From in room to zoom: Why some gatherings extend while others destroy the digital divide

We can’t wait to gather again in person. This much is true. And, for now, the digital counterparts will suffice.

In the search for staying connected, we settle for a synchronous substitute – zooms, and the like.

We put our training classes, town-halls, workshops, and more on a platform instead of in-person.

As helpful as the technology is, we bemoan its lack of real connection. It’s not the real thing, we say. In one breath we both bless and blame the technology for its divide. 

Gatherings are a mechanism and opportunity for change to happen among a group. 

No matter the channel, some bring us closer together, and some further apart. 

Technology or lack thereof isn’t what fuels or propels connection and engagement – we can’t blame not being in person as the reason. Every piece of technology still involves a human behind the scenes making choices on how to use it. 

We are making these choices all the time that either pulls others in or pushes away those we wish to connect with. 

These choices are channel and format agnostic. Some pull, some push, some focus on one-size-fits-all, while others personalize. We can modify or tweak three dimensions: our language, structure, and space. Put together, these choices lead to different outcomes that either make change stick or stall. It is more challenging online, no doubt, but not impossible.

Both channels allow us to either use gatherings to do things to people or with them. The choice is ours.

Now, more than ever, we can utilize gatherings for the latter, and save the rest for asynchronous communication. Gatherings meant for compliance or information sharing are perfect examples. 

Take a company’s new hire orientation, for example. It may be tempting to simply convert the same sessions you led in-person and put them on zoom. We do this in part because we might not know what else to do. Instead, play with one dimension, space. Send the slides or content ahead of time for asynchronous consumption when it’s ok for people to be passive. Leverage your synchronous gatherings to make more space for questions and digestion. This makes the content come alive and become active, just like you want your participants to be. Adult learners need that space anyway to process the material and make it their own. In other words, to connect to it.

We are longing for connection, we say.  But it also doesn’t mean we were connected when our gatherings were in person. 

Just because our gatherings are online doesn’t mean we have to settle for tick-the-box. And just because we can’t wait for them to be in-person again doesn’t mean they will be transformational. 

Changing the channel or waiting for the channel to change back won’t solve our lingering questions. Questions like, why isn’t change happening in my organization? How do we help people get from A to B? How do we encourage buy-in and ownership of new initiatives? We are always wondering how to spark that movement or change in the way we gather. Even now. Especially now.

Tilting the seesaw

Bringing people together necessitates an interest or care in something to gather around. It also necessitates the often harsh recognition that what we care about, others likely don’t. Or at least not yet. To make change truly stick is to take what is important to us and help it become important to others. When that happens the need to repeat our message decreases. We achieve scale and true efficiency when others share it for us. 

When others advance our ideas and produce more gatherings, ownership of the experience shifts. It no longer belongs to one person. It belongs to everyone. This is both the essence and core challenge of organizational change. It is also the core challenge of leadership.

The transfer of not only information but care and ownership is what I call “tilting the seesaw”. And in order for any change we seek to stick, the seesaw needs to tilt. 

When we first look to bring people together, the seesaw is naturally tilted towards us. That’s because gathering brings with it inherent power differences. When a leader or someone with authority gathers us, the differences are amplified. These differences are signaled in three ways: 

  1. Overemphasis on information: the expectation that one has something others don’t
  2. A stage or set up of the room: the physical and symbolic distance this creates 
  3. Authority: an expectation that someone in charge has the answer we are waiting for

On a stage far away, those who gather often seem not only physically but symbolically far away from their employees. They can also set the implicit expectation that an external expert has the answer. Taken together, what this can produce is neediness of someone or something else to get us from point A to point B. And while the information may tilt, ownership and care often don’t. 

These differences also signal distance. To tilt the seesaw is to utilize these inherent differences to create more connection instead of distance. Here the role of leader or gatherer shifts from simply an information broker to a connection builder. The model of leadership shifts as well. While the old model may have been, ‘we will wait for the gatherer to tell us the answer’, the new model is ‘the gatherer will lead the room to their own answer’. This is achieved when we make our audience the hero instead of us, or our information.

Rather than waiting for a gatherer to tell us what to do, sometimes repeatedly, the gatherer unlocks the capability and abilities of those already in the room. Rather than people needing you or your information, we can create a joint sense that we need each other. After all, why are we gathering if we don’t need an audience?

To believe the audience is the hero also requires the belief that people are capable of growth and change. It also requires the admission that they may not want or need us in the way we thought. They often don’t need us to fix or prod or repair. What they want is to be inspired, engaged, and connected — not only to you but to each other and themselves. It is this core belief about people that drives the choices we make with our gatherings.

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.