Presentation Essentials: When You Need More Salt

November 3, 2022

There’s a stunningly inspirational story told in Anne Bruce and Sardék Love’s Presentation Essentials: The Tools You Need to Captivate Your Audience, Deliver Your Story, and Make Your Message Memorable. Bruce recalls the moment when she began a conference presentation before a group of people who had had far too much too drink. One of the unruly audience members, from his seat in the front row of the room, immediately begins heckling her and ultimately decides—unwisely—that it would be appropriate to throw a tomato at her. Looking down at the splattered tomato that is now on the lapel of her white silk suit, she doesn’t miss a beat: she uses a finger to scoop a piece of the demolished tomato from her coat, tastes the tomato, and responds “needs more salt.” Which, of course, immediately has the audience completely on her side as the person who threw the tomato is led out of the room, and she receives a standing ovation at the end of her presentation.

That “needs more salt” approach perfectly describes what makes Presentation Essentials so important for any of us immersed in—or dreaming about being immersed in—a career that involves an ability to engage audiences through first-rate presentation skills. The need for salt reminds us that the way we season our work with a commitment to planning, practice, storytelling, the use of empathy, a commitment to excellence, and an ability to quickly recover from whatever is thrown our way determines whether we deliver a perfectly-prepared souffle or something that is so flat that it should never have been let out of our kitchen.

True to its title, this is not a book that lingers very long on any of its important themes; it covers the essentials, punctuates them with simple graphics that summarize points to be recalled and incorporated into our work; and includes an “essentials toolkit” a with concise lists of “dos and don’ts of presenting,” a set of guidelines for creating effective presentations, and a presentation-development worksheet, among other resources.

Bruce and Love bring, to their work, years of successful experiences as engaging, effective presenters in numerous countries, and what they cover serves as a primer for new and aspiring presenters as well as a review manual with plenty of helpful reminders to those of us who have been involved in teaching-training-learning and other presentation/facilitation environments for a considerable period of time.

A particularly refreshing and helpful section, for me, came early in the second chapter (“Presentation Structure”). Although I have, for many years, been writing and presenting material in highly-interactive sessions designed to inspire positive transformation among those I serve, I’d never quite thought about the process in the terms outlined by Bruce and Love: creating that single, overarching “Big Idea Statement” that, in one sentence, explicitly expresses the problem, the expert insights to be offered, and the stakes that are driving the need for change among my co-conspirators in learning, aka, the learners with whom I am working. I always design and share sets of goals and objectives, but reading Bruce and Love’s examples, including this one (on a theme I frequently address with colleagues and learners), are immediately helping me up my own presentation game in terms of going for the direct, concise, emotionally-engaging challenge that drives the work I facilitate and the opportunities for transformation I attempt to foster:

“More than 50 percent of your virtual training content is a complete waste of time, money, and resources, leaving team members unprepared to fulfil their job duties, thereby putting your human capital investment dollars at severe risk.”

Delivered to the right audience at the right moment, that summary statement offers the invitation to and promise of change that is at the heart of what so many of us attempt to do through the presentations we design and deliver. That example alone, with the outline of the process that leads us to develop that level of challenge, makes the book one well worth reading and rereading.

“Before designing your presentation, you must create your Big Idea Statement,” the authors remind us. “The Big Idea Statement is the main point of your presentation, and its purpose is to compel your audience to reconsider what they know to be true and take action to change.”

A theme that pops up a few times in the book is the need for adaptability in our approach to designing and delivering effective, engaging presentations, and the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on our is acknowledged on page 64 and again in Chapter 10 (“Delivering Online Content”): “The Covid-19 pandemic unleashed a seismic transformation in the way presentations are delivered. Presenters are now expected to be fully capable of delivering presentations in person as well as virtually across multiple platforms. That’s an extreme example of being adaptable.” (p. 64)

For those of us who had already been engaged in extensive online-presentation work via Zoom and other platforms well before the pandemic hit full force in early 2020, the transition was hardly noticeable, but it did create a tremendous expansion of opportunities among those who suddenly, forced to go online for learning and other presentations. An area of exploration beyond the scope of this book—and one in which I’ve been immersed with colleagues for nearly three years now—is what new opportunities this rapid transformation has provided and what we can do to hold onto the best of the opportunities rather than shelving them away and going back to practices that were commonly pursued before so many of our colleagues and learners were forced to move full-steam ahead to hone their presentation skills in online environments.

Regardless of environments (e.g., onsite vs. online vs. hybrid), plenty of elements remain consistent and essential to our work, and these are the elements Bruce and Love capture so effectively throughout the book as they suggest a variety of presentation seasonings we can add to our work. The summary of “Six Keys to Audience Engagement” (on page 65), for example, are worth reviewing every time we sit down to design a new presentation:

Be Bold

Be Brief

Be Novel

Be Memorable

Be Confident

Be Adaptable

And their reminder regarding how to approach practice and rehearsal—“Don’t practice your presentation until you can get it right; practice your presentation until you can’t get it wrong”—needs to be in the forefront of our minds when we move from the design phase to the delivery phase of the work we do as presenters.

Whether you quickly read through the entire book in a couple of sittings or spend more time working your way through it by reading a chapter and then applying lessons learned, you’ll find the time spend with Presentation Essentials to be well worth the effort. And your co-conspirators in learning, action, and positive change will be among the beneficiaries of your effort.


