Stuffing the pillow

“But if I don’t pull them in a room, how will I guarantee they heard it?”.

Across organizations, we often view information as a main lever to shift people from A to B.

And so, we pile our gatherings (training classes, off-sites, retreats, town halls) with content. They quickly become laundry lists of sessions, keynotes, and disparate topics where the information is the star and the predetermined solution.

When we view information as the singular solve, it’s easy to fall into these three traps and their associated rationale:

  1. The speed trap: “this will upskill people as fast as possible”
  2. The efficiency trap: “This will make the best use of the time we have, let’s not waste a minute” – aka stuffing the pillow. 
  3. The expert trap: “Someone outside the room has the answer, let’s hire them to share it”

But buyer beware.

Speed is no friend of learning. When it comes to content, more is not better. And if we only believe outsiders have the answer, we are missing the opportunity to notice and harness the capabilities and intelligence of the people already in the room.

Information alone does not change behavior. It’s what people do with it that matters.

When we focus only on information, we run the risk of sending a signal that gatherings are meant to do things to people instead of with them. Employees’ behavior follows suit. 

It can be hard to resist the temptation of what we think is a quick fix, especially when it comes to other people. And especially when we are rewarded for speed, velocity, and efficiency.

But, every gathering is an opportunity for positive change, even if you’re just sharing information. Let’s not waste it. 

Leaving room in the suitcase

We’ve all done it. We’ve packed our suitcases to the brim for a vacation thinking we’ll definitely need everything and anything that won’t put us over the weight limit.

And then when it comes time to bring a souvenir or two home…there’s no space.

If we want to bring something home with us for keeps or to share, we can’t…there’s no room. 

The temptation to overpack extends beyond our travel habits.

When it comes to sharing ideas, content, or an experience with others, it’s all too easy to ‘overpack the suitcase’. 

Be it a class, a keynote, an offsite, an executive presentation, a conference, everything but the kitchen sink ends up in our gathering for various reasons, including:

  1. We don’t know what we’ll actually need
  2. We don’t know where we’re heading
  3. We want to be over-prepared.
  4. We think it’s about us

All of these temptations stem from a mindset that falsely focuses inward.

When we gather, we want to take people to a new destination. That involves leaving room and leaving space for them to come with us. There has to be room in the suitcase.

The best gatherings, like the best experiences (be it travel, or otherwise) leave space for:

  1. The unexpected
  2. An audience’s contribution and connection
  3. Emotion 

Leaving space allows people to digest material during or after, in a hallway or in the chatter and patter before a gathering starts. It can be done with a simple question or prompt or even a breath. It can turn the responsibility or a bit of ownership over to your fellow travelers to invite them in, or destroy the distance between you on stage and them in the audience. 

Without room, an audience lacks the ability to see themselves in what you’ve shared. They don’t know how to join in, how to care, or how to connect. They only know to consume. But, for what?

Our success is not measured by how much space, time, or slides we take up. It is measured by our ability to bring people with us, and that necessitates leaving room for them to join if they so choose. 

A ‘pull’ approach to data-gathering

When we gather people in a room, our first instinct is often: what information should we push out? 

When our task is to gather feedback from people, our first instinct is to ask: what information do we need to hear?

In both of these common organizational rituals, the focus is on the content.

But before the content…comes outcome.

What do we really need from our participants? And, why?

If all we need is compliance, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response is fine.

If all we need is information, we can send a list of questions, or a survey.

But when we want to bring people together around an organizational change, some new process, or a common goal, we often need more.

We need engagement. 

The difference between asking for information and asking for engagement is involving employees in co-creating the data-gathering experience. It involves pulling on their intrinsic motivation and connecting your ask to something they care about.

This requires us to focus more on the people we are surveying and not just the answers they will provide.

People love and appreciate feeling heard and being involved, especially when the change affects them. Change is personal. We can treat it that way by taking a personalized approach to data-gathering.

Give employees skin in the game by asking for their expertise, their stories, their insights. 

Give employees a role by asking them to listen for what other employees are saying in the room so that themes can be built upon and solidified.

Show them the importance of their opinion and experience by elevating their status and highlighting their unique role.

Bring them in as co-creators of the experience

Bringing people together around a change effort involves more than sharing information and gathering it. It takes time to build and set the context that fuels ongoing engagement in a change effort. 

Success is not necessarily measured in the immediate clarity of their answers fitting nicely in a box, but in their ongoing commitment to join you in the change you seek. 

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.

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.