Tag Archives: events

The Starfish Story: one step towards changing the world

You may have heard this one, but I find that it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it every once in a while.  First let me tell you the story, and then we can talk about it. 

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. 

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)

 
We all have the opportunity to help create positive change, but if you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself thinking, “I’m already really busy, and how much of a difference can I really make?”  I think this is especially true when we’re talking about addressing massive social problems like tackling world hunger or finding a cure for cancer, but it pops up all of the time in our everyday lives, as well. So when I catch myself thinking that way, it helps to remember this story.  You might not be able to change the entire world, but at least you can change a small part of it, for someone. 

They say that one of the most common reasons we procrastinate is because we see the challenge before us as overwhelming, and that a good way to counter that is to break the big challenge down into smaller pieces and then take those one at a time–like one starfish at a time.  And to that one starfish, it can make a world of difference.

 

“A single, ordinary person still can make a difference – and single, ordinary people are doing precisely that every day.”
Chris Bohjalian, Vermont-based author and speaker


Strategies for Change: Bill McKibben on Using Events To Battle Climate Change

Lately I’ve been writing about how event planners can get even more impact out of their events by leveraging the resources at their disposal, in order to help create positive change.  This time I’m going to give you a prime example of how things can also work the other way around: anyone with a cause in mind can use events as a powerful tool for facilitating the change they’d like to see come about.

Bill McKibben lives down the road from me in Middlebury, Vermont.  Bill is the co-founder and global organizer of an organization called 350.org, which is focused like a laser beam on the challenges of global climate change. His latest book is Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet

One of Bill’s talents is that he is a very effective storyteller. And if you listen to what he’s saying, he’s actually a pretty scary guy.  (If you want to see what I mean, check out this Charlie Rose interview from last year.)   And that’s the point, of course.  Bill  and 350.org have built their overall strategy based on assembling groups of people and getting them engaged and empowered to take action to steer things in a more positive direction.  That’s a great example of using the power of events to create change.

I recently had a chance to chat with Bill about EventsForChange.  Here are some excerpts from my conversation with him:

As an activist, what part do live events play in your overall strategy for 350.org?

They’ve been at the heart of our strategy. In 2009 we coordinated 5,200 simultaneous rallies in 180 countries, and in 2010 7,400 in 189 countries. CNN called the effort “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history”.  Our emphasis is on very widespread and beautiful action, that we can then gather images of to make more than the sum of its parts.

 You have talked about the need to “build political will”.  Can you give a couple of best examples of how you have used events to educate, inspire and move people to action?

Well, when we did the earlier domestic version of this–called StepItUp, spring of 2007, we had 1,400 events in all 50 states.  And two days later both Obama and Clinton, then running for president, adopted our goal of 80% emission cuts. It was pretty neat.
 

 While planning 350.org events, how do you incorporate strategies for altering the perspective of people who are largely disinterested in the climate change issue?

Many people do that in their own communities. We don’t exactly plan the events–it’s more like a potluck supper. We set the date and the theme, and people come up with remarkable stuff in their own places. 

What role does storytelling play in the process of planning 350.org events?

It’s more in the aftermath. We tell the stories of these events constantly, in words and in pictures. 

What has proven to be the most challenging aspect of organizing events to support the mission of 350.org?

The globe is a big place.


Brain Rules: “Chunking” Your Event Into Small Bites – Engaging Event Series #3


Too much information, too little time.
 

You know it—this is certainly one of the biggest challenges for us as we navigate life in the early 21st century.  We have access to (and are bombarded with) a virtually endless stream of info, but with hopelessly limited time to sort through it, process it, reflect upon it and apply it to our own lives.  God knows we’ve been trying, though.  Some years back, USAToday reformatted newspapers (remember those?) so that you could quickly scan dozens of newsbriefs right from the front page—a model  that is imbedded into just about every Internet homepage today.  We shifted from spending much of our days on the phone to scanning our email, then to text messaging, and now lots of us are making do with exchanging ideas in 140 characters or less on Twitter. For bloggers, a rule of thumb suggested by some experts is to keep your posts to three paragraphs or so, to ensure that your readers won’t bail out at the sight of a lengthy article (apparently I’m taking a bit of a chance here!).  TED talks have driven speakers to condense their 1-hour presentations down to 18 minutes.  

This is not really a new concept, however.  It’s basically just another way of delivering more “bang for the buck”, only now it’s being applied to your investment of time and mental capacity.  And we’re gobbling it up, despite the fact that it can be stress-inducing.  Most likely it’s going to get worse; Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said “Today, more content is created in 48 hours than from the beginning of time until 2003.”  But if just reading this gets your heart beating a little faster, you should know that there is a silver lining in here: if managed properly, this need to limit the size of our information bursts may actually be better for our brains.

A few years ago I heard a Dartmouth professor named Chris Jernstedt speak about his research into how our brains work and learn.  It turns out that our natural attention span is shorter than you might think: the brain has a hard time processing more than 15 minutes of content at one stretch.  He introduced the concept of “chunking”, which refers to the fact that we process and remember information better when we group it into manageable units or chunks.  We have a finite capacity of short-term memory that can hold information in an active, readily available state, but when that memory bank is full, it starts pushing the oldest deposits out in order to make room for new information coming in. The only way we can keep from “losing” a lot of that information is if we use it right away—that’s what transfers the information into our long-term memory so we can go get it later.  We are much better at retaining new ideas and skills if given the chance to consider and try them out before our brain moves on to the next thing.


(fast forward to slide 17 to skip to the main ideas)

Problem is, a lot of the time this doesn’t happen.  And it’s one reason why we tend to tune out long, boring presentations that seem to go on and on, even if they are accompanied by zippy PowerPoint slides.  Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t explore a subject in depth; it just means that it will be more effective if we design an experience where the subject matter is broken up into bite-sized pieces that our brains can finish chewing on before we try to cram in another big fork-full of information.  It’s fine to schedule a 1-hour presentation or breakout session, as long as you “chunk” the material into several coherent segments and periodically give participants the opportunity for personal reflection and—ideally–interaction with others.

Here’s a quick summary of strategies for helping to make sure your program “sticks” with the participants:

  • Identify the most important information, concepts or skills to be delivered.  Leave out the fluff—you don’t need it. 
  • Break the program down into a series of manageable chunks.  Design 10- to 20-minute segments where you will introduce new information and then ask participants to use and apply it in some way.  
  • Build in time for participants to think about how they might relate the information that’s just been presented to their own business or personal lives.  Relevance is what makes it stick.
  • If you can swing it, conclude with an opportunity to reinforce key takeaways.  Refer back to your original goals for the session and, ideally give audience members the opportunity to share their own conclusions with others.

As a bonus, most people will experience this kind of program as being more engaging, more energizing and ultimately, more valuable.  So like Mom used to say, finish chewing your food before taking another bite.  That’s the best way to enjoy a big meal and, apparently, consuming information works pretty much the same way.


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