CLA Conference 2022: Thanks for the Gifts

June 3, 2022

For three hours yesterday, I was shoulder to shoulder with a wonderful group of colleagues facilitating a highly-interactive advocacy workshop for people working with libraries and the communities they serve throughout California. These are people—Crystal Miles from the Sacramento Public Library, Mark Fink from  the Yolo County Library, Deborah Doyle from the Sonoma County Library Commission, and Derek Wolfgram from the Redwood City Public Library—with whom I interact on a regular basis via Zoom. We have—up to that moment yesterday morning when we were onsite for the preconference workshop here in Sacramento on the first day of the California Library Association (CLA) 2022 Annual Conference—been designing and delivering online advocacy training sessions through the CLA Ursula Meyer Advocacy Training Fund program I manage, and we will continue to be nurturing the online series that continues next week with a free two-hour workshop on presentation skills for library advocates.

But this was that wonderful moment when, for the first time since the COVID pandemic radically altered the way we all work, we were shoulder to shoulder in an onsite setting with a group of dynamic learners who were also relishing the opportunity to be off camera and physically (rather than virtually) together. There were plenty of tongue-in-cheek comments about how strange it was to be seeing each other’s faces without having those faces framed by the all-too-familiar Zoom boxes that provide us with (cherished) opportunities to interact online. And there was also the not-unexpected attention we continue to give to safety protocols—including those ubiquitous N95 masks so many of us continue to wear in a dual effort to avoid unintentionally spreading COVID or to contract it from unsuspecting carriers of the virus.

But when all was said and done, an underlying cause for gratitude and celebration was that all of us in that particular room were acknowledging that the gift of gathering offered by CLA was another step toward our collective commitment to creating “a new and better normal” rather than sitting passively while waiting for a chance to return to a (pre-COVID) “normal” that, in many ways, was not all that great for many of our colleagues and, frankly, many of us.

As we explored the basics of advocacy and how it is evolving in a world that, two years ago, was forced to switch quickly and (sometimes) adeptly to a world where online interactions needed to be a seamless part of our interactions and collaborations, we noted and celebrated some of the positive opportunities that have come out of the tremendous tragedies and losses COVID has brought to each of us. We even, at one point, held a brief, lively, tongue-in-cheek debate about the advantages and disadvantages of onsite vs. online advocacy. (Taking the side of arguing for the benefits of online advocacy, I was gleeful when Crystal, assuming the playful role of the judge awarding points to Derek and me as we went back and forth, ultimately and very generously called it a draw and observed that our new and better normal might be one in which we recognize the importance of incorporating onsite and online efforts into our advocacy toolkits.) And as the session came to an end, we were gratified to hear participants—our co-conspirators in learning—note the ways in which their time with us was inspiring them to seek new ways to become even better advocates for libraries and the communities they serve than they already were.

It doesn’t, however, end there. The shoulder-to-shoulder interactions extended into conversations on the conference exhibits-hall floor, moved outdoors as some of us took our lunches into the plaza outside the conference center so we could unmask and enjoy lunch and extended conversations. And, as always happens in these conference settings where friends and colleagues are unexpectedly waiting for us right around the corner, the conversations became richer and deeper as friends stumbled upon long-unseen friends and picked up right where they/we had left off.

Which is exactly what happened toward the end of the lunchtime conversation Crystal and I were having in that plaza on a warm, pleasant Sacramento afternoon. As Crystal and I were discussing another session we might soon be doing together, I felt the (reassuring) embrace, from behind me, of someone whose voice I could hear but couldn’t quite place. Relishing that unexpected embrace and the sound of a somewhat familiar voice I couldn’t immediately place, I just sat there and admitted “I have no idea who is hugging me, and I’m not even inclined to want to turn around and immediately find out who it is because it feels so good.” And when I turned around and saw familiar eyes peering out from above the mask that was covering the rest of that lovely face, it still took me several seconds to realize that the embrace and the voice belonged to one of my favorite up-and-coming librarians—someone I’ve known since the point in her life when she was still a student in a Master of Library Science program and I had an opportunity to introduce her to people who have helped shape her career.

You can see it coming: she joined the conversation for a few minutes before having to race off for an appointment she had previously set—but not before we agreed to reconvene later that afternoon to sit together outdoors over hors d’oeuvres and beverages that carried us through a lovely chunk of unplanned time we both had. And our leisurely conversation that led us from afternoon into the early evening hours before another colleague joined us briefly before each of us stepped away to join other equally lovely interactions and conversations which will, no doubt, continue today when all of us are back onsite for another day of learning, scheming, dreaming, and working with cherished colleagues to collaborate toward shaping the world of our dreams.

So again, CLA, thanks for the gift of regathering our community in ways that continue the work we have managed to do in online settings over the past couple of years—and will continue to do onsite and online for the foreseeable future. And thanks for the opportunity to carry us one step further down a road that is still very much in a state of development as we grow accustomed to, open to, and grateful for a world in which we no longer carry on, with any level of seriousness, silly arguments about whether onsite interactions are inherently better than online interactions, or vice versa. We are, step by step, embracing possibilities and relishing where those opportunities may take us—if we actively, positively are active participants in shaping the results those opportunities provide.


Lessons Imparted, Lessons Learned: Making Them Personal

May 18, 2022

The trainer-teacher-learners I most admire are those who understand that every learning opportunity we facilitate provides us with an opportunity to learn alongside our co-conspirators in learning (aka our students).

It’s an idea that inspires me to review, after each workshop or webinar or course or even a highly-interactive keynote address that encourages participants to learn with me, what I myself might learn from what we have just done together. It proves to be a rewarding, comforting endeavor each time I take the time to complete it, as I’m reminded today during a review of some of the sessions in which I’ve recently been involved.

