Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to be an awesome Pecha Kucha host

A lot of my friends in the learning community have been intrigued by the fact that we run Pecha Kucha nights every week at ThoughtWorks University. I often get asked how I run these and what value I see. In my experience Pecha Kucha nights are a great way to achieve a few things:
  • the speakers find a platform to share their thoughts around something they're passionate about;
  • the team gets an opportunity learn something new in a serendipitous fashion;
  • everyone gets to know a different side of their team members;
  • and even if the presentation has nothing to do with work, it often is a good laugh
In addition, Pecha Kucha is a great format to practice presentations. The constraint of 20 slides for 20 seconds each is a great way to force some positive presenter behaviours. Firstly the 20 second limit forces you to prepare well. If you don't prepare well, your slides are likely to overtake you. 20 seconds also forces you to be minimalist with your slide design. If you add too much clutter, you're likely to have no time to go through everything. The 20 slide limit forces you to prepare a crisp, yet impactful story. After all, when your time's over, you need to leave the stage. There's quite a bit more you learn - but I'll leave you to figure out the rest.

One of the main roles on a Pecha Kucha night is that of a Pecha Kucha host. The host runs the presentations that each speaker submits and also ensures that the talks keep moving on smoothly. Think of the host as an emcee for the night. I've been a Pecha Kucha host on several occasions and over the months there are a few things I've learned. In today's blog post I want to share a few tips for hosting these events. Take a quick look.

Before the event

Remember the presentation is not all about the slides. We don't want speakers to feel obliged to do a presentation. They should look at it as a platform to share their thoughts about something they really care about. Here are a few things I like to do a few days before the Pecha Kucha night:
  • Contact the speakers individually and ask them if about their topics - if they have selected a throw away topic, urge them to find something they have a passion for.
  • Ask the speakers if they need any help to create effective slides. Often you'll notice the very anti-patterns that we try to avoid and it's quite easy to fix these by giving them some Presentation Zen tips.
Remember, we want the speakers to look good during the presentation and potentially set them up for success. They shouldn't dread presenting by the end of the exercise. I like them to get addicted to the applause and mature as effective presenters.

On the day of the event

The day of the event is crucial. It's not easy to produce a Pecha Kucha event, even if it is only for your little team. Make sure that you've invited more people than just your immediate team though - the larger the audience, the bigger the challenge and potentially the bigger the applause!
  • Try to get the presentations by 10AM on the morning of the event. This helps you ensure that all the slides play properly and that the speakers are happy with how they look on your computer.
  • Get the speakers together and give them a bit of pep talk. Try to soothe their nerves - a lot of them are presenting for the first time.
  • Call out some instructions and tips for the speakers:
  • Don't look back at the slides - show them the presenter view on your laptop and mention they can use this as a confidence monitor.
  • Ask them to make eye contact with the audience and to stand closer to the audience. Interacting with the group is likely to make their presentation effective.
  • Most importantly, let them know that they've done what they could have to prepare. From now on, they need to go out there and enjoy their experience.
  • Let the speakers know in advance the order they'll speak in. It helps to calm their nerves and doesn't surprise them when they're called on stage.
  • Remind the speakers to stay back on stage for questions and let them know that they should encourage questions - it's a sign that they engaged people in their talk.
  • Often neglected - order food if you can. Most people feel hungry if they have to be in the office until 7PM. We order pizzas, pastas, Indian food, burgers, salads and the like - there's no rule for this one.

During the event

This is what everyone's been waiting for and you are the master of ceremonies. Remember, one of your key roles is to keep the event true to its spirit. If you notice anyone going over time - cut them off. You need to be consistent with this; otherwise, what's the point?
  • Make sure you have a whiteboard with a list of the speakers and the speaking order.
  • Don't forget to get a volunteer to record the talks - these are often great artifacts to share within the company. Who knows what people may learn?
  • Think of this as a mini-conference. How would you open the night? How would you welcome the audience? Where's your radio announcer voice?
  • Call out the rules of engagement. For example 6min 40s presentation, 2 mins for questions.
  • Remind the audience that several of the presenters may be speaking in public for the first time. As you call out each speaker, encourage the audience to applaud the speaker and ensure that they give a loud round of applause even when the speaker finishes.
  • Hold the speaker back for questions and encourage the audience to ask questions.
  • Close the event with a flourish. Food is a great ending, but don't forget to thank the speakers for putting in the effort. Be sure to announce when the next event is and perhaps tell the non-team members of the audience why they should return!

