How to avoid dropping the energy in the room

2014_CONV_logo_opt3The Role of the MC

This week I am preparing for the Professional Speaker’s Association of Southern Africa’s annual convention themed ‘Walking our Talk’.

I will be one of the MC’s for the Saturday 12 March together with Dineshrie Pillay and Siphiwe Moyo. My job is to help the participants digest some of the input so they are less overwhelmed. Our experience of past conventions were that it is like drinking from a fire hose: it is a fabulously exhilarating experience, yet very little goes in and so much is wasted. It happens, of course, because every single talk is delivered by a high energy, well seasoned professional speaker.

what to do?

Our solution was to create five moments of pause dotted throughout the programme so that people can move around and reflect on how their bodies, feelings and thoughts are responding to the input. As I described the intention at a meeting between all the MC’s and convener, the audio-visual wiz (also a professional speaker, Robin Pullen)  asked a very good question:

Wouldn’t reflective exercises cause the energy in the room to drop??

What a great question. It really made me think, thanks Robin. Here is my response:

There are more than just ‘up’ and ‘down’ energy in a room full of people. There is also ‘in’ and ‘out’ energy.

If ‘up’ energy is when people feel enthusiastic and motivated and eager, and ‘down’ energy is when people feel lethargic, slow and unresponsive, surly you want more of the first kind and less of the second. Now consider ‘in’ and ‘out’ energy.

‘Out’ energy would be the kind of energy that the speakers are exuding. They are speaking out gesturing outward and pouring their passion out as gift to the audience. The audience receives this with enthusiasm and energy until they are full. Now where does that energy go? It is washing past them and getting wasted – it is being dropped.

What if we could turn some of that energy inward?

In this way an audience member can begin to nourish his or her own thoughts and ideas with it, begin to manage it and put it away safely for absorption. This will mean they are already channelling some of the energy and making room for more input, helping to keep the energy buoyant.

I believe firmly that unless an audience member is able to connect the story in the room with his or her own story, the whole event and experience will remain locked in time for them when they go home. Sure, they will have a notebook full of stuff to use and do, but how much of it will they really implement?

My job at this convention will be to facilitate moments of intensified energy: energy being focussed inward to serve and nourish the work and life of each audience member.

So how do you avoid dropping the energy in the room?

By managing it’s flow in and out like breathing.

 

Why a ‘just fine’ facilitation is not good enough – and how to get it unstuck

Photo of solitary confinement cell door

Stories teach us about five types of resistance that a storyteller must take the main character through in order for him or her to transform. If you want to turn a frog into a prince, and not just dress the frog up in princely garb, you must guide that frog through. And your strongest ally in this journey is information. People need information – five types of information, matching the five types of resistance:

  1. Personal Resistance – Why me? How is this relevant to me?
  2. Relational Resistance – Why you? Why would you know how to help me?
  3. Social Resistance – Who is in this with me? Do I belong with them and they with me?
  4. Practical Resistance – How is this going to work? What is the process and the strategy?
  5. Cosmic Resistance – What happens when things don’t work out as planned? If it or I fail?

When you are the speaker, facilitator or coach, you are the story weaver and your client or audience is the princely frog.

I spoke this morning at the Knowledge Resources Organisational Development Conference about these five types of resistance. I devised an ingenious interactive process to illustrate it and cleverly used Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape as metaphors for breaking through (or out of) the prison of resistance.

But it bombed.

No, it did not bomb, it actually went just fine, but it did not wow the way I dreamed it would (being so clever and all). ‘Just fine’ is just not good enough.

Why did it not work?

At first I thought it was because I failed to get two thirds of the audience over the first kind of resistance.

The plan was for the whole group to get up and act the part of someone who had been in solitary confinement for two months and then gets released. One third of them were ready to do so immediately. The idea was that, by the end of it all, most of them would be willing to do it. But, it was mostly the same group doing it by the end. Yet I tried it the day before with another group and it worked like a charm.

What went wrong on Wednesday?

I know that personal resistance has two aspects. I worked them through the first aspect, but not the second.

The question: “Is this for me” has two sides: first it relates to my personality i.e. “am I the type of person who would get up and act out anything?” But the second part of it has to do with the relevance of this to me: “Is this relevant to who I am and where I am at in my life?” This latter question is the one I did not make room for, and therefore two thirds of the people did not come with me on the journey.

How did I miss this?

Firstly, the answer lies in how a story begins. No story starts with the hero at the first point of resistance. It starts with the hero somewhere in a situation of stuckness. In the midst of that stuckness, whether or not they are aware of this ‘prison’, they receive the Call to Change. Only then can they resist this call.

