Monday, June 06, 2016

Large Meeting Challenge: Call for Proposals Produces Too Many for Parallel Sessions? Take a Blended Approach

You put out a call for proposals for your large meeting coming up and your enthusiastic community responds with many ideas - way too many in fact for the traditional parallel break-out session format that was envisioned. What can you do about this? This is a good question and an issue for many large-scale gatherings.

Actually, this is a good problem to have as interactivity and community relationship building and networking are often why people come to these large events, but more often than not they get panel discussions and lines of speakers (see Duncan Green's rant on this in Conference Rage and Why We Need a War on Panels).  So you are starting well, with many people attending interested in contributing and sharing their ideas. 

The traditional break-out room format is not necessarily bad, but it can be without good guidance, or if you are trying to fold too many things together. If they are endless, very large, anonymous and all have the same large panel and Q&A format, then people can “get lost” or skip these more easily if they are tired or use the time to squeeze in that last meeting before they leave.

Consider mixing it up, you can actually schedule all of these types of sessions into your large meeting:

  1. Parallel Session Breakouts:  Have the parallel session breakouts on one day with the strongest proposals and the most interesting proposed formats. Consider providing a template before the call for submissions that has questions that guide people into considering how to make it interesting and interactive and give Panels as one of many formats to consider, with some guidance on how to do these in the most interesting way (e.g. 2 or 3 panelists with juxtaposing views, rather than 9 people who just want to say their 3 minutes regardless of the topic.) These can be good with more complex topics that need time to develop and can have interesting methodologies included within if there are competent facilitators working with the organizers - crowdsourcing, storytelling, carousel discussions, etc. 
  2. Hold an Open Space Technology session for one of the 2 hour blocks -  after lunch is a good time as people will move around a little and small, self-selected discussions can be more refreshing. And it gives the hosts a little more time to prepare.  I often modify the traditional format slightly. This could be in the main plenary room and could feature 15-20 parallel conversations with two rounds of 45 min each (I've also tried this with 30 minutes and more rounds, but it tends to feel too rushed and short then). These parallel table discussions with hosts are scheduled in advance with numbered tables and a "key messages" template to record any ideas and outputs from the conversations. These are good for brainstorming and getting feedback on ideas. 
  3. Hold an Open Mike time, or a Pecha Kucha (or an Ignite), or TED-like talk stage where people get a limited, set amount of time and are video'ed professionally. Hold it in a “studio” type room so that people/audience attending is good and a bonus, but peripheral. Pick the submissions for this that are more 'show and tell'. You can do the filming over lunch each day and invite people to come and watch but tell them (truthfully) that there is limited space (that often encourages people more!)  Some of these talks could be featured in the formal plenary programme here and there as appropriate as they are short targeted interventions. In addition, as TED does, you can feature them throughout the year in your newsletters with a little blurb and add in video links to other communications. It is always nice to promote the work of members, and this is in their own words. 
  4.  Digital Poster Exhibition: You could also run a digital poster contest. Invite people with appropriate submissions to design an e-poster. Then have a number of large screens in busy places (the coffee area, lunch room, etc.) where the e-posters are displayed for 3-5 min each and change all the time, like a billboard. You can also feature these e-posters on the conference website, and archive them. Each one could have the photo of the person presenting it and inviting people to approach them for more information (face-to-face or by email).  The e-posters could have a custom e-template that people fill in, which could be a website template potentially and provide people with fields to complete with a title, text (e.g. 500 words), upload photos, add links, contact information, web URL, etc. Award prizes for the top 5 posters and announce them in the plenary and show them there. Let the audience vote on it for the prizes, or have the organizing team do that. 

And there are other formats that can also work, this is just a selection and to demonstrate what can be combined to showcase the different kinds of proposals you might receive. This blended format can also allow you to say "yes" to all of those who submitted proposals to share. The advantage of adding in points 3 and 4 above, is that in addition to an on-site F2F experience, they also give you video and image content to use later in your communications and learning and training materials, as case studies of what members are doing, etc. This adds additional value to participants as you are helping them disseminate their messages beyond who's in the room at your large meeting. 

For each of these, produce good guidelines and templates. This is not to put square pegs into round holes, but to help guide people in their thinking about what good practice is for each of these formats. This takes a little more concerted effort to produce at the onset, and any follow up coaching you could provide is a bonus, but this can be welcome capacity development contribution back to your participants - as with highly active community members, your large scale event probably won't be the only one they attend this year! (Try to make it one of their favorites)

(Want to learn more about our work? Sign up for our Bright Green Learning Academy Newsletter Collaboration by Design here.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Bring Your Workshops Alive with the Sound of Music: Creating a Sonic Landscape

I facilitated a big global workshop last week- some 190 people attended- where we used music in a number of different ways in the event. First, as it was a large group, we used it for crisp starts and stops to our sessions: the music stopping gave a subtle audio cue to people, signalling a transition from the informal networking time, to the formal start of our session (more elegant than me shouting in the microphone for everyone to sit down).  We used it just prior to the start of the after lunch sessions to give an energy boost after the hour spent enjoying the lunch buffet. And we used music at the end of the day to create the mood for reflection and to usher in a reception and other evening events. We also wanted local music to give people the feeling of being in the host country (because we spent a lot of our time indoors in a space that could have been located anywhere on the planet). It also filled the vast, high-ceiling-ed and rather anonymous ballroom with warmth making our conversations feel more intimate.

Music can be a wonderful and useful instrument (pun intended) for a process designer when planning the choreography of an event. But I find it is one seldom used. TED does a good job of selecting songs with messages in the lyrics to start coffee breaks, and then tends to end those breaks with short videos (that can again have the effect of forward attention getting and a crisp start.)  Other than that it seems that music is infrequently  considered in a deliberate fashion to help create the overall atmosphere for dialogue and learning.  