After the event

Just like the buzz behind a conference doesn't end the day it's over, the buzz behind your Pecha Kucha night should stay alive too. Here are a few things to try doing.
  • Get a hold of the videos and upload them on YouTube or a platform that you want to share them on. Tag them appropriately so you can easily find them later.
  • If you can, upload the slides to slideshare and tag them appropriately too.
  • Share these links with the speakers so they can look at their videos and look for areas of improvement and so they can also look back at presentations they liked for inspiration.

In general, think of the night as a show. There are performers who are in it for the first time. How can you still make this a grand success and a memorable evening? I hope you find this blogpost useful and I hope you can use this to host several awesome Pecha Kucha nights. Cheers!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Our brutality and their emotions

Last night something terrible happened. Toffee, my neighbourhood stray lost her puppy Sheena to some crazed driver who decide to knock the kid dead. Road kills happen all the time in India but for someone to be driving fast enough to kill a living being in a residential colony is brutal and inhuman. When I found Toffee this morning, she was mourning by the side of Sheena's corpse. She called me and almost implored me to check what was wrong. She kept squealing, crying and licking the limp body.

We think of animals being a lesser life than us. That is untrue. Toffee kept crying by Sheena's body until my wife and I came back to the scene and comforted her for a good length of time. We had to coax her into finding her other pup, Skittish. The way she called to Skittish and the kind of nervousness the surviving pup showed, was an example of how deep emotions run in the animal family. One careless driver has disrupted a happy family - we wouldn't do this to a human being. We wouldn't hit and run a human baby and leave it in a pool of blood. Why do it to an animal? This world belongs to them as much as it does to us. They feel pain too. I feel Toffee's pain - it's how I felt when Tequila died, perhaps a lot more.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Social Media in Learning and Social Learning are just not the same thing

It concerns me how a lot of the social learning conversation seems to veer around the tools in the space. Tools are arriving thick and fast and yeah, it's easy to get caught up with all the bling. And this is not to say that I'm never excited by tools - nothing could be far from the truth. This said, social learning is less about the technology and more about the human interaction. I often seem to get the sense that a large part of the learning community believes that the use of social media in learning is social learning. So sharing your courseware on a Facebook group then becomes social learning as does organising a lrchat-esque chat with pre-defined questions on a microblogging platform. To me this is perhaps Elearning 2.0 where you incorporate a higher degree of user interaction into your courseware, but it's still not social learning.

I want to explain my views in a little more detail on this blogpost and I hope you can humour me. And feel free to tell me I'm wrong.

We can't set a low bar for 'social'

If the mere use of a social media platform makes a learning experience social then we've been social all along. I do a lot of classroom training as well. My classroom training is never about being a sage on stage. It's full of real world activities, interpersonal interaction and experience sharing. I do a lot of socratic facilitation in the classroom - I use my questions to draw out experiences, perspectives and lessons for the group. This said, I decide on what questions I want to ask, the agenda and the topic for discussion. If you think of lrnchat, it's quite the same thing. There are a set of pre-defined questions and a pre-defined topic for discussion. The only thing that's different from doing this with a facilitator in a classroom is that now we've distributed the discussion and there are several more participants than there could possibly be in the old world. So yeah, it's a far more scalable approach, I don't believe it's any more social. Now this isn't a criticism of lrnchat - I love being part of the discussion. All I'm saying that this is no different from formal interactions we've practiced earlier.