As the story weaver, I needed to ‘get’ the nature of this stuckness so that I can fashion an appropriate Call. Usually I take quite a bit of time to understand where the audience is at, and to let them voice their perspectives on their situation. Unfortunately, I did not have time to do this as part of the talk and I could not mingle with them enough beforehand. I also think that, unconsciously, I thought I knew where they were. I did not.

Secondly, I know that the moment of cosmic resistance is usually such that, if any of the other resistances were not overcome by the time you get to it, they will surface and you can loop back and deal with them. My time was up, though, and I could not address them. This idea is supported by the fact that one participant said: “I could not get up and play the role as asked, even though I was ready to jump up and do it when you first suggested it, because the details of the story (the rape and the pain in the prison) upset me and it is unresolved.”

I wish with all my heart, dear participant, that I had the time to explore this with you. I am sorry to have opened it up without the opportunity to loop back and accompany you through it a second time – you and anyone else who needed it.

But this was not the whole story.

Really it comes down to simple group dynamics (if group dynamics were ever simple). I talked with a delegate the next day about the presentation. Of course he told me it was wonderful. Then I asked him why it was so difficult to get them moving? He agreed that it seemed like a tough crowd, but then simply said: “These guys are all strangers to each other: and it is a large group of strangers. They just needed more time to warm up. Also, it took me a while to remember the Shawshank story. I’m one of those people who forget detail.”

And that means that, in spite of my efforts, resistance number 3, Social Resistance, could not be broken with no warming up and in the short time I had. It also means that I needed to spend more time on establishing the shared reality: the Shawshank story.

What did I learn for next time?

  1. I will never again assume I know where people are. It’s odd, I have learned this lesson so many times and still unconsciously made assumptions. So the word ‘never’ is an intention, but I may step in the trap again. To help me, I will remember to take time before a talk to speak to people and ask them about their current challenges.
  2. I will not accept only 30 minutes of time for such a talk, especially if it is the first talk of the day and there is not time before hand to talk to folks. I need at least 60 minutes so that I can talk to folks, tell the story. And later on, get the feedback from the group and loop back if needed.
  3. I will not rely on PowerPoint to set the scene, but play to my strengths which is facilitation and conversation rather than information transmission. I so badly wanted to show my clever pictures and get through my slides that I could not work with the group where they were. If ever I use PowerPoint, it must be embedded in a facilitation process and not the other way around.

Where did this last point come from?

I noticed a pattern that, of the three bombed keynotes I did over the last five years, all of them had in common that :

  • It was based on a set of slides. In each case I worked on the slides till late the previous night, so they weren’t seasoned and embedded into my talk yet.
  • Also, I noticed that all three occasions was for an audience larger than 30, I do not know yet what that means… But I will watch and reflect and keep learning.

So, why should 65 OD practitioners need to get up and act like Tim Robins in the role of Andy Dufresne?

How entrenched in, or ‘confined’ by, their current way of doing are the people in your organisation? How harsh would they experience the new ideas that you want to introduce? Do you truly get their current reality? What can you do to guide them out of their solitary confinement safely and yet firmly so that they, like Andy, can own their actions and so be truly transformed?

Post image from Wikimedia Commons

Making friends in Jozi (Johannesburg)

Imagine a 40 year old white woman on the side of Republic Road trying to hail a minibus taxi. Not too much of a stretch? Now imagine that this same woman just moved to Jo’burg. She does not know which taxi sign to use to indicate that she wants to go to Randburg, she does not know where to stand exactly so that the taxi expects that she may want a ride and finally, she only has about 40% vision, so she cannot really distinguish a taxi from a four by four family car. How likely is it that she will be able to get a taxi to stop?

Yet, there I was, hailing every token blonde mommy with her 2 darlings in her 4 X 4 hoping against hope… It did not work. I corner the first likely guy (young black guy walking purposefully down the street) and ask him to help. He teaches me about the downward pointing finger to show I want to go to Randburg, he tells me to wait just past the corner after the robot, which is where the taxi might expect me and he walks on. Yet 2 taxi’s drive by without picking me up. I look up and my helper is back.

“No, no, no, they are all showing you that they are full”, I will help.

As we wait, he tells me that he is a cleaner at Cresta and is walking home after his shift ended at 8am this morning. I tell him that I do not see well and that I am new to Jo’burg, having just moved here from the Cape. The taxi comes and as I get in he says: “here is my cell number, tomorrow you call me and tell me where you are , then I will explain the sighns to you. You now have a friend in Jozi”.

I am still smiling touched by this man’s generosity of spirit when my taxi pulls into the road with gusto exactly in the fashion that most irritates my husband when he is behind a taxi. “Don’t they look before they turn into the road?” I can hear him saying.  Behind my taxi a 4 X 4 family van swerves out of the way and honks loudly. The taxi driver honks back, leans over to me and says: “It must be a friend”.

“Everyone in Jozi is a friend it seems”, I muse to muself.