What it takes to put a workshop to music

There might be some reasons for this - adding music adds tasks to the long list of materials, equipment, roles and responsibilities for a workshop. You need audio equipment, speakers, a playlist, and someone paying close attention to cue and cut the music. More importantly, you need a special talent to create the playlist in the first place - someone with a good broad knowledge of music who can select just the right piece for the right mood and, if there are lyrics, appropriate ones. All this adds considerable time to what might already be a busy and finely tuned event.

Not as easy as it sounds

Recently at our Bright Green Learning Academy training (Module 8: Practicing Facilitation Approaches and Methodologies) one of our participants ran a brainstorming on this exact topic: which pieces of music fit where in a workshop design? Interestingly, although it seemed an easy task, we all found it incredibly difficult to do on the fly, and found that some of our individual great ideas were certainly a matter of taste. The big lesson: Creating the sonic fabric of the workshop takes encyclopedic musical knowledge, careful consideration and time, but it can have thrilling effects when done astutely.

It turned out that the person who ran the exercise in our Module is himself a music aficionado and he took the exercise a step further a couple of weeks ago. He took a set of criteria  given to him by the meeting facilitator and used his own vast musical knowledge to create a sound design for an evening workshop (a Toastmasters meeting).

Here is what he proposed, with at least two suggestions for each part of the meeting. The jazzy feel matched the demographic in attendance and the after-hours feel of the evening event. Read through his proposals below and see if you can feel the surge of the music as the event progresses and the deliberate sonic ebb and flow proposed. Notice his thinking behind the choices:

Entrance: Soft energy/welcoming
Entrance:   Stan Getz & the Oscar Peterson Trio  
Why? Easy and welcoming.
Chet Baker 

Break:   Higher energy  
Break:    John Coltrane  - My Favourite Things  
Why? This piece is lively and gives a great jazz take on a known melody.  It's also 13:30 minutes;  just right for the break period.

John Coltrane  - My Favourite Things
Stan Getz & Bill Evans  (sax & piano) 
John Coltrane  - A Love Supreme   (a bit livelier)

Exit:   Positive vibe for teamwork and a good send-off: 
Exit:    Uptown funk (sax cover)  followed by Blue Train
Why? As the meeting ends, cue up this tune (Uptown Funk) and play it right after that final gavel hits the President's desk.  There is a punctuated start to the piece which gives way to the funky sax solo.  It's an attention grabber.  It's says 'Hey look here!'  and conveys a positive feeling for the exit. The piece however, is only 4 minutes long!   Bear this in mind because it is good enough as a punctuation mark to the evening but not long enough to keep things flowing for the 30-minute cleanup.Therefore, follow it up with Blue Train which will easily carry you through the length of the clean-up process. Just mind the time of the first track.  You'll need to make a smooth transition after the first song ends without there being a gap of silence which lasts too long. This confuses the listeners and puts a glitch in the sonic fabric (and we don't want that!) 

Uptown Funk:   Sax cover of Bruno Mars' Uptown funk.   (Lively funky sax send-off)
Play that funky music:  Sax cover

followed by:  
John Coltrane  - Blue Train

Sounds technical...

The technology to add music to your meeting or workshop doesn't have to be complicated,  For smaller meetings you can connect to the songs on YouTube from your telephone or iPad and broadcast them on a speaker via a Bluetooth connection.  For larger events like my conference, you need a sound system, but if you are showing any videos during the event you will probably have already amplifiers  hooked up and available

Bringing your workshops alive with the sound of music definitely takes some careful work, but using music strategically in your event can add real richness and energy to the learning landscape, connecting with people on a different level, and might help take your collaboration and results to new heights. 

(A big thanks to Christian Kranicke for his excellent soundscaping and for being willing to share it!)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Keeping Trainers on Track: Developing a Training-of-Trainers (ToT) Manual

I have recently been working with a team on training design for a rather technical three-day workshop to be piloted soon. Once the course has been tested and further refined, the next step is to develop a Training-of-Trainers programme to support the capacity development of a number of trainers who can disseminate this learning workshop globally. That sounds like a logical step and helps contribute to broadening the impact of the course and content by having a number of good trainers delivering it, in multiple locations and in numerous languages.

I have given many Training of Trainers (ToT) courses over the years and have been very happy with the design described in this blog post: Training Camp! An Un-ToT Design. This design provides for high customization by the trainers, as they tend to all have different levels of ability in both the technical aspects and training process. I find that this Un-ToT format works well to produce a group of trainers in the end with a handle on the materials they will need to  deliver the course independently in the future.

So, the course design is one thing, but how do you develop the materials for the trainers - the Trainer's Manual - what does that look like?

Obviously the trainers get the Participant Materials, but what else do they need in addition to that by way of materials? I always produce a written Trainer's Manual, that I provide in the ToT and use both to support the ToT process and that also provides trainers with an on-demand resource as they go forward and deliver the course themselves. I think it has higher utility to the trainers to produce this additional resource rather than provide only the Participant Materials and some supplementary handouts.

Here is a sample Table of Contents for a Trainer's Manual:

Section #
Section Title
How to Use this Manual 
Explain how the manual will be used in the ToT and beyond in the course - this section can also be used to welcome facilitators and give them information on where to go for more information - dedicated website, contact information, etc.
Facilitation Agenda 
Include the annotated Facilitation Agenda that the trainers will use in delivery of the training. This includes timing, process information, activity descriptions, etc. - this needs to be in front of the Manual and easily accessible as people will refer to it frequently.
About the Host Organization 
Provide relevant background on the group designing the training so that trainers have the relevant information to share with participants, as they might not be staff of that organization but external trainers.
About this Training Workshop 
Describe the origins of the training, rationale and what it hopes to help participants achieve. Provide a description of participant profiles that can help the trainers and others identify the right participants to attend.
Master Materials and Equipment List 
This list helps with procurement of stationary and ordering equipment for the training room - flip charts, markers, LCD projector, post-it notes and so on.
Materials to Prepare in Advance 
Indicate what needs to be done prior to arrival onsite - this can be posters to print, handouts, job aids, etc. in aggregate.
Materials to Prepare Onsite 
This list includes items that can be prepared in the room before, such as flip charts, templates, etc.
Room and Table Set Up 
Provide a diagram of how the room should be set up, and where to position equipment like flip charts, screen etc. This can be shared with the venue staff in advance.
Day 1 
Each day has its own section.
Session by Session Description
(See below for detail)
  1. Participants Training Manual (Separate - this is the manual that all participants will receive.)
  2. PPT Slide Set (If PPT will be used - separate on a USB key/ CD or URL/Dropbox for download. Include electronically the Trainer's Manual with handouts etc. in Word, and the Participant's Manual in case this needs to be reproduced locally.)

