Exercises for overcoming resistance in your audience

A Couple of weeks ago I was MC at the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa’s Chapter meeting in Johannesburg. There were two speaking slots lined up.

The first speaker was knowledgeable and interactive, but was missing the mark with the audience. While certain individuals seemed to gain from it the overall feeling was of frustration and disappointment.

How did I know this? Because I know the value of voiced experience, I also asked for direct feedback during the tea break.

I knew that these feelings will cloud their experience of the second session and probably of the association in general. So, as the break ended and people settled back into the room (some displaying obvious body language of scepticism), I asked them to tear off a page from their note books and evaluate the speaker the just presented. They could write comments and make suggestions if they choose and it can be anonymous.

I also asked them to volunteer as speakers for future meetings on a separate piece of paper.

At the end of the second session (which was received far more positively) I asked them to comment on their experience of the evening with one word.

Among comments relating to the content of the second session, there were also comments like: I experienced ‘community’. ‘validation’ and ‘see you again’. Overall ratings showed that the meeting was a success in spite of the first speaker missing the mark.

Poles and pie charts

Allowing the audience to evaluate their experience using a pole or simple 5 point scale is a very effective way to let them voice mixed feelings. If you can make the pole or survey public, it  is even more effective. This is because the individual can immediately see where his or her experience fits in with everyone else’s. It is always useful: those who are in the majority feel validated, and thos in the minority can see their experience is different from the others which helps to relativise it. This is only true, of course, if the feedback is anonymous, else people feel put on the spot – this can hurt your message greatly.

But you do not necessary have to poll obvious positives or negatives. It is just as interesting and perhaps more fun to poll things that are neutral and related to your topic: : how many hours do you spend on social media, How many meetings do you attend in one week? Whatever you poll, it is always important to let people comment on where they place themselves, should they choose to. This brings out interesting mixed  feeling responses healthy for the audience and filled with things you can build your message on.

There are a number of great apps that allow people to poll there and then using their cell-phones. An experiential method is to let people create a physical continuum in the room by drawing a line through the centre of the room and asking people to stand on the continuum where they position themselves. Remember to ask if anyone would like to comment on their position. If the poll is really open ended, this creates much connection and debate.

Community Conversation

Peter Block, writer of Flawless Consulting and Community the Structure of Belonging, writes that one of the essential conversations (there are six of them) is the Dissent conversation about doubts and reservations. He explains that the mere question: What doubts and reservations arise for you around this issue? IS enough to help people overcome their doubts. Just like talking about what things in a consulting relationship may cause distrust can build  trust.

“ If you can’t say no, your yes has no meaning.” Peter Block

Give people a chance to express their doubts and reservations, as a way of clarifying their roles, needs and yearnings within the vision and mission. Genuine commitment begins with doubt, and no is an expression of people finding their space and role in the strategy. Again, this is more effective if you can let them share in small groups or pairs before feeding back to big audience.

An Applied Improvisation  Exercise

A fun and very successful exercise is one we call ‘The Rant’.

Ask participants to pair up and sit in chairs facing each other. Tell them to think of something that really irritates them. Each participant then gets a chance to rant about this frustration for 2 minutes while their partner just listens. Tell them to fill the whole 2 minutes with their ranting. The listener’s task is to listen past the frustration for the underlying value that is really important to the speaker. After the 2 minutes are done the listener responds with the words “I hear you really care about…” The value that the listener listens for must be something positive. For example if the speaker rants about how she hates it when people are late, the listener shouldn’t say “I hear you really care about people not being late”. The right response could be “I hear you really care about respecting someone else’s time”.

For debriefing questions go to http://www.playingmantis.net/the-rant/

Allow people to air their missed feelings about the ideas you propose and you build trust, connection and enthusiasm for your message.

Examples of exercises for making a strong beginning

Since we now know that the brain really likes it when you begin before you begin:

Here are some practical examples you can use for your workshop, conference or training course:

1. Presencing

Presence is essential when people participate, so a great way to get them from their life outside the room to be present and aware to the story in the room is a simple presencing exercise.  In pairs let them complete the sentence: ‘What I need to say to be fully present is…”. One participant completes the sentence and the other mirrors it back exactly, then they swop. When done ask them to share what was interesting about the exercise.  We often get answers like: ‘Hmmm, I think I am here now” or “ I thought I was the only one still distracted by my life outside”.

This exercise is an Improvsense exercise. Presence and awareness is a key aspect of Applied Improvisation and the ability to be innovative as a group. We use this very effectively even when simply starting any old meeting.

2. Word clouds

If you do not have picture posters like Ross Kidd, simply write key concepts that relate to your material on news print: one concept per page. As people enter the room give them a marker and ask them to write words that they associate with the first word on the page. Let them create word clouds. When finished ask them to discuss what they notice about the words and if they pick up any patterns. This can be shared in pairs first, then fours and then the whole group.

We use this very effectively in management training asking people to create word clouds around the concepts of ‘manage’, ‘supervise’ and ‘lead’. The last time I used this exercise one of the participants remarked: “Look, there does not seem to be a very big difference between managers and supervisors according to our clouds, but look at how different leaders are.” This became a key concept in our two day training which was titled: “How to turn managers and supervisors into extraordinary leaders”. When people discover something for themselves, it is far more effective than when they hear someone telling it to them.