Eight months later and I am travelling a different route in a different taxi. I am now a seasoned traveller and far less confused. This time I am on my way from Empire Road via Emmerentia back to Randburg to take a taxi there to Nicolway to meet my husband. I have an hour to make the trip, but my cell phone is flat (yes, bad planning on my part, but for some reason I let it happen to me often). I seem to be the only passenger in the mini bus taxi – they usually do their best to be a full as possible.

‘You came just for me today’, I joke with the driver and get in.

He grunts shyly.

We are well on our way when he leans back and explains to me that we are taking a detour because there is a traffic cop ahead of us.

A part of me thinks like my indoctrinated white heritage demands: “what does the driver want to hide? These cabs are never properly roadworthy – trash cans on wheels the lot of them”. But I check that voice and ask: “Why is that a problem?”

“It’s weekend and he wants extra money.”

I deduce the rest of the explanation: He will pull us over for nothing and make us pay.

“Okay”, I say and smile. Five minutes later we were still trying to get back on the original route, but as Jo’burg roads go, we have turned to many times in the wrong direction and now we are lost.

I imagine that the driver knows his own route well, but doesn’t explore much off it. He has no idea where we are and how to get back. I look at my watch… The driver is stressing markedly and he feels embarrassed on top of that. Also, he has no way of filling his cab if he is on the wrong roads. Al this I gather from his body language, because, shy as he is, he does not talk to me much.

Don’t worry, i say, “ask someone for directions, everyone in Jo’burg is a friend.” He looks at me doubtfully, but finally slows down to call to a guy walking on the opposite side of the road. They converse in their mix of isiZulu and other languages and the guy comes over, jumps into the cab and starts pointing.

A few minutes later the taxi stops, the guy jumps off and the driver smiles at me: “I am right now.”

“See, everyone in Jozi is a friend”, I say.

My shy driver says nothing, but his hooter is happily honking away calling for more passengers. Soon we fill up and reach Randburg. I ask my driver the sign for Bryonstone  and I change taxi’s.

But the day is not done. The driver I hailed asks me where I am going and when I tell him he shakes his head: “No, you used the wrong sign, we are going to Sandton not Bryonstone. But we will drop you where you can get the right one.” The clock is ticking. Still, I may be lucky to make a quick transfer. At least they are friendly enough to set me on the right way.

They go on honking and smiling picking up more people. Then, after a while: “We changed our minds, we are taking you to Bryonstone.”

I shake my head: everyone in Jozi is a friend – except perhaps the husband now fuming and fretting because I am 15 min late, unreachable via cell phone and he knows I am travelling these @#$%ing taxi’s.

My Afrikaner identity

Let’s talk about adultery.

At a theatre workshop after introducing ourselves, we were asked to complete he sentence “I am…”  Someone said, “I am gay”, another “I am black”, still another I am “Christian”.  And me?  The best I could come up with was “I am Petro” (ny first name).  Yes I am heterosexual, female, white, Afrikaans, 32, a mother and visually disabled.  Yet, none of these things overpower the others to the extent that I could pick it as a primary identity classification.  The question annoyed me so that even now, years later I still feel my heart rate going up as I write about it.  Why this emotional reaction?  How then do I know myself and describe or live that self?  Why does my blood want to boil at a simple question of identity?

Be warned that what I say here is not new, or academically sound or even completely logical.  It is a rambling about my thoughts on the issue of identity.  I will start at one end and see where that leads me.  I am Afrikaans.  Other members of ‘die volk’ will say:  “I am an Afrikaner”, but personally I think that term is so politically loaded that I prefer simply saying I am Afrikaans.  Yet, for me, being Afrikaans is much more that speaking a particular language.  But, the ‘much more’ can not be defined in terms of something in itself, rather, it becomes meaningful as I live my life among non-Afrikaans speakers.  Among the liberal English academics where I work, I have learnt that I am more to the point than they are in meetings and discussions, yet, I am more blunt and unsophisticated in the way I relate to people on a personal level.  Yet, compared to my Afrikaans husband, I am very “English” in the way I try to be diplomatic and beat about the bush.  Truth be told, my darling man has been described as a real “Dutchman”.  The English folk who said this were ashamed of the derogatory nature of the term, yet I thought they were right.  He can be down right pigheaded and untactful in a way only an Afrikaans man (and maybe a Dutchman?) can..

Becoming the mother of a little boy also brought back a deep sense of what it means to be Afrikaans.  There is a reason why one’s first language is called your “mother tongue”.  I want my son to learn both English and Afrikaans, yet there is no way I could relate to him in any other language than my first.  I am often asked if I speak to him in English as well, and my answer is always the same.:  “only when there are English speaking people around.”  I think it is bad manners to speak in a language people do not understand in their presence.  But I feel insincere and false if I try to speak to him in English.  This is true even in situations where English people are around and so I often find myself breaking my own rule of speaking to him in English then.  What is it about this mother tongue thing?