Within each of the Session descriptions (I always divide my days by Session, so I can keep them distinct and provide an easier way to refer to them to participants, trainers and speakers, etc.), I write up each of the Sessions in the Trainer's Manual with the following information:

  • Session Number and Title
  • Materials (What's needed for this specific session)
  • Preparation (What do trainers need to do to prepare - flip charts, room change, quiz, find a place for a game, number tables, etc.)
  • Timing (How long does this session last - 09:00 - 09:45)
  • Sequence (This is the sequence of events and the script AND it always includes possible answers to questions the trainer is asking participants, or answers to a quiz or learning activity. If participants don't quite understand the question or ask for an example, this helps trainers provide one, and gives them a sense of the kind of responses to look and push for.)
  • Flip charts/Job Aids (What do these look like, what questions are asked, what format do they take?)
  • PPT slides (You can add in print outs of slides with notes in this section, or you can include this in an annex. NOTE: If you have a very long slide set or one with lots of images and graphics, this can make the Trainer's Manual data file incredibly heavy. If this is the case, I sometimes refer simply to slide numbers in the Sequence part of the section (like "See slides 1-5") and then provide a hard copy of the slides and notes in the Annex which can be printed separately to the Manual document.)

    All these sections should have an open and "airy" layout on the page that allows trainers to take notes in the margins or has a designated place to make notes. In order to deliver this training, they will have to make these words, concepts and activities their own, so providing a space to reflect and customise the materials as they go along will be an important part of the Training of Trainers session. 

    How to Put It All Together? (Literally)

    One last thought, I have experimented with different formats to provide the above materials. I think I like ring binders the best with a pocket in the inside front and back where you can put the USB key or CD. The rings help people take things in and out that they might need in the training delivery (notes, the Facilitation Agenda, the PPT slide printouts, handouts to copy, etc.) and then put them back in to keep them organized. It also means that anything new they develop they can pop in and not have to keep separate and potentially misplace. I would always print the title of the workshop on the spine so that it can be seen on the shelves with their many other Manuals.

    Trainers of Trainers, anything else to add that helps keep us on track in a ToT? 

    Wednesday, April 13, 2016

    The Places You'll Go, the Things You Will Do (Unless…): Facilitation and Roles at Large Workshops and Conferences

    (I love the fact that I really do learn or re-learn something new every day...)

    You might be the Facilitator, in charge of weaving together threads of themes, helping people make sense of complexity, ensuring time for reflection and assimilation of concepts, framing and debriefing activities that will help participants share their thoughts or co-create radical new ideas. You might be on stage bringing energy to the group when they need it and watching participants to make on-the-spot modifications to match their needs and interests. 

    You might even be introducing the Minister, Ambassador, Permanent Secretary and CEO. Effectively you are there to make sure that the investment of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in convening the right people for this workshop or conference is fiscally responsible and has the results that ensure a return on investment by the hosts. That’s your job as Facilitator.

    And you might also be doing the following:
    • Finding volunteers to translate job aids into different languages;
    • Printing and making photocopies of job aids in two languages (and finding paper for the copier and then taking it completely apart to clear the paper jams);
    • Putting the job aids on the 25 tables in the plenary;
    • Making the background PPT slide set that runs behind the programme (giving it to technicians and changing it as things change);
    • Clearing the tables of cups and other ephemera and replenishing materials needed on the tables;
    • Putting the chairs back around the tables and smoothing table cloths before the next plenary so that it looks tidy and inviting to participants;
    • Taking care of things people leave in the room (walking lost and found - phones, cables, USB keys...);
    • Making signs to indicate the breakout rooms locations;
    • Getting people into the rooms on time.
    • Standing in front of said signs to help people find their rooms;
    • Finding interpreters for parallel sessions;
    • Performing materials husbandry tasks - dividing up materials needed by parallel sessions and delivering them to the rooms at the right time, finding lost markers, saving enough materials for the last sessions;
    •  Finding the rapporteur to hand over the written results from the working groups.
    • Double check everything and field what quickly becomes Frequently Asked Questions.

    So you also might get to do these things at your large event. These details make a difference you know; they contribute to the visual aesthetic of the event; they signal care, respect and professionalism; they make the event feel smooth to participants and reduce any anxieties that can come between attendees and their learning and contribution to the event. 

    It’s definitely not a problem to do them and you are certainly willing to pitch in, and they need to be done. By you? These important roles could also be assigned in advance of the event to other team members who could do them sometimes even more quickly and easily than you - the operative word here, that might occur to you exactly in that moment you are taking apart the photocopier for the second time rather late at night, is definitely in advance

    To enable this better division of labour it is great to think systemically about the event in the weeks before and make a check list of all needed roles to assign before your big meeting and conference (as with a small one, these things don’t take so much time, but with 180 people then that is a lot of tables to straighten up after a plenary) and then ask who might like to take them on. There might be a short list of roles already that you can add to from what you know about what makes large events work.

