Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Venue Checklist: What You Want to Know Before You Go

Imagine you are using an amazing venue for an upcoming, interactive conference of around 200 people (or any number for that matter), and you are visiting it for the first time. What would you want to know? Imagine that the venue is not a purpose-built conference centre, but something like a World Heritage Site, a venue that models the content of your conference in some way, but might not have the systems in place as professional conference centres do. That makes it even more important to ask the right questions the first (and second time) that you visit. Here are a few things that I would want to know prior to putting the final touches on the design of any event:


  1. How do people get there? Do they have maps and directions available?

  2. Is it accessible by public transport, and is there parking for those who come by car?

  3. Is there a preferred taxi service serving the venue? What is the contact information?


  1. Do they have staff to set up the venue and individual rooms the night before? Can the organizers get in there early (e.g. the day before) to check room set up and post signs?

  2. Can the staff change the room set up during the day, or must the morning set up last for the entire day? If so, how long does it take to change a room?

  3. What kinds of tables do they have? Round, rectangular?

  4. What kinds of chairs do they have? Fixed to the ground? Fixed together in rows? Movable? Can they be moved by the workshop organizers during the day for small group work, etc., if they are moved back?

  5. Can the organizers post signage for the workshop? Or does the venue have its own signs and post them? What are the rules about posting signs (if any)?

Meeting Rooms:

  1. Are there any limitations to room set-up formats? If so what are they? Can the venue take a suggested set-up format from the organizers (such as cabaret style for breakout groups) and use that, or do they have fixed set up formats?

  2. What are the capacities for the plenary room and breakout rooms, in theatre style, cabaret style, etc?

  3. Does the venue have enough chairs and tables for simultaneous set up of plenary and breakout rooms so there is no delay in set up?

  4. Can flip chart paper and other posters be put up on the walls? If so, is there a preference for fixation (blue tack/sticky stuff, masking tape, etc.)

  5. If nothing can be fixed on the walls, do they have ample flipchart stands, and possibly pinboards (with pins), for the workshop organizers to use?

  6. How are the acoustics between rooms? Can you hear people speaking in the corridors? In the neighbouring rooms? What if microphones are used?

  7. If common spaces are used for workshops, how are the acoustics in the common space? If people are clapping, or talking amongst one another, does that sound travel to other corners where potentially quieter conversations are being held? Are there live barriers (plants, etc.) which might be used to divide common spaces?

  8. If organizers use interactive exercises, or games in their workshops, are there any limitations to using open or common space for these?

  9. Are markers provided with the flipcharts, or do these need to be brought in by the organizers?

Registration and Welcome:

  1. Is there a registration area that can be used to greet people and provide them with their documentation and badges? Where is it? Can it be set up in advance? (the night before?)

  2. If there are any VIP needs (special access/doors), security, or separate waiting areas, what facilitaties are available?

Food and breaks:

  1. What kind of lunch is served? Sit down, served, buffet? If the lunch break in the agenda is short, how can the venue assure that people can eat quickly?

  2. Can all 200 people eat at the same time, or do they need to eat in smaller groups? If the latter, how long is one sitting and how many people can be served?

  3. Where are the coffee breaks served? Can they be outside the meeting rooms to minimize noise?

  4. Can the whole group break for coffee at the same time, will there be a back up at the coffee area? Or are there multiple stations that can serve people quickly, so that 15-30 min is enough for every one to have coffee?

  5. Check the menu options for lunch and coffee breaks-what choices are available? Can they serve special diets (vegetarian, caffeine-free, lactose or gluten-intolerance, etc.) Do people need to notify of special needs in advance? How much in advance?

  6. Is there water available in between breaks and meals?

  7. Is there smoking in the venue? If not, is there a designated smoking place?

Communication and Equipment:

  1. Does the venue have internet access or wifi? Is it free? Is there a code? Are there capacity limitations (e.g. number of people connected)? If so, what are they?

  2. Are there printing or office facilities available for the organizers, for last minute copies, etc. Or for speakers with last minute changes to their presentations?

  3. Are there any cell phone restrictions or limitations in the venue?

  4. What are the cell phone numbers of the key venue service people? Can we have a list of who to call for service, technical, or other issues during the conference?

  5. Does the venue provide equipment such as PPt projectors with laptops (connected to the internet), overhead projectors, video projectors (as needed)? How many of these are available? Are there technical people to help with set up?

  6. Is there a sound system for the plenary, is there a technical person for set up and monitoring?

Breakdown and closing:

  1. What are the organizers expected to do prior to leaving the venue, in terms of venue breakdown, clean up, etc?

  2. Can anyone at the venue answer questions about return transport, flights, train schedules, etc. or help changing or getting bookings?

  3. Is there a place where participants could leave or deposit feedback forms prior to leaving?

  4. Is there a place where participants can leave their luggage on the second day prior to leaving? Is it secure? How do people get things out again if they leave at different times during the day?

No doubt there are more. These are just things that I have seen over the years in conference centres (both things I liked and things that impeded our process because they were not available or there were limitations that we had not been aware of in advance of our meeting.) No doubt there are more. I like to say that we (facilitators, trainers, organizers, and participants) can work with anything as long as we know about it in advance. Sometimes you get a real test, but I can tell you that there is nothing like a freaky parameter to get your creative juices flowing!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Using Systems Thinking: How to Go from 140 PPt Slides to 2

What kind of motivation does a trainer need to liberate herself from an unweildly PowerPoint slide set? What about the above - might that work for you too?

