Talking Heads

I’m writing this column during an event billed as a Think-Tank. While I know the intentions were good, the truth is I’m bored out of my gourd.

If I see one more powerpoint presentation that is both pointless and powerless, I might just have to override my disease-to-please and overly developed conscience, and leave the building.

I was invited as one of some one hundred individuals representing a variety of organizations, governments and businesses to participate in a discussion and reflection targeted at renewing public health in Alberta.

I was warned ahead of time that the meeting would likely be more of the same old, same old but I am by nature an optimistic person and carved the time out of my ridiculously busy schedule to attend.

Unfortunately as soon as I walked into the room I knew my optimism was misplaced.

The fact that the room was set up with a podium, head table, LCD projector, with round tables scattered around the room told me all I needed to know.

The room set up clearly conveyed a hierarchy and a message that those at the front of the room were the experts and the ones in charge. The only redeeming factor is that it would have been worse if the room had been set up with rows.

Consequently, despite participants having been invited to share their thoughts and ideas, we spent the entire morning being talked at by a variety of talking heads. The speakers, mostly government bureaucrats or consultants, also warned us ahead of time that although our ideas would be considered, they might not necessarily be acted upon. As you might imagine, that didn’t do much to motivate and engage participants.

Anyway, as my attention wondered throughout the morning, and I shifted to get comfortable from my twisted viewing position, I looked around the room and saw I wasn’t alone. Many others were distracted, bored and disengaged.

Contrast that scenario with another event I recently attended that was focused on developing community leaders.

Upon entering the room, participants found one large circle of chairs. That was it. No head table, no podium, no audio visual equipment. While initially it may have intimidated some of the participants, it conveyed a very different message.

The message was that we were all in it together, we were all equal, and that there was no hierarchy. Additionally, it suggested that our intent was to do things differently…that this meeting would be about change and growth. As circles have always done, particularly among indigenous populations, the message was that we were in for some real and meaningful conversations.

As participants, we also learned the circle meant there was no where to hide as there were no tables nor a back of the room to protect us. As participants, we were fully engaged from the very beginning.

When the learning became more intense, tables were introduced into the room on the second day. However, by then the group had bonded and the tables did not present a barrier especially since they were positioned so that everyone could still see one another.

As far as the Think-Tank was concerned, organizers did ultimately encourage about an hour and a half of small group discussion in the afternoon. While some innovative strategies were discussed and submitted, when we reconvened to the larger room hoping to hear the ideas from the group, we were confronted by yet another panel. I confess, my patience was maxed out and I did leave early.

The moral of the story? Although seating arrangements are often left up to chance, if you want effective meetings, where participants sit really does matter.


Posted on 10-04-08

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