Those sessions are a part of a continuing series of facilitated conversations, arranged under the auspices of Claremont EAP, on a few dozen workplace issues with which we all struggle at various levels. Each session comes with a PowerPoint slide deck provided by my colleagues at Claremont. It also comes with a workbook that can be integrated into the hour-long conversation. But the real payoff for the learners and for me comes from open discussions I facilitate and which are inspired by what’s in those decks and workshops. Using small chunks of the time we have together to show them slides about mindfulness in our workplaces, or adapting to change, or managing priorities, or incorporating acts of gratitude into our daily routines as I’ve done over the past few weeks through Claremont sessions with clients around the San Francisco Bay Area, is just the starting point. It’s the questions I pose in response to information contained on the slides or within the workbooks, the avenues I pursue with them vis-à-vis how those topics apply to what they are facing in their own workplaces, and the inevitable final question I pose at the end of each session—what is one thing you will do differently during the next week as a result of having spent time together today?—that brings it all together and transforms what on the surface appears to be an ephemeral conversation into what any learning opportunity should be: an opportunity to pursue positive change and to take away some level of pain that a learner is currently facing.

The conversations about adapting to change, being grateful for things we tend to overlook, and being mindful (attentive) to what is happening to us in any given moment and cherishing what it offers were not exactly at the forefront of my mind yesterday afternoon after I finished the latest offering of “adapting to change”; it had been a rewarding, inspiring day of meetings and sessions, but nothing out of the ordinary. All three of those topics, however, have been on my mind pretty steadily over the past several months as a lovely cat that has been an integral part of our lives for more than 14 years has been steadily declining in response to the progressive ravages of kidney disease. We think about her and respond to her at a deeply emotional level, but I also think and respond to her in terms of recognizing the massive change that will occur in our lives when she is no longer with us. When she appeared to be entering end-stage last September, and we were actually about to set up a time to put her out of the misery she was experiencing, we viscerally understood the importance of being mindful—cherishing every remaining moment we had with her. And when some new medications and simple, non-invasive measures suggested by the wonderful vet who has been treating and supporting her produced a turn-around none of us really expected to see, we were relieved and tremendously grateful for what the vet accomplished and for the unexpected gift of additional time we were being given with her. And we were mindful. Recognizing that this beloved companion was once again (at least temporarily) comfortable. That she was displaying as much joy as any six-pound ball of fur has ever displayed. That we might have her for a few more days or weeks. And that this was nothing but a postponement of the day, all too soon, when we would have to make the difficult decision to let her go—that moment when the lack of a decent quality of life overrode our desire to have her with us.

Those mindfulness conversations I have been having with learners have made me conscious every day—every time the cat sits on my lap and naps while I read, every time she goes skittering across our hardwood floors chasing a ball as if it were her sole mission in life to protect us from any harm that evil ball might bring us, every time she puts her sometimes damp nose in my ear at three or four a.m. to remind me that she expects a bit of attention in gratitude for all the joy she brings us—of what a magnificent gift those simple moments have become. The gratitude and mindfulness has always helped me enjoy the in-the-moment pleasures of having her with us, and helped me to not fritter them away by worrying about when her moment of departure might arrive.

So, I was surprised and not surprised, early yesterday evening, when I noticed something radically different about her. She suddenly seemed unsteady. Unsure of herself. Continually, slowly, moving her head from left to right and back again as if looking for something that remained beyond her field of vision. As if she were bewildered by what she was or was not seeing. And then it struck me. She was bewildered because regardless of how much she tried, she wasn’t seeing anything. Testing my suspicion, I moved my hands across her field of vision and saw no obvious response. I looked closely into her eyes and saw that her black pupils were filling the entire space that just a few hours ago had been mostly filled with luminescent gold-green—a color that now had completely vanished. I tried again to elicit responses by quickly moving my hands toward her face and stopping just short of the moment of contact, without eliciting any level of reaction. A quick internet search confirmed for me that sudden loss of vision was one of the signs that kidney disease in a cat was in its final stage. So, with heavy hearts and mindful that these could well be our final moments with her, my wife and I took turns holding her on our laps. Hugging her with every bit of love she had earned by being such a joyful companion over such a long period of time. Doing everything we could to figure out how the loss of her vision was going to impact her ability to function around the house. And seeing her gently bumping into walls and furniture whose position had been familiar to her over a period of many years, we were mindful of what this sudden change meant in terms of quality of life for her. So we made the call.

We’ve had to do this before. It’s never easy. But it is, for us, part of what we feel we owe to the cats who have relied on us to be there for them during the easy as well as the difficult times. The rest of the evening, of course, is already a bit blurry in our memories. Comforting her as we transported her to the vet’s clinic. Having a frank discussion about what was reasonable and not reasonable in terms of expecting her to adapt to the unexpected change she had just experienced. And what quality of life she was going to have as the loss of vision was just one of a rapidly approaching series of losses that would make her more miserable and ultimately result in her death. None of that made the decision easy. But it made it the best of the decisions we felt we could reach, given our desire to offer her the gift of sparing her additional pain at a moment when her life—and ours—had inevitably changed.

I’m numb and filled with grief today. I feel her presence everywhere around our house, and think about and visualize all the things she was doing here less than 24 hours ago. But I also am mindful of the fact that I have a great community of friends and colleagues around me who are already doing all they can to join the circle of grief and, through their caring comments, offer me a lifeline out of this overwhelming grief and back into life when I’m ready to begin adapting to the terrible change that has just occurred. I’m grateful that I have the continuing opportunity to work with people who trust me enough to help them through the small-, medium- and large-scale changes they face just as others now are doing that for me. And I’m grateful, that because of their attentiveness and dedication to lifelong learning to produce positive changes, they offer me the gift of lessons imparted and lessons learned through every interaction we have as co-conspirators in learning.