3. Metaphors

In setting up the space before hand, set up 3 to 5 different tables with different kinds of objects on them such as plastic animals, post card size pictures, photo’s of well known public figures, popular song titles or an assortment of kitchen utencils. Make a sign for each table that is clearly visible from the entrance. As people come in ask them to choose a station. Once there they must pick one of the objects from the table that will help them complete the sentence: “As an organisation (replace with leader/team/any other role or entity applicable to your theme) we are like…”

When they have made their selection, they are asked to find three other people in the room (you can set up the chairs in small groups of four) and share with them what they chose and how their organisation (or whatever else fits the theme) is like the object you chose. WE have used this strategy with great effect in OD (organisation Development) interventions.

“Okay, so I begin before I begin, how now do I really begin?Claire asked. And please explain the double journey thing, I still battle to get my head around it.

Read the next post.

How do I make a strong beginning?

5.1 How do I make a strong beginning?

Story-Strategy, Act 2 Episode 5 – The Journey: Current Reality 2

Upon entering the room where the workshop on Participatory Methods for Learning and Research on HIV/Aids and Sexual & Reproductive Health was to take place, an unusual sight met my eyes. Instead of people straggling into the room and finding a seat either around tables, behind desks or even in a circle, they were forming clusters and clumps around posters and pages of news print on the walls, markers in hand.  Was I late? Did they start without me? As I was wondering, a student came up to me: “Good morning, while we wait for everyone to arrive, take a moment and look at the pictures and posters on the walls. On the news print below them, just record any thoughts or associations that come up for you in relation to the pictures. Here is a marker to document your ideas.”

The year was 2008 and I was attending the first Drama for Life Conference at WITS University. The facilitator of the workshop was Ross Kidd. It was the first time I learned the value of beginning a workshop before it begins. The pictures on the walls were of gender stereo types and people’s typical reactions towards HIV. By recording our own thoughts as we looked at the pictures, we were all given an opportunity to become aware of our own positioning in relation to the story in the room as depicted by the title of the workshop. Before Ross Kidd had opened his mouth, we all had formed an opinion and had a story of our own to contribute.

Even if you did not want to be as highly participative as this, it is essential that you help delegates become present to the current reality regarding the story in the room. Most traditional speakers choose to do it by telling a story, raising a case study or citing some research results. However you chose to do it, step one of Story-Strategy is:

Sketch a picture of the current reality

(Once upon a time there was someone, somewhere in a certain fix). 

Every story begins with someone (character) somewhere (scene) in a certain fix (plot). Some examples: Little Red Riding Hood at the edge of the forest, wearing the same hood every day. Brave Heart in a particular time in history with his tribe getting murdered by the English. Harry Potter is in Privet Drive being mistreated by his family. The Game of Thrones begin with a young lord on the other side of The Wall (a monstrous wall of ice that marked the edge of the seven kingdoms) killed by walking dead…

In each case the scene is set in such a way that the reader, watcher or listener (from here on the audience) identifies with the plight of the character so as to be drawn into the story.

  • How do you acknowledge the current reality and the pain of your audience regarding the story in the room?
  • How do you help them acknowledge where they are?
  • How accurately do you sketch that current reality?
  • How deeply can you empathize with them?

If you remember the SHIFT model, you will know that telling them is not as effective as letting them tell you. Creative participation is essential so that people can connect their own stories to the story in the room. Yet, there are many ways to do this. It begins before the talk, workshop, or conference really begins. From the moment delegates arrive, it is the beverages you serve, the way you let them register, the conference pack or learning material you hand them, the way you set up the room and the way you as facilitator or trainer greet them at the door or from the platform.

The Double Journey

This is because there are two cycles of Story-Strategy – there is a ‘double journey’ at stake. First people must be drawn from outside the room to inside: not just physically, but also with their attention and emotion. Secondly, once willing to be ‘here’ they must be drawn from their current understanding of the issue in the room to a new perspective. First they cross a physical threshold from their everyday existence filled with partners, colleagues, kids, traffic and unanswered emails into the learning space. Then they must cross the threshold from their current understanding of the learning content e.g. customer service, leadership or Learning and Research on HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health, to a fresh perspective i.e. the one that you as speaker, facilitator or trainer want to convey.

In the example above Ross Kidd did not have to pay much attention to the first threshold because we were already in conference mode, but the conference designers themselves sure had to do it. I remember a carefully planned foyer space with musicians setting a tone, and a clearly themed conference pack. I also remember Warren Nebe starting the conference with a story about Blue Beard, immediately capturing attention and focussing it on the theme of the conference: African Research in Applied Drama and Theatre. He was establishing current reality by asking us to identify the role we see ourselves playing using examples from the story: Are we the naïve one driven by instincts to open the forbidden door? Do we find ourselves overwhelmed and surrounded by bloodied bodies? Are we dealing with the old folk hiding the past?

More examples will follow in future posts. For now, just remember:

Begin before you begin