My bar for 'social' is quite high


Image credit: Jon Husband

I believe that true social learning has a few important characteristics. And this is where the 'new' social learning is different from the old. Here's what I think are non-negotiable criteria to dub any learning as social:
  1. Democratic: To me the classic example of social interaction is gossip at a watercooler. Gossip emerges from the ground up. It doesn't need someone to lead, though a regular gossip fellow can facilitate the conversation and lubricate it. The key ingredient with social interactions at work or otherwise however, is that the crowd decides the agenda, the crowd decides the conversation. When a minority decides the agenda for a large group, then the interaction can still be social, but not enough to be any different from older models. Learning is truly social when individuals can decide what they want to learn and how they wish to collaborate on it.
  2. Autonomous: The key factor with social interaction in real life is that it moves by itself and is not controlled by a facilitator. I look at my social network on Facebook and on Twitter and even my enterprise social network to behave this way. We aren't talking about a specific platform, it's about a pattern of interaction. Now a facilitator can help make the flow of the interaction smoother, but in no way does the facilitator become responsible for the direction of these interactions. We can term something as social learning when it gathers a pace of its own without intervention from a trainer, facilitator, manager or leader of any kind.
  3. Embedded: One of the key aspects of social interaction in real life is that it's about life in general. It's not a separate exercise. I share stuff that I'm passionate about, I talk about things happening in my life. I blog about issues on my mind at a given point in time. Learning is truly social when it's embedded into the context of work. Think about this - I face a problem at work I know nothing about. I post a question about it to a company social network. Soon I receive a response from another colleague in a different team. That's the kind of interaction I'm speaking of - 'just in time' learning.
  4. Emergent: Social interactions have no predefined structure. The structure emerges from the natural interactions of a participating group. A big problem with enterprise social learning is the desire to structure before you start. Predefined structure has its uses - I don't doubt that. The uses however are limited to finite amounts of information - such a sitemap for a website. The nature of social communication is that it's frequent and high volume. You can try second guessing the structure for this endless stream of communication and you can also guarantee failure for every such attempt. As I've mentioned earlier, everyone's structure is different. Andrew Mcafee has written quite eloquently about the concept of emergent structure. "These are all activities that help patterns and structure appear, and that let the cream of the content rise to the top for all platform members, no matter how they define what the cream is. Without these mechanisms, online content becomes less useful –  less easy to navigate, consume, and analyze — as it accumulates. With these mechanisms in place, just the opposite happens; the platform exhibits increasing returns to scale, and becomes more valuable as it grows." You should read the complete article here.
This is my view and I'm happy for you to tell me I'm wrong - only when learning exhibits all of these characteristics can you call it truly social. This may or may not involve the use of social software, though I suspect it'll be quite tough to foster these characteristics without social media. What I'm saying though is that social media is a crucial tool for the success of a social learning initiative, but the use of social media doesn't necessarily mean that a learning experience is any more social than that in a classroom.

My aim is not to stir a hornet's nest with my statements in this post. In fact I've been wanting to write this post for a while but was wary that I'll upset some of my friends by terming what they do as 'not' social learning. Frankly if you don't agree with what I've said, feel free to post in the comments section and shout at me. I'm no theorist, but from experience I've built a bit of an opinion. If it resonates with you, I guess I'm thinking right. If it doesn't, I guess I'll learn from you. Look forward to hearing what you have to share. Until next week, bye!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

4 Lessons Photography has taught me about Learning

If you follow me on the web, then you perhaps know that I'm big on photography. I absolutely love taking pictures - my Flickr stream with about 13000+ pictures will tell you just that. I'm no pro, but something makes me feel I've gotten better with time. As I reflect on the last 10 years of having owned cameras, I think I've some interesting insights on how adults learn. In today's post I want to share some of those thoughts with you and I'd love to hear how you feel about what I'm writing.

