience the hero

2. Meet the client where they are

Both of these mantras speak to empowering people and companies, to help them feel, think, do, and see things differently so that they are called to action to enact change.

What this boils down to is – I see you (the client, the character, the company), where you are, for what you are…and I believe in you.

What this requires of us (those who lead change efforts and write the words to inspire) is patience, and a bit of scaffolding.

The best example I’ve seen of living out both of these mantras was Columbia University Professor William Duggan. I write about him often, and, nope, I probably won’t stop.

He had important words say, to teach, and to share. He drew us in carefully and artfully, by speaking the audience’s language (read, mostly MBA students), and skillfully partnering with them to help students come to important realizations themselves. Three acts. Small steps. A slowly built narrative balanced with equal parts logic and emotion at just the right times, each chapter asking for a bit more of us as we went.

In awe of his art, I asked him how he crafted his semester-long class. What was his secret?

Make the audience the hero. Meet them where they are.

He was teaching a slightly unconventional topic and wanted his students to come along for the ride. How often have we too had a great idea, something we care deeply about sharing, and want others to join in on? Hands up, everyone! I see you.

His reminder – you can’t do that by forcing an idea. That’s all head, no heart. He metaphorically held the idea and the a-ha out for his students in his out-stretched arm. And carefully crafted a sequence of steps where they’d be encouraged and motivated to keep reaching. One class after the other.

It’s not too much of stretch to equate this art to leadership.

But how often does our desire to push and prod instead of join and co-create take over our best impulses – especially under stress and threat?

How often does our desire to be seen as the hero and to not quite understand or empathize with where the client could be force us to push too far and stop the story? I’m certainly guilty.

To meet the client, the student, the reader where they are and to help them see that they are the hero is to recognize that we aren’t writing the story by ourselves. It’s not our story. It’s theirs. It’s not my change effort. It’s ours. Or, in many cases… it’s just theirs. And that’s a happy ending.

One small step for spontaneity…

In a recent podcast interview with my friend Mark Guay, I touched upon the myth that Improvisers are merely “winging it” and perhaps wildly unprepared.

Behind the scenes, we practice (and practice some more) a set of principles that guide us and give us a wonderful structure to navigate the ambiguity we have on stage when we are improvising.

When it comes to presentations and speeches, it is possible to over-prepare and in doing so, squash opportunities for spontaneity or connection with your audience.

If you want to add some spontaneity to your presentations, classes, or public speaking opportunities, completely throwing away a script isn’t necessary either.

Patricia Ryan Madson, Improv Guru and author of Improv Wisdom offers a spectacular tip for morphing scripted notes into an opportunity for more spontaneity:

Her advice? Turn your notes into a series of questions to answer. For example, your notes might look like this: 

1) Why am I here today?

2) What is the learning objective?

3) What am I most excited to share with you?

This small change still gives you the comfort and clarity that comes with a structure to fall back on, while also allowing room for a conversational, breathable, and perhaps more empathetic approach. Try this out and let me know how it goes!

Learning, and the importance of personal relevancy

“See them first” is a phrase I learned several years ago from an incredible, kind, mentor of mine.

I admit, when she first shared this phrase with me, (and others, in her book) I didn’t really understand how to put it into practice when facilitating or designing an experience for others.

To her (and now, to me) “See them First” is a critical piece of gaining psychological safety, trust, and clarity with a group or an individual up front, whether it’s in a coaching, training, or leadership capacity.

So what does this phrase mean? Do I just need stronger contact lenses? Perhaps. Ask your doctor. But also:

At the core of it, I need to ask myself these questions:

  1. Do I, as a Leader, a facilitator, or a coach understand my learner? Have I made this understanding clear to them?
  2. Have they given me an opportunity to share something that matters to them? Read: Have they shared a learning objective, or told me something that I’m missing knowing about them at the start of a session? When a professor who was absent for the first day of a 2-day workshop walked into the class she asked, “what do I need to know about you, as a group of learners?”. Perfect example.
  3. Do your learners have “skin in the game”? I see this time and time again. Give them an opportunity to make the learning personal. It needs to matter to them. Framing and context matters, but more so is an opportunity for the learners to identify and latch onto something personally relevant to help them make meaning of the material. Seeing them first means encouraging personal relevancy.
  4. Have I started with where the learners are instead of where I want them to be?
  5. Have I made it clear I’m listening? And do I incessantly tie back to what I heard, and what I’ve promised?

Turn your learners, clients, and mentees into collaborators immediately by making it clear that you have listened and allow space for personal relevancy. Open the door to allow and encourage them to join you in co-creating the experience.

Show them that you “see them first” and then let your learners have a peek inside your process by allowing them to see YOU too. Show them the roadmap for the learning and continue to make your thinking visible as you progress, (“here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s how we will get there, and let’s talk about why”).

After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to be seen and heard.

What’s the drill – February 20: A creative confidence booster

According to Tom Kelley of IDEO, a fear of being judged is the number-one reason why we’re not more creative.

It’s not due to a lack of ability…this is a matter of creative confidence.

We all have the natural ability to come up with novel ideas (yes yes, even you shaking your head in the back of the room). But not everyone has the courage to act on these ideas.

What if we did? How could increasing our creative confidence change our self-image and our capacity to have influence on the world?

Kelley’s mission to boost (nay, rocket fuel) the creative confidence of others is one I find myself equally passionate about.

Unlocking your creative potential can start with a simple re-frame of how you present your creative ideas. Here’s an example straight from Professor William Duggan at Columbia Business School:

When we present ideas we often end by asking the age-old question, “so what do you think?”. A useful question, yes, but one that can open the door for negative feedback and instant confidence deflation.

What if instead we simply said, “anything to add to my idea?”.

Presented in this way, we’re immediately signaling that there is room for the initial idea to expand. We still expect and desire honest feedback, but with a slight re-frame we are boosting collaboration, and hopefully over time, creative self-efficacy.