    As the more time that is needed for these things, the less time you have to focus on, and prepare for, the participant-facing facilitation work you will do - not to mention grabbing a couple of minutes of your own to clear your mind, rest a little in the hubub of the conference, refocus your thoughts and look at the scenery that might just be outside your meeting room…

    Facilitating large groups? Here are 3 more related posts: (Module 10 in our Bright Green Learning Academy is also on this topic)
    1. When Numbers Soar: Working with Large Groups
    2. Going Large: Tips for Running Facilitation Teams at Big Conferences
    3. Building Peer Learning into Mega-Events and Conferences

    Wednesday, March 23, 2016

    Leadership at a Gallop - Equine-Assisted Reflection and Learning

    I didn't wear a helmet, riding boots or a crop when I spent three hours last Sunday morning with Mr. Bean and Frederica- two former polo ponies living on a farm in Bavois, Switzerland. That's because I didn't ride them - I spent my time leading them around a chilly arena, slaloming cones and over low barriers (without a rope!), or at least trying to.

    This was during one of Sarah Krasker's equine-assisted learning workshops where she provides individuals ( coming in teams or alone) an opportunity to explore their leadership abilities through experiential learning. You bring your non-verbal communication skills, energy and purpose to bear with giant animals who don't get office politics or do something because it's a nice thing to do. If the horse can't understand your direction, is getting mixed signals, or doesn't trust you it will simply abandon you for a good, hard, longing look at the rest of the herd in the field out the window.

    We were three people, two horses and trainer Sarah for the morning. All of us had picked different aspects of leadership to explore. In our three hours, we worked with the horses twice with reflection and debriefing after each session.

    Our goal in the barn arena was simply to get the horse to follow us on its own accord. This seemed unlikely (why should they?) but we were assured if we were giving off the right energy (Sarah called it an "energy bubble") and signals and made it seem more interesting than anything else going on at the time for the horse it would happen. For that we needed to communicate direction, intention and passion for the task ( walking around the ring or weaving through the cones). Horses being herd animals, we were explained, like to follow a trusted leader. Mustering these forces within you would lead to a satisfying picture of a horse following you around. However, hesitation, a dip in conviction or attention or energy, alternatively means that the horse will just stop in its tracks and look at you patiently, stock still, 900 pounds of immobile weight, with those big beautiful brown eyes. No amount of pushing or cajoling at this stage would get it to move another step.

    It took me the first round to connect with the horse and understand more of how strong you have to be to get the horse to follow you. Not muscle strong though; it takes concentrated, ongoing focused energy and mental engagement to get the horse to start and keep moving. My first time I only got a few steps that initially heartened me but quickly showed that the window was more interesting than anything I was offering at the moment.

    But the second time, with resolve, a vision in mind about what task completion looked like, a firm but friendly voice and not taking no for an answer, I blocked my energy, gave instructions and turned my back and walked around the ring a couple of times with Frederica following along behind me. Granted, I did start with the rope for the first few steps, but then we unclipped the rope and (to my amazement, although I didn't let on of course) she still followed me around the ring for a couple of tours. The second time I needed to quality control the slalom by slowing down a little and insisting a little more firmly that she go around all the cones, and she did! (I must confess, at first I thought these just might be very well-trained horses that know their trail and would do it by themselves, but on many occasions, even with the rope, if the leader hesitated or lost their conviction the horse would simply and quite abruptly stop in its tracks. Now that's feedback!)

    It was a thought-provoking morning in the barn and it got me thinking about how I communicate vision, the responsibility for safety that leadership brings (task based as well as emotional), how to make sure that what you are asking, which is out of the ordinary - not business as usual,  is more interesting than the familiar other horses or the window. Leadership most often means taking people along to a new place, a new situation, or a new practice.

    Working with the horses and Sarah this way provides a great opportunity to get outside the four walls of the office and separate yourself from the day to day. This can give invaluable time for reflection that the barrage of emails and meetings doesn't always provide for, and a useful experiential learning moment that can move your thinking ( be it at a trot, canter, or run) about your own leadership role while enjoying the warm hay breath of the horses.
    (Trainer Sarah Trasker with Mr. Bean)

    Wednesday, January 13, 2016

    Coming Soon! The Climate Change Playbook

    It has been great to work  with my co-authors Dennis Meadows and Linda Booth Sweeney on a book of  22 games that help people learn more about climate change. The three of us have been working in the sustainability field and on related issues for many decades. We've enjoyed building on some of the games from the Systems Thinking Playbook, relating them to climate change learning objectives, and also developing new games that can be applied in a number of different learning contexts (workshops, meetings, conferences, training courses, etc.)

    We've organized the 22 games into three types - mass games, that can be played with any size group, such as in a conference setting; demonstration games that a small group can play while a larger group observes; and finally participation games, that groups from 5-25 people can comfortably play.  

    The three authors have played these games for many years with many different types of learners, from students to senior policy officials, and have built into the game descriptions our own learning about how to frame them, brief and debrief them most effectively. Some are simple and take 2-3 minutes to run, others are more involved and can easily create an interesting dynamic and discussion that can take an hour to work through with participants. 

    If you want to create a more interactive learning environment when working on climate change and sustainable development issues, consider integrating some of these games into your next presentation, meeting, workshop or conference. It will be one of the things that your audience and participants will remember!

    The official publication date is 5 May 2016, but the book will be available beginning April 28. You can pre-order at the Chelsea Green site - The Climate Change Playbook. It will soon be up at IndieBound, and is active at Barnes & Noble  and Amazon , and of course you can order from your local booksellers as well. 

    We hope that enjoy learning about climate change, and playing these games as much as we do!

    Tuesday, December 22, 2015

    Launching in 2016: Bright Green Learning Academy! Facilitating Collaboration and Creating Change

    • Does your work include convening diverse stakeholder (internal or external) to create shared solutions and results? 
    • Do you want to build more effective, collaborative relationships in your work? 
    • Would you like to strengthen your ability to communicate and work with complexity and uncertainty?
    • Do you need more tools for creating greater impact in your organization and work? 

