Monday, 2 April 2012

Eventful approaches

A colleague in the Centre for Rural Economy came to ask my advice today about an event she is organising. She wants to provoke meaningful and useful discussion with the policymaking community about a research project and, as anyone who has ever organised any kind of academic conference will know, this is much more challenging than it sounds. Stakeholders come along with very specific expectations, usually involving powerpoint slides and people talking at them. This can sometimes be a useful format for conveying information, but it doesn't necessarily engage the audience's close attention or provoke a response. Allowing specific slots for discussion and setting up discussants to respond to presentations can help of course. Having an "expert panel" to field questions may get a debate going. All of these devices might make communication more two-way. And yet, all too often, there is a static feel to these kinds of events, with little interaction. I can't pretend that there are any magic answers. But there are a few principles that we have applied when planning Relu events that have helped. First, really intense discussion and exchange of views will only happen if you can break people up into small groups, with facilitators and rapporteurs set up to lead and record the interactions. Continually churning the groups will often help, as it prevents people from getting too settled into (or disillusioned with) one group. Provocative questions need to be set that will spark debate, and everyone has to know what kind of participation is expected of them. Even with larger audiences, novel methods and formats may also work. Shake everyone out of their expectations. Make it clear that they aren't going to be able to sit back and check their emails (as if they would!) as the powerpoint slides roll past. Their contribution is key to the day and you may want to give them specific ways of providing this outside the main forum - via video or a striking graffiti wall of comments, or by means of a quiz or a game that helps to give you feedback. Make time for people to take part and feed the results back with an edited film, narrative highlights or presentation to the winners at a final session. Above all surprise delegates and make the day memorable. The presentation that really sticks in my memory is one where the speaker started to take off his clothes to demonstrate what the effects would be if we no longer had cotton available. Fortunately his underwear was made of polyester.

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