Last Wednesday in London I delivered a systems thinking module for LEAD Europe Cohort 14 (I was the Director of Capacity Development at LEAD International for 6 years). For several years at LEAD I delivered a systems thinking training module that had 5 heavy PPt files which contained over 140 PPt slides. People generally liked the module, and it was always a bit of a marathon and rather overwhelming even in its one day version.

Last week I delivered the module with the same learning objectives (common archetypes, goal setting, Behaviour Over Time graphing/Reference Mode diagramming, and introduction to Causal Loop diagrams), in half the time, and with only 2 PPt slides! Even with this incredible dematerialisation (literally and figuratively), people found the module incredibly useful and perhaps even more deeply so.

What could get me to break my dependence on that pile of carefully crafted slides, and get me closer to the point in half the time?

I knew that in the amount of time we had (4 hours) there was simply no way I could run through those slide sets and do the exercises. So I decided to change the format, and have me be the medium for content delivery rather than the slide deck. As a result, people really got more of me, the trainer, as I went through the steps with them of the various games and exercises, helped them identify their own examples for application, and coached them as they tested the two diagramming tools on these examples. Because they were interacting with me instead of the slide set, I got more immediate feedback, which gave me more confidence in what I was delivering, which in turn helped me to resist hiding behind an enormous slide set.

Here are a few other practical things I did to reduce my need for slides:

  1. I wrote the schedule on a flip chart and used it for signposting and transitions, instead of slides. This was for myself as much as participants. I also wrote up the short hand of the overall sequence and narrative of the module and carried that around with me so I could make and remake the key points for people, and never lose the plot that was so carefully constructed in the slides.

  2. I learned the game briefings by heart and gave them orally with a physical demonstration to help people follow (rather than the rules on a slide and a picture of the action);

  3. I took out ALL the examples. As heretical as that sounds, it helped quickly contextualise the tools for this particular group, as they came up with stories related to their collective knowledge based on past discussions. For example, I gave people the archetypes (like "better before worse"), with a cartoon which illustrated each one, and asked people in pairs to come up with the examples of these archetypes from their discussions together that week, as well as from their own life and work. These were then used to breathe life into the generic structures (rather than my generic examples).

  4. My only 2 slides described the anatomy of the two diagramming tools, which I put up to talk through briefly. Then I took them down. I had photocopied these and put the tips on the back, (e.g. for selecting good variable names, or for assigning polarity on a CLD), and handed these out, so that they could be used as a reference when they drew their own diagrams.

Overall it was an exercise in getting to the essence of the learning. Deriving the most critical points, and having people do all their learning through application. It was such a success, I will probably never use those 140 slides again!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

My Point? To Be a "Story" There Must Be a Point

A week or so ago (time marker), I spent the day in London (place marker) with Shawn Callahan from Anecdote, an innovative storytelling group from Australia, in a full day learning session called "Storytelling for business leaders".

Let's say I wanted to tell you about my day. I could write down a list of things I learned, but that wouldn’t be a story. I could give you my opinion of the day, but that wouldn’t be a story either. If I was going to tell you a story about that day, I would need to start with a time, date or place marker, add an unanticipated event, and even more importantly, I would have to have a point - the reason for the story. (This might sound obvious, but if you think about it, how many so-called stories do you hear where the point is far from clear? )

Why do we need a point? In our workshop we talked about this. Stories aren’t just for entertainment; they give us a repertoire of captured patterns. And matching patterns (e.g. our past experience, with a new situation) can help us with decision-making (see Gary Klein on naturalistic decision-making). Having a strong point, not only helps your listener tag your story, but helps you do it too, so that it is easier to remember and therefore more meaningful, which makes it easier to use the information and learning in the future.

This point was made for me experientially by a sequence of activities that followed in the afternoon of our workshop. We were asked to craft and tell a story to a partner who would then reflect back to the storyteller what their story told them about that person. We told the first iteration of our stories. Then we were given some tips for improving our story – making it human, keeping it simple, using the unexpected, making it concrete and credible - and we saw some amazing YouTube video examples of storytelling, from Geena Davis at the Golden Globes to Obama "Fired up and ready to go" on the electoral trail. Then we were asked to work on and tell the same story again, better this time.

I worked on my story, based on a recent experience about learning from mistakes, tried to make it more concrete, and brought in some of the real life drama and emotion of the situation. Then I retold it. And in the feedback discussion the same thing happened – my partner told me as my previous partner had, that he enjoyed it, gave me plenty of reasons for liking it, and then asked me gently - what was my point?

Slightly crushed, I asked myself – what was my point? It's not enough to be an impressionistic storyteller - I had a general feeling of where I was going. But how do you get there? Do you need a point first and then find a story – or do you have a great story and massage it to make a point? Either way, I was clearly missing it. Even with an entertaining narrative. This is the real art of storytelling.

I need to go back and rework it; that story has potential, and must always remember to ask myself before I start to tell a story – what’s my point? I said that many storytellers we hear are rather unclear as to the purpose of their stories. I might have been one of those perpetrators in the past - are you? If so, help people learn more from you, and you from yourself, by upping your game in storytelling.