Talking Heads Aren’t Enough


This post had its beginnings during a live event presented as being about crucial conversations and collaborations for the future. While I know the intentions were good, the truth is I was bored out of my gourd.

It also appears I wasn’t the only one as I actually saw one of the participants nodding off less than 20 minutes into the event. I remember thinking if there was one more powerpoint or so-called ‘expert’ reading their prepared thoughts describing the wonders of their work, I might have to override my disease-to-please and overly developed conscience, and leave the building.

Although warned ahead of time the event would likely be more of the same old, same old, I had trusted my optimistic self and had carved out time to attend. Unfortunately, as soon as I walked into the room I knew my optimism was misplaced.

The room set-up told me all I needed to know as I noted the head table, large screen, and round tables scattered around the room. It 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 day being spoken to by a variety of talking heads.

Anyway, as my attention wandered throughout the morning, and I shifted to get comfortable from my twisted viewing position, I looked around the room and observing others who appeared distracted, bored, and much more engaged with their own phones.

The meeting of talking heads ultimately did encourage small breaks for conversations at our tables Unfortunately given the time restraints, the conversations were neither rich or meaningful.

After that brief interlude, we were presented with yet another panel of experts. I confess, my patience maxed out and I did leave early.

While initially I was a bit ticked off, upon further reflection I simply felt sad as the result of another wasted opportunity to tap the wisdom, experience, and ideas of a large group of diverse and talented individuals. 

Contrast that scenario with another recent event designed to gather stakeholder input for community-driven strategies for economic development.

Upon entering the room, participants found one large circle of chairs. That was it. No head table, no podium, and no audiovisual 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 there was no hierarchy.

Additionally, it conveyed an intent to do things differently. The open space technique being used conveyed a meeting that would be about change and growth. As circles have always done, particularly among indigenous populations, the message was that we were in for real and potentially meaningful conversations.

As participants, we also learned the circle meant there was nowhere to hide as there were no tables nor a back of the room that would allow us to be an observer rather than a participant. As a result, everyone was fully engaged from the beginning.

The takeaway from these two very different meeting strategies?

Open Space, World Café, Fishbowl, Appreciative Inquiry, the Unconference Conference, Lean Coffee etc. would have moved us beyond ‘talking heads’ meetings to ensure more peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and learning, collaboration, creativity, and ultimately, innovative solutions we were excited to help put in place.

Rather than accepting traditional ways of gathering as the go-to standard, we need to embrace the understanding that no one individual, organization, or sector will have the answers for today’s complex social, environmental, and economic issues and opportunities.

While it will be challenging for those who prefer linear, orderly agendas, the reality is that the future is anything but orderly.  It is in fact rather messy and fuzzy around the edges. As a result, we must include the voices of diverse stakeholders as well as the voices and learnings of those in formal positions of authority.

Posted on 11-09-23

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