Embedded in a language, I am sure, is the history of all who contributed to the formation of that language.  With the history come a value system and a certain perspective on the universe that cannot be transferred in another way as through the language.  Yet, after talking so much about the beauty and the deep connection I have to my mother tongue and how it goes beyond language in more ways than one, there is a major glitch. When I am with other Afrikaans speaking people, I discover how different I am from them.  When I am with my in-laws other parts of my identity become highlighted, such as my political persuasion.  I will never be comfortable in the company of people who talk about the old South Africa as though it was heaven on earth.  I will never again be comfortable in a Dutch reform church and as for “rys, vleis en aartapples” (rice, meat and potatoes) which is supposed to be a truly Afrikaans way of eating… I prefer a mix of all and everything that I find to be interesting, healthy or affordable at the time.

Since I have had my son, though, I have never felt more at home with them.  We agree on what manners he should learn, what stories he should be read and told and what songs we would like him to know.  We disagree on one issue and that is:  they find it very disturbing that we are on first name basis with him and that he does not know us as “mamma” and  “pappa”.  Of course, there are many of our English speaking friends that don’t get it either. We feel the same as with the question of identity.  Neither myself, nor my husband want our son to know us only in the role of parent.  We want him to know us as whole people.  No other term like our names can communicate the unique combination of identities that run through each of us.

We are all located on an intersection between many possible identities. These are in flux and they shift in importance from time to time, Sometimes you are with people who have a similar combination of identities to you, and you feel like you belong. Other times, often with the same group of people, you may find that one or more of the other identities feel left out.  We are always at home and lost at the same time.  Depending on what the conversation is about, or where you are in space or time and who you are with you may find your home, but it may only last for a moment or a while before you are at odds again.

In order to avoid the flux and the feeling of ‘being at odds’ we are often tempted into committing to just one of the identities. This means, instead of loving the one and only me, the unique combination of selves that is Petro, or James or Siphiwe, we look for love in a purer ideal demarcated by as few words as possible like ‘gay man’ or ‘jewish girl’. In my view, that amounts to adultery: loving some other ideal person that is not full of faults and history and memory and shade.  So here is the reason for my anger at the question of identity:  there is nothing that brings the blood of a good Calvinist, white Afrikaner to the boil like adultery..

 

Stereo types come from somewhere

I love to thwart stereotypes. When I ride my bicycle into Stellenbosch kitted out from head to foot in corporate gear complete with high heels, while all the other cyclists are heading out of town kitted out in helmets, gloves, tight padded shorts, water bottles and cycling glasses, I get a kick.

On this day, though, it would not be me who broke the stereotype.

As I often do, I drove down to the train station on my bike and chained it inside the station to the outer fence visible from the road, but safe inside. I boarded the train to Cape Town. It was mid morning and somewhat quieter than in early morning rush hour so I checked to see if I would be alone in the first class carriage or not.  To be safe, I get onto the third class carriage.

Even though I had never been mugged in the 5 years of train travel, there is a risk to a lonely carriage.  In third class are always lots of people, but this time of day it is not so sweaty and crowded as during rush hour. Here I break another stereotype usually being the only white woman in the crowd. This often causes motherly coloured ladies to watch over me and warn me to hold my bag close and keep my phone hidden. They make it safe for me here – there are far more people who care than people who don’t. I smile to the folks around me and listen to Daniel Pinks latest book on my ipod shuffle pinned to my collar underneath my jacket.

An hour and 10 min later, I meet a co-speaker friend of mine at the Cape Town station. Together we drive to our meeting in the 4 star lodge selected for its elegance and private boardroom. As we drive, I relish in the idea that I can straddle the two worlds of 3rd class travel and 4 star luxury this way. It makes me feel alive – even though I sometimes curse the late trains and the inconvenience of not being taken to the door of where I want to be.

After our meeting my friend colleague informs me that he will take me all the way home to Stellenbosh – he does not want me to take the train. This has happened before. People think the trains are less safe than their cars, but in truth, the trains are less familiar and one has less control over them. To me they are familiar enough and I have relinquished my control – or rather – I had never had control over my own transport, so I do not miss it.

I appreciate it very much, I say, but please understand that I am happy to travel by train and used to it. And, I think to myself “it leaves me feeling less dependent and indebted to you.” But I keep my thoughts to myself.

He insists and we leave. “You realise”, I try once more, “this will take you the better part of 2 precious hours”.

“If I was your husband and I knew a friend could have brought you home, I would expect that friend to do so.” I smile and think “Tell yourself whatever you have to, but my husband has made peace with the way I travel, otherwise it will take over his life. We both value my independence.”