    If you said yes to any of these then read on!

    For us, 2015 was a rich year - we've worked close to home and far afield on a broad range of issues including water and oceans, whale conservation, the green economy, youth employment, gender issues and reproductive health, aluminium stewardship and biomaterials, amongst many others. We've been strategic planning, partnership building, developing teams, capturing and sharing learning, and much more. It has been a great pleasure to work with so many committed and talented people all over the world working towards social and environmental sustainability.  Now, as 2015 comes to a close, Lizzie and Gillian are delighted to announce that in 2016 we will launch the Bright Green Learning Academy

    The Academy offers programme and project leaders and managers, social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, the opportunity to create a customized learning programme that builds skills to facilitate collaboration and create change.  It comprises a set of 29 structured, face-to-face learning modules (full and half day) that can be combined on a needs-basis.  People can opt to take a few select modules or the whole Academy Certificate Programme, and to complete their learning with the Academy in less than six months, or over the course of twelve (February 2016-February 2017).  There are a number of different learning packages to choose from, with a full programme description and details of the modules on the website.

    The Academy draws on Bright Green Learning’s experience offering both open-subscription facilitation training and running substantive, successful, bespoke in-house learning programmes for a number of leading organizations whose staff work internationally to convene diverse actors and foster multi-stakeholder collaboration for environment and social development. See what some past learners have said about the training here, and find out more about the training team.

    If you or your team’s work includes convening diverse stakeholders (internal or external) to create shared solutions and results;  building more effective, collaborative relationships in your work;  strengthening abilities to communicate and work with complexity and uncertainty; and/or if there is the need for more tools for creating greater impact in their organization and work, then they might want to take a closer look and consider registering for the modules of greatest value on the Academy website.

    We are really excited about this new initiative and hope that you will be too!  And we would be delighted if you would please share this with colleagues and others in your professional networks that would benefit from the learning experiences now on offer.

    Please note: Early bird registration (via the website) is open until midnight CET 31st December 2015. Registration for the February and June 2016 course offerings are now open!

    Tuesday, November 03, 2015

    Condensing Learning into 4 Minutes or Less? Making a Simple Animated Video for a Complex Project

    I am enjoying being the Learning Expert for a very innovative programme (Learning and Knowledge Development Facility) that aims to promote, capture and share learning from a series of international public private development projects (PPDPs). The objective is to create a platform and a process for sharing learning among all the project stakeholders and with other interested parties for continuous improvement in the existing projects and to create efficiencies in future project development and implementation.

    For this project, among other things, I recently wrote a series of How-To Manuals (see the blog post: How to Write a “How To” Guide: Two Approaches to Creating Reusable Learning) based on individual learning gathered through interviews and collective learning from facilitated workshops and meetings. These detailed documents are all available for practitioners in the project to use as well as anyone else interested.

    But, they range from 20 – 30 pages, with some shorter executive summaries that aim to distill further key points. With piles of reading already on their desks, the project managers challenged us to create some new, shorter learning products, not just for them but for their colleagues and others who were interested in the project, who wanted to learn more, but were just starting to dip their toes into it. 

    The project is about developing Public Private Development Partnerships (I'm not going to describe them here, you have to watch the video!) It's quite a nuanced concept. And because of the complexity of writing about and describing the PPDP approach itself (one of my long How-To Guides was about PPDPs – How to Develop and Implement a Vocational Training Public Private Development Partnership – even the name was long!) that was where we decided to start.

    So we made an animated video – a 3 minute 23 second explanation of what PPDPs were, how they worked (and of course the benefits!)

    All in all, it took us four weeks from the telephone interview that produced the narrative, to receiving the link to the final video. We chose an aggressive time frame as we wanted to show the video at an upcoming meeting. For this project we worked with Simpleshow.

    This was my first experience working with a creative team to create an "explainer" video. There were a number of lessons that I learned along the way that I want to capture, for my own future reference, and also for sharing with anyone who is tempted toward the process of condensing and sharing learning in 4 minutes or less.

    Lesson 1: What's the message?

    As I mentioned above, the idea started with a 33-page "How-to Manual" which structured a rich multitude of lessons learned by many different actors. How on earth could that be condensed into 4 minutes or less? Four minutes was the upper limit given to us by Simpleshow, with a suggestion that even this could be too long. (Note: There is plenty of interesting research done on video length and viewer attention span - like this article by Powtoon Explainer Video: How Long Should Your Explainer Be? We went plenty over, relatively speaking, what seems to be a generally suggested time limit of 1-2 minutes.)

    It was obvious that this amount of content was far too ambitious for a 2-4 minute video. So we needed to think again. When we considered the questions that come in about the project, the first ones and perhaps the most fundamental are really the basics - What is a Public Private Development Partnership? Who is involved, how does it work and what are the benefits? In answering those questions, our message is really basic: This is a very cool approach which you should know about and might want to get involved in. So we started there.  You really need to be crystal clear about the central message you are trying to convey. Too many messages make for a messy animated video.

    Lesson 2: What's the story?

    For a video to be good, there needs to be some kind of clean and simple story or narrative with some characters, a challenge that people are trying to solve together, a barrier to surmount. Our story had all of those components. To get to the essence of the story for our video, Simpleshow sent a questionnaire with some very good questions along these lines. We answered it and sent it back and then set up a call with a project manager and a story writer that lasted about an hour. I discussed with them the answers to the questions - What is a PPDP? Who's involved? What makes it special? What problem is it trying to solve?  And they asked more questions, and I gave more answers. After a while it formed into a simple but compelling story.

    Lesson 3: Whose voices? Which characters?