Because of a Teacher: Learning With Stories

April 20, 2022

Our greatest teacher-trainer-learners often turn out to be wonderful storytellers. Through their stories, they provide a context for our own learning. They engage us and inspire us. And they transform us. So when innovative teaching, learning, and leadership consultant, speaker, and author George Couros published a collection of stories by teachers—Because of a Teacher: Stories of the Past to Inspire the Future of Education—last year, we just had to know we were in for a treat: a collection of stories by storytellers who incorporate storytelling in their work. It’s as if we were invited to an evening of stories by some of our best peers.

We recognize, as we dive into the opening pages of the book, that we are in for a real treat. And Couros and his co-conspirators in producing this wonderfully engaging evening of learning with the storytellers do not let us down for even a moment. We know, from the title, that we’re going to be hearing teachers talk about the art of teaching; those of us involved in lifelong learning as trainer-teacher-learners recognize that we are with kindred spirits as we spend time with those teachers working in formal academic settings. We also know, if we are familiar with Couros’s “Three Questions on Educators That Inspire” series on his Innovator’s Mindset podcast, that those stories, as Couros himself writes, “have the potential to help improve current practice. And they can inspire current teachers while honoring the educators who once inspired them” (p. 3).

Certain themes flow consistently through the book. The teachers with whom we are spending time acknowledge the support they have received, throughout their careers, from peers, mentors, and administrators. They consistently cite the power of collaboration with their peers and with their learners. They are, themselves, consummate learners who learn from their own mistakes and recognize that the temporary failures we all face are part of our lifelong learning endeavors and actually make us more appealing and accessible to our own learners because, through our actions and admissions, acknowledge that we, too, are human and fallible.

There’s something absolutely universal and appealing about many of the stories, and I found myself appreciating the pleasant, transformative experiences I have been lucky enough to have had as I read these storytellers’ variations on the themes we shared. Steve Bollar, in his “The Art of Relationships” chapter, for example, recalls how his art teacher nurtured his growth by providing a safe space—her classroom—for him to work before the formal beginning of the school day. When he suggested “letting a few of my friends hang out in the morning with me,” the teacher readily agreed so that, “by the end of the school year, there was a sizable group of students hanging out in the art room before the school day began.” Hearing that story produce an effect akin to being struck by a (non-fatal) bolt of lightning, for it vividly brough back memories of the high school history teacher who provided a similarly safe and stimulating meeting place for many of us when we were in school. Furthermore, it brought back memories of how creatively that teacher approached his own efforts to nurture our growth as learners and how it created a lifelong desire for me, in working with my own (adult) learners in a variety of settings, to create those same types of open, welcoming, dynamic learning spaces that produce the results my co-conspirators in learning and I produce whenever we meet face to face or online.

There are numerous gems among the gorgeous stories. Deidre Roemer, for example, reminds us that “the power of a caring teacher can be felt for a lifetime” in her “Inspiration for a Lifetime and Beyond” story (p. 33). “Making students feel welcome in their learning environment is a critical first step for building strong, lasting relationships as an educator,” Mary Hemphill writes in “Teaching Full Circle” (p. 36). “It’s all about relationships,” Tom Murray remembers hearing a cherished mentor say in “Fingerprints of Impact: The Legacy of a Mentor.” “‘If you make that the core of all you do, you’ll have amazing success in your career’” (p. 43).

George Couros

The first third of the book, capturing stories about the teachers who inspired these teachers-as-storytellers, leads us naturally into the second section: stories about administrators who inspired our peers in Because of a Teacher. Couros himself sets a nice tone for that section in his opening story, “When Someone Believes in You.” He recalls feeling as if he had completely destroyed his chances of being hired into an assistant principal position by being drawn into serious arguments during his interview for the position. Discovering not long afterward that he was being offered the job because the principle wanted someone who would disagree with him when disagreement was productive, Couros walked away with a valuable lesson: “Archie [Lillico, the principal who hired Couros as his assistant principal] and I had a ton of disagreements in our time together, and that made us both better at our work. Isn’t that the point of education? Shouldn’t we want to learn new ideas and take actions to best grow in our pursuits?” (p. 56)

Couros, one page later, recalls an earlier interview completely comprised of talking “about the things that made me passionate and the things that excited me. It felt less like an interview and more like a conversation about education with colleagues in a staff room. Looking back on it, I realize that was intentional. The typical interview process doesn’t happen often in our everyday practice, but those conversations do. How we interact in those spaces really matters.”

We read (and hear) these words. We reflect on what they suggest to us. We feel inspired by them and want to immediately work them into our own practices. And by the time we finish reading the book and relishing what the stories suggest to us in terms of possibilities  in our lifelong learning landscapes, we realize we have absorbed what Couros and his colleagues set out to offer us. We are better off then we were before we picked up the book. Because of a teacher.


Storytelling to Inspire Positive Action

March 30, 2022

Learning opportunities that turn in on themselves have always appealed to me. I jump at the chance, for example, to facilitate webinars about how to facilitate webinars. Or presentations on how to effectively, engagingly deliver transformative presentations. So the opportunity to tell stories during a workshop on “Inspiring Positive Action through Storytelling” was one I grabbed, courtesy of colleagues at the Sacramento Chapter of ATD (the Association for Talent Development), late last week.

The results were magnificent.

It started with high levels of interactivity among a small group of co-conspirators in learning during that 90-minute “Inspiring Positive Action Through Storytelling” session online; this was a group of peers bringing years of experience to the table and willingly, concisely, engaging, and playfully sharing that experience in ways that made all of us better storytellers by the end of the time we had together. It continued with a combination of sharing information about incorporating storytelling into the work we do with discussions designed to find ways to apply what we were exploring into the work the learners would resume doing as soon as the session ended. And it included time to actually workshop a sample story that participants could adapt into the learning opportunities they design for their own learners.