Learning is effective when it's autonomous and purposeful

When I got my first digital camera I wasn't fussed about technique. I was just keen to take pictures. I think I had a 256 MB card for my camera and it was an absolute luxury for me. All I wanted to do was capture every moment of my life. You need to know something about me. I didn't grow up with many of the gadgets that kids my age in the west were exposed to. So I didn't have a computer or video games. I have some photographs of my life prior to getting a camera, but the frank truth is that we were always constrained by the 36 pictures on the film roll. The ability to take pictures and see them instantly was gratification enough for me. Gradually, I got interested in photography as an art and only over the last few years have I gotten over the desire to 'snapshot' my life. Instead, I want to capture vivid moments that tell stories of their own. I haven't yet been to a photography course. I haven't let anyone dictate how I should shoot. As my purpose and subjects have changed, I have learned and my approach has evolved. I think this tells me something. It has taken me 10 years to learn what I know about photography, which frankly is precious little. On the other hand, someone else with a completely different purpose may have learned much quicker. I don't feel that I'm stupid because I took 10 years - I didn't need to. I enjoy the autonomy with which I learned. My learning has served my purpose and that's all that matters.

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Our educational systems are built around the premise of promoting success and success alone. I don't think there's anything wrong with celebrating success, but we can't forget that failure is a stepping stone to success. I love shooting wildlife. Unlike many other subjects, filming wildlife is a very unforgiving experience. I can safely say I've had more failures than success filming wildlife and especially fast moving birds. A few days back I went to the lake near my house to try and follow the resident pied kingfishers. This is a curious bird and to watch it fish can provide hours of entertainment. It was no easy task filming these little geniuses given how skittish they can be. I failed at least four times before getting some satisfactory pictures on the fifth attempt. Failure was heartbreaking I must say, but the safety of knowing I have another chance gave me confidence. Each time I failed, I learned a little more. When I finally got the shot I wanted I was able to repeat my technique several times over. As you design learning experiences, how are you building in the safety to learn from failure?

Constraints make for great learning

When I bought my first camera, a simple point and shoot Yashica film device, I'd complained heavily about the lack of zoom. That complaint carried on as I graduated to better, more expensive cameras and super-zoomers. What I failed to appreciate was that every camera has a built in zoom - our two feet! Ever since, I've moved onto better equipment and longer lenses, but I must say my favourite lens today is a the 50mm prime that I own. It's a simple piece of equipment. It can't zoom, it has no image stabilization. That makes for great learning on how to get close to my subjects and how to keep my hand steady. In a similar manner I have learnt from the constraint of having to shoot vivid images through a single frame of a prosumer camera. Cameras don't see what our eyes see - there's way too much contrast to capture. This has led me to explore techniques such as high-dynamic-range (HDR photography) - the picture above is an example. I love placing meaningful constraints in the learning programs I design. For example at ThoughtWorks University I like to place the constraint of learning while on the job of delivering software to a client. It helps the new consultants to learn how to learn and gain useful experience on the side.

There's no match to social media  and mobile platforms as learning tools

One of the things I've learned from photography is that it's extremely gratifying to get feedback from your friends, skilled or not. I often put up my photographs on Flickr and sometimes on Facebook. When people favourite my images or comment favourably on them I know that I must be doing something right. It motivates me to do more. Social media has been a big influence on my learning journey too. Twitter, Google Reader, Facebook and Flickr put together have become an integral part of my photography learning journey. The byte sized pieces of inspiration I get every day are just the right size to help me learn on a daily basis. Add to that inspiring mobile apps like Life and Guardian Eyewitness  help me analyse great professional photography. As Brent Schlenker writes on his blog, mobile apps and new media are removing the middlemen from the learning experience. I learn from the best today by following their blogs. Trey Ratcliffe's blog is far more up-to-date than his book. That's an example of how powerful the social media learning experience can be. The era of having to go to school is past. School comes to me - every day and at my own pace.
Learning is an iterative, experiential process. We however seemed to have based corporate learning around a dated model of education which lacked autonomy, had little social structure and discouraged failure. I can't say my experience with photography is representative of all kinds of learning. I do think that there is something for us to think about as we analyse experiences such as these. I'd love to hear how you feel about my musings today. I apologise my bad back has stopped me from being regular with my blog posts. As I grapple with this situation, I hope you continue to visit this blog as and when I post. I'll do my best to maintain a regular schedule as well. Hope you enjoyed today's post.
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