“I’m going to divide you into small groups.”
That statement strikes fear in hearts and raises blood pressure in many conference attendees.
Heads turn. Eyes dart. Dread increases. Frantic thoughts appear.
Something from deep within the bowels of the unconscious mind rises and takes hold of the body. Sweat breaks on brows. The mind is flooded with memories of fourth graders picking teams. Participation can come to a standstill.
“What if I’m the last one picked? What will people think? I don’t like this. Why are we doing it? Where are my friends? Yuck.”
The presenter’s intention for active learning has already failed. When a speaker starts with “I’m going to divide you into small groups,” people immediately start looking for others to join in safety or commensuration.
Some speakers know that active, focused, relevant experiences like case studies, games, role playing and small group discussion foster learning. Structured activities and attendee participation enhances brain activity, deeper understanding, insight, memory and retention, and skill building.
Yet, some conference presenters abandon the use of structured activities because of attendee resistance to anything beyond passive listening. They take the path of least resistance. As Sue Pelletier said in a recent blog comment, “… People tend not like the presenters who make them uncomfortable, versus those who keep them entertained and happy.”
Here’s the amazing thing: attendee resistance to active engagement may not be the group stuff. It is usually with the way the activity is presented or designed.
Attendees naturally react to an abrupt introduction to a group activity with a barrage of negative thoughts and feelings. Sometimes a poor introduction results in overt rejection or superficial acceptance in the form of “playing along” with the presenter.
Ultimately, attendees’ expectations need to be managed. Their fear of the unknown needs to be acknowledged and relieved.
Presenters should introduce attendee participation in a way that encourages rather than directs, that motivates rather than disheartens, that creates clarity instead of confusion. Fashioning a truly effective introduction to audience participation demands intention, thought and precision.
Here are four steps to help overcome attendee resistance to active participation and set the stage for learning success.
Step 1: Give the rationale.
Give participants a rationale for participating in the task or activity. This helps attendees answer a fundamental question, “Why should I participate in this?” Answering “What’s in it for me?” and “Why I should allow you to make me uncomfortable?” is imperative for success. When an attendee sees the personal benefit of participation, why it is valuable and appropriate, they are usually ready to take part.
Note: Giving valid reasoning for audience engagement should always be from the attendee’s point of view, not the presenter’s or the organization’s. The rationale should communicate both a personal and professional reason to participate. And it must make emotional and logical sense. Modeling how to deal with uncomfortable feelings also helps.
Step 2: Clearly explain the task.
Immediately following opening statement of rationale, explain the task. The explanation should include two things:
- A description of the individual or group product that will be created.
Examples of products: a list of most important factors, four alternative options, a ranking from most important to least important.
- Any requirement that describes or defines the expected quantity or quality of the product.
Step 3: Define the context.
Defining the context helps attendees understand how to accomplish the task. The definition of the context involves three things:
- Individuals or groups.
If a group activity, the number of participants per groups is identified.
- The composition of the group
Is it a group of people who know each other or are meeting each other for the first time? Are they alike or different? Do they have similar years of experience or not? One note: state the criteria for the group composition and let attendees self-organize. Avoid forming the groups yourself to overcome attendees’ suspicion of your motives or resentment.
- The amount of time attendees have to complete the task
Step 4: Explain what is to be shared.
In your instructions, you might say, “Appoint a spokesperson in your small group that should be ready to share.” The report can be the product, part of the product, reflections on how the group interacted, or the responses and feelings from the group. Also explain to attendees that reporting or sharing after an activity helps extend and amplify the learning beyond what was gained individually or in small groups.
Using these four steps, in this order, helps attendees see that small group work and structured activities as useful tools for their learning and retention. Applying this four-step process can help attendees dodge feelings of irritation and irrelevancy.
How do you feel when a speaker announces that you’re going to role play or break into small groups? What have you seen some experienced speakers use to overcome attendee resistance to participation? What tips would you add to those listed in this post?