We took a somewhat unusual approach to the idea of incorporating storytelling into learning: we focused as much on the stories we tell—or should be telling—to attract learners to our onsite and online learning opportunities as we spend on effectively incorporating storytelling into the onsite and online workshops and courses we provide. To set a context for the session, I opened with the story of how I had designed and facilitated a one-hour session at the request of a staff member in an organization where I was in charge of training. How she and I had discussed what she thought should be included in that session. How I put the word out about what the workshop offered interested staff members. And my surprise, on the day of the workshop, how I found myself facing only four people, from an organization with hundreds of employees, in the room where the workshop was taking place. And she—the person who had requested the course—was not among them. Because, as she told me later, she hadn’t needed the session; she just thought it was something others needed and would attend.

So, I suggested to my ATD Sacramento co-conspirators last week, there were a couple of lessons we could learn together—the first being that when someone tells us the story of what they need in a training-teaching-learning session, we need to ask how many people they are going to bring with them when they attend the session. And the second being that we need to be sure, in inviting people to the sessions we design and facilitate, that we are telling a story compelling enough to make them come to what we are providing.

The headline to your announcement should be like a six-word story, I suggested. It should be compelling, be complete in and of itself, and show readers/prospective learners why that session is something they absolutely do not want to avoid.

I suggested that the story should have elements that are universal to the experience of those we are trying to reach: “She lived and then she died” is a six-word story that describes the human condition because we all live and (expect to) die, but it leaves room for a reader’s curiosity to kick into play, I noted—we want to know who she was, we want to know more about her life, we want to know how and why she died, and, if we trust the storyteller, we want to hear more because we know that storyteller is not going to let us down any more than a trainer-teacher-learner we trust is going to let us down if we sign up for that person’s workshop, course, or webinar. I quickly pivoted from that “universal” story to a few six-word stories more applicable to our learning offerings: “They learned, so their company prospered,” or “He studied and was then promoted,” or “We’ll make you better at work.” With those as templates, we can certainly craft variations that apply to and entice our learners as they decide where they are going to spend the limited amount of time they have for workplace learning.

We talked about how stories have to be meaningful to the learners. How they have to help learners fill their unmet (learning/workplace) needs. How they need to be personal. Brief. And inspirational. And then we came back to that all-important learning-space requirement: the opportunity, as a group, to craft a story specific enough to the work we are doing, yet universal enough to appeal to the learners we want to draw into our learning space.

But none of this, for me (and my co-conspirators—it’s always about the learners and rarely about me), is meaningful unless it produces results that benefit the learners and those they ultimately serve. It has to give us a concrete, documentable result demonstrating that the time we spend together produces something worth producing. And that’s exactly what I realized we had done when, less than three hours after the session had ended, I received a note from one of the workshop participants: “Thank you for the wonderfully inspirational time together today. I will be incorporating your ideas into my stories as I build a class on team building this afternoon.”

So, we started with a story about telling stories to draw learners to our sessions. And we worked as a short-term community of learning to explore how we might better incorporate stories into the work we do to produce positive results. And we produced another story—the brief story of how that participant was going to immediately apply what she had learned so she could better serve her own learners. Which, in turn, will produce additional inspiring stories when you apply these same ideas and approaches to the work you do with your own learners.

N.B. — To schedule onsite or online workshops on storytelling in learning, contact Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com.


Fostering Creative Collaborations: CoSN and ShapingEDU

February 25, 2022

Participating in two recent highly-interactive and engaging CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) online summits woke me up a bit to the latest fruit coming off the tree of creative collaboration between organizations I very much adore.

But what intrigued me as much as the content under review was what came out of watching colleagues from the Arizona State University ShapingEDU community as they put on their CoSN hats and created/facilitated those wonderfully engaging summit experiences. This was far from a dry lecture/presentation of newly-released reports; it was a two-part invitation to explore the content within the context of playing within an engaging learning sandbox that made audience members “co-conspirators” in the learning process—in ways that encouraged all of us to explore and absorb the information from the report so we could and would immediately begin applying what we learned to our own settings. In K-12. In higher education. In workplace learning. And, to be frank, in every imaginable corner of our overall lifelong-learning landscape.

At the center of the summit action, with strong support from and collaboration with several other CoSN members, were Laura Geringer and Karina Branson—longtime ShapingEDU colleagues I very much admire and from whom I draw tremendous inspiration in my own training-teaching-learning efforts. Laura, who as project manager was at the  heart of facilitating the process of producing those reports with Writer/Communications Manager Stephanie King, specializes in helping create tremendously engaging “immersive” experiences online and onsite through ShapingEDU; Karina, as a tremendously respected graphic facilitator, is in many ways the visual face of ShapingEDU through the imagery she produces and which is heavily integrated into much of what I encounter whenever I look at the ShapingEDU website, participate in ShapingEDU onsite and online conferences, and contribute to the ShapingEDU Reshaping Learning blog.  

Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

And that’s where the across-the-organizations collaboration struck me immediately. Seeing Laura’s engaging approach to facilitating each of the summit sessions and seeing Karina’s create-them-as-they-happen visual renditions of what was happening during each of those sessions, made me feel as if I were a longtime member of the CoSN community rather than a relative newcomer. It was as if, in essential and engaging ways, any separation between CoSN and ShapingEDU melted away. Because the style and approach each brings to the ShapingEDU community was strongly evident in their work with CoSN and felt completely natural.

This is not to say that ShapingEDU had absorbed CoSN or that CoSN was absorbing key elements of what to me is a still-evolving ShapingEDU approach—captured wonderfully in the online publication ShapingED-YOU Toolkit—to onsite, online, and blended gatherings. It was, to be direct, an example of how the right people, collaborating the multiple organizations they serve, respond to each organization’s needs with a consistent and adaptable creative approach that produces magnificent results.

