Tag Archives: Social change

Setting the stage for change: Getting your audience into creative learning mode

— The Engaging Event Series, #5 —

Today I feel like telling you about some overlapping ideas I’ve stumbled across from three very different people, who all happen to be brilliant, creative thinkers.  Each of these ideas has something to do with the challenge of helping people get into a mental and emotional space where they can most effectively absorb new information, brainstorm ideas, solve problems and develop creative solutions.  In other words, think differently.

Up first: Jeff Lieberman, host of the awesome Time Warp program on the Discovery Channel. Jeff says that creativity does not involve thinking; it involves attention–being in the moment. As he puts it, “Creativity comes from the moments we stop thinking.”  Here’s what Jeff has to say about the popularity of his TV show:

“The pieces that I developed in the arts and on the TV show created this feedback cycle where I noticed more and more that what I was working on was primarily engaging because of this initial sense of wonder it created. No matter what infor­mation you want to get across, this initial emotional reaction is necessary.” Simply put, this is what we mean by “getting their attention”.

Jeff says he noticed that people are only watching his show because in the first few seconds of each program, they see something that is totally foreign to them, and that opens them up. “When you’re in that receptive state, everything is different. When you’re in a state where you know that the things you are observing are outside of your realm of experience, you open yourself up to treat­ing things in new ways. It’s always about that initial three seconds, when you first engage this animal impulse of wonder and your audience is left speechless.” This is the true opposite of boredom—where we begin to “tune out” and, eventually, change the channel.  That’s the natural enemy of engagement and change.

I heard a similar message in a conversation I had recently with Russ Bennett, a designer, builder, sculptor, musician and social activist who lives just over the mountain from me in Waitsfield, Vermont.  Russ has done visual design and site layout work for most of Phish’s large extravaganzas as well as the incredibly successful Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee (a worthy focus for a future blog post on the power of events—stay tuned). Russ believes that when you create an experience with music or theater, your audience comes to you with an open mind—and if you associate an agenda, learning objective or cause with the experience, you can truly move people to change the way they think and ultimately the way they behave. In the case of a festival like Bonnaroo, the context of camping out with 80,000 strangers and sharing a vibrant, multi-sensory cultural experience takes people out of their normal day-to-day operating mode and opens them up to new experiences, as well as new ways of thinking about things. And evolving our thinking is the first step in improving our actions and results.  

Why is this so? I got some insight into this from a webinar I attended last month led by Andrea Sullivan, who runs a company called BrainStrength.  Andrea explained that “states of mind” are the emotional, cognitive and physical condition from which people are operating at any given moment. (In the events business, we might also think about states as “experiences”.)  The more of the brain that is activated by the immediate experience, the more your audience will become engaged.  Activating not only the mind, but also the body and multiple senses, will increase the impact.  Whenever your body is engaged, your brain is engaged and focused on that very moment, as opposed to thinking something that happened this morning or that needs to happen by tomorrow.   Again, as Jeff Lieberman says, creativity comes from the moments we stop thinking. 

The brain also responds powerfully to emotion.  So creating personal meaning for people—establishing relevance to their lives and the things that are important to them—can build an emotional connection that will support a change in thinking. Tapping people’s emotions helps them learn, by opening them up.  If you can create a context and activities that put people in such a state and then attach good feelings to it, you will be well on your way to getting your attendees into creative learning mode.

Of course, you don’t have to blow up a banana or build a campground for 80,000 people to accomplish this (although it certainly might help). These principles can work in any situation, with any size group–even with an audience of one.  But when you’re designing this initial experience, it’s generally not a bad idea to have fun and include some simple physical activity.  And if you can start out by creating that little sense of wonder–that intriguing idea, image or experience that falls outside of our normal experience–that will set the stage for receptivity and creative thinking. 

What are some innovative ways you have seen or done this yourself?  Feel free to add a comment below…

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“Are we making any difference?” Engaging Events Series, Episode 2

What can an event planner learn from a couple of physics professors? 

In his book What the best college teachers do,  Ken Bain tells the story of two physics professors at Arizona State University who wanted to find out if all of the time and effort they put into planning and delivering their courses was really making any difference in the way their students thought about things.  So they set up a very simple experiment: they would choose one fundamental physics concept and measure whether their physics course made a significant impact.  They decided to focus on the principles of “motion” and their students’ understanding of how motion actually works.  They pre-tested their students, did their normal 15-week semester gig and then re-tested everyone at the end.  And guess what? They found that, despite all of the time and effort expended by all, when it was all over their students thought about motion pretty much the same way as they did before they took the course. 

As a professional trainer and college professor myself, that story scared me half to death.  If you’re in the business of planning events, you should be, too.  Because it suggests that much–maybe even most–of the event experiences we create (and a classroom is definitely an event) may not be making much of a lasting impact and, if that’s the case, then we’re wasting a whole lot more of our time than we are aware of–not to mention forfeiting tremendous opportunities to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives while we have them gathered together. 