On the way I tell him about a new client that wants me to work with their bottom level employees. Absenteeism and lack of motivation is writhe. They also feel entitled to all sorts of benefits, but are not willing to put in the hours.

“I don’t touch that level of employee”, he tells me, “it is too difficult to have an impact there.  I don’t think you can change anything on that level, the problems are too complex and ingrained in societal forces.”

“Wow, I would think these guys would have the most to benefit – call me an idealist, but who will spend time motivating them and really listening to their dreams and ideals?”

“No, I don’t touch them.”

We draw close to Stellenbosch and I ask him to please take me to the train station because that is where I left my bicycle. I secretly wish he could just take me straight home. The train ride does not u irk me, it is the long way home uphill at the end of a tiring day, but there is no way out. I shouldn’t leave my bike there overnight, its not safe and there is no room in his car for it (a luxury sedan is no pick-up truck). We are near the station now and we see a guy on a bike.

“We will see my bicycle from the street inside when we stop, unless that is my bike over there” and I point to the guy on the bike driving away.

He laughs and I smirk at the thought. Jokes like this one is only possible because of the stereotypical idea that the people who travel by train are the same people who would steal a bike if they get a chance.  Yes, we both know it could easily have been my bike – stereotypes come from somewhere.

We find my bike where I left it inside the station, but visible from the road.  My friend says he will wait to make sure everything is ok. I can understand his concern: where my bicycle stands a group of workers, or commuters have made themselves at home in a clump on the ground. They are laughing and talking and playing dice – a ruckus bunch of workers waiting to go home. It is the type of group you could find on a street corner congregating on their way from work, or having a smoke and a drink before heading home – but they were ‘not our people’.

For a moment I think of the time I found my bike with the saddle loosened and almost removed – one guy in a group like that can easily fiddle with the bike to see if he can take it apart or remove a piece to sell somewhere. Yet, I choose to  travel on trust not suspicion.

I walk in among the crowd of men. “good evening guys, thanks for looking after my bike.”

“No problem , Madam, no problem.”

I step over legs and make my way through the gazes. As I unlock the chain the front wheel twists and the bike falls over. Immediately there is a guy at hand to help it up again.

“Thanks”.

“No problem , Madam, no problem.”

I smile over at my friend in his car, but cannot see his face. I am so proud of myself. I steer carefully through the group and they make way. I go around and out. I am back on the other side of the fence and my group of bike guards are still watching me as I get ready to mount the saddle and leave, but one of them had followed me outside.

“On no,” I think to myself “here it comes. He is going to ask me for money or net ‘n stukkie brood, Mies (just a small piece of bread Ma’am.” I look up and smile at him, ready to do my usual head shake and disappointed expression. (I am not so proud of myself as I write this. Where is my trust now? Yet, stereotypes come from somewhere.  I look at my friend mournfully: his own misgivings will become justified…

“what do you want?” say my face.

“No problem , Madam, no problem. Just remember to put your pant leg inside your sock so it doesn’t catch in the chain.”

He smiles and waves as I leave.

I smile and wave at my friend. But I cannot see his face.

 

 

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

 

What are the components of Story-Strategy?

What are the components of Story-Strategy?

Story-Strategy Act 2 Episode 4 continue – The Magic Weapon

Story-Strategy is the big picture sequential design and the poignant delivery of messages and events that take people from where they are to where they could be.

Every good story-strategy, like every good story, has a well designed beginning, middle and end. Each of these three can be divided into three more sections so that your beginning leaves no-one behind, your middle keeps everyone riveted and your end leaves them changed forever.

Here are the components of each:

Beginning

1. Sketching a picture of the current reality (Once upon a time there was someone, somewhere in a certain fix).

At the beginning of Cinderella we find her in the ashes dominated by an evil stepmother and two spoilt step sisters.

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 and how deeply can you empathize with them?

2. Issuing a Call to Adventure that opens up new possibilities   (then one day something unusual happens).

Cinderella and her sisters get an invitation to the prince’s ball…

What new opportunity or possibilities do you/your material or programme open up? How do you communicate these possibilities? How do you allow your audience to begin dreaming a new dream?

3. Making room for debate and doubts (But there are obstacles and questions)

Yet, Cindy cannot see her way open to attend: she will exhaust her time and energy in helping her sisters get ready and anyway, she does not have a dress…

Neuroscience dictates that anything new brings about mixed feelings of excitement and fear along with actual obstacles that could hold you back.

How do you make room for these mixed emotions that relate to the new possibilities you are opening up? How do we allow for a conversation on the doubts/reservations people may have? How do we make room for them to identify obstacles and debate pros and cons?

The middle

4. Preparing for the journey (Because of this characters receive magic weapons, a clear plan and a mentor that help to bring safety and build confidence)

 

The fairy godmother appears with her magic to make a plan and send Cindy on her way. She proves her point by giving her a coach, horses, coachman and a dress.