    If you watch many explainer-type animated videos, you will notice that there is almost always one voice that is the narrator. This voice introduces the characters, and effectively tells the story for them while they move around and animate the story.  (More on this narrator voice later.) As such there are a lot of decisions around characters and voice in a video. First, you need to identify your characters. Our first list was very long as there are a lot of important actors in PPDPs. But you really can't have too many characters as it can be hard to keep track of them and in some cases hard to tell (animated) people apart. Remember that they are not distinguished by their voice, as they do not speak - one central voice tells the story, so they need to be differentiated in other ways.

    In our case, the main actors involved were actually organizations, as we were describing an approach or a process. So we had to decide which organizations were the most central to our story, and what characters would represent them. We ended up with four main characters with actual names (Peter, etc.), and with some minor characters without names (e.g. teacher, government official, other student).

    You do need to be thoughtful about names - selecting those that are not too similar.  For names we tried to use known names from where our characters originated; the most important name choice was our central character, a woman graduate in Zambia. For that I researched the most popular female names in Zambia and decided on Thandi, which is near the top of the charts of popular names for women in Zambia, For next time, I would suggest even more diverse names for the other organizational characters as the project is international. We changed a couple of them from those suggested by Simpleshow, which was perfectly fine with them, but could have changed them a little more to capture the true diversity of the project.

    Lesson 4: Getting the story crystal clear

    The next step was to write up the narrative - the story as told by the narrator. This was the script and was written from the perspective of a storyteller which was not one of the characters. The script was drafted based on our telephone conversation. Simpleshow wrote out the script. word for word, exactly as the narrator would read it, and sent it for review along with some ideas of visuals (in words) and potential images that could accompany them (characters, icons, etc.) I checked the accuracy of statements, changed terminology, answered some questions, and looked for points of emphasis.

    It was important here to remember that some words can be very politically charged, how some characters are described can be consistent with their own terminology or quite incorrect. You need to remember that you are the expert at the topic, the video maker works on a myriad of different themes and although they do their best,  it is your responsibility to catch things at this stage. I shared my comments with colleagues to make sure that I was not missing anything, and indeed I had! At this important script stage we needed to sign off on the narrative as written, because it is not efficient or practical to change the text after the images are drawn.

    Lesson 4: Sketch stage - Choosing the right images and icons

    I considered what was being suggested in terms of images and iconography and made some tweaks. Sometimes the initially proposed icons might not be quite right to represent the actor - for example, a technical assistance donor will not resonate with an image of a bag of money, but with a growing plant instead.  Other images benefit from changing to increase accuracy or authenticity. For example, I changed an image that was represented on a chalkboard to make it more consistent with the reality of the project (from a flow chart to an engine diagram as the project works with heavy machinery), or changing what one of the characters was wearing to be more like that we see in the vocational training centre workshops in the project.

    For this, I used photos from our project, and also googled factories in Zambia, and sent links to the animators, and generally tried to help make the story and images as accurate as possible with the reality of the project. It was at this point also that I received a first sketched of the characters. For Thandi, our Zambian main character, I commented on her dress and hair, and googled lots of Zambian universities and factories for photos to see what students were wearing. Although I have been to Zambia on more than one occasion, I wasn't in a heavy vehicle vocational training workshop! So I passed this by colleagues who had been working in Zambia, and had been to the vocational school until we all agreed. All the images need to be checked carefully for accuracy and authenticity as again, it is practically impossible to change them (or very costly to do so) once the voice actor is engaged and the animation completed. You definitely don't want someone watching the video a month after production saying, "That's not how you pronounce 'Thandi' in Zambia"!

    Lesson 5: Voice actors - What voice best matches the content?

    Speaking of pronunciation...the video narrative will be read by a professional voice actor (I enjoyed googling that fascinating field of work). The company has a pool of voice actors and sent me some audio clips to listen to, and from which to select the one that seemed to fit the content best. I found out from the company we worked with that most animated videos they made were narrated by men, and often with American accents (at the request of clients).

    We decided early on that we wanted a women's voice, so the Simpleshow sent through some female voice clips for me to listen to, with some different accents. It was interesting to hear all the varieties of voices, and their different qualities, intonation, brightness, etc. We decided that we wanted a British female voice. I listened to a few more audio clips and chose one. The voice in the original clip I found a little too bright and chirpy, which didn't fit as well for our content, so I made some suggestions along those lines. When the actor recorded it she matched our request and instructions.

    Lesson 6: Signing off final stages - no going back

    At this point I had signed off on the text to be narrated, and I needed to sign off on the images and icons, and what would happen to them which was described in words (wondering, searching, happy, 'wiped away'). I was asked about how to pronounce 'Thandi' ( with "h" or without - I double checked with a Zambian friend to be sure!)  Also how to pronounce 'UNIDO' ( spell it out or read it.) It was great that they asked, I am sure the voice actor needed to know. Again this is something you might anticipate and give some instructions before the voice actor does her work.

    At this point, the text and images go out of your hands and the company puts together the animation and the voice actor records her text. You can listen to the final results in the video above!

    We would ideally have liked another review step or a quote for how much that might cost (it might be significant if the voice actor needs to re-record something to emphasize a word more or less, or a sequence in the middle of the video needs to be re-shot). I understand that is why there are so many opportunities for iteration and sign off steps. It is however still challenging to try to imagine how the voice will work with the images, and how the images will move. There can be unconscious messages communicated when some images stay longer on the screen or have a more central place in the viewing pane. In the future I will try to pay more careful attention and try to anticipate this, and thus give some additional instructions to the artist and voice actor on this aspect if needed.

    What might happen next?

    The video launch received a very enthusiastic response and good feedback. People are thinking actively about how to use it. The team recently translated it into French  as one of the new PPDPs is in a Francophone country. That took only 2.5 weeks, from request to final French-version of the video, and provided another broad set of possible accents and specialised terminology to select from (with no changes made to the animation except the last 'thanks' page).