Those results, in this case, were playfully interactive exercises that encouraged summit participants to explore the material highlighted in the first and second summits. Become familiar with each other at a personal level. Begin forming connections that can and probably will extend far beyond the constraints of those brief summit sessions. And look for opportunities to dream, do, and drive together in ways that have the potential to produce positive measurable results for the summit participants and those they serve.

To take this one step further: It’s not at all surprising that the level of collaboration on display within those CoSN sessions and between CoSN and ShapingEDU should be so strong and consistent in its approach. Some members of CoSN and ShapingEDU—particularly among the sometimes overlapping leadership of those communities and the projects they undertake—have a shared lineage connected to the NMC (New Media Consortium), which served as a global learning community for educators in K-12, higher education, community colleges, libraries, and other segments of our lifelong learning environments. The spirit of community that NMC colleagues achieved continues to grow and evolve within CoSN, ShapingEDU, EDUCAUSE, and other communities that have members in common.

What it all means to me at a highly personal level and might be inspiring to you is the reminder that we all have magnificent opportunities to gather—often briefly—at the “intersections” so effectively described by Frans Johansson in his book The Medici Effect. To work together. To then return to our other communities to foster positive change by telling the stories of what we encountered during those intersection gatherings. And to relish the thought that our efforts might have ripples of impacts far beyond what any of us see in the relatively small ponds in which we swim.


Resilience

February 15, 2022

I’m exploring and practicing resilience this afternoon. Which is not a particularly difficult undertaking since I was scheduled to facilitate a conversation on the topic of resilience earlier today.

Preparing for the conversation was, itself, an exercise in resilience. We had originally scheduled the workshop for April 2022. But something happened in the workplace that inspired the client to request that we conduct the session sooner. So we reset it for today, and I gladly re-immersed myself in this extremely familiar topic over the past few days. Thinking about all the conversations I’ve had with Ruben Puentedura and other ShapingEDU colleagues on the topic and its close cousin, antifragility—the ability to experience something extremely challenging and, as a result of having had that experience, emerging stronger than before. Recalling people I have known and adored who displayed that desirable combination of resilience and antifragility. And watching for examples of resilience in what I have been reading over the past few days.

One of the people who came to mind was David Moebs, a cherished friend who succumbed to AIDS more than 20 years ago but who still feels consistently present in my life because of the resilience he displayed in the darkest of times. There was the devastating period during which he had been told he had an incurable, rapidly-progressing degenerative disease connected to AIDS and that he had less than two months to live; as he, my wife, and I were sitting together one evening and watching My Fair Lady on television (he did love his musicals), he suddenly sat upright as a commercial describing the symptoms of diabetes came on and included much of what he was experiencing.

“Oh, thank God,” he cried out in mock exaltation. “I thought I had PML.”

He was, in some ways, lucky and incredibly resilient. PML didn’t take him down at that point; he actually experienced a period of remission, during which he lived his life as fully as he could under all the constraints accompanying PML And when he did finally leave us, he left a gaping hole in our lives—one which has been accompanied by an ongoing sense of awe over how resilient he was in the most difficult of circumstances.

So I suppose it wasn’t particularly surprising that, as I thought of resilience within the life-threatening situation David experienced, that I sat upright myself as I was continuing to read Beppe Sala’s Società: per azioni (Society: For Actions) this morning and came across an extremely moving passage in which this inspiring and resilient politician (mayor of Milan) described having received a diagnosis of cancer and the resilient approach he took to that diagnosis. He recalled how his father had also been diagnosed with cancer years earlier and had surrendered to it rather than fighting it—something he refused to do. He talked about his own personal discoveries/revelations stemming from the diagnosis and his responses to it: “I discover that time is not money, but that money is time. The definitive measure of value is time. More time, more life. The battle against time. Time that flees.” (p. 33) And that beautiful set of passages continues: “It’s not easy to understand what hope might be, the humblest of virtues, a risky virtue because it is often hidden….Hope is the question that permits the response of trust, of a faith.”

All of this flows through me as if it were an electrical current jolting every cell within me, for I realize that is that moment of inspiration. That moment when preparing for a learning opportunity that I’m about to facilitate has come together with everything I need to lead a successful session. There are the opening stories that flow one into another seamlessly. The anticipation of using those stories to create a context for the transformative experience all of us are seeking as co-conspirators in the learning process. The joy of anticipating being with a group of learners I’ve come to know and admire over the past few months. And the pleasure of sharing stories that help us bring some level of understanding and encouragement that will, by the end of that hour, looking at the topic of resilience with widened eyes and some sort of plan for what we will do differently, in the week ahead of us, as a result of our having spent time together.

I set my notes aside. Prepare my workspace for the online session I’m about to facilitate. Pull a few books off my shelf as points for reference for the conversation that is about to begin. Settle in to wait for the first learners to arrive. And nothing happens. It’s just me, my notes, my PowerPoint slide deck, and a clock showing that I’m five minutes away from the scheduled beginning of the session. Which does not actually begin because it turns out that the person organizing the session had intended to reschedule it again, but lost track of the need to notify me.

This was not something that left me angry. (It helped to know that cancellation with little or no notice means I’m paid my facilitator’s fee.) This is not something that was even deeply disappointing. Because I know we will reschedule that conversation. And that the preparation that went into it will serve all of us well when we finally do gather to explore what resilience means to each of us in our work and in our play. Because, we know, we want to be resilient. And we are. Resilient enough, in fact, to recognize that the time I would have dedicated to leading the session could just as easily be used to write a new piece for my blog.