What specific model, plan or strategy do you offer to guide participants through? Whose plan or strategy is it and why should it be trusted? Do you give a quick overview or big picture perspective before delving into detail? Can you give a short example or story that brings it home?

5.  The Journey itself (Tests and trials along the way, meeting friends and enemies)

At the ball Cindy meets her Prince and dances all night and deeply connects with each other. She plays at being royal, pretty and rich, but forgets to watch the time. When she flees the scene as the clock strikes, all seems lost…

What are the key tasks and who is the tribe that typify the journey to the new reality? How do we structure the steps/processes of the solution? How do we help people practice new skills increasing the level of difficulty?  How do we build relationship in the tribe that travels together?

6. Rewarding valiant effort (Finally there is a breakthrough and characters receive short term benefit).

The prince rushes after her and there on the steps he discovers her glass slipper and with it the promise of finding her again.

How do we celebrate breakthroughs and frame insights? How do we reward participation and risks people take in reaching into unfamiliar territory? Neuroscience again shows how people are motivated by a sense of reward. This can be given in the form of a feeling of accomplishment, of being appreciated by others, or of receiving input that is relevant and applicable to them personally.

The ending

7. Return (With new found insight characters return to their world to apply it)

While Cindy is back in squalor, the prince (as representation of her other half) now return to the village to look for her, trying to fit the slipper on every possible girl that seems likely.

What strategy or structure do you use to help people apply your model or new ideas to their personal contexts? How do you help them not just see its possible use, but actually try it out? Can you come up with a simulation that help you do this?

8. Commitment and sacrifice (After trying new ideas in practical contexts, the characters discover that they will need to sacrifice something of their old life to make room for a new commitment)

When the prince finds her, he must let go of his expectation of a ‘likely’ candidate and accept that his queen might be a serving girl…

How do you call them to commitment in adopting the new ideas and behaviours? How do you inspire them to let go of old patterns that may interfere with the shift they want to achieve?

9. Integrating new ideas to form a new current reality (Now everyday characters live in a new state different from before, but stable and integrated)

As the prince slips the glass shoe onto Cindy’s foot, poor and rich merge, servant and queen become one…

What first steps, tools and support structures do they leave with for integrating new ideas and actions into their everyday lives? How fully can we, as journey guides, ‘die’ so that we are not needed when people are back in their everyday lives.

And they live happily ever after.

Story Secrets for Speakers #5 – Who is in this with me?

If you have overcome personal resistance, relational resistance and practical resistance, you are now ready to tackle social resistance. Every person in your audience wants to know: if I do this thing you suggest, or believe this idea you promote – who is in it with me? In essence the question is: what tribe do I become part of? In the Lord of the Rings Frodo has learned that 1. He is chosen (Story Secret #2) he has learned that he can trust Gandalf  (Story Secret #3) and he has heard the plan (Story Secret #4). Now he trembles as he almost accepts his duty…”So I must go to Mordor and deliver this ring into the fires that created it. And I must go alone…” But Gandalf surprises him. The wizard gets up, opens the door and brings in Samwise who had been eavesdropping the entire time. Neither Samwise nor Frodo can believe their good fortune when Gandalf informs them that Samwise must accompany Frodo. Sam is thrilled because of the promise of adventure, Frodo is thrilled because he would not be alone. Samwise becomes Frodo’s loyal companion and it is thanks to him that Frodo finally manages to achieve the objective. We all need loyal support when we accept a new idea, try out a new habit or open up to a new perspective. But there are other social forces too that are needed to make sure we succeed. I will share six of them with you here. Note though, that they work together in pairs. 1. The Sidekick and the Sceptic Samwise is an example of the Sidekick – someone usually in the same peer group as the hero (the hero is of course your audience member). Can you tell a story or produce a testimonial from someone like them who has bought and used your idea/behaviour perspective successfully? Find someone that your audience knows and can relate to. I have seen many a speaker who draws on the approval of one of the audience members to strengthen their case. “In the break I talked to (name) she agreed with me that…” Piglet is Winnie the Pooh’s sidekick: unquestioningly enthusiastic and positive. Yet opposite piglet sits Eeyore… Sceptics who end up buying your idea/habit/perspective give the best testimonials. “When I first heard about… I thought it would be too expensive to implement, too airy fairy/too time consuming, but, I am warming up to the idea.”  A sceptic’s voice is even more powerful when he/she is of a higher status than the general status of your audience: get their boss’s story of why he wanted to book you as speaker. Get the opinion of someone well known to the audience that endorses the idea you are putting forward. You can do this very successfully with quotes or stories. Always balance the positive energy of a piglet story or with an Eeyore story, else people will take it with a pinch of salt. 2. Emotion and Reason Your audience needs to know that their peers and superiors are already in the tribe they will join if they accept your ideas, but they also need to know that they will be both emotionally and mentally accepted into the fold. They need to feel good about joining and be able to satisfy their logic. If both Tigger and Owl support the idea, they will be likely to accept it too. Ever wondered why advertisements either use sex appeal or scientific proof to make their point? Your case is doubly stronger if you can do both. It is always a good idea to use either a celebrity or a professor’s quote or story to strengthen the idea. The trick is not to be too obvious, though. People can see through sales talk and they want to hear authentic stories. I have become weary of speakers who ‘namedrop’. It is not so important who you know, but who knows the ideas you are promoting. 3. The Guide and Contagonist  When all is said and done, you as the guide will be inviting the audience into your peer group. They need to like and  trust you and they need to know if you like and trust them. You as Guide face the opposite energy of the Contagonist. This is the person, or type of person, that will distract, tempt and confuse your audience. Your job is too also guide them through these possible misunderstandings, distortions and false solutions that may be hidden in the ideas you promote. Failing to do so will leave them vulnerable to failure, but will also leave you more open to criticism. Just like the Sceptic’s testimonial is often stronger than that of the Sidekick, your illumination of pitfalls and misunderstandings is more powerful than your praise singing. Stories of failure can build success and stories of doubt can build faith. For seven whole volumes Harry Potter distrusted and suspected Severus Snape, but after he heard his true story,  sadly a little too late, Harry named one of his own sons after him. For more on these archetypes google Dramatica.

