Presentations versus Conversations

In these times, we need ways to understand and navigate complex and inter-related challenges, such as adapting to impacts of climate change and shifting systemic patterns of racism. No one person, organization, or set of expertise can come up with the best solution or path alone – we must find ways to do “collective sensemaking” and be wiser together. The way we do this needs to build cohesion and trust rather than our current political processes and social media, which tend to drive people apart and generate ill will and disdain for those with other perspectives.

In my work with collaborative initiatives working on complex challenges, I have come to question the formats that groups typically use when they gather. In particular, I have been thinking about the relative percent of time spent with people presenting versus people in conversation interacting with each other. Think of a typical conference with a enough_pptkeynote speech, breakout sessions with panels of speakers where most of the people are sitting in rows listening…or public hearings where people testify at a microphone one by one. These are a “one to many” format and the ideas and perspectives of most people in the room are not tapped, nor do they interact with each other to a great extent.

In contrast, I have seen again and again the benefits of taking a “many to many” approach, where people are invited to talk with each other in small groups and ideas and themes are gathered across the whole group. Methods for this, such as World Café, can be combined with presentations, for example, have a short talk that frames an issue and then invite people to consider and discuss a question.

I must again sing the praises of my favorite conversational method, following up on my earlier blog. It is called 1-2-4-All, from Liberating Structures. Over the last few months, I have used this technique in a range of contexts, such as:

  • A meeting of senior executives of companies and institutions, as a way to spur them to interact and do strategic thinking together, when most of their meetings before this had been presentations with Q&A.
  • A small class discussing and learning about racism and white privilege, as a way to get people thinking about the ideas on a personal level and engaging in deeper conversations.
  • In a listening session run by state agencies where input was gathered from over 100 stakeholders in a few hours, in a way that people could hear from and engage with other stakeholders with differing perspectives.

1-2-4-All works by offering the group a question and asking people to take 3-5 minutes to write their own original ideas, then share in a pair with one other person, then have the two pairs talk in a group of four. Those groups can share back themes to the whole group, via Post-it’s or verbally depending on the size of the group. It can be done in 20-30 minutes.

Every time I use 1-2-4-All, I am impressed with the quality of thinking and group interaction. People have the time – and quiet! – to reflect on what they heard/know and think of ideas on their own. This values and honors the original contributions writingof every person in the room. It immediately gets every one in the room engaged and thinking, which is different than formats with presentations where a few are talking and most people are listening. In this age of distraction, we can expect some percent of people to be half-listening and on their smart phones. This blog from Tara Mohr shares research about how “reflecting on our experiences and articulating aloud what we’ve learned dramatically impacts how much we are learning from our experiences.”

In thinking about the difference between presenting and conversing, I also have noticed the way people feel the need to “present themselves,” for example, in a new group where people are invited to go around the circle and share their thoughts. What feels different with 1-2-4-All is that when people share in a one-on-one conversation the tone and style is conversational; whereas, in a one-to-many format when one person presents to a larger group, the tone can feel more like we need to present ourselves and our ideas.

Particularly, in a group where people do not know each other well, this can affect the quality of listening, as people feel the pressure to present something thoughtful and come across well to the group. Instead of listening to what others are saying, they may be scripting what they will say when it is their turn. In a one-on-one conversation or small group of four, each size has its own dynamics and each allows for more “air time” and give and take, cross-pollinating and exchange of ideas and understanding. The smaller conversations allow the opportunity for new relationships to form and current ones to be strengthened.

Each format for group learning and conversation has its own benefits, so the ‘art’ is how to weave these together. In designing the flow of time for a group gathering, it is worth looking at the relative percent of time people spend in conversation versus listening to presentations.

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