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

December 3, 2021

One of the words that leaves me feeling happiest is “yes.” The power of the word “yes” first became obvious to me when I was listening to a (horrible) guest speaker in a graduate-level management class proudly describe the sign hanging over her desk: “What part of no do you not understand?” “Yes” continually exerts a restorative power over me. It encourages me. It tells me that there is a bridge to be crossed successfully. A collaborative effort to be pursued. An acquaintance who is about to become a colleague/partner/collaborator and, with any luck, a friend.

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

“Yes” is a word I consistently hear from members of the ShapingEDU community (operating under the auspices of—and with tremendous support and numerous “yeses” from—the members of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) as part of their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, One of the most recent (and significant) yeses I heard was from community members participating in the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference (July 20-23, 2021) as we were exploring a set of 10 wicked challenges in contemporary learning—with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

At the end of a series of discussions I helped facilitate on the challenge of identifying, documenting, and disseminating stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020, I posed a simple question to participants in that set of discussions: Are you interested in continuing this discussion after the unconference so we can find ways to implement what we have been talking about here?

The resounding “yes” from several of the participants led us to begin engaging in biweekly one-hour online meetings a few weeks after the conference ended, and those results-oriented conversations are continuing with the involvement of anyone who wants to join us. Our original unconference-session discussions, under the title “365+ Days Later: Post-Pandemic Best Practices,” are continuing under the newly-established, much more playful project name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

Our newly-adopted name covers a lot of ground. It recognizes that we are stepping away from the idea that we are somehow savvy enough to have identified “best practices” when what we are really doing is documenting what seems to be working for now among our brightest, most creative colleagues; the approach here is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It recognizes that we are far from having reached an end-point in our explorations; this really is a situation and a challenge that is continually evolving in the way that all wicked problems continually evolve (which is part of what makes them so wicked). And, most importantly, by asking “are we there yet?”, we are tacitly admitting that we don’t ever completely expect to “get there” in terms of having definitively established a “new now” in learning; the evolving nature of what we face in pandemic-era conditions and beyond suggests that we will be working together for a good long time. And should we ever actually “get there” and recognize that our work in response to this challenge is finished, we probably, in the best traditions of ShapingEDU, will identify a new challenge in teaching-training-learning to pursue together.

There’s much more to this than having established a new name; our biweekly meetings have produced a (still-evolving) planning document that begins with a summary of the steps we plan to take through Are We There Yet?:

  • Each of us will reach out to members of our communities to draw them into this conversation and this project; the potential here is to quickly begin building a global coalition that engages in research through studies, with real-time support in how to respond to challenges.
  • We will draw upon our colleagues and resources at Arizona State University to build this coalition/project.
  • To get the word out that we are seeking collaborators, we will: 
  • Create an introductory video that is posted on the ShapingEDU site to disseminate this story of how we are telling the stories of others
  • Determine where we will house the stories so that they can be shared
  • Look for opportunities (synchronous and asynchronous; online and onsite; through webinars and workshops) to pair stories with lessons learned and facilitate discussions to broadly disseminate what we are observing and documenting; an example of this is initiative created by Are We There Yet? team member Tula Dlamini’s to have members of his community in South Africa come together in ways mirroring how ShapingEDU community members come together during annual unconferences) to explore and document what they are seeing
  • Work at a global level to find ways to integrate the various stories we have with those we find through our efforts.

the earliest activities we are pursuing are creating an online site, before the end of December 2021, for teacher-trainer-learners to submit stories about how they have successfully adapted their work to pandemic conditions; a highly-interactive online workshop to help participants create their stories about pandemic-era learning successes (possibly in January or February 2022); and an online mini-conference (in March or April) to bring teacher-trainer-learners together to find ways to document and share our learning-success stories. We are also working to call attention to first-rate resources, including the recently-published book Learn at Your Own Risk: 9 Strategies for Thriving in a Pandemic and Beyond, by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence and Are We There Yet? team member Tom Haymes.

There is plenty to do. There are lots of opportunities to be developed. And all we need now is a “yes” from you indicating your interest in being part of the project—which you can do by contacting those of us listed as team leaders on the project page.

N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-second in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU and the Art of Gathering During (and After) the Pandemic Era

December 2, 2021

Writing about ShapingEDU and Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering recently as part of this continuing series of blog posts has made me more grateful than ever for the people and communities that serve as a source of support and inspiration to me in much of the work I do. What connects that disparate group of capital-M Muses is that each, without overtly embracing the label, serves as an activist within the communities served—a theme I intend to address more fully in a different post.

When I think about my colleagues and many other people I have met through my involvement in the ShapingEDU project (under the auspices of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) and their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, I think with tremendous appreciation about our collective/collaborative approach to gathering—and our willingness to share lessons learned about gathering with others, as was done through the fabulous ShapingED-YOU Toolkit providing guidance on how to successfully produce “focused, collaborative Unconference and Community Camp-style events.” Our meetings, face-to-face, online, and in blended environments (those wonderful intersections where online and onsite colleagues meet using platforms including Zoom), consistently create the sense of a global meeting room that quickly erases the usual constraints of geography and are, in significant ways, one long-extended, often asynchronous conversation designed to produced positive, measurable results.

At the heart of our approach to gathering is a commitment to listen. To learn from each other. To maintain a playful approach to the work we do. To foster a sense of inclusiveness that welcomes newcomers as well as returning community members. And to focus heavily on those we are attempting to serve through our efforts. (Our commitment to reshaping learning, furthermore, includes a commitment to include students and other learners in our planning efforts and our events.) That’s something that is clearly visible through the online gatherings we have had this year—particularly the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference which, because of remaining concerns about gathering onsite during the pandemic, was once again completely held online (over a four-day period in July 2021).