Now just as you think you have covered it all and now it is plain sailing, everything goes wrong. This is when you need Story Secret 6

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Researcher, Speaker and Coach

Need a speaking coach? Contact Petro

Interested in a course in facilitation and coaching? Click here

Looking for a speaker or storyteller at your event? Contact Petro

Story secrets for Speakers #4 – Your Secret Weapon

Every speaker faces resistance. If you have done a good job of Painting a Picture of the Possibility , Story Secret #1, you can expect at least 5 types of resistance: personal, relational, practical, social and cosmic. Here we focus on the third kind: practical, also called contextual, resistance.

Apart from the personal and moral objections of Story Secret #2, and the doubts they may have about you as the mentor, Story Secret #3, there is a very real practical resistance. How will I do what you ask? What is the plan?  Will it work for me?

Whatever your solution is: 3 steps to losing weight, 5 principles for being an extraordinary leader, or Seven story secrets for speakers, your audience needs to know it will work for them.

Like Aslan in the Narnia series, Dumbledore for Harry Potter and Griet for Liewe Heksie, the guide in the hero’s story can cut to the chase and bring light to the befuddled mind of the main character. The magic weapon often come in the form of three (wishes), five (stones) or seven (dwarfs).  Finally, the guide provides very specific instructions for its successful use: before the clock strikes 12, only when used by an innocent child or only if you use the right words like ‘Open Sesame’.

1. It cuts through darkness

The magic weapon is often a blade of some kind, like Arthur’s Excalibur, or a light, like Aladdin’s lamp. Sometimes it is even both like Skywalker’s light sabre.  The blade or light symbolises its power to break through darkness or cut through the woods of uncertainty

Your solution  must cut through what the audience experiences as darkness. Clean up the myths and misunderstandings around personal tax returns, what diet to follow, or how people deal with fear.  Give them a torch to guide them through the woods.

Your solution must therefore be  simple to understand and easy to remember and yet show that it really gets the audience’s context and obstacles.

2. The power of three, five and seven.

The numbers 3, 5 and 7 each have an internal logic helping your audience grasp and remember it. Stories have used these numbers over and over again.

Think of 3 little pigs, 3 bears, 3 wishes, 3 days in the belly of the whale, or in the grave, 3 time frames (past, present and future), 3 elements (substance, liquid and gas).  The number 3 has an internal logic because it sets up a pattern. Often the first two are the similar and the third is special, a punchline. The older pigs make mistakes, but the third gets it right. Because of the power of 3, 9 also gains popularity: 3 main ideas with 3 sub ideas under each. The logic of 3 is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that speakers use it as often as possible.

Likewise 7 has made its mark: 7 dwarfs, 7 brides for 7 brothers, 7 days of creation and 7 days of the week and 7 holy sacraments. Speakers and writers  employ 7often:  Covey’s 7 Habits or Bruce  Wilkenson’s 7 Laws of a Learner. However, seven similar points can be difficult to remember while five is easier. So 7 items are often broken into 2 of one kind and 5 of another: 5 working days and 2 weekend days, 5 loaves and 2 fishes, or 5 types of resistance speakers face and 2 other secrets that frame the 5.

This is also how 5 gets its significance, although it hardly ever features by itself in stories and myths. . Remembering the 5 is made easier by the practicality of having 5 fingers on one hand. Many writers and speakers find acronyms with 5 letters to strengthen the internal logic of their ‘weapon’ or model:  David Rock’s SCARF model, or the SMART goal model.