    The video has been put on the webpage and shared widely with partners. It will feature in an upcoming training course on PPDPs in the introduction, and is being sent to potential partners through email and in workshops and meetings. It is such a short and easy introduction to PPDPs, and is much more engaging than any PPT slide set or oral introduction, both of which would take longer than 3 minutes 23 seconds.

    Overall, it was a very exciting and fast paced process, and it's fascinating to see ideas move from a conversation, through written words, to images and then jump off the page into an animated video. And it is not as mysterious as you might imagine. I enjoyed writing down my learning and things I want to remember, not least because I might want to reuse my learning in the next set of animated videos that are already in planning!

    Monday, October 19, 2015

    Facilitator, Do You Have a Plan C?

    Plan A and B crossed, Plan C take over
    In June I had the opportunity to work in Sweden at a wonderful event on the seaside. I got the job because a friend of mine who usually worked with this group was unavailable.

    Unfortunately I had another event scheduled until 6pm the day before in Switzerland which meant that I needed to leave my event promptly, drive the 30 minutes in rush hour traffic to the Geneva airport, take a flight to Copenhagen, and there make a 35 minute transfer onto the last flight of the day to my Swedish destination. I would arrive at midnight, and my event started at 8am (outside the city).

    What could go wrong? My Swedish counterpart there asked a good question, what if… What was my plan B, she asked? Well, effectively I was already their Plan B as their regular facilitator couldn’t make it, so what was my Plan C, in case any of those many moving parts to get me to the event in time, didn’t actually move.

    That is a great question that we should always ask ourselves as facilitators (or trainers, or any person on whose participation an event may hinge). What if we fall ill, miss that flight, get taken to the wrong venue in a city we don’t know?

    Now, I have in the past run a plenary session with a dizzyingly high fever, covered in sweat and practically swooning in the blurry spotlights  in front of me (this was at a UN conference in Damascus many years ago – with organizers with a “show must go on” attitude. It was nothing that a huge dose of antibiotics and 2 days in my hotel bed afterwards couldn’t “cure”.) But I have also gotten a call at 05:30am on a weekday from my colleague who was desperately ill, and then found myself standing in a workshop room a couple of hours later picking up with a surprised group where she left off. (That was the source of another couple of blog posts – Facilitators: To Your Health! and Managing Exceptions – The Resilient Facilitator. I also wrote a blog post from the perspective of the stand in - Flu Season! Facilitators Prepare to Step In!)

    So sometimes the Grin-and-Bear-It approach can work, or if not, calling a colleague with whom you have a good working relationship and a shared approach. It’s definitely worth contacting your network and making some reciprocal agreements in advance that can help in such emergencies – both local and international.

    What else can you put into place as a Plan B or C? One thing that we always do is we develop a “Facilitation Agenda” which is a very detailed description of the process that we will use for the workshop. It includes the sequence of items and speakers, their titles and the titles of their presentations (for introducing them). It includes the group work and activities sequence, the timing and any roles. It can also include mock ups of job aids, flipcharts that need to be created on site, and any other process considerations (how to run the quiz, how to set up the room, etc.). Our Facilitation Agenda documents are very complete, and very long, but they also provide any experienced facilitator all they need to pick up the process and go on with it. A materials and equipment list completes the process pack.

    It is also good to make sure that this Facilitation Agenda is developed with your counterpart in the organization, so that they know exactly what the process is, the rationale behind it and the expected outcomes. This helps them better hand this over to a substitute facilitator if need be or even, if they are happy to do it, take on this role themselves, or find another internal person to do this as a last resort.  You can even anticipate this with your counterpart and identify another process person within the organization to have a talk with in advance, as your Plan B.

    Thankfully, in my case, the winds were with me. My workshop in Geneva ended promptly on time, and as luck would have it, I shared a taxi to the airport with a Norwegian participant who knew all about the local transport system where I was going. He told me all the ways to get to my destination in case I missed my connecting flight - from renting a car and driving the 3 hours north, to crossing the bridge from Denmark to Sweden and taking the train after midnight. Both would get me there in time for my event. Armed with bountiful Plan B’s, and after a brisk run from gate-to-gate in Copenhagen, I made all my connections and showed up in good shape for my event, much to the relief of my Swedish counterpart who stayed up very late until she received my “I’m here!” text message.

    It’s definitely worth coming up with contingencies before you really need them. I heard a TED talk recently by a Canadian neurologist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin (it was about the importance of pre-mortems, inviting us to plan ahead for stress), who reminded us that when you’re stressed, your brain releases the hormone cortisol which makes your thinking fuzzy.

    You don’t want to be fuzzy-headed trying to develop your Plan B. Well in advance, when you are calm,

    • 1) Get your network of potential stand-in facilitators in place (local or otherwise);
    • 2) Make sure your process is well documented to the final detail (Facilitation Agenda);
    • 3) Brief your counterpart (so they are fully aware);
    • 4) Know all the alternatives (routes and all);
    • 5) Wear good shoes and travel light.
    Chances are you won’t need these things, but if you do, you will be happy to have your Plan B, C, and D in place. It turned out to be a beautiful summer day for an event in Sweden!

    Sunday, October 11, 2015

    Take a Picture, It'll Last Longer (A Cautionary Tale for Facilitators)

    The conference centre staff were confronted this morning with the following appeal - PLEASE DON'T TOUCH THE PAPERS - written in foot-high capital letters, and strategically placed in front of the door to our workshop room, the walls of which were plastered with flip chart templates, timelines, prioritised project lists with actors designated - the golden nuggets of our intense working meeting. 

    Before leaving the room the night before I also took photos of everything, even though the next day we would work together again, further develop the ideas, layering additional information and meaning over our previous day's outputs.

    In the past, I would have waited until the end of the workshop to take these photos, so as to have the final artifacts, organised and polished. But not any more.