Shaping the unconference around the theme of “Reshaping Wicked Problems” allowed and encouraged us to reshape our unconference structure a bit this year. Where previous unconference gatherings centered on an initial set of 10 actions the community was attempting to pursue, the latest unconference identified (though collaborative pre-conference exchanges online) 10 wicked challenges to be explored by unconference participants with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Among the wicked challenges were attempts to find ways to more effectively connect strategies to the tools we use in teaching-training-learning—an ongoing effort spearheaded by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes through the Teaching Toolset project he is developing (and also writing about on the ShapingEDU blog); better engage virtual learners and avoid burnout; and identify, document, and disseminate stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020—something that has turned into another long-term ShapingEDU project under the newly-adopted name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

A glance at the “living agenda” for the unconference gives you an idea of the approach to and scope of the work we planned to do—and, more importantly, offers you a template you can adapt for your own gatherings. Looking at the archived recordings of some of the sessions on the aforementioned ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel or directly from links within that living agenda will more fully immerse you in what we did—and, possibly, provide you with ideas you can incorporate into your  own action-oriented gatherings. You’ll see the day-long context-setting series of exercises ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Ruben Puentedura facilitated on the second day of the conference through his use of a Black Swan approach as a framework for our discussions. You’ll see a series of keynote presentations and panel discussions, including an engaging discussion centered on “The Intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Technology” from the third day of the unconference and the tremendously thoughtful and inspiring “Student Panel” discussion that opened the final day of the unconference. An archived recording of the final hour-long unconference report-out session also remains available on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel, along with plenty of other recordings of ShapingEDU unconference sessions, ShapingEDU webinars, and other sessions the community has produced since its formation in early 2018.

If drawing you into this level of immersion in the ShapingEDU community is successful, it will leave me with one more thing for which I will be grateful: I’ll see you there in the community as a contributor to the positive goals we are pursuing.

Next: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

N.B.: This is the seventh in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-first in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU Promoting Internet Access

November 30, 2021

When a few of us involved as volunteer community leaders in the ShapingEDU project (under the auspices of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) asked ourselves in May 2020 what we might productively do to support learning during (and beyond) the coronavirus pandemic era, we were among those recognizing that difficulty accessing the Internet for learning as well as for work was a painfully obvious problem affecting people across the United States.

It didn’t take us long to identify a key role we could play in an already-crowded field of colleagues who had been working diligently and creatively to promote universal broadband access throughout the United States for at least a couple of decades: the fact that we were (and are) a rapidly-evolving community (with global reach) committed, overall, to doing whatever we could to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, and that we work continually face to face and online in extremely collaborative ways, gave us hope that we might be able to serve as a meeting place for others equally dedicated to promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States. With that in mind, we quickly established the “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative; agreed to meet for up to an hour once a week with work to be done between meetings to keep things moving; established a pattern of trying to complete at least one concrete action at each meeting to support the goal of establishing universal broadband access throughout our country; and initiated a practice of inviting other broadband-access activists to join us for discussions about who collaboration might produce positive results for those without adequate internet access to effectively engage in work and learning.

As 2021 comes to an end and I continue celebrating an extended “Thanksgiving” weekend by expressing gratitude to the activists I continue to encounter in and through ShapingEDU, I have to admit that I’m deeply grateful for the results we have already produced with these creative, collaborative, results-oriented colleagues. Our first year of work, as I noted in a piece for the ShapingEDU blog earlier this year, produced wonderful results. We, with tremendous assistance from colleagues at Arizona State University and numerous volunteers who have joined our weekly meetings, put together a free four-week self-paced course that remains accessible to anyone wanting to learn more about how to effectively advocate for universal broadband access throughout the United States. We compiled and posted an initial collection of stories from Americans plagued by poor or no access to the Internet and shared it with colleagues at the FCC. We facilitated and participated in online sessions (some initiated through ShapingEDU, others organized as part of online conferences or presentations by other groups promoting broadband access) designed to help others identify ways they would become broadband advocates. We posted interviews with inspirational broadband activists on the ShapingEDU blog. And we continually expanded the reach of the initiative to draw key players into the conversations we were organizing and facilitating.

Moving into the second year of operation (in May 2021), we set even higher goals for ourselves. We want to expand the reach of the course we designed and offer at least one formally-scheduled fully-facilitated version of that course to inspire other broadband activists. We want to establish more concrete partnerships with colleagues and organizations that already are well-established as broadband-access advocates. We want to more effectively serve as resources for conferences and other gatherings where broadband activists congregate, dream, and engage in results-oriented planning and action. And we want to further develop the “Connecting for Work and Learning” community as a meeting place for anyone interested in working toward solutions to the broadband-access challenges so many of us face.

Our most recent meetings—including a follow-up conversation we had today with Lyle Ishida, FCC Chief of the Consumer Affairs and Outreach Division (CAOD) (you can view the recording through this link; you’ll need to use the password “egGg8?8T” to open the archived version of the recording) and discussion we have been having with colleagues at Consumer Reports—are producing magnificent collaborative opportunities. We are gearing up for a potentially transformative set of collaborations. We are sharing resources and gaining the benefit of having access to resources produced by our “co-conspirators” in the planning process. And we continue to look for new partners in our effort to create something as transformative as our predecessors did when they pushed for creation of the U.S. Postal Service more than two centuries ago and the electrification of the country nearly a century ago, we hope you will want to join us, too. For more information about how to become involved in “Connecting for Work and Learning,” please visit our project page at ShapingEDU.

Next: ShapingEDU and the Art of Gathering During (and After) the Pandemic Era

N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


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