3. Rules for correct usage

To ensure that the hero is successful in the use of the secret weapon, the mentor provides specific rules for its correct application. But if practicality was the only reason for specific rules, why make it so difficult: Get out of the Ball by the stroke of midnight… Why not let the magic go on forever? By restricting the use of the weapon, you also restrict the number of people who are able to be successful, making your audience become part of a selected, special group. This makes your model so much more desirable and your audience feel so much more like chosen ones (see Story Secret #2).

While your solution is simple, it is not necessarily easy to apply. It will take skill – but if your audience ‘buys’ it, they will then be open to further training in its use creating longer term clients for you – should that be part of your business model..

Now, think of Neo in ‘The Matrix’.  Remember how you as audience member discover that there is a chosen one who has a special gift and a destiny. Together with Neo you discover that he is the One, but you know it before he does and so the tension builds as you watch him get closer and closer to the discovery.  Then there is that moment when it all dawns on him and his entire life up to that point finally begins to make sense…   He is the chosen one, the one who fulfils the conditions of the prophesy, the one who can manipulate the matrix in a way no-one else can.

Imagine you can recreate that moment for your audience, where, suddenly, in the light of your insights or your model their whole experience around a certain subject suddenly makes sense.  If your conditions for use are such that your audience turns out to be exactly the right kind of people in the right kind of context to use it, you will ensure that their resistance on this level crumbles.

There are only 2 more types of resistance to address, so keep a look out for Story Secret  numbers 5 and number 6

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Researcher, Speaker and Coach

Need a speaking coach? Contact Petro

Interested in a course in facilitation and coaching? Click here

Looking for a speaker or storyteller at your event? Contact Petro

How can I increase the potential for shift to happen?

Story-Strategy, Act 1, Episode 2 continues  – Possibility

Lectures where info is simply transmitted, shows, like feel good motivational talks and games like paint ball and potjiekos competitions (team cook-ups), all lack one or both of the essential ingredients for programmes that maximise the potential for shifting your audience, team or workshop participants. These two essential ingredients are performance design and creative participation.

Learning design is the art of turning information into a carefully sequenced and well crafted learning experience. Here the content does not dictate the design, but rather how best to shape the content so that people buy it. Often story, pictures, audio visual stimuli like props and videos and interactive techniques are employed to unfold the material and enliven the presentation. Speakers, trainers and teachers who add this component to their material significantly increase the potential for shift to happen  since it creates more brain connections for participants drawing them into the ‘story in the room’ (content presented).

Creative participation is the art of creating structures that invite participants to contribute their ideas, thoughts and actions to the material. This kind of experiential process  allow participants to bring their own ingenuity to the conversation, and even discover tacit knowledge that they did not know they had. Programmes, talks and interventions that employ games, interactive processes, conversations  and liberating structures also greatly enhance the potential for shift since people are able to connect their own stories to the story in the room.

Old fashioned lectures are poor in both these aspects, shows are stronger in performance design, but lack creative participation and games have the latter, but not the former. For shift to occur, both are needed.

Story-Strategy is a learning design principle that uses the structure of story to design talks, workshops, conferences, and other organisational development interventions.  . Storytellers from the early ages until now have learned to frame and simplify the complexities and abstractions of human experience of change.. Understanding the dramatic  structure of change and developing an intuitive sense of its ebb and flow can greatly improve your ability to create conditions for shift to happen. Story-Strategy is, therefore, an understanding of the big picture of the sequence in which people can take and adapt to new information or behaviour

ImprovSense is a creative participation methodology that uses the principles of Improvisational theatre to foster a climate for creative collaboration and team innovation. Improvsense  is the ability to know when to listen and observe, when to take action and initiative and how to mix the two into a dance of intuitive sensing and responding.  It is the skill and art of improvising in the moment and trusting that the outcome is what it needs to be. These skills are essential for creative participation in finding solutions that individuals can own and use.

When you add Story-Strategy to a game, lives can be changed just like the game of soccer can transform kids when the learning of life skills are designed into the game.

Similarly, when you add ImprovSense to a show by letting the audience take part in the meaning making, you can shift whole communities just like some of the successful AIDS education programmes that combine theatre and educational workshops.

At Playing Mantis we find that story and improvisation are potent companions because they work well together and where they intercept shift is inevitable. This blog is devoted to Story-Strategy, but will refer to ImprovSense as and when needed, so you can have the benefit of both.

When you want to increase the potential for shift to happen, your ImprovSense halps you navigate your action in the moment while your Story-Strategy helps you retain perspective of the big picture. Between the two you create the conditions for shift in the lives of your team members, workshop participants, customers, employees, and, of course, yourself.