I am a huge fan of progressive in-person session formats, especially when they are participatory rather than passive. This blog has covered High-Impact Storytelling (by Nancy Dixon) and Buzz Sessions (by yours truly). Fishbowls are the latest format to peak my interest. In her blog post titled “Unpredictable by Nature“, @kikilitalien links to a wikipedia entry on fishbowls.
There are a few variations, but the gist is that there is both an inner circle of chairs and an outer circle. The outer circle is listening to the inner circle’s discussion. The best way to make it participatory is to leave one of the inner circle chairs open so that a member of the outer circle can take it periodically. When this happens, some member of the inner circle must move to the outer circle so that one chair remains open.
There are several things that I love about this format
- It allows for shy passive learners to remain in the outer circle and just listen
- It allows for selected experts to set the tone for the inner circle
- Inner circle “experts” are likely to ask each other different, deeper, more-probing questions, than an audience would ask of a panel
- The “open” inner circle where a seat is left open allows for outer circle members with a particularly relevant expertise to jump in and provide fresh perspectives
I plan to promote this format at events where I have some influence and will keep everyone posted as to my thoughts after actually experiencing one. If you have tried it, please share your thoughts.
UPDATE 2/7: Thanks to @samueljsmith I experienced a fishbowl at EventCamp10. I thought the experience was very interesting. The group was extremely engaged and the seats changed over well. The biggest challenge to me was that when a new person joins the circle it is because something has sparked their interest that they want to respond to or build on. By the time it is their turn to speak, the conversation has moved on. This leads to a very disjointed conversation where each person is not responding to the person who just spoke.
At the recent KMWorld09 conference in San Jose, CA; Nancy Dixon ran a session on the evening before the main conference began. It was the true essence of “teaching-by-doing” rather than just “teaching-by-telling”. She calls it, “High Impact Storytelling”.
In contrast, the majority of the sessions at KMWorld are traditional lectures with slides and a few questions at the end if there is time. My open letter to the KMWorld organizers describes some ways to improve the conference. I hope they will engage in a discussion to make KMWorld10 a better experience for KMer attendees. One of my suggestions was to include more sessions like Nancy’s (eg. Buzz Sessions) and increase significant peer to peer interactions.
How the session goes:
After a brief intro, Nancy introduces herself and requests that people move into small groups (4-5 ppl). Each group consists of chairs facing each other with no table in the middle.
- Nancy asks each person to take turns telling a story on particular topic. Ours was what was your best experience ever with KM.
- Each person has 2 minutes to tell their story before a bell rings and you move onto the next person
- Once you have made it all the way around the circle, she asks everyone to get up and find a new group
- Everyone is asked to tell the same story again, but to a new set of people. Of course, each of the other stories is new to you, even though it is the teller’s second time
- She repeats this one more time so that everyone moves to a new group and then tells their story a 3rd time
To close out the session:
- Nancy asks everyone to get up and put a hand on the shoulder of the person who they felt told the best story
- The person who garners the biggest crowd around them is asked to tell their story one more time for anyone who may not have heard it. Our winner was “2-5-1 storytelling“
- Then Nancy asks everyone to form one large circle and she facilitates a discussion about what was gained from the exercise
Here are some of my takeaways
- Telling a story multiple times makes you significantly better at telling it
- Because you want to get better at telling your story, you are not only listening to the stories of others, but also to HOW they tell their story in order to use their best practices to improve your own
- There is a significant level of bonding that is gained from a participatory shared experience. If one of your goals for a conference is to build relationships, this is a far superior format to sitting in a lecture.
- Tables are useful to put things on, but they are also a psychological barrier between people
If you have other high-impact conference session formats, please share them in the comments below.
On a recent Twitter chat for Association Leaders (#assnchat) the topic of event formats came up. I mentioned a format called “Buzz” and there was interest so it seemed a blog post with more description than 140 chars was in order.
I support a group called the KM Institute. We are a bunch of Knowledge Management professionals who get together periodically to discuss the practice of knowledge management.
We have two main goals:
- Learning about KM
- Networking with other KM professionals
We want our meetings to support both goals. Lectures tend to be heavy on #1 and light on #2. Cocktail party type discussion can be heavy on #2 and light on #1.
One solution that we use is called a KM Cafe. I believe it was created/popularized by David Gurteen. It involves a series of tables each with a different topic. Attendees spend X amount of time at each table having a discussion. When “the whistle blows”, attendees move to a new table. The “menu” gives you the topic for each table and the “chefs” are facilitators at each table.
While that provides more structure than a cocktail party, we still felt it was light on #1 so we created the “Buzz” format. Here’s how it works:
- 10 mins – A presenter has 10 minutes to talk on a pre-determined topic. If they go over 15mins, they are cut-off
- 5 mins – Everyone splits into 8-10 person tables. Around the table everyone introduces themselves and gives 15secs on what they do
- 20 mins – The tables discuss what they just heard and how it may impact them
- 5 mins – At the end of each buzz, attendees count off at each table to determine what table they will move to next. Start counting with the number of your table (to avoid more 1′s than 5′s)
We do cocktail style networking on the front partly because people like it and partly to make sure everyone has arrived before we start. We find that many people linger afterwards to dive deeper with people that they found especially interesting. We usually accomplish 2 Buzzes per meeting.
Also, remember to number the tables to help with the table movement.
Any interesting formats that you have tried for your events?