    At a 3-day workshop in Paris last month in a beautiful new hotel we were also working visually. The walls of our meeting room similarly featured the colourful results of our first 2 days of work and discussions, decisions and ideas. The outcome of this strategy meeting was critically important in the life of this group. We were excited as we left the room the evening of Day 2 to have the few hours on our third morning to carefully review our work, synthesize and prepare the outputs and ambitious work plan going forward. 

    I guess you can tell where I'm going with this... for the first time in my professional experience, right in the middle of a 3-day workshop, we walked into the meeting room an hour early on the morning of Day 3 and were confronted with the brutal reality that the night cleaning team had taken down and removed absolutely everything from the walls, all our flipcharts posters, templates, papers from our tables and all of our workshop materials! It could have been any other empty meeting room in the hotel. In a very controlled, surprisingly calm and professional way we freaked out (then we got to work).

    You might think that this was a bit of an overreaction, but if you are using a visual discussion methodology that collects and organizes outputs on flip charts, posters and templates, and a group of 15 people and the host organization has collectively invested 320 person hours (effectively 2 person months of time), tens of thousands of Euros in logistics costs (having flown in from all over the world), and the equivalent monetary figure for their professional time, then having these documents removed is a very big deal. 

    We hurried to recreate the results from our handwritten notes and memories, the hotel having been quickly alerted about the loss. An agonizing 15 minutes later, we were relieved to hear from the hotel staff that a thorough search of the cleaning closet produced a bag of our flip chart sheets and materials - the new night staff member had been told to clean the room, had taken the instructions literally, but clearly had not felt confident to throw everything away. 

    We re-posted our slightly crumpled flip charts, taking the opportunity to reorganize them, and were done 10 minutes before our participants arrived. I took photos again, and learned a lesson - make records as you go along rather than at the end, just in case!

    Thursday, October 08, 2015

    Can Humiliation Boost Brain Function? (Yes, When You’re Learning Something New…)

    Surfer Hollow Wave Ride

    There I was, prone, my nose the requisite hand-width from the logo on the waxed board. Then, on command, execute sequence: paddle the air like crazy, then up on one knee, then two knees, stand up, body turn, arms out and ride that imaginary wave.

    Surfing seemed pretty straight forward there on the sand. Side-by-side on the beach we had 10 surfboards, and 10 wannabe surfers, being put through our paces by the surfing instructor before we ran into the water with our boards. Cool! Well…

    I spent the first half hour of my 90-minute lesson just trying to get on the darn board without falling off the other side. That was already rather humiliating, but I had the water to hide in (frequently and head first). Once I could actually get on the board, turning it around so it was facing in the right direction was my next challenge, and doing so without getting caught broadsided by the waves that were coming in with frustrating regularity, as waves do I guess.

    Then I found myself miraculously on my board, facing the beach (at frighteningly close range) and hearing the surf instructor shouting “PADDLE!” at me. I paddled, and rode my wave onto the beach -  on my stomach. It was surprisingly comfortable but, I was assured by my sons, not the way to do it.

    There were several thousand witnesses on the beach that day, watching me fall off my board, belly surf onto the beach and twice get up onto my knees but no closer to the standing cool of the little kids and my sons dude surfing around me. All in all, I spent at least an hour humiliating myself and the rest of the time underwater.

    Benefits, you ask?

    That was a sunny day in Rhode Island, let’s go to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean now, to Newcastle University in the UK.

    Thirty volunteers were recruited recently for an experiment that began by subjecting them to a barrage of problem-solving, memory and reaction time tests to set a baseline. Then they were randomly assigned one of three activities to do for eight weeks and went home.

    Members of one group had to walk briskly for three hours a week, a vigorous exercise that kept their hearts pumping and their brains deliciously filled with oxygen-laden blood.

    A second group played Sudoku and did puzzles like crosswords for their three hours a week. Comfy in their lounge chairs, their brains were constantly being challenged and titillated solving these brain teasers.

    The third group spent their three hours each of the eight weeks staring at a naked man named Steve. This was actually in the form of a life drawing class, where Steve was the model.

    And eight weeks later, where were our volunteers now?

    As expected, the walkers made great strides in their general health and fitness. The puzzlers became addicted to Sudoku and presumably proudly got their solving times down from double to single digits and competitively went on to harder and harder puzzles.   And the life drawing group? They enjoyed it! But when the scientists re-ran their cognitive tests, which group do you think made the most brain progress? What’s your guess?

    If you guessed Sudoku, you would be WRONG.

    The life drawing class made the most progress in cognitive skills of memory, reaction time and problem solving –  why?

    BBC news, who reported the experiment, quoted clinical psychologist Daniel Collerton as saying “Learning something new engages the brain in ways that seem to be key. Your brain changes in response, no matter how many years you have behind you.” Learning something new improves your brain function and memory! Yes!

    Now, let’s go back to my surfing lesson, as embarrassing as it was. That was (obviously) completely new for me. Trying to do all those coordinated moves, that the instructor was telling me, in the right sequence, for the first time, definitely engaged my brain as well as my body. The life drawers in the study saw brain benefits from developing their psychomotor skills by thinking about moving their hands to draw.

    The life drawers also derived more health benefits and calorie burn from standing three hours a week for their drawing class (better than sitting – unlike our puzzlers, you can’t do Sudoku standing up). Although I was not standing, ever, I also was not sitting on my surf board (I was falling off it most of the time).

    And finally the life drawers in the class were the most socially active of the three groups in the study, talking to each other and learning together, this social side also reportedly contributes to keeping your brain sharp.  My surf class camaraderie also produced opportunities for social interaction that did not always involve collisions, but lots of tips, cheers of support and peals of laughter (including my own saltwater chuckles.)

    The Newcastle study concluded that “any group activity which involves being active and learning a new skill will boost your brain” and its cognitive function.

    So the next time you’re laying on the beach and see someone learning something new, like surfing for instance, remember that they are improving their brain function and you are just getting a sunburn!