consult for context

I've conducted a lot of workshops over the past three weeks. It takes nearly all of my fingers to count them. I've packed so many into a small time period that I've started to observe some interesting patterns across them. I'll tell you about one such pattern today.

I tend to begin each workshop by asking attendees to do something that I think may make some people feel uncomfortable: take whatever electronic devices are within their reach and place them slightly out of reach. (There is little that is more distracting in a shared learning environment than someone typing on their laptop or texting on their phone!) 

Still, somehow, people end up with phones in their hands.

To my amusement, however, for the most part they don't appear to be using their phones to check their email or update their Facebook status, but rather to snap a quick pic of the slide I'm discussing. This is one use of an electronic device in my workshops that I might be willing to condone! The pattern I referred to earlier is that it seems to be the same handful of slides that prompt said picture-taking. I believe this is an indication of the usefulness of the content, so thought I'd share some of that content with you here.

One popular slide is about consulting for context and lists the following thought-starters:

  • What background information is relevant/essential?
  • Who is your audience? What do you know about them?
  • What biases does your audience have that might make them resistant to your message?
  • What data is available that would help strengthen your case? Is your audience familiar with this data, or is it new?
  • What would a successful outcome look like?
  • If you only had one minute or a single sentence to tell your audience what they need to know, what would you say?

My voice-over of this slide usually sounds something like the following. Often, when you are putting together a communication, it is at the request of someone else: a client, a stakeholder, or a manager. Sometimes, the person requesting the work has things in their head that are important to understand that they may not think to say out loud. The above are some questions you can use when that's the case, to try to tease the full context out of the person requesting to make sure you have a robust understanding of the need to communicate before you start building the actual communication. Being clear on the context up front can drastically reduce iterations down the road.

I find the last two questions in particular can be really useful for getting at the main message you want to communicate. I often use these when I'm working with clients to get clarity on what they want to say. What would a successful outcome look like? Or, if you had a really finite amount of time or number of words to say what you need to say: what would that sound like?

I use this to set up the concepts that are typically covered next (that I've blogged about here previously): the 3-minute story and Big Idea.

Interested in other parts of my workshops that are prompting people to photograph what they see? Stay tuned here and I'll highlight some others in upcoming posts!