What can we do to help ensure we’re having an impact? Well, it appears that one key element of effective event experience design is a variation on the “less is more” rule: make sure you’re focusing on just a very few critical points or objectives—or maybe even just one.    Of course, this requires some consideration of what your most important outcomes are.  What do you want to be different once the event has concluded?  Which goals are must-haves, and which are just nice-to-haves?

Now back to that physics class: one lesson learned, according to Ken Bain, is that it’s better to focus on just two or three main concepts or competencies and hammer the hell out of them, and not worry so much about covering everything in detail.  Often the mistake we make is to try to cover too many bases at once, because we’re afraid of leaving out something important.   In the case of a college course, this can take the shape of trying to get to the end of the textbook before the semester is over, even if it means that we don’t fully lock in the most important ideas or skills along the way.  There’s nothing wrong with accomplishing multiple objectives at the same time, but not if it means failing to nail the most important ones.

We live in a world where it feels like there is never enough time to do what we need to do.  But remember that old time management adage: “there’s always enough time for the things that are most important.”  The next time you’re planning an event program or experience, don’t worry too much about doing as many things as you can with the time you’re allowed.  Instead, start by making sure you get the most important outcomes really right.  Because in the end, that’s what will make it worth the time and money you’re investing!


6 Event Power Tools for building positive change

What’s in your toolbox when you’re planning or executing an event?  It doesn’t matter what kind of event—it could be a conference, music festival, product launch, sporting event, trade show, or celebration.  As the builder of the event, you’ve got valuable resources at your disposal that can be used as effective tools for enhancing the overall impact of your event.  I call these Power Tools because, well, they give you the power to make a far bigger difference than what you could ever hope to accomplish on your own.  Here is a set of six power tools you have available for your use in the process of planning and executing any event:

PLACE – the site you select can have a significant effect on the surrounding area.  After Katrina, many planners considered holding events in New Orleans as a way to bring more economic activity back to the city.  Far-away destinations have become less attractive because of the significant carbon footprint from participants traveling to get there.  And wherever an event is held, there are people or organizations nearby that could be offered assistance or support. 

PEOPLE – events bring together LOTS of people: participants, volunteer or paid staff, vendors and service providers, exhibitors, sponsors, performers…and each one of them has the potential to contribute.  Within each of these groups, you will find people with specific experience and expertise that can be shared: helping to build something, teach or advise, or solve problems.  Your board of directors, hotel or food & beverage staff, contractors—they can all be invited to channel their talents and ideas to assist a disadvantaged population or provide a benefit to the community in some way.  You’re bringing them together; now make the most of it!

PROGRAM  – as you design the entire experience for participants, weave in opportunities to educate, inspire to action, or create a physical change that leaves a site or organization in a better place. Connect a cause with an audience by giving them the stage for at least a few minutes or, better yet, involving them in an interactive activity.  And while you’re at it, offer all participants the opportunity to contribute time, money or ideas to a cause during the course of the event.

PRACTICES – certainly group events are excellent opportunities to model and employ sustainable business practices.  Mandate recycling, composting, bulk water stations, printing stations…all measures that will reduce your lasting footprint.  Buy local.  Offer healthy menu selections.  Wherever it makes sense, convert printed materials to electronic. Specify your expectations in your RFPs to influence venues, vendors and service providers to meet your standards.  If they want your business, they will deliver.  Want some great practical examples? Check out this MPI Sustainability Report.

POSSESSIONS –
this one is about “stuff”, and events have lots of it! It’s just a matter of getting things organized.   The traditional fundraising approach would be to simply make a direct contribution of a portion of revenues from the event.  If you’re a vendor or exhibitor, you might consider donating a percentage of your sales: that benefits the company by promoting sales and also the consumers, who get to contribute to a cause “for free”.  Venues and service providers can donate space or services at no or discounted charge.  Targeted populations can be granted free or reduced-price admission.   Participants can be encouraged to donate money or unused possessions (discarded cell phones, used clothing) to the cause. 

PROMOTION – most events employ a number of promotional messages during the process of building attendance and communicating information people will need in order to participate.  In your messages, provide causes or non-profit organizations with the same kind of exposure that you would for any paid sponsor.  Whether it’s media ads, printed programs, social media campaigns, radio interviews, whatever…each message offers you the opportunity to work towards positive change by increasing awareness and concern for social causes, supporting behavior change campaigns, or inspiring others to action. And while you’re doing this, you’ll be making people feel even better about your event and the people behind it.

Of course, you always need to keep your focus on accomplishing the original objectives for each of the stakeholders, or the event won’t be a success.  But skillfully used, these power tools can get big jobs done.  How have you seen these tools used to build positive change through events?  And do you have any others in your own toolbox?

Toolbox for Change


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